Constance Singam has been described as the mother of Singapore’s civil society. A patriot, a libertarian and a fighter, she describes her recently published memoir Where I Was (Select Publishing, Singapore) as a Memoir from the Margins.
“Her baby steps into the world of activitism started when her husband of 18 years, journalist N.T.R Singam, died of a heart attack in a private hospital because of a cardiologist’s bad judgment,” writes veteran Singaporean journalist P N Balji in a profile of her in Yahoo Singapore. “A letter she wrote to The Straits Times, A Rest In Hospital Became A Nightmare, triggered a debate about the standard of patient care in private hospitals with the government moving in to act.”
After her husband’s death in 1978 when she was 42, Constance decided to take charge of her life. She moved
to Melbourne to do an honours degree in literature. After she returned to Singapore, she joined Aware (now Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group) and worked on issues such as domestic violence against women and underperformance of Indian students in schools, among others.
“Whether it is Kerala, that narrow-strip of land in south India where everybody has an opinion on everything and where she lived for seven years as a child, or Singapore, where she spent almost all of her 77 years, she is a patriot,” writes Balji. “She could have decided to make Australia her home, disappointed with the events back home.”
In this exclusive interview with Kitaab, Constance Singam discusses her memoir Where I Was (her first solo title as an author), why she wrote it and what issues bother her as a concerned citizen of Singapore.
Thespian Habib Tanvir lived an exhilarating life: it is a justifiable conclusion if we consider merely the triumphant arc of his career. Habib Tanvir—née Habib Ahmed Khan — was born in 1923. He grew up in Raipur, in an atmosphere that celebrated the decadence of mushairas, Kali Bari theatre and Parsi theatre. After finishing his BA from Morris College in Nagpur, he pursued an MA in Urdu from Aligarh university in 1944 (but didn’t finish it) and went off to Bombay to work in cinema, subsequently getting involved in the leftist cultural activities of groups such as the Indian People’s Theatre Association, which was the cultural wing of the CPI, and the Progressive Writers’ Association. Tanvir lived in Bombay for nearly a decade and later spent a year at RADA, the renowned theatre school in London, before moving to the Bristol Old Vic to be a student of production in theatre. He spent three years travelling across Europe, before returning to India to start Naya Theatre.
The feminist rallying cry – “the personal is political” – rings on every page of this memoir by a distinguished citizen whose ideas and ideals galvanised the women’s movement in Singapore.
The word “margins” in the title refers to the multiple ways in which Constance Singam found herself marginalised: as a woman, an ethnic Indian, a widow and a civil society activist.
Her answer to each kind of marginality was to rewrite the prevailing terms of discourse so that her femininity, her Malayalee-Indian culture, and her political disquiet became sources of self-empowerment, not of self-denial.
“I am who I think I am,” she declares defiantly. “I am what I believe. I am what I do.” The personal could not be more political.