Friday, December 18, 2009

From fashionable mum to 'feminist mentor'

Dec 18, 2009
By Cassandra Chew

Dr Thio is a top lawyer. In her early 30s (above, with her children Shen Yi and Li-ann), she was the law faculty dean. -- ST FILE PHOTO

MANY Singaporeans will remember her as the 'feminist mentor' behind a group of activists who captured Aware, the women's advocacy group, triggering one of the biggest controversies of the year.

If they delve into history, they will see a portrait of Dr Thio Su Mien, now 71, as a leading lawyer who had no qualms about speaking her mind.


Newspapers in the 1960s often reported her calls for government action on issues ranging from the rights of rejected work-permit applicants to the need for an ombudsman to investigate complaints against the Government.

The ace student at the then University of Singapore made the news when she became the first woman graduate here to become the vice-dean, and then dean, of its Faculty of Law in 1968.

At just 30 years of age, she was the youngest person to assume the post, and was held up as an exemplary young working mum who was fashionable to boot. She was also a committee member of the Singapore section of the International Commission of Jurists.

As dean, she challenged lawyers to pursue their education to raise standards in the profession.

But her stint was short as she left the university in 1971 to go into private practice. But she still kept her eagle eye on current affairs and national developments.

In 1977, she took issue with how the law appeared to lag behind policies by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), and offered the solution of a legal panel to advise MAS.


Now a senior lawyer at her own TSMP Law Corporation, Dr Thio is a devout Christian.

It was her deep commitment to conservative Christian values that led her to take action when she disagreed very strongly with the goings-on at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

Dr Thio revealed later that she was disturbed by what she saw as signs that appeared to promote lesbianism and homosexuality. These included the choice of lesbian-themed movie Spider Lilies for the group's charity gala, and the use of 'neutral' words to describe homosexuality in its sex education course for teenagers.

She began urging women she knew to challenge Aware's attempts to redefine marriage and families. In response, a group of women joined the organisation and secured nine out of 12 leadership positions at Aware's annual general meeting in March. News of the takeover led to a public outcry.

In explaining her pivotal role in the takeover, Dr Thio described herself as a 'feminist mentor' to working women.

In the end, the new guard was ousted at an extraordinary general meeting held on May 2, and replaced by veterans.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry looked into Dr Thio's criticisms of Aware's sex education programme and found that it was not up to par with the ministry's guidelines.

On May 6, it suspended all sexuality education programmes offered by external groups to schools.

[She obviously raised the ceiling for women, but is she a feminist? She is a role model for feminists perhaps, and she may be independent minded, and self-assured and confident, but not a feminist in the activist sense of the word. So hardly a mentor to feminist.]

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