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Cosmopolitanism in Colonial Singapore

Categories: Singapore

Migrants like Lee, who arrived in Singapore in the 1920s, often described Singapore as modern and developed. Modern Colony in the National Museum of Singapore has kept the Singaporean history travelling back to 1900s intact. It displayed a lot of everyday objects like clothing, entertainment, household, educational items, and furniture. Every one of these relics drew out the subject of the cosmopolitan, socio-political situation at the time, class, modernity, childhood, and also, how the role of women changed over time.

A new generation of educated women with modern attitudes emerged in Singapore at the turn of the 20th century.

Before the beginning of the 20th century, education for women was almost non-existent. Educational reform came after an Australian Methodist missionary opened the “Methodist Girls School” in a shophouse. By 1930s several English and Chinese girls’ schools were established. There was a range of subjects to choose from. However, the boy’s education was more towards elevating their socio-economic status, most girls were taught in order to be worthy of their husbands.

This instance drew my attention towards the fact that how rampant gender disparity was back in the day and how the roles of men and women were defined since their childhood. Where some missionary schools focussed on domestic education, Singapore Chinese Girls School (SCGS) introduced academic subjects like Arithmetic, English, History, Reading, etc as well, that gave rise to more women getting jobs as Clerks, Accountants, even lawyer, and doctors. More opportunities were available for women to contribute in by the 1930s.

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It was the advent of new-age women breaking the boundaries. This emergence of women coincided with similar developments around the world. Ex: Women getting voting rights in America, in Britain women joining the workforce during world war I. This displays how the role of women changed during the 1920s and not being confined to their home.

A lot of artefacts that were on display, represented the polarity between east and west in the colonial period in Singapore. It was found in the dress, shoes, household items. One of the audio clipping that I came across in the museum was titled: “How a mother with bound feet steps out”. It explains the fact that the traditional bound feet shoes were pretty to look at but it hindered the movement and due to which they never used to leave the house. Then during the 1920s, those shoes were replaced by fancier and stylish looking embroidered high-heeled shoes which were usually worn by the elite class women (modern women). These shoes did not restrict women from going out. It wasn’t just a fashion reform. It holds an underlying meaning to it. It compels the audience to give attention to the changing role of women at the time and their increasing rights and freedom, where the bound feet shoes symbolize the repressed condition of women and the high-heeled shoes showcases the modern women. Besides this, the shoes also speak volumes of the combination of the East and the West, a sign of cosmopolitanism in Singapore. The frilly bow is the western element and weaved pony the Chinese element in the mix.

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Cosmopolitanism in Colonial Singapore. (2019, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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