Kanwaljit Soin is probably the only woman in Singapore who can speak Punjabi, perform surgery on your hand, deliver a passionate speech in Parliament on women’s rights, and tell you where to find the best dosai on Race Course Road. For that alone, she deserves an award, and in fact she’s got one; the 1992 Woman of the Year.
Most encounters with Kani (“Call me Kani!” is the first thing she says to strangers) are mixtures of warmth, good humour—and if you have the bad luck to be a journalist, frustration. The energetic Kani, who juggles many balls as wife, mother, president of Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research), orthopaedic surgeon and Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), is almost maddeningly reticent on the subject of herself.
She won’t discuss any topic which strays within 50km of what she considers “personal”. Though one of Singapore’s most visible public women, she has successfully kept hidden basic details such as where she lives, what her father did for a living, or how a traditional Punjabi girl transformed herself into the country’s boldest feminist leader.
Kani, who turned 51 on February 4, can’t understand why anyone would find her remarkable or even interesting. She will gladly talk to journalists, but only if the focus is on the “issues”, not her. In keeping with her modesty, she accepted the Woman of the Year award – jointly presented by Vacheron Constantin and Her World – reluctantly.
She made clear in her acceptance speech that she was sharing the award with all Singapore women, a group she feels deserves a prize for “their grit, hard work and excellence”. It would have been out of character for Kani to keep the $10,000 watch that came with the award, so it was not surprising that she put it up for auction, to benefit the Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund. Later, she privately joked that the judges exhibited “a terrible lapse in judgement” in naming her Woman of the Year.
If Kani won’t sing her own praises, others will. Walter Woon, her fellow NMP, lauds her as a woman who is not afraid to go out on a limb and raise issues in Parliament that should have been addressed many years ago. It’s difficult not to like the cheerful, down-to-earth Kani. After just two minutes in her company, one feels a strong urge to spill out all one’s woes to this wise, caring woman. “Warm” is the word most often used to describe her. “She’s very approachable,” says Walter Woon. “Her public persona and private persona are exactly the same. She hasn’t any airs at all.”
Any woman in Singapore is free to approach Kani during her Saturday-afternoon “meet the women” sessions at the Aware office on Race Course Road. She prefers that women phone first for an appointment, but she’ll also take walk-ins. Kani grants private audiences, averaging 20 minutes in length, and listens to a wide range of problems, from wife-beating to immigration matters to sexual harassment. About seven women show up on a typical Saturday, and Kani sometimes promises to raise individual problems in Parliament. When she joined Parliament last October, Kani decided that she had to represent a group, rather than just herself. She chose as her constituency all Singapore women.
The books that line the shelves of the unpretentious Aware office tell part of the story of the 400-member organisation which she co-founded in 1985. Titles include The Breastfeeding Guide For The Working Woman, Democracy In The Kitchen, Fat Is A Feminist Issue, The Women’s History Of The World, Womb With Views, The Rights Of Women In Islam and – a lesson that need not be impressed on Kani – Stand Your Ground.
“She’s a very warm person, very vibrant, so that you only have to pick up the phone and vibrancy comes across immediately,” says Chung Yuen Kay, the research and executive director of Aware. “But she’s no pushover, and she can be firm when need be.” A true “people person”, Kani directs her charisma at anyone who happens to cross her path, whether crab-catcher or cabinet minister.
“She’s one of those people who you take to instantly,” says Constance Singam, a former president of Aware. “She’s got this great gift of making you feel important, no matter who you are. You can’t help being charmed by her. That makes her a really good doctor too. If you visit her clinic, you will notice that she is the only doctor who comes out every time to greet each patient.”
Constance, a friend and medical patient of Kani’s, also admires the latter’s “impatience with hierarchy”. Kani is highly democratic and encourages everyone to contribute ideas; she does not project herself as a self-important president of Aware or as a lofty NMP.
“She has amazing energy and vigour,” says Singam. “She doesn’t see obstacles, and there is a great sense of optimism that gives her that energy.” One of Kani’s main sources of strength is her family. She has three sons, in their early twenties, and her husband is Amarjeet Singh, a judicial commissioner on the Supreme Court bench. Because of their position, she is no stranger to the elite social circle, though she says they are not her regular companions. They live in Chatsworth Road, which is not exactly the low-rent district. It’s possible that this is related to why Kani is such a privacy buff. She might feel – although this is mere speculation, since she won’t talk about it – that her relatively privileged lifestyle might not play well in the HDB heartland when she is supposed to be representing all Singapore women.
And while we’re at it, does Kani feel at all funny as an Indian – a small minority in this country – who tries to represent the entire female population? Not at all, she says. She has a Chinese legislative assistant who translates for her when necessary during the “meet the women” sessions. Kani professes to be bored by the topic of ethnicity. “I’m a Singaporean,” she says, as if that settles it. “As Singaporeans, our common experience is so much greater than our ethnic divisions. If you trace a Singaporean’s daily life, there is hardly any time to be a Chinese, an Indian or a Malay. Your primary role is as a husband, a mother, a worker, or whatever.”
Only a few skimpy bits of her biodata can be unearthed, though seeing them in print will no doubt cause her to wring her hands and squirm in her chair (which she literally does when pleading with a reporter not to ask “personal” questions). She was reared in the Katong neighbourhood, and her parents (who are still alive) were not especially wealthy. Kani likes to unwind by taking walks, and at one point she took up windsurfing. She seldom reads for pleasure, because she simply hasn’t the time.
The adventurous type, she journeyed to Antarctica on a group tour with her sons two years ago. She drives a black Mercedes and is always smartly attired, looking equally striking in Indian or Western garb. She seems to favour vivid colours, especially purple. Her handwriting is brisk, bold and slightly breathless—just like her.
Uma Rajan, the medical director of the School Health Service, praises Kani’s bedside manner. “Her body language and eye contact reinforce her warm personal manner, and that’s very important for a doctor,” says Uma. “The warmth is such a part of her that it radiates from her all the time. She is very reassuring to her patients, and they know that she is talking from the heart.” Yet there are a few people, particularly elderly Chinese, who find Kani’s cheerfulness to be a bit forced, almost aggressive. This is definitely the minority view, however, and most think Kani’s heartiness is from the heart.
Friends who knew her in medical school remember her as the traditional Indian lass, sari-clad and wearing her hair in a long braid, as if stepping out of a play by Michael Chiang. There was no hint that Kani was destined to become a civic leader, let alone a feminist crusader. “Kani got where she is through grit, gut and gumption,” says one friend who knew her at St Margaret’s Primary School, “but as a child she was a quiet girl with big, brown eyes.”
“She was a brilliant medical student, a very bright girl, very smart,” remembers another old friend, adding that there was little else that was remarkable about her. “She was the traditional coy Indian girl.” But even then, she was determined to make it in a man’s world; she chose to specialise in orthopaedics, an area that attracts very few women. Of the 80 or so orthopaedic surgeons in Singapore today, Kani is only one of two women. “Orthopaedics means sewing and bones, so you need a lot of muscular strength, which is why very few women go into it,” says a friend. “But Kani was very shrewd in choosing the one area of orthopaedics that would allow her to cope: The hand. For years, we knew her as the hand surgeon.”
Because Kani is used to being one of the few women in her field, she does not feel intimidated in the overwhelmingly male Parliament. She is good friends with the other two female MPs, Aline Wong and Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, and she praises their diligence in raising women’s issues in the past. Because women have a unique perspective on life, Kani feels that Parliament should beef up the number of female MPs through a quota system. She considers it disgraceful that, although women make up half of society, they hold only 3.4 per cent of the 87 seats in Parliament. Kani caught a lot of flak in March when she publicly proposed that the number of women MPs be increased.
Kani defended her view to a visitor at her clinic office. “Society consists of men and women, and Parliament is supposed to represent society,” she said. “It is only appropriate that women be represented in larger numbers, rather than as tokens. If you’re a token, two things can happen. Either you’re marginalised, or you’re absorbed into the majority and become just like another male MP. If the participation of women is to be effective, then we cannot have just a few women in Parliament. You will make no headway, because when you keep talking about the same (women’s) issues, people tend to switch off and think, ‘There she goes again’. To be effective in any large group, you need a critical mass of at least 30 to 40 per cent representation.
“There’s no question that women who get in must deserve it, because meritocracy is entrenched in Singapore. But with 51 per cent of today’s NUS graduates being women, how can we not find worthy women to serve in Parliament?” She finishes this informal speech with a typical bit of Kani charm. “Please use your journalistic skill to rephrase what I’ve just said, so that it sounds good.”
Kani does not find the parliamentary atmosphere especially daunting. “It’s very cordial,” she says. “Everyone lines up to take tea and coffee, and there is opportunity for informal interaction. Many people helped me by giving tips on what to do and not do. Some of the PAP parliamentarians were very helpful and warm to me: Koo Tsai Kee, Chandra Das and Peter Sung, for instance.”
Based on her casual observations, the MPs who have most impressed her include some of the Government Parliamentary Committee chairmen: John Chen, Lew Syn Pau, Heng Chiang Meng and Tan Cheng Bock. “They did their homework and showed they had in-depth knowledge of their subjects, and made persuasive cases to the ministers,” says Kani. She was also struck by certain ministers. “I was very impressed by the prime minister,” she says. “I found him a very sincere man. Whenever he spoke, it was from the heart. I found him an inspiring figure.”
During the March session of Parliament, Kani spoke 11 times on a wide range of subjects, including female representation in Parliament, ethnic self-help groups, Medisave, car-safety features, the aged, and immigration problems (afflicting the non-Singaporean husbands and children of Singapore women). She also argued that the maintenance payments to divorced wives and children should not be subject to tax. One of Kani’s main themes, in or out of Parliament, is that there is no such thing as a pure “women’s issue”. All so-called women’s issues are actually everyone’s issues, because they affect men and society in general.
Though she is the first generation of Singapore women to achieve high professional standing, Kani doesn’t view herself as a role model or trailblazer. When this kind of “pioneer” talk comes up, Kani won’t have any of it. “There are so many women, who are older than my generation, who have done so much for Singapore,” she says, mentioning Phyllis Eu (a post-war City Councillor), Chan Choy Siong (one of the first PAP women politicians and backbenchers), Seow Peck Leng (veteran women’s leader) and Shirin Fozdar (pioneer women’s rights fighter).
One of the main problems facing today’s women, says Kani, is “the perception that Singapore women have gone ahead so far that there’s really nothing left to strive for or achieve. But that’s a fallacy. We haven’t even been able to maximise our potential, even though we’ve entered the workforce. Most of the decision-makers are still men.
“The main problem is the inability to achieve a sense of balance in one’s life, between work and family. Family and work are the two most important areas in anyone’s life. Why do you work so hard anyway, if not for the family? The potential of men has not been maximised, either. Men are underachievers in the home, and women are underachievers in the public sphere.”
This philosophy underlines all of Kani’s work as an NMP. Her basic attitude, she says, is that “of course the economy is important, no one doubts that. But Singapore’s social, family and community aspects must be developed to the same degree as the economy. Only when that happens will we have a society that is fully developed and balanced.”
Did the March parliamentary session leave Kani with a bad taste in her mouth? After all, some of her proposals were more or less hooted down. “One doesn’t expect to mention something at the drop of a hat in Parliament and have policies changed overnight,” she answers carefully. “The fact that something has been spoken is never wasted. That in itself is a healthy first step. We have to change attitudes first, then behaviour, then finally policy changes. Topics like alimony and statutory maternity leave had never been brought up before in Parliament. That in itself is doing some good.”
Also doing some good, some would say, is the selection of Kani Soin as Woman of the Year—a choice that automatically brings a higher profile to women’s issues and the work of Aware.