20 March 2019

The Evolution of Women in Policing

SPF Logo

By Rachel Ng (Photos: Public Affairs Department)


On 1 June 2018, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) welcomed its first female Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) and Director of Criminal Investigation Department (CID), DCP Florence Chua. It was a significant milestone in women policing.


It all started 70 years ago, when the first batch of 10 women were enrolled as members of the Special Constabulary (Active Unit). Newspapers then reported of the new “experimental” unit in the SPF, and debates raged behind both closed doors and in public about the suitability of women for police work. Mary Voon was one of the 10, and when she became the first female Inspector just months after she was recruited in March 1949, she was lauded for her qualifications and capabilities. Her four-month attachment in 1950 to the women police in England was widely publicised and she was greeted by photographers and columnists on her arrival in London. For many years after, Mary Voon continued to be the face of the women police in Singapore till 1974, serving as its Officer Commanding (OC) – a post that no longer exists because female officers are no longer a separate contingent.



Mary Voon in London during an attachment with the Metropolitan Police, circa 1950s.


Yet, beyond the publicity, the pioneer batches of female officers were making important contributions to the Force and their efforts resonate till this day. After all, the impetus for the recruitment of female officers arose from the very real security needs of post-war Singapore.


Formation of Women Police Constabulary


The Second World War left destruction in its wake and living conditions were poor after the war ended in 1945. This led to an uptick in destitution and crimes such as prostitution and those involving juveniles. Due to the social conventions of the time, female and juvenile offenders were not screened by male officers. Thus, it was a common practice for Police Constables to escort these offenders back to the station to be screened by their wives who were paid $1 per search. This unsurprisingly had many flaws as suspects could easily discard evidence on the way back to the station. Moreover, the wives of Police Constables were untrained to testify in court.


The urgency to recruit female police officers to assist in the screening of suspects only increased with the declaration of the Malayan Emergency in 1948. Communist guerrillas were waging war from the Malayan jungles while their supporters sustained them with resources. These subversive elements could come in all guises and it was imperative to detect and arrest them.



Female officers undergoing marching drills, circa 1950.


With these considerations in mind, then-Commissioner of Police, R. E. Foulger, inaugurated the women police in 1949 as part of the Special Constabulary (Active Unit). The contribution of the first female officers proved to be so valuable that they began to be absorbed into the regular force in 1950. To further enhance their effectiveness, the initial two months of training was increased to three months in 1949 and six months by the 1960s, which was on par with the training for male officers.


Early Duties Assigned to Female Officers


Besides screening and escort duties, female officers were commonly deployed for clerical work and as radio or telephone operators in the Divisional Operation Rooms. Other than the occasional work as plainclothes decoys, women police duties rarely extend to the field in the 1950s. They worked normal office hours, six days a week and a roster would be put up for night duty when necessary.


Despite being confined to mostly clerical work, female officers made their mark where they were deployed and gradually became an indispensable part of the Force. In 1964, 15 female officers were deployed to the Radio Control Room at Pearl’s Hill for the first time. At the nerve centre of police operations, these officers answered ‘999’ calls, produced reports, and dispatched patrol cars via radio to respond to crimes – all without the aid of modern automated systems. Female officers proved so effective at the job that the management of the entire Radio Control Room, save for the Duty Officer and Assistant Duty Officer, was eventually handed over to them in 1972. Those who answered ‘999’ calls came to be known as “Triple Niner Girls”.



Female officers manning the Radio Control Room round-the-clock in 1980.


Another area where female officers played an active role was in the Traffic Police. They were originally deployed as traffic wardens and later as enforcers. Although the work was limited, it was one of the few early avenues for female officers to be seen in public carrying out police duties. In 1971, female Traffic Police officers broke into another all-male domain when the female mobile squad was formed despite initial concerns that it was unfeminine for women to ride motorbikes.



First batch of female Mobile Squad officers on their Vespas in 1971. (Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reprinted with permission)


Women Police Come to the Fore


Despite the steady progress made by female officers in their designated fields of work, it was not until the 1970s which saw a real expansion of their roles and responsibilities. Once again, change was brought upon by a Force adapting to the challenges of the day.


Since the early 1970s, recruitment levels had been falling and the Force started to face a manpower shortage. To address this situation, recruitment for female officers was stepped up to comprise around 12% of the Force. They were also gradually given a more active role to play.


Female officers rose to the occasion and proved themselves more than capable for the task. Promotion opportunities increased as the Force embarked on a program to open up more middle hierarchy appointments to female officers in 1977. That year saw multiple promotions of female officers to the rank of Inspector and the first female Duty Officer in the Radio Division. In 1979, the designation of OC Women Police ceased to exist as efforts were made to unify the career development schemes for male and female officers.


In the 1980s, female officers also began taking on more field and investigative roles. They were trained for riot control duties in the Women’s Task Force, started to be appointed as Investigation Officers (IO) in 1981, and despite initial objections, were put in charge of running Neighbourhood Police Posts in 1984. Their contributions in CID, especially on anti-vice cases, were also increasingly recognised. In 1982, Assistant Superintendent of Police Mandy Goh became the first head of the Anti-Vice Enforcement Unit. She was then the highest ranking female officer in the Force and had worked her way up from Police Constable since 1952.



First all-female riot task force training in 1980.


Such an expansion in roles necessitated the development of a new generation of female Police leaders. Thus, in 1984, the recruitment of female graduates as direct-entry Inspectors began, paving the way for females to enter the senior ranks of the Force.


Since then, female officers have continued to achieve many firsts, and many from the core group of leaders who entered in the 1980s and early 1990s continue to serve with distinction today. From leading Land Divisions and HQ departments, to patrol and IO duties, female officers have proven their capabilities wherever deployed. Today, there are around 1,800 policewomen in active service, which makes up approximately 19% of the Force and can be found in almost every unit. Thanks to those who dared to be the first, it is no longer an uncommon sight for females to work alongside their male counterparts towards the common goal of keeping Singapore safe and secure.

Last Updated on 20 March 2019