Nallammah Ruth Tan, née Navarednam, popularly known as Nalla Tan (b. 12 May 1923, Ipoh, Malaya–d. 27 March 2012, Singapore), was a doctor, academic and author.1 She was best known for her advocacy of a diverse range of issues, especially sex and health education, gender equality in employment, women’s rights and family life.
Education and career
Tan, who was born the fourth of six children to parents who were both teachers, attended the Methodist Girls’ School in Ipoh, Malaya, before reading medicine at the University of Malaya in Singapore.2 After marrying fellow doctor Tan Joo Liang in 1954, Tan settled in Singapore.3
Upon graduation in 1952, Tan was employed as a government health officer and later an administrative officer in the Ministry of Health. She then joined the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore) as a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine and Public Health. In 1975, Tan received her Doctor of Medicine degree. She was promoted to associate professor in 1976.4
From 1967 to 1971, Tan was principal of Eusoff College, a female hostel for students of the University of Singapore.5 In 1978, she qualified as a member of the Faculty of Community Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom, and was elected a Fellow five years later.6 After retiring from the university, Tan ran a counselling clinic.7
Advocacy and community work
From the 1960s, Tan advocated the introduction of sex and health education in schools, and held a month-long course for 60 teachers on the topic in 1967.8 Three years later, she headed a Singapore Medical Association committee that organised the country’s first public health education programme.9
In the 1970s, Tan spoke out against the discrimination of women in the workplace on matters such as working conditions, salaries and access to top-level posts.10 In 1972, she called for the formation of a representative body for women in Singapore that the government could consult on women’s issues and their role in nation building.11 That year, she also attempted to bring various women’s organisations in Singapore together in a representative body but failed.12
Tan was a council member of the Singapore Cancer Society in the 1960s, and chairperson of the World Family Life Committee of the World Methodist Council (WMC) from 1976–81.13 In 1976, she became the first Singaporean to be elected to the presidium of the WMC, the council’s highest body.14 Tan was also chairperson of the Milk for Children Advisory Council and a vice-president of the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE).15
Tan’s father was a headmaster who taught English literature in Ipoh, and encouraged her to read during her childhood.16 She dabbled in poetry in her teenage years, but upon the suggestion of her husband, took up writing seriously while on maternity leave after giving birth to her third child in 1961. Tan’s first short story was titled “Robert and the Beetroots”. She also began to paint during this period.17
Tan’s two volumes of poetry, Emerald Autumn and Other Poems and The Gift and Other Poems, were published in 1976 and 1978 respectively.18
Tan wrote a number of short stories. In 1975, Tan’s short story, “The Goddess of Mercy”, was broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s World Service, and in 1985, she won the second prize in the Asiaweek Short Story Competition for “What You Asked”.19 Several of her short stories have also been anthologised in collections, including The Sun in Her Eyes (1976) and Singapore Short Stories Vol. II (1978).20 In 1989, Heinemann Asia published Hearts & Crosses, a collection of Tan’s short stories. In 2003, Tan self-published Villa Alicia, a novel centred on a Eurasian family.21
Tan also wrote non-fiction books: You Need to Know was launched in 1976 and the sequel, Beyond Your Navel, the following year. Both books were aimed at providing information on topics such as puberty, anatomy, sex and reproduction, contraception, family planning, relationships and drug addiction.22 You Need to Know was on the Ministry of Education’s recommended reading list for upper secondary and pre-university students for four years from 1978.23 In 1978, Tan wrote a weekly column titled “You” in The Sunday Times, covering societal and familial issues as well as politics and community development. Her columns were compiled in Nalla on Sunday published by Times Books in 1985.24
Illness and death
In the late 1990s, Tan began to show signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. As a means of retaining her memories, she wrote aide-memoires and messages to herself on the walls of her bungalow in Binjai Park. In August 2011, photographer Alecia Neo and musician Clarence Chung held an installation exhibition “Villa Alicia”, named after the title of Tan’s self-published novel, at her home. The exhibition was inspired by Tan’s life, memories and condition, and included a number of her paintings, her writings on the wall and some of her personal effects. Tan’s house, in which she and her family had lived since the 1970s, was sold and demolished after the six-day exhibition.25
In March 2012, Tan suffered a chest infection that later developed into pneumonia. She passed away at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital on 27 March, leaving behind daughter Ying Hui, and sons Ying Jien and Ying Hsien. Her husband had died in 1975.26
For helping to create awareness of women’s rights in Singapore and raising issues pertaining to women’s employment, education and national development, Tan received the Outstanding Woman Award from the Singapore Business and Professional Women’s Association in 1975.27 In 1984, she received the Friend of Labour award from the National Trades Union Congress for her advocacy of female employment and her work with CASE.28
1. Leaders of Malaya and who’s who 1959-60. (1960). Kuala Lumpur: J. V. Morais, p. 376. (Call no.: RCLOS 920.0595 LEA)
2. Durai, J. (2012, March 28). Pioneer sex educator Nalla Tan dies. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
3. Tan, N. (1998). Collected poems of Nalla Tan. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S821 TAN); The sexpert is in. (2003, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Tan, N. (1989). Hearts & crosses. Singapore: Heinemann Asia. (Call no.: RSING S823.01 TAN); Importance of social medicine in S'pore. (1975, April 14). New Nation, p. 7; Seven lecturers promoted. (1976, July 18). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. National University of Singapore. (1983). Eusoff College 1958–1983: A souvenir magazine. Singapore: The Committee, p. 13. (Call no.: RCLOS 378.5957 NAT)
6. Tan, N. (1989). Hearts & crosses. Singapore: Heinemann Asia. (Call no.: RSING S823.01 TAN)
7. Tan, L. C. (1986, October 12). Nalla’s boy child. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Teachers’ responsibility. (1967, July 22). The Straits Times, p. 4; Teo, P. (1975, August 24). Teachers want health education on school curriculum. The Straits Times, p. 12; Sex teaching: 60 at course. (1967, September 25). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. First public health education course in February. (1970, December 31). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Woman worker in S’pore getting a poor deal says Dr. Tan. (1973, November 5). The Straits Times, p. 16; Don hits out at ‘plot’ to give women guilt complex. (1976, November 1). The Straits Times, p. 28; Nalla hits at ‘bias’ against women for top posts. (1978, September 20). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Dr. Tan: Form national women council. (1972, March 25). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. It’s time for a dept of women’s affairs. (1974, October 12). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Cancer Society Council. (1967, April 2). The Straits Times, p. 5; Nalla Tan elected to top world Methodist panel. (1976, September 26). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Nalla Tan elected to top world Methodist panel. (1976, September 26). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Lim, P. L. (1984, April 29). Varsity lecturer Nalla’s links with the NTUC. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Chua, R. (1986, January 18). Sex and Shakespeare. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. The pregnancy that started it all. (1986, January 18). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Villa Alicia. (2011, July). Retrieved from Villa Alicia website: http://www.villaalicia.info/Villa_Alicia_Press_Release.pdf
18. Goh, P. K. (1980, February 10). Nalla the poet…. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Koh, B. S. (1989, September 13). Nalla’s scorpion effect. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. The sexpert is in. (2003, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 8; Five woman authors make history. (1976, August 27). The Straits Times, p. 10; Koh, N. (1978, June 10). Our writers are maturing. New Nation, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. The sexpert is in. (2003, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Chen, C. L. (1977, September 4). A book for all ages. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Tan, N. (1985). You need to know. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. v. (Call no.: RSING 301.41 TAN)
24. New column by Nalla Tan. (1977, December 30). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, N. (1985). Nalla on Sunday. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING 070.442 TAN)
25. Martin, M. (2001, July 28). An art house; Memory and family feature in artist’s one-of-a-kind ‘bungalow exhibition’. The Straits Times; Chia, A. (2011, August 6). Art raze against time. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
26. Durai, J. (2012, March 28). Pioneer sex educator Nalla Tan dies. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Tan, L. C. (1986, October 12). Nalla’s boy child. The Straits Times, p. 1; GP dies in clinic. (1975, June 6). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Awards for 3 who upheld women’s rights. (1975, December 15). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Lim, P. L. (1984, April 29). Varsity lecturer Nalla’s links with the NTUC. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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Tan, Nalla, 1923-