Seet Ai Mee
by Goh, Lee Kim
Seet Ai Mee (Dr) (b. 31 March 1943, Singapore–) was Singapore’s first female Cabinet minister. She assumed the position in July 1991 when she was appointed Acting Minister for Community Development in a cabinet reshuffle.1 Seet is also known for her contributions to education, healthcare, community development and women-related initiatives in Singapore. She was one of the founding members of the PAP Women’s Wing and served as the chairperson of the subcommittee of training and education.2
Seet joined the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1988 and was active in the constituency of Bukit Batok. She was the sole new female candidate fielded by PAP in the 1988 parliamentary General Election.3 She ran for the seat in the new single-member constituency of Bukit Gombak, contesting Ling How Doong, Chairman of Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).4 Seet garnered 12,661 votes (53.5%), narrowly defeating Ling by 1,637 votes to win the seat for Bukit Gombak5 and became its elected Member of Parliament (MP). During the 1991 election however, Seet lost to Ling by a narrow margin of 1.4%. Consequently, Seet became the first Cabinet member to lose a parliamentary seat.6
Seet retired from politics in late 1991. Her social contributions, such as hospice work, continued. In 1997, Seet was awarded the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star),7 and in 1998, she was appointed Justice of the Peace.8
Early life and education
Seet Ai Mee was born on 31 March 1943 in Malacca as the eldest child in the family.9 She received her early education at Methodist Girls’ School in Malacca, and attended a high school there. Her early ambition was to become a medical doctor, but she gave up her dream when her father lost his job while she was a Form Six student.10
A Colombo Plan scholar, Seet went on to study at the University of Adelaide, and graduated in 1964 with first class honours in biochemistry. In 1965, while employed as a research fellow at the University of Kuala Lumpur, she broke her bond due to her disagreement with Malaysia’s bumiputera policy. She soon found employment in Singapore as a clinical biochemist in the Department of Pathology in 1966.11 In 1969, Seet obtained her PhD in clinical biochemistry from the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore).12
Seet was interested in poetry and song writing, even winning the Grand Prix Award in the Search for Our Music and Song competition organised by Yamaha in 1973.13 She was a senior research fellow at the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research14 before starting her own laboratory business in 1977.15 Before she entered politics in 1988, she was already involved in community work,16 serving in many committees of welfare services such as the Association of the Deaf,17 of which she was President from 1985 to 1988.18
Portfolios in the government
Seet joined the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1988 and was active in the constituency of Bukit Batok. She was the sole new female candidate fielded by the PAP at the 1988 General Election held on 3 September.19 She ran for the seat in the new single-member constituency of Bukit Gombak, contesting Ling How Doong, Chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party.20 Seet garnered 12,661 votes (53.5%), defeating Ling by 1,637 votes to win the seat for Bukit Gombak,21 and thus became its elected Member of Parliament (MP). Seet joined three other women who had already been elected into Parliament in 1984 as PAP MPs. They were Dr Dixie Tan; Dr Aline Wong; and Yu-Foo Yee Shoon.22 Prior to them, the last woman to hold a parliamentary seat was Chan Choy Siong, who retired from Parliament in 1970.23
Contributions to national initiatives
Seet was appointed the Minister of State for Education and Community Development on 1 November 1988. She was Singapore’s first female Minister of State and the highest female office-holder in the Government at that time.24 Within the Ministry of Education, she was placed in charge of primary education, focusing on language and mathematical development.25
One of her first assignments as Minister of State was to drive efforts to inculcate Asian values in Singapore schools amidst English-language education and exposure to Western influences in the late 1988. The move was made in response to the idea of establishing a set of state ideology to guide Singapore into the 21st century, which was mooted by Goh Chok Tong in October 1988.26 Tony Tan, then-Minister of Education, had designated Seet and Tang Guan Seng, the Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Home Affairs, to collect feedback from stakeholders.27
Several forums were thus organised to gather feedback from educators and the public,28 with Seet chairing the forums with educators.29 The feedback was compiled and included in Tony Tan’s addendum to the President’s Address in January 1989, which outlined the Ministry of Education’s plans for the next 5 years. These included the strengthening of Mother Tongue education in schools as the key to imparting Asian values and identity, as well as enhancements in primary school education and teacher training.30
In 1989, a team from the Ministry of Education, headed by Seet, also travelled to Taiwan and Hong Kong to learn how these countries incorporate the teaching of values in schools; more of such trips to Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia were subsequently planned.31 For instance, Seet was part of the delegation, led by Brigadier-General George Yeo, who visited Indonesia to learn about how a state ideology could be developed for Singapore.32
Contributions to community services
During her maiden speech in Parliament on 18 January 1989,33 Seet spoke about affordable healthcare and hospitalisation for the poor and aged.34 During the Budget Debate that March, she announced the building of 20 new childcare centres in 1989 to cater to the rising demand for childcare services in Singapore.35 In her announcement, she revealed a pilot project that allowed private operators to open and manage 12 new childcare centres in void decks. Subsequently in June, the Ministry of Community Development put up six of the childcare centres for tender by private operators for a period of three years.36 Previously, only non-profit organisations, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and People’s Association, could operate childcare centres.37
As part of the government’s initiative to involve the private sector in social welfare efforts in Singapore, Seet announced the establishment of a National Advisory Council on the Family and the Aged on 14 July 1989. Its role was to recommend measures to “prevent, alleviate and deal with problems that affect the family and the aged”.38 As its Chairman, Seet headed the 19-member National Advisory Council on the Family and the Aged to advise the Government on issues that affect the family and the aged in Singapore.39
Subsequently in 1990, Seet introduced the idea of establishing activity centres for the elderly. The first Senior Activity Centre (SAC) was hence launched on 3 June 1991 at Serangoon Gardens Community Club. An extension of the senior citizens’ clubs, SAC was a pilot project to provide full- day recreational, cultural and educational activities for the elderly.40
Upgrading teacher training
In August 1989, Seet headed a 13-member Institute of Education and the College of Physical Education Development Committee41 to look into the upgrading of teacher training and the development of the Institute of Education and College of Physical Education in Singapore. Its recommendation report, titled “Teacher Training in the 1990s: Issues and Strategies”,42 was submitted in January 1990 and accepted by the Ministry of Education. One of the recommendations include the upgrading of training for primary school teachers to maintain high standards of education, especially in the initial years of schooling. The merger of the Institute of Education and College of Physical Education to form the National Institute of Education (NIE), which would partner Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to provide degree programmes in education, was also proposed. NIE would ideally be situated within the NTU campus in Jurong. A one-year postgraduate diploma programme for training primary and secondary school teachers would be opened for graduates, while the certificate in education programme would be converted to a diploma programme.43
Changes in schools
Under Seet, the Ministry of Education launched an initiative on 14 October 1989 that would engage and provide more opportunities for primary and secondary school students to do community work while schooling. This new programme, which was non-compulsory, included six categories of activities which schools could incorporate as extra-curricular activities (ECA). Students could also earn points or badges for their participation.44
On 26 February 1991, Seet announced the Primary Day Schools pilot programme where selected primary schools operated from 8.30am to 3.30pm in a single session to allow students to learn at a more leisurely pace. It also included an optional after-school care programme.45
Change in appointment
Seet was officially appointed as the Acting Minister for Community Development in Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s Cabinet Reshuffle on 1 July 1991. As the first woman to head a ministry, her appointment was seen as a historic moment. With the appointment, she relinquished her position as Minister of State for Education,46 although her ministerial rank remained the same.47
Participation in the 1991 Parliamentary General Election
In late 1991, Seet was again fielded as the PAP’s candidate for the constituency of Bukit Gombak. This was her second time contesting the SDP’s Ling How Doong since the 1988 election.48 Though Seet defeated Ling in 1988, Seet lost her seat in Bukit Gombak to him in 1991. She received 11,383 votes compared to Ling’s 12,037.49
Seet’s loss was attributed to a combination of reasons, including the residents’ unhappiness over bread-and-butter issues, concerns over the cleanliness of the estate and cessation of bus services, as well as the rising cost of living. She was deemed an English-educated “elite” far removed from the ground. What drew attention too was an incident in which Seet had allegedly washed her hands after a handshake with a fishmonger during her 1988 election campaign.50
Although this incident was mentioned by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at a PAP election rally on 29 August 1991, in which he commended Seet for her service to the people, its details were clarified after the General Election. In September 1991, the Chairman of the PAP Women’s Wing in Bukit Gombak, Tan Bee Bee, explained in a letter to The Straits Times that during the 1988 campaign, Seet had not washed her hands after shaking hands with a fishmonger, but a butcher; Seet did so to remove pork grease smeared on her hand as she wanted to avoid disrespecting Muslims she might meet later.51 This was stated by Seet herself in later interviews published by Petir (the PAP periodical) and The Straits Times.52 In the Petir interview, Seet shared that she did not feel she was a suitable candidate for Bukit Gombak as the residents were mainly “blue-collar Mandarin- and dialect-speaking folk”, while she spoke only English and Malay and no Chinese.53
Following Seet’s defeat, then-Minister of Health Yeo Cheow Tong took charge of the Community Development portfolio.54 The new Cabinet did not have any female ministers.55 Seet left politics in late 1991,56 citing the desire to return to her roots in clinical biochemistry and helm her biochemical business again. She took up a three-month research fellowship at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies to study the Open University concept overseas.57 Her observations were published in a report titled “Open universities: An Asian perspective”.58
Contributions to hospice work
After Seet’s retirement from politics, she was keen to work in either homes for the aged or hospices. She was convinced to join hospice work by Kwa Soon Bee, former Permanent Secretary for Health and Director of Medical Services.59 Seet’s father’s passing in 1989 from liver cancer also influenced her to do so.60 Hence, in 1992, Seet co-founded Singapore’s first secular and third residential hospice, Dover Park Hospice, with Dr Jerry Lim.61 Seet took on the role of its Chairman.62
In 1994, heeding a call from former President of Singapore Wee Kim Wee, Seet founded the Singapore Hospice Council (SHC) together with Dr Ee Peng Liang and Dr Cynthia Goh.63 SHC functioned as the umbrella body for organisations providing palliative care. Seet served as its pro-tem deputy Chairman and representative of Dover Park Hospice.64
1965: Research fellow and tutor, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
1966: Biochemist, Ministry of Health, Singapore.
1973: Senior research fellow, Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research.
1977: Managing director, AML Sci-Ed Consultants Pte. Ltd.
1984–1988: Chairman, school executive committee of Blangah Rise Primary School.
1985–1988: President, Singapore Association for the Deaf.
1988: Member of Parliament for Bukit Gombak.
1 Nov 1988–30 Jun 1991: Minister of state for education and community development.
1 Jul–6 Sep 1991: Acting minister for community development and sports.
1992: Founder chairman, Dover Park Hospice Governing Council.
1992: Director, Courts (S) Ltd.
1994: Director, Informatics Holdings Ltd.
1995: First chairman, Singapore Hospice Council.
1995: Director, Datacraft Asia Ltd.
1996: Director, Ming Wah Universal (Bermuda) Co. Ltd.
1997: Director, Jade Technologies (S) Ltd.
2002–2014: President of the Hospice Care Association (HCA).66
2005–2007: Appointed Chairman of Courts, a retailer of furniture, electronics and IT equipment, in April 2005, Seet leaves the role in 2007.67
Husband: Seet Lip Chai (Dr), who was the Chief Medical Officer of the Singapore Civil Defence Force. They were divorced in the 1990s.
Children: A son, Pi Shen; and a daughter, Ju Ee.
1997: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
1998: Justice of the Peace.
Goh Lee Kim
1. Low Kar Tiang, ed., Who’s Who in Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Pub., 2003), 348 (Call no. RSING 920.05957 WHO); “PM Goh Reshuffles Cabinet,” Business Times, 1 July 1991, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “PAP's Women Wing to Launch Childcare Scheme,” Business Times, 11 November 1989, 2 (From NewspaperSG); People’s Action Party (Singapore), “Powerhouse Party,” Petir (July–August 2009), 1. (Call no. RSING 329.95957 P)
3. Augustine Low, “Elections Surprise,” New Paper, 18 August 1988, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Kenneth Feels ‘Like David' in Potong Pasir,” Straits Times, 25 August 1988, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “From Close Shaves to Straight Losses — How the Women Fared,” Straits Times, 4 September 1988, 2; Leslie Fong, “PAP Landslide,” Straits Times, 4 September 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Rachel Chang, “Why I Lost in Bukit Gombak,” Straits Times, 19 March 2011, 43; “Ling Elected in 'Vulnerable' Seat on Third Try,” Straits Times, 1 September 1991, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “Grassroots Leaders of Bt Gombak Bid Farewell to Dr Seet,” Straits Times, 22 February 1992, 22; Anna Teo, “2 Senior Ministers Going Back to Private Sector,” Business Times, 6 September 1991, 1; “Those Honoured This Year,” Straits Times, 9 August 1997, 36. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Ministry of Information and the Arts, President Ong Teng Cheong Presenting a Warrant to Dr Seet Ai Mee during the Presentation Ceremony of Warrants to 22 Justices of Peace at the Istana State Room, 1 October 1998, photograph, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. 19990002878 – 0031)}
9. Mak Mun Sun, “No Looking Back in Anger,” Straits Times, 12 April 2009, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Justin Corfield, Historical Dictionary of Singapore (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 38. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 COR-[HIS])
10. Judith Tan, “Never Say Die – That’s Seet Ai Mee,” Straits Times, 4 September 2011, 30 (From NewspaperSG); Corfield, Historical Dictionary of Singapore, 38.
11. Tan, “Never Say Die.”
12. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 348.
13. Violet Oon, “Another Winning Song By Two Doctors,’ New Nation, 23 April 1973, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Integrate Science Teaching Call,” New Nation, 22 March 1976, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Low, “Elections Surprise.”
16. Tan, “Never Say Die.”
17. Low, “Elections Surprise.”
18. “PAP Fielding 17 New Candidates,” Straits Times, 21 August 1988, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Low, “Elections Surprise.”
20. Kenneth Feels ‘Like David'.”
21. “From Close Shaves to Straight Losses”; Fong, “PAP Landslide.”
22. Aline Wong and Leong Wai Kum, A Woman's Place: The Story of Singapore Women (Singapore: PAP Women’s Wing, 1993), 100–02. (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 WOM).
23. “More Women in the House? Not Likely,” Straits Times, 25 November 1995, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Irene Hoe, “The Challenge and Relish of Ministerial Job for Seet,” New Paper, 12 September 1988, 2; “4 New MPs Made Ministers of State,” Straits Times, 11 September 1988, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Tony Tan to Lead Study Mission,” Business Times, 15 September 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Martin Soong, “Goh: Singapore Needs a National Ideology,” Business Times, 29 October 1988, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Trudy Lim, “Teaching Asian Values in School,” New Paper, 1 November 1988, 2; “Mother-Tongue 'Key to Values',” Straits Times, 11 January 1989, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Sumiko Tan, “Asian Values 'Must Be Part of Home Life',” Straits Times, 25 November 1988, 30; “Public Forums on Teaching Asian Values in Schools,” New Paper, 17 November 1988, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Teachers' Unions Want to Hold Asian Value Week,” New Paper, 9 December 1988, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Lim, “Teaching Asian Values in School”; “Mother-Tongue 'Key to Values'.”
31. “Core Value' Sensitivities,” Straits Times, 21 March 1989, 16; “Principals to Learn Core Value Teaching in Japan and Taiwan,” Straits Times, 21 March 1989, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “BG Yeo, Dr Seet Off to Indonesia,” Straits Times, 24 July 1989, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Call for More Flexible Approach to 2nd Language,” Business Times, 19 January 1989, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Keep Health Care Within Reach of Poor: Dr Seet,” Straits Times, 19 January 1989, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “More Childcare Centres to Be Built,” Business Times, 23 March 1989, 2; “Focus on Social Concerns,” New Paper, 23 March 1989, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “Six Childcare Centres in HDB Void Decks Up for Tender,” Straits Times, 3 June 1989, 24; “Bidding for Child-Care Centres to Open,” Business Times, 3 June 1989, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Angeline Song, “Private Creches for HDB Estates,” New Paper, 2 June 1989, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Council on Family and Aged Soon,” Business Times, 15 July 1989, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Sandra Davie, “National Council Set Up to Advise Govt on Family, Aged,” Straits Times, 9 September 1989, 1; “Track Record in Grassroots Work Key Factor in Selection,” Straits Times, 9 September 1989, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “Drop-in Day Centre for Elderly,” Straits Times, 4 June 1991, 21; “PA to Introduce Full-Day Clubs for the Elderly,” Straits Times, 30 April 1990, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
41. “Calibre of Primary School Teachers Is Important,” Straits Times, 17 February 1990, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Lee Sing Kong, et al. ed., Toward a Better Future: Education and training for Economic Development in Singapore Since 1965 (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2008), 112. (Call no. RSING 370.9595709045 TOW)
43. “Plan for High-Calibre Primary School Teachers,” (1990, February 20). Straits Times, 20 February 1990, 1; Anna Teo, “Committee Proposes Upgrading of training for Teachers,” Business Times, 20 February 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
44. Chua Chong Jin, “New Community Service Plan Unfolded By Ministry,” Straits Times, 15 October 1989, 3; “Social Work for Students: Govt Draws Masterplan,” New Paper, 14 October 1989, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
45. “After-School Care Programme in the Offing,” New Paper, 27 February 1991, 15; “Table Manners and Day Schools,” New Paper, 1 June 1991, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
46. Sumiko Tan, “PM Reshuffles Cabinet,” Straits Times, 30 June 1991, 1; “Good Move to Name Younger Ministers: MPs,” Straits Times, 1 July 1991, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
47. “Why Dr Seet and Mah Not There,” New Paper, 2 July 1991, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
48. “Bukit Gombak,” New Paper, 26 August 1991, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
49. “Ling Elected in 'Vulnerable' Seat”; “Bukit Gombak.”
50. Michelle Lee, “Local Issues Plus Personality,” New Paper, 2 September 1991, 3; Shoeb Kagda, “The Need to Work the Ground,” Business Times, 6 September 1991, 12; Agnes Chen, “What the Voters Were Saying,” Business Times, 3 September 1991, 12; Rachel Chang, “Time for PAP’s Women to Fly Solo?” Straits Times, 19 March 2011, 42 (From NewspaperSG); People’s Action Party (Singapore), (July / August 2009). “‘Welcome Home, Mum’,”. Petir (July–August 2009), 29–30.
51. "'Seet Ai Mee is a strong woman with good record'," Straits Times, 30 August 1991, 26; "Chok Tong's assessment of Ai Mee, Boon Heng and Ashleigh," Business Times, 30 August 1991, 2; "Why Dr Seet needed to wash her hands," Straits Times, 5 September 1991, 28; Zuraidah Ibrahim, "Grassroots leaders of Bt Gombak bid farewell to Dr Seet," Straits Times, 22 February 1992, 22 (From NewspaperSG)
52. People’s Action Party (Singapore), “‘Welcome Home, Mum’,” 29–30; Chang, Chang, “Why I Lost in Bukit Gombak.”
53. People’s Action Party (Singapore), “Powerhouse Party,” 31.
54. Teo, “2 Senior Ministers Going Back to Private Sector.”
55. Schutz Lee, “If the Best Man for the Job's a Woman...,” Business Times, 2 November 1991, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
56. “Bye, Dr Seet,” New Paper, 22 February 1992, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
57. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “Grassroots Leaders of Bt Gombak Bid Farewell to Dr Seet,” Straits Times, 22 February 1992, 22; “New Jobs for Two VIPs,” New Paper, 28 September 1991, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
58. Seet Ai Mee, Open Universities: An Asian Perspective (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1992), vii. (Call no. RSING 378.03095 SEE)
59. Tan, “Never Say Die.”
60. Mak, “No Looking Back in Anger.”
61. Mardiana Abu Bakar, “S'pore Poly Appeals against Proposal to Site Hospice Near It,” Straits Times, 19 November 1992, 25; Teh Shi Ning, “Sending People Off With Dignity,” Business Times, 24 August 2001, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
62. “Hospice in Search of a Home,” Straits Times, 19 November 1992, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
63. Clarence Chang, “‘He Talks to People at Their Level’,” New Paper, 3 May 2005, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
64. Sandra Pearce, “Council Formed to Coordinate Hospice Care,” Straits Times, 15 May 1994, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
65. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 348.
66. HCA Hospice Care, HCA Hospice Care Annual Report 2013/14 (Singapore: HCA Hospice Care, 2014)
67. “Seet Ai Mee Is Named Courts Chairman,” Business Times, 6 April 2005, 6; “Courts Reshuffles Board,” Straits Times, 20 August 2007, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
68. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 348; “Reservist Named Chief Medical Officer of Civil Defence Force,” Singapore Monitor, 23 May 1985, 3 (From Newspaper); Tan, “Never Say Die”; Mak, “No Looking Back in Anger”; Martin Soong, Chuang Peck Ming and Anna Teo, “PAP to Field about 20 New Election Candidates,” Business Times, 18 August 1988, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
69. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore, 348.
“Dr. Seet is First Woman Ag Minister, with Community Development Post,” Straits Times, 30 June 1991, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
Jenny Lam Lin, Voices & Choices: The Women’s Movement in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Council of Women’s Organisation and Singapore Baha’i Women’s Committee, 1993), 114–25. (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 VOI)
Seet Ai Mee, Open Universities: An Asian Perspective (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1992). (Call no. RSING 378.03095 SEE)
The information in this article is valid as at May 2020 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.