In the early 1950s, Singapore, then under British rule, had a vibrant community of well-educated Malayalis. Many of these were graduates of prestigious institutions in India such as the University of Madras. One mother of an infant decided that she was not going to waste her education and stay at home when there was a possibility of entering public life.
The 30-year-old Vilasini Menon shocked the residents of the island when she announced in the beginning of 1951 that she was going to stand for the Legislative Council elections as an independent candidate from the constituency of Seletar.
As soon as she announced her candidature, Vilasini managed to attract the attention of the Straits Times. “One thousand and five hundred Singapore men have been asked to trust a woman to get things done for them in the Legislative Council,” the paper said in its February 23, 1951, edition. In her first campaign meeting, Vilasini actually told potential voters that she would “make no promises” but asked for their trust to get things done.
As the campaigning continued, Vilasini continued to talk to the press about the difficulty of running as an independent candidate. “A party candidate, by merely belonging to a party can sometimes win, even though he may be third-rate,” she said. “He gets in because of party prestige and slogans: The independent candidate, if he wins, gets in on his own merit, without any party backing.”
Vilasini ended up winning the election that was held in April 1951, with 43 per cent of the votes and became the first woman to be voted into national office in Singapore. This was a victory that was celebrated by the Malayali community on the island.
“Singapore’s first elected woman Legislative Councillor, Mrs Vilasini Menon, spent yesterday playing with her 16-month old son Vikram, at the house of a friend,” the Straits Times said in its April 12, 1951, edition. She had spent the previous 10 days campaigning and hardly saw her son, according to the report.
Along with her husband and son, Vilasini celebrated the win at a friend’s house. Members of the Malayali community who went to Vilasini's house to congratulate her found it locked. She told the Singapore press that she wanted to be in public service and continue her household responsibilities. “Although my aim is to become a good Councillor, I do not want to be a bad housewife,” she said.
Weeks after her victory, Vilasini continued to be the toast of the Indian community, which held receptions to celebrate her success. One such celebration at the Kamala Club made the local press.
Short-lived public career
The archives do not contain much information about her time as Councillor, but there is a report from March 1952, which says she supported the Singapore government’s move to increase the beer tax. An anonymous resident of Seletar wrote to the Straits Times criticising the move to support the tax and called on her to not be a “puppet” of the government.
A few months later, Vilasini left for Madras with her husband. Govinda Menon, who was a lawyer. After missing a council meeting, there were calls for a by-election for her seat if she didn’t return in time for the next meeting. In August 1952, she successfully applied for leave from the council, but this was the beginning of the end of her career in public service.
The Singapore Police requested their counterparts in Madras to arrest Govinda Menon for a criminal breach of trust. Vilasini was also charged with abetting the alleged crime. The couple were arrested in Madras and their counsel was given a few weeks to prove that this was a civil dispute.
She sent her resignation letter from Madras to then Singapore Governor J F Nicoll. It would take several months for Vilasini to be acquitted, but she decided not to re-enter politics.
Her vacant seat in the Legislative Council was taken by another Malayali - one P D Nair, who was the only person to file a nomination.
Although Vilasini became a pathbreaker in a male-dominated society, the scandal involving her husband came in the way of what could have been a promising political career. Nevertheless, she left an imprint on the history of the island nation.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)