November 27, 2013. Yip Pin Xiu in Team Singapore t-shirt.
Trailblazer. How Yip Pin Xiu’s swimming career broke the silence on disability in Singapore
From Paralympic champion to the youngest Nominated Member of Parliament, Yip Pin Xiu’s work has transformed Singapore’s society
In the late 1960s, during the developing years of the now prosperous island nation of Singapore, the prevention of disabilities was commonly perceived as essential to the growth of society. Consequently, this view led to the passing of the Voluntary Sterilisation Act (VSA) in 1974. The law was a huge infringement on the human rights of people with disabilities, especially since it gave any legal guardian of a person with a permanent mental or physical disability the “inordinate power” to consent to sterilisation on their behalf.
In that respect, the VSA was substantially amended in 2012, when Singapore signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Yet, the very fact that such a piece of legislation was in power merely a decade ago may reflect the societal perception towards people with disabilities in contemporary Singapore.
Much has changed since 1974, however, Singapore’s discrimination against people with disabilities remains a prevalent issue. Despite it not being an active form of hostility, a small number of Singapore’s citizens still face neglect and a lack of recognition. When researching the evidence for this article, I found a scarce number of sufficient data regarding people with disabilities in Singapore. Again, I believe this is only one small example of the veil of invisibility imposed on the minority of people with disabilities on the tiny island nation.
According to SPD, a local charity with the aim of integrating those with disabilities into mainstream society, people with disabilities only make up 0.55% of the resident labour force despite in total comprising approximately 3% of the resident population. Furthermore, out of 1,000 Singaporeans with disabilities who partook in a government survey in 2017, 62% expressed how they continue to feel excluded, unaccepted and not given the opportunities to reach their maximum potential in society.
Growing up in the mainstream education system in Singapore for a majority of my life, I distinctly remember never having any peers in my classes with any form of physical disability. However, the small percentage of my cohort that had learning difficulties often struggled, primarily due to the fact that special educational needs were rarely recognised by local schools. For instance, although one in every fifty students (10,000 out of 500,000) attending the mainstream education system have special needs, teaching materials and assessments which fully accommodate their needs remain inaccessible.
Therefore, when I first attended a completely different education system in England, I was amazed by the level of integration my school possessed, especially since my friends with special needs were treated as an asset rather than a hindrance to the class. Many were unafraid to openly speak about their learning difficulties, there were extra support classes available and any test or exam was tailored according to their needs.
Things are changing, and they are changing fast. Arguably, the rise of Singaporean Paralympic champions has played the most imperative role in catalysing the change of societal attitudes towards people with disabilities.
The group of trailblazers includes Laurentia Tan, a United Kingdom-based Singaporean para-equestrian who claimed four Paralympic medals and was the holder of Asia’s first Paralympic medal in 2008 as well as Theresa Goh, the bronze Paralympic swimmer and world record breaker.
However, Yip Pin Xiu stands out of this group, for her achievements are nothing short of breathtaking – and in order to recognise her and her feats, Singapore had to finally face its stance towards people with disabilities.
Born on 10th January 1992, Yip Pin Xiu is a Singaporean Paralympic swimmer best known for her backstroke. At the age of two, Yip was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a group of diseases causing progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. As a form of rehabilitation, she began swimming and eventually took the sport to a competitive level at the age of 12. When speaking of how her passion for swimming grew, she said “I love the water. I could jump in it, I could dance, I could do somersaults, I could do what everybody could do.” Whilst pursuing an athletic career in swimming, Yip was also able to graduate from Singapore Management University with a Bachelor of Social Science.
Aside from academic excellence, after the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Yip made history by becoming Singapore’s first Paralympic gold medallist at the age of 16. After dominating the Rio and Tokyo Games, she has now amassed a staggering five Paralympic gold medals and currently holds two world records in the S2 classification for 50 and 100 metre backstroke events, making her the most decorated athlete in Singapore’s history.
Paralympic medalist Theresa Goh: ‘I was thinking: do I have to quit swimming and find a job?’
Up till 2008, the stark difference between the treatment of Olympians and Paralympians was never discussed, since no one had previously achieved a Paralympic medal in Singapore’s history. Therefore, it was Yip’s and Tan’s outstanding achievements which finally sparked heated public debate regarding the recognition of Paralympic athletes in Singapore.
People were especially angered by the government’s initial decision to award Paralympic gold medallists a cash prize worth $100,000 (SGD), a tenth of what Olympic gold medallists received. Subsequently, in 2008, after much public dispute, the government chose to double the prize money to $200,000. Furthermore, in 2021, following Yip’s two gold medal wins at the recent Tokyo Paralympics, the prize money was further increased to $400,000 per gold medal. This is a significant change for the better, yet still it is nowhere near equality.
Although Yip’s sporting achievements continue to shift societal attitudes for the better, she takes this to another level with her active role in politics. On 17 September 2018, Yip became the youngest Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore’s history (up to nine NMPs can be appointed by the president of Singapore in each term, they are not elected).
The impacts of her term were transformative. After her speech in support of enforcing a national code deal with sexual violence at universities went viral, she garnered the support of youth all over the nation. For the first time, urgent issues which were previously neglected were being brought to the heart of the government. In an interview with the Straits Times, she explained how her term had even changed her as a person: “in the past I identified as an athlete, but now I see myself as representing other people with disabilities and I see myself as a woman who is more aware of gender issues and equality”.
Although her term in Parliament has ended, Yip continues to actively campaign and advocate on behalf of people with disabilities and other marginalised groups. Currently, she serves as Vice-Chair for the Purple Parade, a national movement which aims to promote awareness, inclusivity and celebrate people with disabilities. Yip also sits on the National Youth Council, a government organisation which acts as the coordinating body of youth affairs in Singapore, where she works alongside the government to help solve issues concerning young people.
Yip Pin Xiu’s impact on society is nothing short of groundbreaking. Not only has her athletic and political career driven the government to act on the disparity surrounding cash incentives and funding, it has also shaped societal perceptions of people with disabilities. This in turn will continue to improve inclusivity in Singapore for future generations to come.