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Ex-NMP Eunice Olsen: “Women’s issues have never been part of our national conversation. It’s still something people shy away from, labelling these issues as “feminist”.”

The 2000 Miss Singapore Universe pageant winner on empowering women, her new book, and the rights of minorities.

You could call Eunice Olsen a Jill of all trades – if Jill was a piano-playing Miss Universe Singapore pageant winner who is also the youngest person ever to serve as a Nominated Member of Parliament and now runs her own media company and has published a new book. The book titled I’m A Girl, See What I Can Be targets young readers and celebrates the stories of other high-achieving women like her. Of course, true to her multipotentialite personality, Olsen isn’t content to write the stories in simple prose; no, no, the stories are told in poetry instead. Hence, the story of Theresa Goh, Paralympic bronze medallist swimmer, goes in part like this:

“Theresa’s a swimmer

and a very good one

Just so many medals

she’s won like a ton!

‘Cos nothing stops Theresa,

her arms are so strong.

She’ll beat us at swimming,

she’ll swim all day long.”

Besides Goh, the other interviewees include physique competitor Melissa Sarah Wee, Save Elephant Foundation founder Sangduen “Lek” Chailert and playwright Faith Ng. The poems are accompanied by illustrations by differently-abled artists, while various aspects of the book – from its size to its typeface -were decided upon after consulting several children and their mums.

Olsen genuinely believes that if young people, particularly girls, can be empowered at an early age, they will not buy into gender stereotypes such as which careers suit them and how far they can succeed. Nine years after she stepped down from her parliamentary role, Olsen still believes she can bring about meaningful change to society.

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You’ve done a lot of things, from winning the Miss Universe Singapore pageant to being a Wheel of Fortune co-host, from recording a bossa nova album to now publishing a book. Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t done?

A lot of the things you mentioned are simply things that I’ve always wanted to do. But really, it is also life taking me to where I need to be at any given time. For instance, this book is the result of me doing the online show on WomenTalk.com where I interview extraordinary women. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if young readers could be introduced to these women as well?

The thing that I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done is direct a film. I want it to be something centred around empowering women, something like the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman HBO TV series Big Little Lies, but for the big screen. But at the same time, my schedule is full right now, so I’m going to have to postpone that dream.

You’re doing a lot to empower women. Some say that Singapore lags behind other affluent, developed countries on the issue of women’s rights, be it single mothers’ access to public housing, or the controversial plan to get women to pay higher CareShield premiums. Men’s salaries are still about 18 per cent higher than women’s. What do you have to say about that?

Women’s issues have never been part of our national conversation. It’s still something people shy away from, labelling these issues as “feminist” – as if feminism is a dirty word – when all we want is that women be treated with equal respect and dignity. If we compare Singapore to Sweden, there we see women making up a high percentage of political representation in parliament. Various social and political policies promote the participation of women. If you ask anyone on the street whether he or she believes in gender equality, the answer is “yes”. That kind of thinking permeates all levels of society.

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But things in Singapore seem to be changing with the millennial generation. The millennials are bringing all sorts of conversations to the table with regard to the rights of women and minorities. And it would do good for policymakers and legislators to take note. It does take a tremendous effort on the part of various people to get these policymakers and legislators to move on an issue. For instance, the reason why the issue of disabilities is now on the forefront of certain conversations is because various groups and individuals pushed for it for a long time.

In June 2018, the Miss America pageant announced it’s scrapping its swimsuit portion. As the winner of Miss Universe Singapore in 2000, how do you feel about this?

My stance towards beauty pageants has not changed over the years. If a woman wants to join a beauty pageant, she should have every right to do it for herself. If she works out and has a great body and wants to show it off to the world, then she should be able to show off that body. She’s doing it for herself – not for the audience. I mean, really, what’s the difference between scrapping the swimsuit portion or the evening gown portion? Is the former more sexy than the latter? Sexy for whom? The audience? Both portions require the woman to parade before the audience. The evening gown can also be sexy, with a low-cut neckline and high slit.

To me, the pageant is a great platform that one can use to speak up about issues one cares deeply about. That’s what I found when I won the Miss Universe Singapore, and that hasn’t changed.

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You’re also a strategic adviser to Space For Humanity, a US non-profit organisation that aims to send diverse non-astronauts to space within the near future, in its effort to democratise space. What are the odds of seeing a Singaporean in space soon?

At this year’s Money20/20 Asia, a leading fintech and payments event, attendees were given the chance to submit their applications for an all-expenses paid journey to outer space. The person who got through to the second round of interview is a China-born Singapore-based technopreneur.

A final selection will be made later and some of these people will likely go into space in 2021. They will get to experience the overview effect, which is the experience of seeing the earth as one fragile system connected to a larger universe. Hopefully they will return with new insights and be inspired to make a difference in their own communities.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: BT/SPH