Elizabeth Choy is best known as a war heroine. During the Japanese Occupation, she risked her life by smuggling supplies and messages to prisoners-of-war held at Changi Jail. She was also an educator and a politician.
Born in British North Borneo, Elizabeth’s great-grandparents had migrated from Hong Kong, through their work with German missionaries. Her first language was Kadazan, learned from her nanny, but later she moved to Singapore, where she excelled in her studies and became a teacher.
During World War II, Elizabeth and her husband ran a canteen at what is now Woodbridge Hospital. They secretly carried food, medicine, money, letters and radios to British prisoners-of-war.
In 1943 the pair was arrested, accused of being British sympathisers. Elizabeth was held for 193 excruciating days, her husband for much longer. Locked in a small cell crammed with men, Elizabeth endured repeated torture, including electric shocks and being pumped with water. Later she would recount suffering such pain that tears rolled down her face, but she refused to break, and never revealed the names of anyone she had assisted.
After the war the British Red Cross invited Elizabeth to England. As the only female Singaporean to have been incarcerated for such a long time, she was hailed as a war heroine and awarded the Order of the British Empire. The Girl Guides awarded her the Bronze Cross, the movement’s highest honour, in recognition of her valour during the war.
In Britain, Elizabeth studied and taught. Lacking the finances to pursue her dream to study art, she instead posed for art. Many years later when back in Singapore, she made headlines when she allowed a nude photograph of herself to be displayed at a local exhibition.
Elizabeth returned to Singapore in 1949, where she soon became active in the political changes leading to the nation’s independence. She made history by becoming the first and only woman member of the Legislative Council.
In 1955, having served a full five term as a Legislative Councillor, Elizabeth left politics, believing she could do more as a teacher. During the 1950s she was also instrumental in expanding the Singapore Volunteers Corps, and in 1956, she broke new ground, founding the Singapore School for the Blind and working as its first principal.
Always a compassionate and dedicated teacher, Elizabeth was awarded the Pingat Bakit Setia (a long-service medal) by the Government of Singapore in 1973, for her service to the profession.
She was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer shortly before her death, in 2006.