The Female Eunuch
By TAN Kee Wee
(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Thursday, 28 August
2008, 7.50 am and 7.20 pm)
During the Ming Dynasty in China, there was a
specialist group of professionals called eunuchs. These were
men whose sexual reproductive organs had been surgically
removed or castrated.
Castration initially served as a form of punishment.
Eventually, it served as a means of gaining employment in the
Imperial Service of the Ming Court.
There was a practical reason for castration. Since
these eunuchs were going to work and come in contact with the
emperor’s concubines, there must be a guarantee that none of
the concubines became pregnant.
Initially, eunuchs started out as guards and servants.
Over time, many upgraded their job skills and moved up the
The Imperial officials welcomed these eunuchs. This is
because, since the eunuchs could never have children, they
could not challenge the sons of the Imperial officials they
The question is: why would a sane man offer himself to
be castrated and remove all prospects of ever fathering
Two groups of job-seekers come to mind. The first group
covers those who don’t want to bring up a family anyway, and
wish to climb up the Imperial corporate ladder. The
second group of job-seekers is less ambitious. All they want is
a job to pay for whatever expenses they need to live
Many young women in Singapore, those between 20 and
35, have suddenly found themselves in the same situation as the
second group of job-seeking eunuchs. Both must choose either
family or career.
This situation has come about because of the baby
incentives recently introduced to encourage bigger families.
Many businesses now find young women unattractive as workers.
Should they become pregnant, it’s going to be very disruptive
for the business.
This does not apply only to SMEs. It applies to big
firms too. In the short term, big firms may be able to pass the
pregnant employee’s workload to her colleagues. But in the long
term, it’s not viable because it will lead to overwork and
subsequent resignations by her colleagues.
One way out is for young women to start their families
first and then join the workforce later. But this is not
realistic because today’s businesses prefer to hire young
The only way out is for these young women to offer a
guarantee of “no pregnancy” to their employers. In other words,
they must offer themselves as modern-day female
Of course, this will not be done surgically. The
guarantee of “no pregnancy” could be included in the employment
contract. But imagine the negative publicity should a company
sue its female employee for breach of contract.
In the end, this guarantee of “no pregnancy” will
probably be carried out quietly. Young women who choose to be
modern-day female eunuchs will just stay single. Financially,
it makes a lot of sense for them to choose the career
In the Ming Court, career prospects for eunuchs were
also very bright. Many ambitious young men submitted themselves
to castration. Some even castrated themselves before securing
The danger for Singapore is that our plan to increase
the population could be undermined by the growing number of
female eunuchs who choose career over family.
The Ming Court also faced this problem of too many eunuchs.
The flood of applications to become eunuchs became so
overwhelming that the Ming Court had to turn many away, and
made self-castration illegal.
It’s unthinkable now but society may one day make it illegal
to remain unmarried. Until that happens, young women in
Singapore are in a lose-lose situation.
If she starts a family early, it’s going to be
difficult to contribute to the household expenses. If she
chooses the career path, and go without a constant companion,
society unfairly labels her as a “freak”.
Eunuchs in the Ming Court were also unfairly given
labels. Ming society also thought of the typical eunuch as a
“freak”. Because he also had no constant companion.