SINGAPORE - When the Rotary Club of Singapore first opened its doors to female members in 1999, some men opposed the move and threatened to quit.
The leadership stood by its decision and women were finally allowed to join the club, part of a worldwide network of professionals who serve the community through humanitarian aid projects.
Last Saturday, the 84-year-old club marked another milestone by swearing in its first female president, Mrs Perlita Tiro.
At the installation ceremony at Marina Mandarin Singapore, the 70-year-old said in her acceptance speech: "Why am I here? At my age, I have to go for medical examinations every three years before I can continue to drive.
"I should retire and relax completely, having worked since I was 19 years old. The reason is... I am duty-bound to share my blessings with others be it time, talent or treasures."
The Philippines-born Singapore citizen started working after graduating with a degree in business administration at the age of 18, a relatively young age as she had skipped kindergarten.
The accountancy major joined a big accounting firm in the Philippines in the research and training department and worked in her country of birth until 1970, when she was posted here for work.
She met her husband Robert Tiro, an Indonesian who was a lecturer in the business administration department of the National University of Singapore, and they married in 1971. They decided to remain here and set up human resource consultancy Tiro Consulting Services in 1989. Mrs Tiro ran this until March when she retired.
In 2000, just a year after women were allowed into the Rotary Club of Singapore, the oldest and biggest here with about 140 members, Mrs Tiro was invited to join the club.
Since then, she has been involved with projects ranging from relief work in the Philippines after the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan to efforts to help rehabilitate local drug offenders.
The past 14 years with the club has left a deep impression on her. She recalls meeting an 18-year-old in the Philippines who was so malnourished that he looked to be about 10 years old. He was given financial help.
Another boy had a facial deformity where skin was torn from the middle of his eyebrows to his mouth. Through the club's funding, he was able to have plastic surgery.
"He could not go to school because he was very shy and embarrassed. After the surgery, he could finally go to school," recalled Mrs Tiro, who has a daughter, who lives in the United States with her son-in-law, and two grandchildren.
Last year, Mrs Tiro visited countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and India to ensure the club's initiatives were going smoothly.
Such projects for the needy often require long hours involving meetings, paperwork and coordination with various stakeholders to get funding and volunteers to support Rotary's work. Sometimes, Mrs Tiro stays up till the wee hours of the morning to get all this pro bono work done.
It is one of the reasons why she decided to retire three months ago to shift her emphasis to doing full-time humanitarian work. She said: "It is a lot of effort, but at least it is for more noble objectives rather than finances. I want to concentrate on this now."
Mrs Tiro had been offered the club presidency job several times in the past decade or so. But she turned it down because of her late father's ill health. He lived in the US, and she had to fly there thrice a year to look after him.
"My father passed away in October 2012 and I accepted the position of president the following month. He was also a Rotarian a long time ago, when I was a little kid. I felt being president was something he would have wanted me to do."
Before being officially installed as president of the Rotary Club of Singapore, Mrs Tiro went through about 18 months of preparation.
Mr Raymon Huang, 88, a retired civil servant who was president of the club in the late 1980s, said: "I think it is good as far as the club is concerned. It is a history-making event. This is good progress for the club. We are moving on."
Although it has been 15 years since the club first admitted women, its proportion of female members is still below the average of about 20 per cent in Rotary clubs worldwide. Out of its about 140 members, only a dozen, or 9 per cent, are women.
This is something Mrs Tiro hopes to change in the coming year. Among other things, the club's board of directors aims to attract more members, including women, and to put the spotlight on some problems they face.
One upcoming project involves helping incarcerated women maintain relationships with their children.
Mrs Tiro said: "We want to address some of the issues faced by women because they are often not given this focus."
This article was first published on June 30, 2014.
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