Celebrating Nurses’ Day: The History of Nursing in Singapore

Did you know that Singapore is the only nation which celebrates our nurses on 1 August instead of 12 May? Discover Singapore's nursing history this Nurses' Day!

by Jamie Loh

International Nurses’ Day, which falls on 12 May every year, is celebrated in most countries in the world. This day commemorates the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. However, did you know that Singapore is the only nation which celebrates our nurses on 1 August instead of 12 May?

If you have ever wondered why that is the case, take the quiz below to discover the reasons behind this exception and learn more about the history of nursing in Singapore!

Question 1: Nurses were part of Stamford Raffles’ entourage when he arrived in Singapore in 1819.

A. True

B. False

Answer: B

While Raffles did have a group of all-male medical doctors and staff, including the equivalent of pharmacists as well as “dressers” who specialised in tending to wounds and bandaging injuries, there were no nurses in his entourage.

In fact, there were no nurses in Singapore until the end of the 1800s. Between the time of Raffles’ arrival and the end of the 19th century, military doctors posted from Britain or India tended to the medical needs of the colonial administrators and those in the army. 

A bidan, or a traditional Malay midwife, weighing a newborn baby at home. School of Nursing Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. Source: Biblioasia.

The local community had their own traditional practitioners who looked after healthcare needs. Bidan, who were traditional Malay midwives who supported women with birth as well as pre and post-partum care, are an example.

Question 2: Who were the first nurses in Singapore?

A. A group of trained British nurses who were recruited to Singapore

B. A group of French nuns

Answer: B

While the answer may be surprising, the very first nurses in Singapore were a group of French nuns who were trained to take on nursing duties!

As the women in the local community began to request more care, the demand for female carers also grew. However, the British authorities found it difficult to recruit trained nurses from English and Madras, now known as Chennai, to work in Singapore. 

It is important to note that during this time, nursing work was reserved largely for women. In particular, educated European women were thought of as the best candidates. It was decided that the nuns from the Church of the Holy Infant Jesus, who were willing to be trained and take up these nursing duties, fit the criteria. 

Photo of two French nuns who took up nursing duties at the General Hospital on 1 August 1885. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board. Source: Biblioasia.

As such, the nuns—the first nurses in Singapore who were trained in Western medicine—began their work at the General Hospital on 1 August 1885, marking the very beginnings of the profession in our nation. This is why we celebrate our version of Nurses’ Day in August instead of 12 May!

Question 3: Nurses’ Day used to be celebrated as Nurses’ Week.

A. True

B. False

Answer: A

In the 1950s and 1960s, the public’s perception of the nursing profession changed. With the new School of Nursing opening in 1956, as well as the setting up of a Nursing Education Committee and the Singapore Trained Nurses’ Association (now known as Singapore Nurses’ Association), nursing had become a recognised and appreciated profession.

Nurses’ Week was celebrated for the first time in May 1965 and continued until 1984. These celebrations often included graduation ceremonies for nursing students and midwives, who were now certified medical professionals and trusted as care providers in the community. Blood donation drives, charity events, and even celebratory concerts, were also included as part of the week-long celebrations.

However, in 1985, Nurses’ Week was changed to a day-long observance and renamed Nurses’ Day.

The future of nursing and healthcare

Unlike in the 19th century, nurses are now an integral part of our local healthcare system—one that our community cannot do without.

However, in recent years, many nations all across the globe are seeing increasing attrition among nursing staff, including our own. 

New initiatives and schemes have been implemented to encourage local nurses to stay on in the healthcare field, such as sign-on bonuses for new nursing graduates entering the public healthcare system and choosing to work in public community care facilities. 

Resources for your journey in nursing

If you need support in your career journey, check out our resources specially curated for nurses and carers in the healthcare sector.

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Day shift vs. night shift nurse

Ways to involve family members in patient care


Celebrating your achievements and contributions

Being a nurse can often mean taking the road less travelled. The pressure of working in understaffed conditions, confronting life-and-death situations, and potentially coping with loss on a daily basis, cannot be overstated.

Today, we want to celebrate your contributions, your selfless work, and above all, you. Thank you for your dedication to keeping our community safe and healthy.

From the team at Homage, we wish all nurses, including our very own Care Pros, a Happy Nurses Day! 

Homage is always on the lookout for nurses who would like to be a Care Pro. Learn more about our careers and apply to be a Care Pro with us today! 

  1. Kusolpalin, P. (2016, July 4.) Angels in White: Early Nursing in Singapore. Biblioasia. Retrieved from https://biblioasia.nlb.gov.sg/vol-12/issue-2/jul-sep-2016/angels-in-white/.

About the Writer
Jamie Loh
Jamie is a content marketer who is too addicted to caffeine for her own good. In her free time, you can find her daydreaming about her next overseas adventure or drinking yet another cup of teh C siew dai peng.
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