Being Aware in Singapore

By Li-Anne Tan, Womens Feature Service

The shouts, cheers and impassioned speeches lasted for hours. The atmosphere was akin to a football match or a rally, only most of the attendees were women between the ages of 20 and 80. Over 3,000 people showed up for this landmark event. “It was revolutionary. In all my years in Singapore I have never seen a gathering of civil society like this before!” exclaimed Balakrishnan Matchap, a yoga instructor and an animal welfare activist.

The event in question was the Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) of a 24-year-old feminist organisation – Association for Women Action and Research (AWARE). Oddly enough, earlier this year, AWARE was hijacked by a conservative Christian group. And even though Singapore is not known for its active civil society, thousands were galvanised into action on May 2 to protect the secular nature of the country’s civil space. They were present there to pass a vote of no confidence against AWARE’s month-old Executive Committee and to demonstrate support for the old values of the veteran organisation.

AWARE has been toiling for women’s rights in relative obscurity for over two decades now in Singapore and can take credit for changes made to family violence legislation to protect victims of physical abuse; and for winning more equal citizenship rights and civil service benefits for women. It has also produced several critical shadow reports for the United Nations on the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

But from January to late March 2009, about 100 members of a particular church – Church of Our Saviour – joined AWARE and voted-in nine members belonging to the church into the 12-member Executive Committee. In the process, they ousted the secular old vanguard, which had helped establish the ideals and agenda of the organisation.

Talking about the ideals AWARE’s old order stood for, Isabel Vadivu Govind 36, who had been a volunteer on AWARE’s helpline for many years, said, “I joined the organisation as an intern and later became a volunteer. The feminists at AWARE were not only feminists in their personal lives, but their ideals were reflected in the way they shared power. Things were run in an egalitarian way. They treated people with dignity and respect, even a young intern like me. They were wise, articulate and carried themselves with humility. I was a very young women then and it made a huge, lasting impact on me.”

But while their ouster was uneventful, what the new members had not expected was the uproar it created afterwards. The news made front-page headlines, as celebrities, civil activists, denizens from the art world, animal welfare activists and more moderate Christians publicly expressed their outrage over bring religion into the workings and policies of a secular organisation. Also, while in the past the Singapore government had stood at the sidelines when it came to matters of religion interfering in secular affairs, in AWARE’s case it was quick to intervene. Even the Internet press was abuzz with debates and efforts were made to unmask the new committee’s conservative anti-gay stance and religious orientation.

All this resulted in the no confidence motion at AWARE’s EGM, where the former members won by 1,414 to 761 votes. The old members requisitioned for an EGM, after more than 100 signatures were gathered from members in accordance with AWARE’S constitutional rules. Following this, longstanding AWARE member, Dana Lam, was elected president along with a new committee comprising dedicated secular feminists. “How may other civil society groups have been working at it and shown as many contributions to policy discussions as us? For 24 years, we worked quietly. We’re not the most sophisticated or organised outfit. But to our credit, we’ve done it in spite of this problem, which all NGOs in Singapore have,” said a triumphant Lam.

However, while the AWARE EGM may have delivered a resounding victory for the liberals, conservative elements in Singapore are fighting back in other arenas. Siew Kum Hong, a non-nominated Member of Parliament, who acted pro-bono as legal council for AWARE feminists has been the target of these forces. Based on mere technicalities, there have been sudden petitions for him to be struck off the legal register. There are also petitions against him seeking another term in the parliament.

Besides this, the Ministry of Education has been pressurised into suspending AWARE’s Comprehensive Sexual Education programme that had been running successfully for the last two years. The suspension was reported on May 6. Incidentally, what is not well known is the fact that the church, whose members were behind the takeover, is linked to the group, Focus on the Family, which like AWARE offers sex education courses in schools. The difference, however, is that it counsels students to switch from gay relationships to heterosexual ones.

In spite of the many problems, activists prefer to focus on the positive outcomes of the tussle. Thanks to the incident, there has been a massive surge of memberships, especially of the young. In fact, many signed up specially to vote at the EGM. From being only a few hundred in number, AWARE now has 3,000 members, with men and non-permanent residents also joining in as associate members with no voting rights. “This is it! In all my years of learning and helping in AWARE and being a social worker, this is what I am most thrilled about! Three thousand people taking charge of the civil society,” said Yap Ching Wi, who has been with AWARE for the last 15 years and is now part of the newly-elected committee.

The incident has also made the general public more receptive to gender issues. “I have never seen so many people coming together in such a coordinated fashion. This shattered the indifferent attitude that many Singaporeans display. It motivated people into action,” explained Govind, who had been a volunteer on AWARE’s helpline for many years before she let her membership lapse. She was motivated to rejoin following the takeover bid.

Lam and Yap have observed other changes as well. They say that the organisation has got a competitive new edge to it. For instance, after the takeover, when AWARE’s longstanding staff was fired, the office locks changed and surveillance cameras installed to keep an eye on everyone’s activities, a small group of members set up a guerilla website within 24 hours. The portal enabled ousted members to communicate with hundreds of supporters before and during the EGM.

Yap has acknowledged that the younger members are attracted to the online format and that the new infrastructure allows them to participate, even if it is via their computers. Lam too believes that AWARE’s new IT infrastructure will help keep the interest of the new members alive.

She now looks forward to creating programmes that will make for a more AWARE future.

Women's Feature Service
Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.