Chapter 7 Strength in Diversity: Organisational Lessons from the AWARE Saga
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106 Alex Tham 106 C H A P T E R 7 C H A P T E R 7 Strength in Diversity: Organisational Lessons from the AWARE Saga Alex Tham1 Introduction Introduction The engineered takeover of AWARE’s (Association of Women for Action and Research) executive committee and the subsequent victory of the so-called “old guard” over the “new guard” raised the important question about what form democracy should take in Singapore. This does not have an easy answer. On the other hand, there seemed to be no question why Thio Su Mien and her group of fellow church members could so easily take over AWARE’s executive committee (Exco). The Straits Times pointed out that AWARE’s old guard had become too “complacent”. To prevent another hostile takeover, it was recommended that AWARE implement stricter membership criteria in its Constitution and improve its leadership interaction with the rank-and-file (Low and Au Yong 2009). This recommendation, however, assumed that AWARE had an hierarchical organisational structure with vertical relations between leaders and subordinate members. In such hierarchies, improved communication between ranks merely reinforces the members’ dependence on their leaders. However, AWARE’s structure is more horizontally organised , with “relatively loose, informal and decentralised” (Rucht 1996: 188) relations between members. In this network form of organisation, Organisational Lessons from the AWARE Saga 107 members and leaders are interdependent and “engaged in reciprocal, preferential, mutually supportive actions” (Powell 1990: 303). Access to resources is more open in network organisations, and ordinary members have greater freedom to take charge of their own projects. The culture of an organisation is linked to its form. This is evident when one looks at the different meanings of conflict in vertical and horizontal relations. In hierarchical organisations, action tends to be instrumental. The most efficient means are directed towards clearly defined ends. Conflict in this context is unproductive and perceived as a deviation from the norm. To prevent such deviations, hierarchical organisations place a premium on homogeneity. Norms are legitimised among subordinates through authority from above, and those who do not conform are excluded. On the other hand, network forms of organisation are inclusive and derive their strength from diversity. Within a relatively flat organisational structure, action tends to be value-driven. Unlike hierarchical organisations where norms are taken for granted, the plurality of perspectives in network organisations subject values to contestation and increase the likelihood of conflict. But this conflict does not weaken the organisation. Instead, its resolution through negotiation and deliberation unites disparate members together such that the organisation as a whole becomes stronger (Simmel 1955). Even so, diversity is not eradicated. Instead, a common understanding emerges that forms the basis for future contestations and growth. This productive tension between “co-existing logics and frames of action” increases the organisation’s long-term adaptability (Girard and Stark 2003). Diversity, however, can be a source of weakness as well as strength. Paradoxically, it was AWARE’s pluralism that made it vulnerable to a hostile takeover. Much like how Western liberal democracies provide the space for anti-social groups to flourish, AWARE’s inclusiveness enabled several of its members to form a group premised on exclusion . If this group had been successful in its takeover bid, it might have radically transformed the organisation. This time around, AWARE’s network and the social capital it generated proved more resilient. This raises the question of how voluntary associations like AWARE can safeguard their diversity without compromising the structure on which their pluralism is based. This chapter examines the organisational structure of AWARE and explores the importance of diversity and conflict to the NGO as well as the social capital it was able to generate in times of crisis. 108 Alex Tham Diversity and Conflict Diversity and Conflict AWARE’s diversity is premised on its guiding principle of equality for all women. The backdrop to the founding of AWARE in December 1985 was the 1983 National Day Rally speech, when Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew contrasted the higher birth rates among less-educated women against the lower rates among educated women. Subsequently, the government came up with a “Graduate Mothers Priority Scheme” in 1984 that offered married women with five “O”-Level passes up to S$10,000 in tax relief for each of their first three children if they had their third child by 28 years of age. Furthermore, their children would be given primary school placement benefits. At the same time, lowincome and less-educated...


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