Chapter 10 AWARE Re-pluralised, Re-secularised: Transition to Deeper Awareness
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156 Vivienne Wee 156 C H A P T E R 1 0 C H A P T E R 1 0 AWARE Re-pluralised, Re-secularised: Transition to Deeper Awareness Vivienne Wee1 The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) is Singapore’s only self-declared feminist organisation, as distinct from a women’s organisation. Lyons (2004: 145) noted: While it is true that no other equivalent “feminist” organisation exists in Singapore, women’s organisations, including those that focus on improving the lives of women, abound. However, these associations tend to be based on “race” or religion. Among women’s organisations in Singapore, AWARE has thus been unique in its dedication to the promotion of gender equality, irrespective of “race” or religion. This stance implies secularity and plurality, although no explicit statement concerning such matters was ever made by the organisation in its first 24 years. AWARE became explicit about its adherence to secularity and plurality only after the occurrence of a sequence of events in 2009 variously dubbed “the AWARE hijacking”, “the AWARE coup”, “the AWARE saga”, or “the AWARE affair” by the media, bloggers and academic observers. On 18 April 2009, three weeks after the takeover of AWARE by the so-called “new guard”, The Straits Times did an exposé in two key articles.2 The article titled “Some attend the same church” revealed that all the five new office-bearers, as well as one of the four Exco members, were from the Anglican Church of Our Saviour at Margaret Drive. AWARE Re-pluralised, Re-secularised 157 This article also revealed that Lau’s husband, Dr Alan Chin, “is related to former law dean Dr Thio Su Mien and her daughter, Nominated Member of Parliament Professor Thio Li-Ann”, and that Thio Su Mien and her husband also attend the same church. Significantly, Thio Li-Ann had spoken out in Singapore Parliament in October 2007 to support the continuing criminalisation of homosexual relations between men, laid out in 377A of the Penal Code, as inherited from Victorian legislation.3 After the exposé in The Straits Times, the newly-elected AWARE Exco decided to hold a press conference on 23 April 2009, where Thio Su Mien described herself as a “feminist mentor” of the women elected to AWARE’s Exco at the AGM. Thio expressed her concern about the threat she perceived in homosexuality, which had led her to collect and email information about this to different people. In 2008, when she saw that only 29 people attended AWARE’s AGM, she started encouraging the women she was mentoring to join AWARE, because she saw AWARE’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education Programme (CSE) as promoting homosexuality. While she lauded AWARE for having “done great work [for women] in so many areas”, she said that she was dismayed to find that “AWARE seems to be only very interested [in] the advancement of homosexuality, which is a man’s issue and how it came under AWARE is quite covert.” She stated that she has “nothing against lesbians or homosexuals personally”, but has counselled them and think that “they are in pain”, very often because of “abusive fathers, [who] do things with their daughters and the daughters revolt, rebel against society”. Therefore, she saw the mission of her “friends” in the newly-elected Exco as making AWARE “go back to look after the majority, all women, all women of Singapore” [my italics]. Thio’s view was echoed by the members of the newly-elected Exco.4 In response, on 24 April 2009, the older members of AWARE, now dubbed “the old guard” by the media, issued a press statement, which staked out an explicit position on pluralism:5 We are glad that the truth is finally out. What happened at [the] AWARE AGM on 28 March was a planned takeover by a group of women, guided by their “feminist mentor” Dr Thio Su Mien, who have taken it upon themselves to, as they put it, “bring AWARE back to its original, very noble, objective”. The issue is not whether AWARE has indeed strayed from its original aims. What is really at stake is the space for a diversity of views in our cosmopolitan and pluralistic society. Singapore is a multiracial, multireligious and multicultural society. As we progress, 158 Vivienne Wee the diversity will grow. We have to be able to co-exist, to live with differing views on many issues. What has happened at AWARE is a threat to Singapore’s...


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