YB: From now on, be wary of AWARE


12 April 2009

By now, with the publication of the Straits Times story last Friday, it is widely known that the women’s group AWARE was taken over by a group of new members at their last annual general meeting (AGM) held at the end of March 2009. Former president Tan Joo Hymn told the Straits Times, “We found that about 80 of the 102 who turned up were new members who joined between January and March this year.”

This group went on to elect many of their own into 9 of the 12 executive committee positions.

Some of those elected come with a history. For example, the blog Alice Cheong in Wonderland has documented how the new Honorary Secretary Jenica Chua’s main claim to fame is her letters to the Straits Times supporting the criminalisation of homosexual acts, and lambasting Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong for presenting a petition to parliament on this matter.

Likewise, the Straits Times, in its article, also wrote:

Older members said the newcomers spoke well but would not elaborate on their plans for Aware.

‘When asked if they believed in equality, they kept repeating they were there to support women and to make sure they got ahead and got all the opportunities given to them,’ Ms [Dana] Lam said.

Older members were keen to know if the newcomers shared Aware’s vision and values, including equality for all regardless of race, religion or sexuality.

But one outspoken new member from the floor, who identified herself as Angela Thiang, said questions about the new office bearers’ religion and their stand on homosexuality were not relevant.

And that,

A check showed that some of those at the AGM and on the new committee have appeared in The Straits Times Forum Page.

Ms Chua, Ms Thiang and Dr Alan Chin, a male member of Aware who attended the AGM and supported the newcomers, all wrote letters to this newspaper between August and October 2007.

In a letter on Oct 17 that year, Ms Chua said NMP Siew Kum Hong had overstepped his non-partisan role and advanced the homosexual cause by tabling a petition in Parliament to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises homosexual sex between consenting men.

In another letter on Oct 25, she took issue with a Straits Times report which said NMP Thio Li-Ann had been ‘visibly distraught’ when she opposed Mr Siew’s petition vigorously.

Ms Chua said Ms Thio had dealt with several points succinctly, with humour and passion.

Dr Chin and Ms Thiang both wrote letters to caution against the risks of promoting the homosexual lifestyle.

It was obvious to all the old members present at the AGM that it was an orchestrated take-over and it definitely occurred to them that the newcomers were part of a fundamentalist Christian group keen on capturing an existing organisation with all its resources and name-cachet.

However, I am told, attempts to find out which church they belonged to, or even whether they were Christian, were met with evasive answers. The response of Angela Thiang, cited above by the Straits Times, was typical.

In Yawning Bread’s experience, a desire to mask their religious motivation is characteristic of the Religious Rightwing’s behaviour.

Gay and lesbian people can now expect the new AWARE to take an anti-gay position from now on. Worse, Singaporeans as a whole can expect a big push against abortion, in line with the American Religious Right’s “pro-life” fixation.

AWARE has been invited as a (previously) secular organisation to give sexuality talks to schools. You can expect that the new AWARE will re-jig the talks to preach abstinence, to rail against condoms and abortion, besides homosexuality.

In many studies, it has been shown that preaching abstinence solves nothing. All it does is to cultivate guilt and ignorance, while delaying first sex by no more than 1 or 2 years. But when young people eventually have sex, ignorance and guilt come together to put them at greater risk than if they had been through a more open-minded sexuality course. Led to believe that condoms don’t protect them, these youngsters (who have been subjected to abstinence messages) are then even less likely than their peers to use protection. Feeling guilty about breaking the taboo against sex, they feel less empowered to negotiate with their sexual partner, either putting them at greater risk of abuse, or even over something simple, like a boyfriend who does not want to use a condom. For the same feelings of guilt, they are less likely to talk to adults if they face problems (so pregnancy and disease, if any, is left unmanaged for longer).

If new AWARE embarks on this course, our young Singaporeans will suffer.

* * * * *

It’s a brilliant victory for Singapore’s Christian Taliban, in their long term aim to make this place a Christian theocracy.

It also illustrates the problem that perennially faces those of us of a liberal persuasion. We are nowhere as organised as the Religious Right is. In a way, it has to do with the way liberals think. We are by nature accommodating and pluralistic. Furthermore, unlike the Christian Right, we have not been incubated within a siege mentality, so we show no inclination to plan raids on “enemy territory”. We are slow in organising to fight.

We have a tendency to believe that our moral position is unarguably stronger than the illiberals’, that if only people would open their minds, they’d see the world our way. One consequence of taking this optimistic view of life is that we tend to underestimate the tenacity and belligerence of the other side. We forget that even if a wild animal might not have our moral and intellectual credentials, it can still be bloody dangerous. What more a pack of them.

* * * * *

Constance Singam, the past president (twice) of AWARE, told me she was extremely traumatised by the result of the AGM. I feel for her and can certainly understand the impact. She and her colleagues have spent decades building this organisation, only to have it snatched from them.

The problem is what can they do now? From what I’ve heard, the AGM was properly conducted under the society’s constitution. There may or may not be avenues to have the result overturned – I’m not privy to the internal rules of AWARE – but if the take-over was so easily achieved with new members signing up within the last 3 months, it must surely be just as easy for the new faction to flood the organisation with more, especially if they have church connections. Christianity does not regularly employ the metaphor of sheep and flocks to no effect.

I am pessimistic about the prospect of reversing this. This means that gay people, and anyone with liberal views on sexuality, including abortion, will have to be watchful of what new AWARE does in the future. The moment the new leaders use the organisation to further a religious, sectarian agenda, efforts must be made to counter it.

An interesting question arises: Shouldn’t the Registrar of Societies step in if it is later shown that a society is being used for a quasi-religious agenda? You can bet the government will rush in the moment that agenda is Islam-related. But it is one of the tragedies of Singapore that with the over-representation of Christians in government, they will not see any danger should it be a Christian agenda. They may think it can only improve Singapore!

At the rate things are going, the Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew and his generation fought so hard to save from the communalism and religious strife of the 1950s and 1960s runs the risk of being lost to the same, though from a different direction.


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