YB: Pirates ahoy! Gay netizens and the AWARE hijacking

Source

12 April 2009

When lesbian and gay bloggers cried foul over the takeover of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) at the end of March 2009 because some of the new leaders were known anti-gay campaigners, other netizens wondered why the gay community was so invested in AWARE. A few even wondered: Had AWARE under the old guard “lost its focus” and become a campaigner for “gay rights”? Was that why gay people were so upset that the supposedly women’s organisation had been snatched away from them?

Each time I saw those comments, I chuckled. The truth is quite the opposite.

Just last year, Constance Singam, then President of AWARE, gave a talk about feminism to a full house of lesbian and bisexual women. It must have been one of the most difficult audiences she ever faced. The women machine-gunned her with questions expressing their grievances -– that in over twenty years of its existence, AWARE had paid virtually no attention to lesbian and bisexual women’s issues; that AWARE had never spoken up for them.

Singam explained the various factors that might have figured in that history, not least among which was the “off-the-record” warnings from the authorities (Registrar of Societies?) to AWARE not to support gay equality. Despite her best efforts, I had the sense, watching from the back row, that the audience was largely unconvinced.

That said, a distinction should be made between AWARE’s track record and the values held by many of AWARE’s old guard -– Constance Singam, Dana Lam, Braema Mathi, Lena Lim, Tan Joo Hymn, and others. As so eloquently put by Singam to the media recently, “Our values are based on the fundamental rights and responsibilities of women as women. These include being treated as informed individuals capable of choice, being deserving of opportunities equal to those of men in education, marriage and employment; and being able to control their own bodies, particularly with regard to sexual and reproductive health.” [1]

Braema Mathi told Channel NewsAsia: “AWARE is simply an organisation that will always, I hope, stand up for any form of anti-discrimination – whether you are heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, transvestite, divorced or a single mum.” [2]

In 2007, AWARE broke its silence on a gay issue, to my knowledge for the first time, when it said it supported the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code. This was when the government was proposing to revise the Penal Code, yet retaining Section 377A which made male-male sex an offence. Although the law referred only to men, I believe AWARE’s view was that the state’s perpetuation of stigma and prejudice against gay men indirectly impacted gay women. This, in addition to their stance that any discrimination, against anyone, is wrong in itself.

I doubt very much, however, if many gay men or women even knew that AWARE had taken this stand over Section 377A, certainly fewer than those who knew that the Law Society also called for the repeal of 377A.

Thus, to imagine that the gay community saw old AWARE as a gay-rights campaigner would be far off the mark.

* * * * *

So why is the gay community interested in what happened at AWARE’s last Annual General Meeting (AGM)? Because the new guard who captured the executive committee are even worse.

If I have to use an analogy, it’ll be like this: Old AWARE and the various LGBT groups were like ships sailing on the high seas. The LGBT ships were sailing towards one destination; AWARE was sailing towards its own destination. Then suddenly we see pirates seizing the AWARE ship, pirates whom we suspect would be gunning for us next, given their track record (anti-gay letters to the press). Wouldn’t raising the alarm be the natural thing to do?

* * * * *

Inevitably, some readers will think that the pirate analogy is overblown. Here again, they may say, the militant gays are suffering from a persecution complex imagining threats where none exist. Give the benefit of the doubt to new AWARE. What’s wrong with Christians being part of civil society, etc, etc…

Frankly, I have nothing against Christianity per se. For heaven’s sake, there’s even a gay-affirmative Christian church here in Singapore, and Reverend Yap Kim Hao, the former head of the Methodist Church, has been outspoken in his support for gay equality. What I am disgusted with is unchristian behaviour by those who claim to be Christian: the promotion of prejudice and discrimination and the use of stealth, just like pirates.

I also stand firm, like the great majority of Singaporeans, against any attempt to mix religion with politics, which agenda partly explains why the new guard at AWARE have to resort to stealth.

* * * * *

It begins with the new guard’s claim that their religion is irrelevant to why they mounted a coup at AWARE, now further embellished by a suggestion that they were not even a group acting in concert.

From the beginning it was belied by the fact that the new guard leaders and their supporters joined within the same three-month period. They had not been active in AWARE before. If ever they had spoken up publicly, it was not on women’s issues. It was -– always -– on homosexuality, where the same anti-gay stance, informed by fundamentalist Christianity, was preached.

The blog alicecheong pointed out that:

There is a lot of press coverage from Straits Times [3] today. The most interest of all, is that

“it appears that some of the newcomers in its leadership are familiar faces at the Anglican Church of Our Saviour at Margaret Drive.”

Based on the Straits TImes article, that means, the following are all attending Anglican Church of Our Saviour.

1. Josie Lau (President) and husband Alan Chin
2. Charlotte Wong (Vice-president)
3. Irene Yee (Committee member)
4. Jenica Chua (Honorary secretary)
5. Maureen Ong (Honorary treasurer)
6. Sally Ang (Assistant honorary secretary)

That is 6 posts out of the 11 posts … where all the 5 decision posts – President, Vice-president, Honorary secretary, Honorary treasurer and Assistant honorary secretary are taken by the same clique.

Now, the Church of our Saviour (COOS) is not a particularly large church. Its notoriety exceeds its size because it is the home of Choices –- the ministry that promotes the shibboleth that homosexuals can change to become heterosexuals, an idea long debunked by professional psychologists. The leader of the rabidly anti-gay Focus on the Family is also a member of COOS.

18 April 2009
Straits Times

Some attend the same church

Even as the Aware saga continues to unfold, it appears that some of the newcomers in its leadership are familiar faces at the Anglican Church Of Our Saviour at Margaret Drive.

Aside from new Aware president Josie Lau and her husband Alan Chin, the others are believed to be Ms Charlotte Wong, Ms Irene Yee, Ms Jenica Chua, Ms Maureen Ong and Ms Sally Ang.

So far, the new Aware leaders have refused to answer questions about whether they knew each other before sweeping the elections three weeks ago.

According to a long-time friend, Dr Chin is related to former law dean Dr Thio Su Mien and her daughter, Nominated Member of Parliament Professor Thio Li-Ann.

When contacted, the NMP declined to answer any questions. Dr Chin did not respond to questions e-mailed to him.

But checks yesterday showed that Dr Thio Su Mien and her husband, Mr Thio Gim Hock, the chief executive officer of property investor Overseas Union Enterprise, attend the church and also hold regular faith-healing sessions at their home.

Senior pastor Derek Hong was not answering any questions about his church members or Aware yesterday.

Asked if any of the new Aware exco members attended his church, he replied: ‘No comment.’

Housed in a renovated former cinema near Commonwealth, the church has a congregation of about 4,000.

It takes a strong stand against homosexuality and states so on its website.

‘Homosexual practice is contrary to God’s Word. So we stand against that and the active and aggressive promotion of such behaviour,’ it states.

It believes homosexuals can change, and has a programme to counsel and help those who want to give up ‘homosexual thoughts, tendencies and practices’.

In her first interview with Channel NewsAsia, Talking Point, 18 April 2009, Josie Lau came very close to denying that she even knew Maureen Ong, the treasurer, prior to being elected into the executive committee (exco) of AWARE.

P N Balji, the interviewer: Can I ask a question? This was not a well-organised, well-thought-through constitutional coup?

Maureen Ong: No, not that I know of.

Josie Lau, referring to Maureen: I didn’t know her until I was…

Laughter, for no apparent reason, led her not to complete her sentence.

Yet, as comment #49 appended to the Youtube clippings of the interview on The Online Citizen pointed out:

49) concerned on April 20th, 2009 6.54 pm

The Church Of Our Saviour is a small Anglican community church and does not have sizeable membership numbers compared to the mega churches. The claim made that these women did not know each other before ending up in AWARE’s exco beggars belief.

A person trained in the actuarial sciences should calculate the remote odds for the outcome of 6 attendees of a neighbourhood church running for office for 11 postions in a secular national women’s group by sheer coincidence without any prior communication amongst themselves.

Why is it so difficult to come clean about a pre-planned effort to take leadership roles in AWARE ? The need to deny gives greater credence to some undisclosed agenda that the persons involved are not prepared to be forthcoming about.

Furthermore, in another part of the interview, Josie Lau spoke of a “we” in terms highly suggestive of a cabal with a pre-defined agenda “coming in” to pursue their aims. Referring to the values of the old guard versus the new guard, she said:

Josie Lau: … at the broad level it’s still the same but we are coming in with new ideas. we had earlier said we are pro-family, pro-women, pro-Singapore.

And what a slip it was. “Pro-family” is Christian fundie-speak for anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality.

And there’s more. At the AGM, Claire Nazar, who had been an AWARE member “for only a little over a year herself” was the one who nominated Josie Lau for the exco. But Nazar soon became horrified at what she called the new guard’s “Stormtrooper tactics” and quit within 11 days.

Reliable sources told me that at the meeting when she quit, the new guard accused her of not doing what she had promised to do. Over what, I’m not sure, but it may have to do with the mass sackings of all subcommittee chairs, something which Nazar later told the Straits Times she opposed. According to my sources, Josie Lau said to Nazar, “But you said you would support me.”

Does that expectation not suggest a prior conspiracy?

* * * * *

Many other parts of the interview also reeked of evasion and contradiction.

For example, during the interview, after Maureen Ong explained that according to the society’s constitution, a vacant presidency had to be filled from among the non-office-bearing exco members,

Maureen Ong: …we had six elected ordinary committee members… we went around the table on the night of 15 April and she [Josie Lau] was the last “man” standing….

Josie Lau: That evening…. I was the last woman standing, and I felt that I had to pick up the baton to run and continue to lead this organisation…

You can see Youtube recordings of this interview on:

The Online Citizen – Parts 1 and 2

WayangParty – Parts 1 and 2.

One would get the impression that Josie Lau reluctantly became president by default. Yet her employer, DBS Bank had earlier said in a public statement that prior to the exco meeting of 15 April 2009,

… Josie broached the subject of her intent to run for President of AWARE. We reviewed her request and subsequently informed her that while the Bank continues to support her involvement in AWARE, we could not support her intent to run for President,

— DBS Bank, 17 April 2009.

Here’s another contradiction: On TV, Josie Lau said,

Josie Lau: My priority right now is to reconcile the team which clearly has fissured.

Now, here’s something the public does not yet know: The television station’s original plan was for a member each of the old guard and the new guard to be in the interview. Josie Lau objected vehemently and insisted they would not share the interview room and program with anyone from the old guard. So much for reconciliation.

There’s also the extremely curt email (so much for reconciliation, again) they sent to Braema Mathi telling her she’s been relieved of her position as chair of the subcommittee preparing AWARE’s report to be submitted to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Without even a customary word of thanks, the email said:

Kindly note that your term of office as chairman of the CEDAW Committee has ceased at the date of the AGM on the 28 March 2009.

Kindly submit all the work in progess by Friday 17 April 2009 without fail.

Regards
Sally Ang

I’m not even certain that the reason set out there — that Braema’s appointment ceased automatically with the AGM — is fully accurate. The Sunday Times, reporting what Claire Nazar said to them [6], reported that a vote had to be taken:

[Claire Nazar] was also troubled by how at the first exco meeting — a 3 1/2-hour session — about a week after the AGM on March 28, the committee replaced almost all the appointed chairpersons of sub-committees based only on a majority vote.

That broke with Aware’s tradition of allowing chairpersons who were doing a good job to continue their work.

* * * * *

As a final note, I will draw attention to the hypothetical scenario put by P N Balji to Josie Lau touching on sexual orientation.

P N Balji: As one possible example, if Aware finds that a member, a women in Singapore, has been discriminated against in her company because of her sexuality, what will be your stand on that?

Six seconds would pass as Josie Lau looked uncomfortable while gathering her thoughts, before she replied,

Josie Lau: Aware is a secular organisation. We’re not there to push our personal beliefs or personal religious affiliations. We are all an inclusive… we don’t discriminate people of any race, religion, or, you know, whether you’re a man or woman coming in.

So far, all motherhood statements, though you’d notice that she hasn’t come around to sexual orientation yet.

Josie Lau continuing: Now, talking about sexual discrimination, it is going to be a very controversial topic. and the new exco will have to take a look at this and see what is the direction we want to take. We haven’t even had a chance to discuss individual ideas yet. Just give us a chance….

Firstly, it’s an utterly incompetent reply. For three weeks, accusations of the new guard being a homophobic bunch hijacking AWARE to push their agenda have been circulating. Yet, they don’t even have a spin-ready answer to this? I’m not expecting them to give us an answer we agree with; I’m saying that at the very least, they should have got their spin ready. Being tongue-tied for six seconds, almost shocked that Balji would ask such a question, is about the worst impression they can give of themselves.

Secondly, unlike how easy it was for her to mention equality on the grounds of race, religion and male/female gender, she was stunningly incapable of saying the same of sexual orientation, describing it only as a “controversial topic”. Please. Gay equality is only problematic if you don’t believe in non-discrimination and equality. If you did, it would roll off your tongue as easily as race, religion, etc.

That she tripped over this told us everything we needed to know about the direction of AWARE under the new leadership.

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