Feminist flashpoints: How a women’s rights NGO was hijacked – and won back

Photo courtesy of AWARE
Photo courtesy of AWARE

In part two of a three-part series that reflects on key turning points in Singapore’s journey towards achieving gender equality, writer Kellynn Wee examines how Singapore’s most prominent women’s rights NGO, AWARE, was taken over by a church group in 2009 because of concerns around AWARE’s progressive stance on homosexuality. The first part can be found here.

All I knew about AWARE in 2009 was that it was Singapore’s leading women’s rights organisation. I was a fresh-faced 19-year-old who had just completed my A’ Levels. I spent a lot of time online, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

In April, news broke on my Facebook feed that AWARE, a secular organisation that championed the rights of women of all backgrounds, had been hijacked by a group of women from a conservative Christian church.

As the situation became clearer, it was understood that their actions were motivated by a desire to end what they thought was AWARE’s secret “homosexual agenda” to normalise homosexuality in Singapore. They believed that what was then AWARE’s comprehensive sexuality education programme taught children that premarital sex and being gay were acceptable.

So they turned up at AWARE’s annual general meeting and voted themselves into power.

A screenshot of the first media report on the AWARE takeover. (Source: The Straits Times, archived by AWARE)

A mysterious takeover

This news item began as a bit of gossip that got more ridiculous as it unfolded. At the time, I thought surely this was some internal dispute that could be resolved. In the first place, how could an NGO’s leadership slate be wiped clean, replaced by a sea of new faces, over the course of a single meeting?

There were other questions: If there were moral disagreements on how AWARE should be run – and what equal rights for women in Singapore should mean – then how should citizens deal with these disagreements? What place did religious fundamentalism and anti-gay sentiment have in Singapore? And what happens when different factions in Singapore disagree on what it means to achieve equal rights for women?

Over the course of a few months in 2009, a pitched battle ensued between the “old guard” of AWARE – a coalition of prominent activists who had been steadily campaigning for gender equality since 1985, and the “new guard”, a group of accomplished women unknown in the gender rights community, who were mainly from the Anglican Church of Our Saviour.

It culminated in an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) held at Suntec City Convention Centre, where the old guard called for a vote of no confidence in the new committee to reclaim AWARE.

In the weeks before the EGM, the membership ranks of AWARE swelled to the thousands, as women joined to cast their vote and show where Singapore stood on hot-button topics, such as sexuality, abortion, abstinence and religion.

The view of the balcony from Suntec’s Hall 402 at the extraordinary general meeting. (Photo by Ching for AWARE)

I found an email I wrote to my best friend, dated 28 April 2009, where I said this:

“It makes me so MAD that positions of authority in a WOMEN’S RIGHTS NGO have been handed out to ignorant, homophobic women. It really makes me angry enough to show up at the EGM and see what happens. May 2 is this Saturday… swap shifts with someone please and let’s go.”

As a young woman, this was the first time in my life that I was electrified by a desire to participate in Singapore’s women’s rights landscape.

Among the 3,000 men and women who turned up at the EGM, many, like me, felt the same way.

A brewing storm

A month before AWARE’s 24th annual general meeting (AGM) in March 2009, its membership spiked as dozens of photocopied membership forms were mailed in.

The AWARE regulars found the increase in membership peculiar but welcome. They attributed it to an op-ed that then-president Constance Singam had just published in The Straits Times, which called for more women to participate in civil society matters.

Voting in the new executive committee during the AGMs was a friendly formality, with most positions uncontested and going to dedicated AWARE volunteers and members. Nobody expected a group of complete strangers to turn up that day.

Surprisingly, nine of the 12 available seats were captured by the newcomers.

The new faces avoided answering repeated questions from an increasingly agitated “old guard”, such as whether or not they identified as feminists.

After the AGM, the old guard met to discuss this bizarre turn of events. Who were these women, and why on earth did they want to take over AWARE (having also never participated in any of AWARE’s activities)?

The new guard’s Maureen Ong, Josie Lau and Charlotte Lim (L-R) on stage at the EGM. (Photo by Ching for AWARE)

The new guard’s links to Church of Our Saviour

As time passed, more information surfaced about the new guard. They were reticent about speaking to the media but the new president, Josie Lau, made the news: Her then employer, DBS Bank, had issued a statement indicating that, by taking on a leadership role at AWARE, she had breached their code of conduct. The rest of the women came from professional backgrounds, such as accounting, management consultancy, and finance. Six of the nine newcomers also attended the Church of Our Saviour

In August 2007, the church’s Senior Pastor Derek Hong had given a sermon arguing that there was a “gay agenda” to silence anti-homosexuality groups and promote the homosexual lifestyle. He said that part of this agenda was to “promote homosexuality as a viable alternative lifestyle through the education system.” 

Church of Our Saviour also ran a programme called Choices, which claims to help those “who want to be set free from homosexual thoughts, tendencies and practices.” According to them, Choices was launched in 1991 by Sy Rogers, the former president of Exodus North America – a branch of Exodus International. 

Exodus International was founded on the idea that there could be a “reparative” approach to “cure” gay people, commonly known as conversion therapy, and eventually closed in 2012 after apologising to the “gay community for years of undue judgement.” 

But the Church of our Saviour’s Choices programme still appears to be active.

Reporters also uncovered a letter to The Straits Times from Jenica Chua, the new Honorary Secretary of AWARE, criticising Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong’s proposal to repeal Penal Code 377A – the law that criminalises gay sex – as part of advancing the gay cause. 

The “Feminist Mentor” is introduced

The new guard turned down requests from the media to speak until almost a month later, when, on 23 April 2009, they introduced Thio Su Mien as their “Feminist Mentor” at a dramatic press conference held at Raffles Town Club. Dr Thio was a well-known lawyer and also a member of the Church of Our Saviour. She has called homosexuality a “gender identity disorder”, ranking it alongside other “minority sexual practices,” such as bestiality, incest, and paedophilia.

Thio Su Mien flips to page 73 of AWARE publication “Small Steps, Giant Leaps” while on stage at the EGM. (Photo by Chin for AWARE)

At the press conference in April 2009, Dr Thio took centrestage.

She argued that gay activists had taken over AWARE and was using the organisation to spread homosexuality, primarily through AWARE’s sexuality education programme. Dr Thio asked, “Are we going to have an entire generation of lesbians?”

Due to her concerns, Dr Thio said that she had urged the women to take over AWARE.

But when the media asked the new guard whether the AWARE power grab was orchestrated, it denied that it was planned.

Two days before the EGM, the National Council of Churches Singapore released a statement distancing itself from the Church of Our Saviour, writing that “we do not condone churches getting involved in this matter.”

Shortly after, Church of Our Saviour also released a statement denying that they had any involvement in the AWARE takeover

The extent to which the takeover was a carefully orchestrated one is still in question. 

Nonetheless, in the meantime, the old guard gathered enough signatures to call for a vote of no confidence in the new guard. They mobilised friends, families, and a growing crowd of Singaporean women who were shocked at what had happened and outraged enough to take action.

The stage was set for a showdown at the extraordinary general meeting on 2 May 2009.

“Shut up and sit down!”: The extraordinary general meeting

Press coverage of the ‘AWARE saga’, as it came to be called, was extensive, and everyone had an opinion about it.

The issues at hand were a lightning rod for commentary. Terence Chong, a sociologist who edited a book reflecting on the AWARE saga, wrote that “never before had a single event ushered so many issues into the public sphere for such a rare display of political pluralism.”

The role of religion in politics, an increasingly fragmented and diverse civil society, and changing moral frontiers around sexuality were all in question.

On the day of the EGM, over 3,000 AWARE members attended, filling the hall to the brim.

While I felt passionately that what the new guard had done was wrong, and was horrified at the violence of their anti-gay views, I did not go in the end. I do not remember why. Instead I followed it online as people posted photos and updates.

What I do remember is that I teared up when I saw a photo of the long lines of women queueing to enter. As someone raised in Singapore and unused to collective political action, I was astonished at the sight of women turning up to make their views heard.

The line to get into Suntec Hall 402 snaked through multiple levels. (Photo by Ching for AWARE)

The EGM is captured in an enthralling 12-part podcast series titled Saga, which I recommend. Two of its episodes are devoted to the meeting – the audio recording of the meeting is spine-chilling.

Early in the meeting, new guard member Sally Ang had shouted at the angry audience to “shut up and sit down”, drawing shocked gasps. Her demand fell on deaf ears, since for almost seven hours the men and women in attendance queued up for the mic to make their voices heard.

Constance Singam, AWARE’s former president, asked: “Where were you when we worked? Where were you when women were abused and battered in their homes? Where were you when women were denied equal medical benefits? Where were you?”

The crowd took on the chant. “Where were you? Where were you?”

Old guard members Constance Singam and Corinna Lim watch the proceedings anxiously at the EGM. (Photo by Ching for AWARE)

In a chapter of the book The Aware Saga: Civil Society and Public Morality in Singapore, anthropologist Lai Ah Eng described the meeting as a “raging storm… the floodgates opened to let out huge emotional torrents of anger and disgust.”

“The stark difference,” Dr Lai observed, “was that the takeover was quiet and covert while the take-back was noisy and open for all to see.”

The final tally of the vote was 2:1 in favour of ousting the new faces.

With a strong mandate, the old guard had won AWARE back.

Supporters of the Old Guard cheer from the floor of Hall 402. (Photo by Ching for AWARE)

The power of disruption

When I began my university education, I spent a year or so volunteering at AWARE. I regularly attended AWARE’s events and roundtables. I minored in Gender Studies, and grew interested in migrant women’s rights in Singapore, working as a researcher focusing on migrant domestic worker issues when I graduated.

It is because of the AWARE saga that I did this, because I saw a way that many faces in a crowd could come together to make change. That my beliefs, if not transformed into action, were not enough.

Almost 10 years after the AWARE EGM, another heated meeting, involving hundreds of people around the issue of women’s rights, occurred on 25 April 2019.

This time, I was there.

Monica Baey, an undergraduate, had taken to social media to criticise the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) treatment of Nicholas Lim, who had filmed her while she was in the shower.

A Townhall was convened to discuss NUS’s disciplinary frameworks surrounding perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.

For several hours, angry and aggrieved students stepped to the microphone to ask questions, give eloquent testimonies of being sexually harassed on campus, and to challenge an institution that they felt had failed them.

The answers that the panel gave were criticised for being inadequate, and students repeatedly pressed the panellists for clarity.

When the convenors of the meeting tried to leave after an hour and a half, students protested that they had not been heard; that their concerns had not been fully addressed.

A quote from one of the students speaking at the NUS Town Hall from the Kellynn Wee’s live tweet of Town Hall proceedings.

It is rare that authority is openly contested like this in Singapore. Dr Lai makes the same observation noting that orderly Singapore is not used to disruption, and that Singaporeans tend to think of disruption as mob-like, rude, and uncivil behaviour.

The students I saw that day were not a mob. The audience at the EGM were not a mob, either.

They are people moved by a desire to call into account those in power. People hungry to have their say. People with a moral vision of the kind of society they want to live in, and who acted to try to make it a reality.

Social change, in the pursuit of gender equality, takes time. It is a hard slog behind the scenes to transform public attitudes, improve policies, and amend laws to achieve social equality.

But sometimes change does not happen unless there are perfect storms, until people gather, face to face, and authority is pushed to acknowledge the humanity of those they rule.

Beyond committees, institutions, and panels, there is an audience who want to be participants, who have much to say, who refuse to shut up and sit down.

Join the conversations on THG’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

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