Whatever is said about the recent saga of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), it cannot be denied that the episode concluded in an open and democratic, if not entirely amicable, manner.
It was an intriguing event in a country where citizens have been conditioned to shun politics. The fight between the “old” and “new” guards broke new ground as the teams vied for control of the organisation, energising members of society in the process.
This, in essence, is what politics is all about.
The participants congregated at the Extraordinary General Meeting at the Suntec City last Saturday to contend with a motion of no-confidence against the new executive committee led by Ms Josie Lau.
Members turned up in the thousands, the majority of whom joined the organisation only days before the EOGM specifically to vote at the meeting.
In a heated conference where passions ran high – participants jeered and drowned out the speakers from the new executive committee on several occasions – supporters of the old guard were out in force to vent their anger at Ms Lau and her team.
After the rhetoric (that went back and forth for several hours) ceased, those who showed up did what they came to do: Vote. The new leadership was defeated by a margin of 2 to 1. The joy of the veterans was manifest. Reports indicated that Ms Lau’s team members comported themselves with grace and dignity.
The episode was democratically resolved. In the main, supporters of both sides had the chance to put forward their views (the old guard members and their supporters were evidently the more strident ones) and the voters were given the final say.
Despite the acrimony, the event took place in the spirit of an open political contest. In this sense, Aware is the stronger and richer for it.
The trick now is for the organisation, under the leadership of its president Ms Dana Lam, not to clean house and silence those who were defeated. This is not what democracy is about.
Instead a bigger tent must be erected to accommodate the diverse views. Winston Churchill once said: “In defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.” Sure there will be contention in such a set-up, but it is only in despotic societies that dissent is obliterated, is it not? A leadership capable of winning a vote must also be capable of handling opposing views.
Women show leadership. PAP?
What happened on Saturday is what democracy is about. It is also what is tragically lacking in Singapore.
Our national politics is as far from the passion demonstrated at Aware’s EOGM as Earth is from Pluto. Of course there were boos and jeers during the meeting, but that’s what passion is all about – it comes with what one strongly believes in. But even when they were angry, the hecklers seemed to have a sense of composure about them.
If Singaporeans cannot feel strongly about Singapore and be passionate about what we want for our country, what do we have?
Unfortunately, any minute demonstration of political emotion by citizens is denounced as blasphemy and unerringly stamped out by the PAP Government.
Now imagine if the new executive committee, after taking over the reins of Aware, had quickly amended the organisation’s constitution, ordered the arrest of Constance Singam et al, threatened to fix all those who did not support it, and at the meeting forcibly shut dissenters up, the EOGM would have proceeded quietly and uneventfully, and the outcome of the vote would have been forgone.
Would this have been good for the organisation and its leaders, both veterans and novices?
As it was, Ms Josie Lau and colleagues respected the rules, convened the meeting and accepted the majority decision.
The thousands who turned up at Suntec City last Saturday demonstrably nailed the lie that the ruling party so eagerly mongers: That politics, if left unattended by the heavy hand of autocracy, degenerates into anarchy. Singaporeans are an educated lot, and they know that civility and passion can mix, often to good effect.
Which leads us to another important subject: Now that the old guard has resumed control of the organisation, it is hoped that Aware will look beyond what is immediately in front of it. As much as it has benefited from the practice of democracy, it must now also work towards democracy for the country.
Civil society, by its very definition, cannot operate effectively in the absence of free speech and freedom to assemble. If supporters of the veterans could not gather and speak as they did last Saturday, the old Aware would have been consigned to history.
As an NGO, Aware’s obligations must also be to society-at-large and to the nation, not just women — not when democracy is in a strait-jacket.
While Aware has come alive with its new members taking a keen interest in the organisation, Singapore and Singaporeans continue to languish under a system designed to extract every ounce of economic effort but stamp out every bit of political passion and zeal.
As a cold and soulless people would surely not have been good for Aware, it cannot also be good for our nation.