Women’s group coup awakens Singapore civil society

Nopporn Wong-Anan

A power struggle in Singapore’s top women’s advocacy group has awakened the conservative city-state’s civil society and created rare public debate about the taboo issues of sex and religion.

As two groups of women were tussling to control Singapore’s Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the pro-government media became a battleground where supporters and opponents of the two sides exchanged brickbats about homosexuality, Christianity and free speech.

A group of Chinese Singaporean women from a local church launched a surprise takeover in March of AWARE, which had been run by the same group of women, although more diverse on ethnicity and religion, for more than 20 years.

Scepticism over the motives of the Christian insurgents led hundreds of women signing up as new members. The previous leadership then launched a no-confidence vote against the new board this month and in a chaotic meeting won a landslide victory.

The AWARE saga had all the political ingredients seen in many other Asian countries, but hardly ever witnessed in Singapore. The People’s Action Party has ruled since independence in 1965 and has never lost more than four seats in any election.

“This is an instance for civil society in Singapore that went through its decision-making process — politics without the intervention of the state,” said Terence Chong of the state-backed Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“This is very important in Singapore because the state intervenes rather regularly.”

The now ousted board had said after taking power they felt AWARE was promoting homosexuality through sex education classes in a country where gay sex is banned.

But while they may have lost the battle for AWARE’s soul, the Christian vanguard appear to have won a moral victory.

The Ministry of Education said in a statement on Wednesday it had suspended sex education programmes provided by AWARE and other external vendors to government schools because parts of the curriculum did not conform to guidelines.

“In particular, some suggested responses in the instructor guide are explicit and inappropriate, and convey messages which could promote homosexuality or suggest approval of pre-marital sex,” the statement said.

Singapore’s fault lines

Analysts called the AWARE saga “unprecedented” in Singapore, where any outdoor gathering that is cause-related needs a police permit, where people are generally seen as apolitical, and where many major international advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace do not have an office.

The government seems to recognise the fault lines in Singapore society between a conservative older generation that built Singapore into a First World city-state and a more liberal younger one that is trying to turn it into a global metropolis.

“There are people in our society with different views and if … we push them too hard, there will be a push back from the other side,” The Strait Times quoted Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean as telling reporters on Sunday.

“You are not going to resolve some of these differences because they are strongly held, and you risk polarising society if you push too hard.”

As the debate also revolved around what was seen as a bid to turn the advocacy group into an religious body, spiritual leaders of major religions in Singapore and cabinet ministers appeared in newspapers emphasising the need for secularism, in a multi-racial society that saw deadly race riots in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Even within the evangelical Christian community, which is a very significant force in Singapore society, there is a sense that these people overstepped the mark,” said Paul Rae of the National University of Singapore.

The local media described the AWARE struggle as a “cat fight”, involving locks being changed at its headquarters, death threats and the deployment of police at the meeting.

But newly-elected AWARE President Dana Lam called it a victory for grassroots civil society.

“For the longest time we all thought Singaporeans, other than shopping and eating and getting on with their own careers, were not really very interested in what’s happening in civil society,” Lam said.

“The most exciting thing is that I learn there are Singaporeans out there who can be motivated to stand up and speak so long as they identify with what the isssue is about,” she told Reuters.


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