Liberals rally to take on the Christian right
A bloodless coup instigated by a septuagenarian “feminist mentor”; a death threat sent to the new president’s husband by a self-proclaimed “jihadist sleeper”; a 3,000-person showdown. The tiny world of Singapore’s usually timid NGOs has never seen anything like it.
In late March a secretive group of conservative Chinese Christian ladies surreptitiously took over the executive council of AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), an advocacy group that has done much to promote women’s rights. Half of the new council attend the same church. They were jolted into action by AWARE’s alleged pro-gay agenda, particularly in sex-education courses taught at some schools. “Are we going to have an entire generation of lesbians?” bemoaned Thio Su Mien, their 71-year old matriarch.
Ms Thio’s disciples snatched control from a group of liberals who had served AWARE for years. The conservative new council and the liberal old guard traded barbs, exposing an ideological divide. Critics questioned the new lot’s shady tactics as well as their religious motives.
And so the old guard tabled a no-confidence motion, forcing an extraordinary general meeting. Ahead of it, politicians called for tolerance. And the new council’s pastor, Derek Hong, tried to mobilise support from the pulpit. Rebuked by leaders from a number of religions, he later apologised.
But the damage was done. At the meeting on May 2nd, the new council lost the vote and resigned. The question is why it staged the ill-fated raid in the first place. According to Alex Au, an online commentator, the Christian right will tend to use stealth to achieve its goals, because the discussion of religion is taboo in Singapore. They do not have well-established channels of discourse.
Yet the manner in which this conflict was resolved—through reasoned debate, without government intervention—is reason to cheer, says Braema Mathi, a former AWARE president. On May 7th, however, the government announced that AWARE’s programmes in schools did not conform in all respects to its guidelines and would be suspended.
Mr Au rejoices that the episode saw more people involve themselves in important issues. They are still, however, in a minority. In a survey, 70% of those polled said they did not care about what is going on at AWARE. But then, with Singapore’s trade-dependent economy facing its worst recession in history, most people have more prosaic worries.