The sequence of events popularly knows as the AWARE saga, which took place in 2009, was a landmark in Singapore's feminist and human rights history. It began as an orchestrated takeover of the leadership of Singapore's best known women's organisation, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), by a group of women (and some men) with strong anti-LGBT and right-wing Christian leanings. It garnered intense publicity in the media and ended with the ousting of the new guard by hundreds of women outraged by the inexperienced executive committee's questionable actions and agenda.
Dramatic leadership takeoverEdit
In March 2009, AWARE saw a dramatic and unexpected changing of the guard which some members described as nothing short of a leadership grab, (see video). As a lead-up to the debacle, a sudden and unprecedented spike in membership had been noted since January 2009.
When AWARE held its annual general meeting on March 28, everyone expected the usual - no more than 30 or 40 members would turn up at its Dover Crescent centre, and a prepared slate of candidates would be voted into office easily. Instead, more than 100 people came (3 times the usual turnout), about 80% of whom had joined AWARE only in recent months.
When the election of office bearers began, almost every position was challenged by new candidates who won by wide majorities.
In the end, 9 out of 12 executive committee seats went to the newcomers. One older member who had joined AWARE in January 2008 and who was elected unopposed as president was Claire Nazar, a former corporate counsel. She was nominated by outgoing AWARE head Constance Singam. But barely a week into her new term, and before making her first statement as president, Nazar quit suddenly that week, on Wednesday, 8 April 2009.
Nazar confirmed that she had resigned, but declined to say any more. It was not known who would then become president. Longtime members took 2 other positions - Chew I-Jin as assistant honorary treasurer and Caris Lim Chai Leng was elected a committee member. The election results left longtime AWARE members in shock.
Former president Tan Joo Hymn, 38, said that the big turnout at the AGM surprised her. “I arrived at the meeting late and found out that I was No. 100 on the attendance list. I’ve been a member for 10 years, and never before has there been such a turnout,” said the former lawyer who is now a full-time mother.
Another former president, writer Dana Lam, 57, said: “There were many faces I had not seen before, and I found that very strange. “In previous years, even if there were new members, they would be known to one or more of the older members.”
The first indication that something was afoot came when Chew I-Jin, an AWARE veteran, was challenged and defeated handsomely by new member Charlotte Wong Hock Soon for the post of vice-president.
Chew was later elected unopposed as assistant honorary treasurer. “It was alarming,” said Dana Lam. “How could a new member who had just joined for a couple of months, and whom we knew nothing about, be picked over someone who has been with AWARE for more than 15 years?”
Some of the older members immediately began checking the attendance list. Tan Joo Hymn said, “We found that about 80 of the 102 who turned up were new members who joined between January and March this year.” AWARE, a feminist group that had prided itself on being “all-inclusive”, had never vetted the people who applied to be members. Men could join too, as associate members.
As it dawned on them that a leadership grab was imminent, some older members at the AGM tried asking the newcomers who they were, what they stood for, and why they wanted to be in charge.
They got only the briefest answers, they said. Dana Lam said she tried suggesting that new members serve a stint on AWARE’s various sub-committees before standing for election to leadership positions. But such suggestions went unheeded as the election proceeded, with more newcomers winning executive committee positions by landslide margins.
Ironically, the old guard at AWARE had been working towards changing their Constitution to make it a rule that only those who had been members for at least a year would be eligible to join the exco. At the time, there was no rule to bar a brand-new member from seeking office, and that was what happened at the AGM.
Tan Joo Hymn said, “We were simply outnumbered. Technically, they got in legitimately.” She added that the way the election proceeded was so unusual, it was hard to imagine that the takeover was not a planned effort. “It could not be pure coincidence,” she said.
But little was known of AWARE’s new leaders, aside from the fact that they included women from the corporate sector, lawyers, company directors and academics. Older members said the newcomers spoke well but would not elaborate on their plans for AWARE.
“When asked if they believed in equality, they kept repeating they were there to support women and to make sure they got ahead and got all the opportunities given to them,” Dana Lam said.
Older members were keen to know if the newcomers shared AWARE’s vision and values, including equality for all regardless of race, religion or sexuality.
But one outspoken new member from the floor, who identified herself as Angela Thiang, said questions about the new office bearers’ religion and their stand on homosexuality were not relevant.
Former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Braema Mathi, a two-term president of AWARE, like many other members, was concerned.
“If you are keen to serve, you don’t challenge every position. We do not know who they are,” said the former journalist who was then in Bangkok doing consultancy work for international women’s group Unifem.
“It is very troubling, more so, because I’ve heard the new president has resigned.” Almost a fortnight into their new roles, the new leaders of AWARE were not entertaining calls from the media this week.
New honorary secretary Jenica Chua Chor Ping announced that a press release would be issued “in a few days” and added that until then, the committee would not answer any questions.
A check showed that some of those at the AGM and on the new committee had appeared in The Straits Times Forum Page. Jenica Chua, Angela Thiang and Dr Alan Chin, a male member of AWARE who attended the AGM and supported the newcomers, all wrote letters to this newspaper between August and October 2007.
In a letter on Oct 17 that year, Jenica Chua said NMP Siew Kum Hong had overstepped his non-partisan role and advanced the homosexual cause by tabling a petition in Parliament to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalised homosexual sex between consenting men.
In another letter on Oct 25, she took issue with a Straits Times report which said NMP Thio Li-Ann had been “visibly distraught” when she opposed Siew’s petition vigorously.
Chua said Thio had dealt with several points succinctly, with humour and passion. Dr Chin and Angela Thiang both wrote letters to caution against the risks of promoting the homosexual lifestyle. Meanwhile, news of AWARE’s AGM had spread among older members who did not attend the meeting, as well as civil society groups.
The most frequently asked questions: Who were the new women in charge, why did they want the leadership, and what were their plans for AWARE? Braema Mathi said: “The building of an institution takes many years; building its value system is even harder. Why can’t they come in and be part of the process, and build it together and in a more evolutionary manner? That way, the comfort level will be high for everyone.”
Former newspaper editor and media consultant Peter Lim, a longtime associate member of AWARE, said he was very surprised to learn what had taken place. Asked why he thought a group of newcomers would want to take control, he said he did not know if it was an orchestrated effort.
But he thought AWARE would be attractive to those seeking to be in charge of an established institution. Setting up a new outfit would take too much time and trouble.
“AWARE has built up its credentials over the years and achieved more than a few things,” he said. 3 former AWARE presidents – Claire Chiang, Dr Kanwaljit Soin and Braema Mathi – had served as NMPs.
“AWARE is a brand name and most people regard it as the leading voice of the feminists and modern women in Singapore,” said Peter Lim.
Former president Dana Lam recalled, “It was alarming. How could a new member who had just joined for a couple of months, and whom we knew nothing about, be picked over someone who has been with AWARE for more than 15 years?”
Former president Tan Joo Hymn said, “I arrived at the meeting late and found out that I was No. 100 on the attendance list. I’ve been a member for 10 years, and never before has there been such a turnout.”
Former president Braema Mathi stressed, “The building of an institution takes many years; building its value system is even harder. Why can’t they come in and be part of the process, and build it together and in a more evolutionary manner? That way, the comfort level will be high for everyone.”
New exco membersEdit
The following were elected to AWARE’s new committee on March 28, 2009.
President: Claire Nazar
Vice-president: Charlotte Wong Hock Soon
Honorary secretary: Jenica Chua Chor Ping
Assistant honorary secretary: Sally Ang Koon Hian
Honorary treasurer: Maureen Ong Lee Keang
Assistant honorary treasurer: Chew I-Jin
Committee members: Caris Lim Chai Leng, Catherine Tan Ling Ghim, Josie Lau Meng Lee, Lois Ng, Irene Yee Khor Quin, Peggy Leong Pek Kay
New president Claire Nazar soon quit her post but declined to comment further. Of the other committee members, only Chew I-Jin and Caris Lim were longtime members of AWARE.
Chew had been nominated by the AWARE old guard for the vice-president’s post but was trounced by newcomer Charlotte Wong, and had to settle for the assistant treasurer’s position, which she won without a contest.
The Straits Times e-mailed AWARE that week requesting interviews with members of the new committee, but did not receive a reply. The newspaper also tried contacting some of the members – Jenica Chua, Josie Lau and Lois Ng – on their mobile phones, hoping they might shed light on who they were, how they were connected to other newly elected office-bearers, or what they were planning to do now that they were in charge.
Lau and Ng could not be reached. Chua confirmed that she was on the new executive committee and said AWARE would be releasing a press statement in “the next few days”.
But she flatly refused to take any more questions. The Straits Times also contacted two other new members who were at the AGM: Angela Thiang, who spoke up in support of the newcomers who stood for election, and Dr Alan Chin, who helped to count the votes.
Thiang said she would return the call, but did not. She could not be reached subsequently. Dr Chin confirmed that he was an AWARE member but, like the others, refused to answer any questions. The position of the new guard was: No comment, for now.
- Wong Kim Hoh, The Straits Times, "Unknowns knock out veterans at Aware polls", 10 April 2009,.
- PN Balji, TODAY, "Ladies, have you forgotten your narrative?", 13 April 2009.
- Ho Chi Sam, Straits Times forum letter, "Keen to know what Aware's plans are now", 14 April 2009.
- Esther Ng, TODAY, "Old guard calls for meeting", 15 April 2009.
- Tan Dawn Wei, Wong Kim Hoh & Yen Feng, The Straits Times, "DBS exec is Aware's new head", 16 April 2009.
- Alicia Wong, TODAY, "New guard consolidates", 16 April 2009.
- Benson Ang, The New Paper, "New woman in the hot seat", 17 April 2009.
- Conrad Raj, TODAY, "What’s good for the goose ...", 17 April 2009.
- Channel News Asia, "DBS "reviewing" employee's appointment as AWARE president", 17 April 2009.
- Wong Kim Hoh, The Straits Times, "DBS tells why it rebuked Josie Lau", 17 April 2009.
- Cheryl Lim & Pearl Forss, Channel News Asia, "AWARE president questions intentions of veterans unhappy over election outcome", 17 April 2009.
- Tan Dawn Wei, The Straits Times, "AWARE's power couple", 18 April 2009.
- Tan Dawn Wei, The Straits Times, "Sociable, chatty and a lover of good food", 18 April 2009.
- Tan Dawn Wei & Jamie Ee, The Straits Times, "Some attend the same church", 18 April 2009.
- Josie Lau, The Straits Times, "New guard's response", 18 April 2009.
- Robin Chan, The Straits Times, "Bank's public criticism of a senior officer sparks debate", 18 April 2009.
- The Straits Times, "Sacked by a terse e-mail", 18 April 2009.
- The Straits Times, "Old guard's response", 18 April 2009.
- TODAY, "Why she quit", 18 April 2009.
- Tan Dawn Wei & Jamie Ee, The Straits Times, "Some attend the same church", 18 April 2009.
- The Straits Times, "Old guard's response", 18 April 2009.
- Tan Dawn Wei, The Straits Times, "Quiet, devoted to religious activities", 18 April 2009.
- Benson Ang, The New Paper, "'What did she do to deserve position?'", 19 April 2009.
- Channel News Asia, "AWARE president says will not back out despite pressure", 19 April 2009.
- Wong Kim Hoh, "Aware chief wants to heal rift with upset members", The Straits Times, 20 April 2009.
- Wong Kim Hoh, "Constance Singam quits as Aware adviser ", The Sunday Times, 19 April 2009.
- Wong Kim Hoh, "Claire Nazar: Why I quit as Aware president", The Sunday Times, 19 April 2009.
- Nur Dianah Suhaimi, "Old guard supporters rallying the troops", The Sunday Times, 19 April 2009.
- Loh Chee Kong, "AWARE: More than a numbers game", TODAY, 20 April 2009.
- Loh Chee Kong, "AWARE: The new exco speaks", TODAY, 20 April 2009.
- Loh Chee Kong, "AWARE president says will not step down despite pressure", TODAY, 20 April 2009.
- Benson Ang, "Fight Over Aware Leadership", The New Paper, 20 April 2009.
- Ho Lian-yi, "Fight Over Aware Leadership: Both parties marshalling members for EOGM", The New Paper, 20 April 2009.
- Pearl Forss, "AWARE old guard says debate is healthy", Channel News Asia, 21 April 2009.
- Hedy Khoo, "Few straight answers in Aware interview", The New Paper, 21 April 2009.
- "Save AWARE" petition, 23 April 2009.
- Alexandra Serrenti, "An Ethicist speaks out on AWARE", 23 April 2009.
- Channel News Asia, "New exco wants to bring AWARE back to its "original cause"", 23 April 2009.
- Ong Dailin, "Locks changed, Aware centre manager fired", TODAY, 24 April 2009.
- Zul Othman, "An ugly turn of events", TODAY, 24 April 2009.
- Zul Othman, "Membership shoots up", TODAY, 24 April 2009.
- Cheryl Lim, "New exco wants to bring AWARE back to its "original cause"", 24 April 2009.
- Zakir Hussain, "Lawyer's key role in Aware coup", The Straits Times, 24 April 2009.
- Sandra Davie, "New exco members tell of death threats", 24 April 2009,.
- Derrick Ho, "Leadership change at Aware", The Straits Times, 24 April 2009.
- Transcript of new AWARE leadership's press conference, 24 April 2009.
- Ravi Govindan, "Govt should ensure Aware stays secular", Straits Times forum, 24 April 2009.
- Wong Kim Hoh, "Old guard members counter allegations of a pro-gay stance", 25 April 2009.
- "Aware's old guard defends its activities", TODAY, 25 April 2009.
- Chua Mui Hoong, "Aware saga: A new militancy emerges", The Straits Times, 25 April 2009.
- Debbie Yong, "Centre manager sacked for insubordination, says vice-president", 25 April 2009.
- Nur Dianah Suhaimi, "Way power was seized is criticised", The Straits Times, 25 April 2009.
- Wong Kim Hoh, "'Too diversified or too focused? Which is it?'", The Straits Times, 25 April 2009.
- Robin Chan & Jamie Ee, "Aware rift: Govt leaders call for tolerance", The Straits Times, 25 April 2009.
This article was written by Roy Tan.