This book was authored and edited by Terence Chong. It was published in a 188-page paperback edition by NUS Press on 15 June 2011 (ISBN-10: 9971695510, ISBN-13: 978-9971695514).
The following excerpt of the book was OCRed from a Kindle preview available on Amazon.com.
Introduction by Terence Chong
Chapter 1: "Making Singapore’s Liberal Base Visible" by Chua Beng Huat
Chapter 2: "Compensating for the Abdication of the Moral State?" by Terence Chong
Chapter 3: "Not Quite Shutting Up and Sitting Down: The Singapore Government’s Role in the AWARE Saga" by Azhar Ghani and Gillian Koh
Chapter 4: "Who Dragged Christianity into the AWARE Saga?: Observations on the Role of Christians. Value Pluralism and Contestation in Public Discourse" by Eugene K.B. Tan
Chapter 5: "Blame it on the Bogey: The Christian Right’s Construction of Homosexuality and the AWARE CSE Programme" by Dominic Chua, James Koh and Jack Yong
Chapter 6: "The Role of the Media: Investigative Journalism in Singapore" by Loh Chee Kong
Chapter 7: "Strength in Diversity: Organisational Lessons from the AWARE Saga" by Alex Tham
Chapter 8: "Contesting Feminisms: The AWARE Saga" by Theresa W. Devasahayam
Chapter 9: "Shut Up and Sit Down! Stand Up and Speak Out!: The AWARE EGM as Performance of Civil Society in Singapore" by Lai Ah Eng
Chapter 10: "AWARE Re-pluralised, Resecularised: Transition to Deeper Awareness" by Vivienne Wee
On 28 March 2009 a group of Christian women took over the country’s most well-known women’s rights group, sparking a chain of events that not only enthralled the nation but also forced many to reexamine the way they viewed civil society politics in Singapore. There were already signs that it was not going to be another routine evening when an unexpectedly large number of people attended the annual general meeting of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), many of whom were new faces having only joined the NGO in recent months. Of the 12 available seats on the executive committee (Exco), the new members captured nine, leaving the so-called “old guard” shocked and confused.1 Adding to the confusion was Claire Nazar’s sudden and unexplained resignation on 8 April as AWARE’s new president just 11 days later after her unopposed election.2 The public only knew of these events when the local media broke the story on 10 April (The Straits Times 10 April 2009).
With Nazar’s resignation, the old guard, led by immediate past president Constance Singam, rallied some 160 members on 14 April to call for an extraordinary meeting, possibly to table a motion of no confidence in the new Exco given its reluctance to answer questions about who they were, how they got together to takeover the NGO and what direction they intended to take it. A day later, on 15 April, the new Exco met to pick a new president — Josie Lau. Things took an even more puzzling turn when Lau’s employer, DBS Bank, immediately issued a statement noting that it did not support her taking up the presidency and had told her so.
The next day, two-time AWARE president Braema Mathi was informed by the new Exco via email that she was no longer in charge of producing a report on discrimination against women in Singapore. That same day, DBS Bank issued yet another public statement revealing that Lau had breached its staff code of conduct twice by not informing her superiors that she had intended to stand for AWARE’s elections and for ignoring the bank’s advice against taking up the presidency. It warned that it did not condone such conduct from its staff and promised an internal review (The Stj'aits Times 17 April 2009). By this time, the local media had uncovered an intriguing link between some of the new members of the Exco — six out of nine of them attended the same church, the Anglican Church of Our Saviour (COOS) located at Margaret Drive (The Straits Times 18 April 2009). They were Josie Lau, Charlotte Wong (the new vice-president), Jenica Chua (new honorary secretary), Sally Ang (assistant honorary treasurer), Maureen Ong (honorary treasurer), and Irene Yee (committee member). In addition, the local media also found them to hold trenchant anti-homosexual and anti-abortion views. One of the new Exco members, Jenica Chua, had written letters to the press to argue against normalising homosexuality7 and to admonish a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) for championing gay rights in Parliament.3
Facing the growing chorus of questions from the public and old guard members, the new guard convened a press conference on 23 April. By this time it was clear to everyone that the label “old guard”, ironic in the context of this saga, stood for progressive values and liberal attitudes while “new guard” denoted moral conservatism and heterosexual orthodoxies. The stage was set for high drama. With a theatrical flourish, senior lawyer and former dean of the former Singapore University law faculty, Dr Thio Su Mien, came forward to introduce herself as “Feminist Mentor” to the new Exco. Thio, also a member of COOS, told the reporters present that she had encouraged the women to take over AWARE because she felt it had shifted its focus from gender equality to the promotion of homosexuality and lesbianism. She went on to attack AWARE’s sex education syllabus, under the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) programme, for encouraging local students to see homosexuality in ‘neutral’ terms instead of ‘negatively’, and warned that “this is something which should concern parents in Singapore. Are we going to have an entire generation of lesbians?” (The Straits Times 24 April 2009a).4 The drama at the press conference heightened when the new Exco announced that, since the saga went public, Jenica Chua and Alan Chin, anti-homosexual campaigner and Josie Lau’s husband, had been on the receiving end of death threats. And to top off the spectacle, Chew I-Jin, one of only two members of the new Exco from the old guard, burst into the room protesting how the Exco had not informed her of the press conference. She was told by Lois Ng, one of the new Exco, “As you’re an old guard member, and the old guard have had a field day giving the media stories upon stories which are totally and utterly inaccurate, this is our chance to talk to the media. So I would appreciate that you leave this room” (The Straits Times 24 April 2009b). Meanwhile, the old guard had discovered that the new Exco had changed the locks and security system at the AWARE Centre in Dover Crescent. Singaporeans began to take sides as the saga gained momentum with extensive media coverage.
An online “Save AWARE Campaign” petition with close to 400 signatures was formed to urge supporters to attend the extraordinary general meeting (EGM) scheduled for 2 May to consider a vote of no confidence in the new Exco. A variety of blogs and online forums accused the new Exco of orchestrating a “hostile” takeover to further their own agenda and berated its link to “fundamentalist churches” (The Sti'aits Times 24 April 2009c). On the other side of the fence, numerous letters in support of the new Exco appeared in the press. A typical letter observed that “The CVs of the new Exco members show that they are responsible women with high educational achievements, and good families and marriages, who are committed to social work. The new committee seems very qualified for AWARE’s declared objectives, namely, the guardian of women’s rights in Singapore and a group with programmes and avenues to foster better treatment of women” (The Straits Times 24 April 2009d). Others were more direct: “The truth is out. Schools should not invite the group to talk about sexuality if they are pro-gay. The whole saga has shown that gays are organised and infiltrating groups that may have influence on society. I call on the authorities to close AWARE as it will no longer be credible after this” (The Straits Times 25 April 2009a).
In response to Thio’s allegations, the MOE initially defended AWARE’s sex education programme. The Director of Education Programmes wrote to the press noting that the “schools that engaged AWARE found that the content and messages of the sessions conducted were appropriate for their students and adhered to guidelines to respect the values of different religious groups”, and that the schools did not receive any negative feedback from students or parents (The Straits Times 29 April 2009). However, on 6 May, the MOE suspended AWARE’s programme. The Ministry announced that some of the suggested responses in the instructor’s manual for AWARE’s programme were “too explicit and inappropriate, and convey messages which could promote homosexuality or suggest approval of premarital sex” (The Sti'aits Times 6 May 2009). Members of the public contributed to the debate on several levels. Some questioned the role of the media in playing up the saga, some supported the new Exco’s agenda but condemned the way it came to power, some celebrated the public interest the saga garnered as a demonstration of chic passion, while others deplored the old guard’s neutral stance on homosexuality as symptomatic of society’s eroding moral values. Nevertheless, as the twin issues of Christianity and homosexuality echoed louder and with greater frequency, public memories of the 2007 parliamentary debate over the repeal of 377A were stirred.5 Sensing the deepening societal cleavages over the saga, the Singapore government stated its stance. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean called for the two camps “to show respect and tolerance for each other’s views”, while Lim Hwee Hua, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, urged all involved not to “allow these disagreements to become a vehicle for views on contentious, divisive issues to be pushed aggressively. This wrould polarise our society and have a very adverse effect on our social fabric” (The Straits Times 25 April 2009b). Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sport, Vivian Balakrishnan, told the press that it was “potentially dangerous for religion to descend into the fray of petty* politics”, but stressed “that the Government would not be getting involved at this point in time” (The Straits Times 27 April 2009). Meanwhile, even the venue of the EGM did not escape controversy.
The new Exco had initially chosen a hall in Toa Payoh but later changed its mind and designated the Singapore Expo in Changi as venue. This sparked rumours that the change wras made to coincide with a mega Christian conference that was taking place at the Expo on the weekend of the EGM ; a conference that COOS wTas part of. The police finally intervened and the venue wras changed again, this time to Suntec City International Convention and Exhibition Centre, for lawT and order concerns. By this time, AWARE’s membership had soared from 300 before the saga to 3.000 just before the EGM, with both camps urging its supporters to join up to make their voices heard.
The emotional stakes were unexpectedly raised a day before the EGM. The Sti'aits Times reported that COOS Senior Pastor Derek Hong had, in a sermon to his congregation, “urged the women in his flock to ‘be engaged’ and support Ms Lau and ‘her sisters’ at AWARE” (The Straits Times 1 May 2009a). In the same sermon Pastor Hong was quoted as saying: “It’s not a crusade against the people but there’s a line that God has drawn for us, and we don’t want our nation crossing that line” (ibid.). Understandably, his remarks drew’ indignation from the public, prompting Archbishop Dr John Chew, head of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS), to issue a public statement warning churches to stay out of the saga. “We do not condone churches getting involved in this matter; neither do we condone pulpits being used for this purpose” (The Sti'aits Times 1 May 2009b). Dr Chew’s public statement and Pastor Hong’s subsequent expression of “regret” over his remarks served to ease tensions a little, and may have even affected the Christian turnout at the EGM. There was an air of expectation among the nearly 3.000 members who descended on Suntec City Hall 402. The EGM began inauspiciously when committee member Lois Ng demanded that Siew Kum Hong, NMP and the old guard’s “legal advisor”, who was seated among the women, join the men who were on the other side of the auditorium. Josie Lau’s attempt at an introductory speech as president was cut short w’hen members from the floor rose to tell her that her three minute speaking time was up. As the heckling from the audience grew’ in volume, the new Exco demanded that security remove those responsible, and w’hen this did not happen, Sally Ang, assistant honorary secretary shouted at AWARE old guard member Margaret Thomas to “shut up and sit down”. The booing did not stop w’hen Thio Su Mien stood up to speak. Citing her mention on “page 73” in a 2007 AWARE publication and her experience as the first w’oman law dean, she demanded that the noisy crow’d “Show some respect to your elders” (The Sti'aits Times 3 May 2009). It quickly became clear that the majority of the audience were in favour of the old guard and were much more vocal than those who came in support of the new Exco; the former dressed in w’hite shirts and the latter in red shirts. It was rumoured that larger numbers of new’ Exco supporters were meant to attend the meeting but did not because of Dr Chew’s last minute intervention. One of the many questions levelled at the new’ Exco was the amount of money it had spent thus far. There was an audible gasp when honorary treasurer Maureen Ong gave the estimated figure to be S$90,000. The list of expenses included rental of the convention hall, security systems at the AWARE Centre, security guards for the EGM and lawyer fees to Rajah & Tann. This figure far exceeded the S$20,000 limit that the Exco was authorised to spend in a month. After much haranguing, the motion of no confidence was finally put to the vote. And at the end of an EGM that lasted nearly seven hours, the motion of no confidence was passed 1,414 votes to 761. Josie Lau and the new Exco, though not legally obliged to step down, did so on the advice of its lawyers, bringing the saga to an end.6
The debates that the AWARE saga sparked saw public discussions ranging from the place of religion in dvi] society, gay rights, the processes of citizenry mobilisation, the activist role of the media and the undeniable liberal voice in contemporary Singapore. Never before had a single event ushered so many issues into the public sphere for such a rare display of political pluralism so often cloaked by the aegis of a one-party state. This political pluralism, many times manifesting boisterously, was invariably viewed by some as anathema to the grand narrative of Singapore politics where the initial top-down control of society in the early years had evolved into a more “consensual" and “non-confrontational” style of state-sodety relations. The different actors in the saga found support from their respective constituendes. many of whom were vociferous and even strident in their championing of the issues at stake, revealing a kaleidoscope of political and cultural identities at odds with each other. To a large extent, the saga succeeded in rupturing the many interpellations of Singaporeans by the People's Action Party (PAP) state, from that of a coherent soriety with “Shared values” to one which was steeped in "Asian values". The socio-cultural fault lines that were exposed as the saga unfolded not only suggested that the gulf between social reality and state-sponsored constructs of nationhood was wide, but also that unless greater acknowledgement in terms of public discussion was paid to the increasingly fragmenting nature of local identity politics, much of which was a reflection of global struggles. Singaporeans would not acquire the maturity to resist framing the occasional political-ideological conflict as nothing less than a national crisis.
One could even argue that the AWARE saga and the way it exploded into national consciousness was the cumulative result after years of downplaying individualism and identity politics and. instead, playing up social harmony thus plastering over sodetal cracks with constant references to our multicultural facade. Recent inddents suggest that this is more of a trend than an aberration: In early 2010. Senior Pastor Rony Tan of Lighthouse Evangelism, a mega church, was caught denigrating the Buddhist and Taoist faith in a sermon on Youtube (The Straits Times 9 Feb. 2010). Afew months later, another mega church pastor. Mark Ng of New Creation, was seen mocking the Taoist faith where he compared the praying to Taoist deities to "seeking protection from secret sodety gangsters" (The Straits Times 15 June 2010). Indeed, one deeper concern was how the AWARE saga took many by surprise and how the depth of feelings and the passions it aroused caught political observers and the government off guard. The fact that the saga's two vital ingredients — aggressive Christian activism and gay rights — were not new and had been fermenting in our midst for at least a decade or two only serves to underline the dangers of overstating the dty-state’s multicultural complexion at the expense of addressing the undeniable intolerance and uncompromising stance of certain communities even if their members may be over-represented in positions of political power in Singapore. Nonetheless, it is in the nature of the one-party state to exude stability. It is in its interest to interpret the AWARE saga as an aberration in a sodety where government and sodetal attention and energies must be studiously channelled towards ensuring a trajectory of economic growth and development. And yet. the AWARE saga is the very child of economic growth and the expanding middle class it has engendered. Over 40 years of mass education, economic progress, and world travel have nurtured an increased attentiveness to one's personal rights, and heightened sensitivity to encroachments on individual freedoms and progressive values. It would be wishful thinking to expect a sophisticated and cosmopolitan-minded polity to display the same manner of acquiescence and political faith their parents did. especially when such issues strike so deeply into matters of identity and ideology.
If anything, this saga has provided greater analytical texture to the political character of the Singapore middle class. Often seen as dependent on the state and its distribution of wealth, the local middle class has generally been characterised as politically compliant and an anomaly to the theory that an expanding middle class will gravitate towards a more liberal democracy. Instead, it has been forcefully argued that neither the western model of progress towards liberal democracy nor the Asian model of traditional communitarianism describes the Singapore middle class, but more influential to its political character is the "kiasuism" or an anxiety that stems from the lack of self-confidence and “managerial rationalism" which values “good governance" (Jones and Brown 1994). However, much has happened since the early 1990s when such arguments were prevalent. Global and regional events like the 1997 Asian financial crisis. September 11, SARS, the global financial crisis have set the background for uncertainty and change, while the recent political developments in Malaysia. Thailand and Indonesia demonstrate that the status quo may be successfully challenged. Domestically speaking, there has been an undeniable increase in acts of dvil disobedience, online critical commentary' and films.
All this is not to suggest that the Singapore middle class is now ready to take the lead in local politics but that it is widening the public space for critique and criticism. And it is in this widened space that the middle class expresses itself politically through the prism of identity politics like religious values, notions of morality, sexual politics and ideological worldviews. It may be argued that the high expectations and scrutiny that come with Singapore party politics, and the potential consequences if one is not on the right side has made identity politics a far more attractive strategy for influencing public polides. For instance, some of the greatest resistance to recent policy decisions such as the building of the two casinos in the Integrated Resorts, Section 377A, and censorship liberalisation in the arts, have come not from opposition political parties but from religious conservatives, suggesting that the real question is not whether religion can be kept separate from politics but if the political process has. as it is narrowly defined and proscribed by the PAP state, alienated sections of the Singapore middle class.
And there have been ample incubation sites for identity politics. Religion and race, on one hand, are sacred sites in multicultural Singapore, out-of-bounds from external critique, thus allowing identities and values to form without challenge, while the greater leeway granted to more liberal spheres like local theatre and the arts to articulate sexual politics and alternative lifestyles has allowed them to serve as a site where intellectual energies may converge. Such sites have allowed identity politics to develop and mature, and have become crucial spaces for mobilisation and activism. And the AWARE saga should be understood in this context. Not as a one-off aberration or a middle class ready to push the political envelope but a specific condition of sodety where identity politics offers an alternative to party politics in the effort to influence public policy. In many ways, the AWARE saga is important not for the event itself but for the many social trends and forces that came together for a perfect storm. These social trends and forces, brewing over decades of economic growth and sodo-political change, deserve analytical attention because they offer a broader, more historical and contextual explanation for the AWARE saga. It is with this perspective that this book was commissioned.
The opening two chapters consdousiy adopt historical perspectives in order to paint for the reader a broad picture of the contemporary sodo-political landscape that nurtured the forces and trends which came together in the AWARE saga. In broad strokes, they attempt to explain how the forces of liberalism, conservatism, morality and competition have formed over the decades so as to set the scene for discussion. Chua Beng Huat's chapter examines how the logic of meritocracy has. over the decades, nurtured economic individualism and liberal individual rights in freedom of belief and self-expression. Chua argues that the latter has often been under-analysed because scholars and commentators have often been distracted by the authoritarian state, and it has taken the AWARE saga to "make Singapore's liberal base visible”, so to speak. Chua condudes that although the AWARE saga was a triumph of liberalism over conservatism, it would be wrong to presume that Singapore was now a liberal sodety. Instead, it is still a predominantly conservative sodety under a dominant ruling party that will have to contend with the seemingly unstoppable liberalisation of culture and identity politics in Singapore. Terence Chong argues that the PAP has been profident in constructing itself as a “moral state” for political and economic imperatives, and this has been useful in accommodating the interests of moral and religious conservatives throughout the industrialising years. However, in the last decade or so, there has been a shift in the PAP state's moral discourse such that, instead of leading the charge on moral matters, it now takes a back seat and looks to sodety for cues on moral trends. This perceived "abdication" of the moralistic state has left a vacuum which both conservatives and liberals alike have rushed in to fill. The Christian takeover of AWARE and their watchfulness over MOE’s CSE programme are thus signs of how moral conservatives feel the need to compensate for the absence of the moralistic state.
Azhar Ghani and Gillian Koh examine the state's role in the saga. They observe that the state's initial “laissez-jaire approach" during the takeover was in line with its stated aim of encouraging more active rivic partidpation. It did not matter to the government whether AWARE was administered by the old guard or new guard since the legal and policy status of homosexuality was clear. The moment for state intervention was when Senior Pastor Derek Hong made his “God has drawn a line for us" sermon; and while the shadow of religion had always loomed large throughout the saga. Hong’s sermon was nothing less than a clarion call to mobilise fellow Christians. Azhar and Koh’s interviews show that Internal Security Department (1SD) officers paid a visit to Archbishop Dr John Chew, head of the NCCS, immediately after Hong's sermon was publicised, thus prompting him to issue the statement distancing the Christian Church from Hong's remarks. They condude that state intervention was carefully calibrated such that rivic participation would not be discouraged while religious mobilisation and politicking were nipped in the bud. Eugene KB. Tan surveys the Christian community’s response to the saga. Tan traces the role of religion in the conflict, and contrasts the response of the National Council of Churches of Singapore with that of the Catholic Archdiocese in Singapore to demonstrate the nuanced politics with regards to civil soriety and morality. He condudes that religion has a place in dvil sodety and that while Singaporeans are entitled to their beliefs and values, the actions flowing from such beliefs and values must not offend the imperative of maintaining and enhancing the foundational principles of our soriety. Dominic Chua. James Koh and Jack Yong look at the politics surrounding the Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) programme. They assert that the new guard shares many similarities with the Christian Right movement in the U.S., and explore the discursive strategies employed by the new guard to challenge and demonise AWARE’s CSE programme. They argue that such strategies organised ambivalence, confusion and anxieties about sexuality into tidy sound bites designed for mass mobilisation, thus leaving more complex understandings of sexuality out of public discussion. Loh Chee Kong reviews the role of the media throughout the saga. Loh notes that while the “investigative journalism” demonstrated by the media drew some criticism from the government, the new guard did themselves no favours by appearing to be reticent, in contrast to the old guard whose members were obviously more comfortable with the media. This initial reticence may have cast the image of the new guard as evasive in stone, thus setting up dear heroes and villains for public consumption. Loh condudes that the Singapore media is caught between a rock and a hard place in a fast-changing sodety still bound by stiff media regulations.
Alex Tham explores the AWARE takeover from an organisational perspective. He observes that "network forms" of organisations like AWARE are indusive and derive their strength from diversity. Internal conflict and contestation can be accommodated because action is oriented by the values driving the work than on results perse. Tham argues that such a pluralist orga nisaf ior was at stake during the takeover because the new guard closely resembled a "hierarchical organisation" where action tends to be instrumental. In such organisations conflict is deemed to be unproductive and a deviation from the norm, and to prevent such deviations, they place a premium on homogeneity which. Tham condudes. would dismantle what AWARE stands for. Theresa Devasahayam continues with the theme of indusiveness and diversity in her examination of feminism and the way it was contested by both sides. She argues that feminism was a site of ideological conflict between the old guard, which propounded economic and sexual diversity, and the new guard which tried to redefine “feminism" in terms of heteronormativity Lai Ah Eng offers an ethnographic account of the 2 May EGM. As an insider-outsider observer. Lai leverages on her twin roles as old guard member of AWARE and anthropologist to describe the run-up to the EGM and the event itself as the performance of dvil sodety. Finally. Vivienne Wee explores notions of secularity and pluralism. Wee notes that secularity and pluralism can no longer be taken for granted as implidt assumptions, but should be made explicit, thus enabling greater discourse and understanding over the organisation's public role. While this book is not a comprehensive survey of the saga, nor does it strive to be. it seeks to offer the reader two things. First, a political and historical context in which to situate this complex conflict and. second, an intelligent discussion on the various intriguing threads that ran through the saga. It is a book for laypersons and scholars alike who wonder what the conflid between liberalism and conservatism, rising religiosity and the desire to create a more moral sodety means for a multicultural Singapore.
1. New members of the AWARE executive committee were Charlotte Wong Hock Soon (vice president). Jenica Chua Chor Ping (honorary secretary), Sally Ang Koon Hian (assistant honorary secretary). Maureen Ong Lee Keang (honorary treasurer). Catherine Tan Ling Ghim (committee member). Lois Ng (committee member). Irene Yee KhorQuin (committee member) and Peggy Leong Pek Kay (committee member). Old members who remained in the executive committee were Caris Lim (committee member) and Chew I-Jin (assistant honorary treasurer).
2. She later told the media she quit over the new Exco's “stormtrooper tactics” (The Straits Times 19 April 2009).
3. Chua’s letters were published in The Straits Times, 25 May 2007 and 7 Oct. 2007.
4. It may seem that Thio and the new guard have achieved their objective. In April 2010. MOE announced that six organisations would be awarded the contrai l to condud sex education classes in local schools. Of the six. four have clear links to Christian organisations (The Straits Times 29 April 2010).
5. Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises sex between men.
6. Josie Lau has since left DBS bank to join the hospitality group. Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE). OUE is led by Thio Su Mien's husband. Thio Gim Hock (Channel News Asia 26 Sept. 2009).
Channel News Asia. 26 Sept. 2009, "Former AWARE President Josie Lau leaves DBS”. <http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/sin gaporelocalnews/view/ioo7388/i/.html> [accessed 26 Sept. 2009].
Jones. David Martin and Brown. David. 1994, "Singapore and the myth of the liberalizing middle class”. The Pacific Review 7 (1): 79-87.
The Straits Times, 25 May 2007. “Some erroneous claims in writer’s views on gay debate", by Jenica Chua.
_ Od. 2007, "NMP overstepped role in championing gay cause", by Jenica Chua.
____________Tjo April 2009, “Unknowns knock out veterans at AWARE polls”, by Wong Kim Hoh.
____________. 17 April 2009, “DBS tells why it rebuked Josie Lau”. by Wong Kim Hoh.
____________(38 April 2009. “Some attend the same church", by Tan Dawn Wei.
____________ J . April 2009. “Claire Nazar: Why I quit as AWARE President", by Serene Goh.
--- #£4 April 2009a. "Dr Thio upset about sexuality programme", by Zakir Hussain.
_____________^4 April 2009b. “Long-time member and new Exco lock horns”, by Radha Basu.
_____________^t4 April 2009c. “Petition against new AWARE", by Derrick Ho.
__________ ,*4 April 2009d, “Well suited for job”. Forum Page, by Gwenda Loong.
--- #£.5 April 2009a. "Schools should not invite group to give sex talks”. Forum Page (Online), by Tan Siew Cheng.
^ ^ til;- April 2009b, “AWARE rift: Govt leaders call for tolerance", by Robin Chan and Jamie Ee.
____________-Jg7 April 2009, “Keep religion above ■petty politics’, says Vivian", by Li Xueying.
- - - #i9 April 2009. "MOE: No complaints from parents. Dr Thio”. Forum Page, by Sum Chee Wah Diredor. Education Programmes. Ministry of Education.
____________g£t May 2009a, “Church against homosexuality as 'normal alternative lifestyle'", by Nut Dianah Suhaimi.
__________. May 2009b, “Churches should stay out of AWARE tussle", by Zakir Hussain and Wong Kim Hoh.
____________. 3 May 2009, “ 'Feminist mentor' responds to jibes”, by Sandra Davie.
____________gki May 2009, "AWARE sex guide suspended”, by Diana Othman.
__________ Jji Feb. 2010, “Pastor called up by ISD". by Yen Feng.
__________ : April 2010. “Ministry picks groups to teach sexuality education", by Teo Shang Long and Liew Hanqing. , j.5 June 2010, “Church pastor apologies”. Yen Feng.
Making Singapore’s Liberal Base Visible Chua Beng Huat
Singapore is a postcolonial sodety with particularistic charaderistics. Historical evidence showed that the island was a trade centre in the fourteenth century when it was Temasek. However, by the time of Stamford Raffles' arrival it was no more than a tiny settlement, which facilitated Raffles’ bringing the island under the absolute control of the East India Company and its later transfer to the British colonial office. With the founding of the trading post, waves of immigrants came from China. South Asia and the islands of Malay Archipelago. Singapore was a settler country, with a multiracial immigrant population.
The colonisation of Singapore island did not result in the destruction of a local economy, indigenous culture or pre-modem state/government system. Without an indigenous state prior to British colonisation, there were no traditional leaders that could readily claim the right to govern; there was no past political system that could be dusted off and reinstated as the government system. No bloody war of independence was fought; consequently there were no military leaders who could claim political leadership and establish a military regime, on account of having shed blood for the new nation. The island-state, declared independent on 9 August 1965, had to be constituted entirely on the template of a modern state.
In the midst of the Cold War. two models of modem state formation were available for emulation: the liberal democratic state of the so-called Free World or the Communist State. Having been through a decade of “Emergency War" with the Malayan Communist Party, from the end of Japanese Occupation in 1946 to Malaya independence in 1957, Malaysia would not accept a communist Singapore. Neither would Indonesia, which was in the midst of the bloodiest massacre of communists and their alleged or real fellow travellers, nor the Philippines, where the Communist Party remains an organised insurgent force. Besides, the People’s Action Party (PAP) itself had been through an internal struggle between the allegedly pro-communist left faction and the English-university-educated social demodats within the party that led to the splitting of the left-wing to form Barisan Socialis. Not surprisingly, the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore is one that contains all the individual rights and freedoms of a liberal democracy, with a significant difference: Singapore is to be a "multiracial" nation and there is to be racial equality.
Framing Governance: Repression. Race and Religion
The PAP had already begun to consolidate its power from the point it formed the first eleded parliament in 1959. Political suppression induded prolong jailing of alleged communists under the Internal Security Ad which allows for detention without trial, and deregistering radical labour unions, replacing them with government-backed industrial unions under the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). With the PAP-NTUC partnership. industrial "peace” was imposed — workers’ rights trimmed and employers’ rights expanded — making Singapore attractive to foreign capital to drive the nascent industrialisation. In 1968. the left-wing politicians who remained outside prisons committed collective political suidde by refusing to partake in the general elections. This last rash ad gave the PAP its first absolute parliamentary majority and control of the state, with periodic adjustments to eledoral procedures needed to maintain this absolute hold on power. Repressive authoritarianism was at its most vehement during the 1960s and 1970s. This was "condoned” internationally by the Cold War atmosphere. Against the 1965 massade of alleged communists in Indonesia, the ten-year insurgency in Malaya (1946— 56). and the long revolutionary war in Vietnam, political detentions in Singapore were rather minor offences and as such drew little, if any. condemnation from the liberal nations of the West. Subsequently, in the past two decades, political suppression of dissent became more sporadic and targeted against specific individuals; nevertheless, threat of suppression continues to cast long shadows on the population. Collective memories of the past remain undiminished; the indeased use of defamation suits as a means of controlling dissent and criticisms provides evidence of continuing repression. Race is another area where intense government intervention was evident from the start. The reality of the three racial groups is translated into a basis of governance in many areas of social life. In contrast to the logic of liberal individual rights, constitutionally equality of race operates on the logic of group rights. For example, “mother-tongue” languages are given equal emphasis in school. In the logic of equality of groups, individual preferences are of little concern; until recently, competency in mother-tongue language was required for entrance to local tertiary education. Politically, the PAP government is obsessively preoccupied with the threat to racial peace and harmony, incessantly recalling the 1964 race riots to remind all that racial violence is always around the comer if vigilance to keep it at bay slackened. Race is the fault-line that calls for active governance and policing, including criminalisation of racial chauvinism. Religion overlaps with race in a complex manner: Hinduism is exclusively Indian, but Indians can be Muslims, Buddhists or Christians. Chinese can convert into any religion; they may. and many do, pray in Hindu temples but Hinduism disallows conversion. Malay is made coterminous with Islam, by Constitution. Likening religious conflicts with racial violence, the boundaries between different religions are sites of government policing; the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Ad prohibits offensive proselytising and insensitive attempts at conversion to avoid conflid; Islam does not allow conversion while Christians are duty bound to convert others. Legal constraints on religion as public institutions are couched in terms of modem state, that is the separation of religion and politics. However, the PAP government does not strictly abide by this injunction as Islam exclusively is politically represented directly in parliament by the Minister of Muslim Affairs. Nevertheless, the PAP government accepts the liberal individual right and freedom of belief.
Meanwhile, as it is the medium of education Singaporeans has become indeasingiy English-speaking and literate. This is justified because it is the language by which success and failure are sorted out and individualised. It serves the logic of meritodaey. Of course, instrumental justification of English as merely the language of public administration and commerce is naive, if not disingenuous. Inevitably, it becomes the language by which individuals formulate and articulate their social and cultural values. Two developments are significant. First, national interests come to be articulated indeasingiy through English, as the other official Asian languages become indeasingiy identified with the interests of their respective races. Second, especially for tertiary-educated Singaporeans, abstrad values become indeasingiy expressed in English. English affords ready access to the language of individualism, reinforced by the ideology of meritodaey which justifies subjective rights, desires and demands, in contrast to the conservative values taught in Asian languages and promoted as cultural ballast and heritage. In sum. the political sphere is framed by two sets of fadors. On the one hand, it is framed by a collective memory of repression and ongoing occasional instances of suppression of dissent and public debates in issues of race and religion. This constitutes the authoritarianism of the PAP state. On the other hand, the logic of meritodaey promotes liberal economic individualism, and of liberal individual rights in freedom of belief and of self-expression. albeit heavily circumscribed by laws that govern race and religion. This liberalism is diffused and veiled by the conventionally obsessive criticism of authoritarianism; a liberalism that the AWARE event made visible.
At the contad zones of these two logics, in areas not covered by formal politics, public race and/or public religion, is the space for small “p" political activities and political subjed formation, in what is conventionally known as dvil sodety. This is the area of “cultural politics" writ small, where choice is given greatest freedom as subjective preferences, as self-expression of lifestyles and identities. In the politics of culture, choice is supreme, liberalism rules. Led by and responding to a general global condition. Singapore has undoubtedly been liberalising the cultural sphere.
While student rebellions in Asia were mainly bloody confrontations with authoritarian regimes, such as the Thammasat University massade of 6 Odober 1973 and the Burmese student rebellion of 8 August 1988. the long 1960s social revolution, on university campuses and the streets in the West, spawned a string of new social "liberation" movements, including the Women's Liberation movement, which later morphed into the Feminist movement, and engendered the Gay Rights movement. These new social movements reconfigured conventional conceptions of social order and re-imagined the world as desired rather than accepting the world as given. The feminist movement detached the concept of gender from its conventional equation with biological sex. Gender was exposed as a historically determined and socially construded phenomenon for which biological sex is merely an excuse, an ideological alibi, to keep women in a socially unequal and disadvantaged position relative to men. The most immediate contestation for any women’s organisation is to liberate women from subordination. This was a primary motivating force in the founding of AWARE in the early 1980s.
Meanwhile, deeper social changes had been taking place in Singapore although these were often missed or dismissed by political critics who had their eyes fixated on the unchanging PAP-dominated single-party parliamentary political structure. With 40 years of continuous economic expansion built in large measure on an indeasingiy educated work force, sodety has become far too complex to be contained by authoritarianism — social class differences have become more visible with the emergence of a growing middle class; consumerism has affeded everyone, generating a plethora of lifestyle choices, the body has become a locus of status display through food consumption and adornment; exposed to different cultural beliefs and practices, not least liberal Western ideas, personal beliefs have varied, fragmenting any remnants of shared values; overall, self-identity has become an aesthetic work in progress. This liberalisation of culture and liberal self-formation is a dynamic process that does not look back but only looks forward; personal preferences and desires kept expanding and changing, transgressing limits after limits.
Forced by circumstance, the PAP government has responded proactively to the social change by way of promoting “culture", not surprisingly, cast in terms of improving the nation's attractiveness to globally mobile talents who might be attraded to work here. During his watch. PM Goh Chok Tong aimed for “a culturally vibrant sodety. defined as one whose people are well-informed, deative. sensitive and gradous". A whole slew of arts institutions was established: the Ministry of Information. Communication and the Arts (MICA), the National Arts Council (NAC). several museums under the National Heritage Board, new campuses for the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LaSalle Art Institute, the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay. a new National Library and a new secondary School for the Arts. In addition to the annual Singapore Arts Festival, the Singapore Biennale is now part of the arts calendar. The visibility of the “high” culture promotion garnered positive international publidty. TIME magazine. Asian edition (19 July 1999), dedared on its cover, “Singapore Swings"; inside, it writes “the dty-state is getting competitive, deative and even funky”. Music to the ears of the PAP leadership better known for their straitlaced, no-nonsense and morally righteous governance!
Government support is partly a mode of incorporating the arts into its economic and political calculus. But arts and artists are not easily digestible. Art in all its modalities privileges itself as a practice in examining the complexities of social life, raising issues, criticising conventional practices, testing and transgressing conventional boundaries, pushing the limits of mainstream and government-promoted ideological concepts. The battleground is censorship. If an artistic critidsm passes without comment from relevant public agendes. it is a moment of liberalising culture and liberation for its practitioner. If a challenged authority chooses to censor or enforce modification of the artistic practice, it shows its repressive hands and by extension, the repressiveness of the state, calling attention and raising public interests and debates. Hence, in spite of the government’s moral conservatism, public agendes are indeasingiy reluctant to exercise censorship. Furthermore, agendes with the mandate to promote culture have, with an eye on their own interests, contributed to liberalising the cultural sphere.
A relevant example is the history of the women-centred play Talaq (Islamic word for divorce), a monologue composed from “true life experiences of voiceless minority Indian (Tamil) Muslim women [that] explores the issue of adultery, marital violence and rape, oppression and culture of silence forced upon these women by their kith and kin. dominant males and community”.1 Although the play had been staged twice before and the NAC had provided funding for the publication of the play in English and Tamil, a public entertainment license for staging the play separately in English and Malay was denied in Odober 2002. on grounds of “religious sensitivities”. Arguably, the NAC was forced to recommend banning because of the theatre group's uncompromising resistance to a preview of the play by. among others, all male members from Indian Muslim organisations. The theatre group had antidpated the preview would result either in serious censoring or an outright ban. The ban unavoidably detraded from the dedibility of NAC and the government as supporters of the arts. The confrontation of freedom of the arts and protest from “offended" religious individuals and groups in this inrident may be said to have anticipated the AWARE incident.