The sequence of events popularly knows as the AWARE saga, which took place in 2009, was a landmark in Singapore's feminist, human rights and LGBT 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 over a thousand women outraged by the inexperienced executive committee's questionable actions and agenda.
- 1 Dramatic leadership takeover
- 1.1 New executive committee members
- 1.1.1 Claire Nazar quits
- 1.1.2 Josie Lau appointed new president
- 1.1.3 Old guard's reaction to new exco
- 1.1.4 New exco refuses press interviews
- 1.1.5 DBS Bank upset over Josie Lau's appointment
- 1.1.6 Background checks on new exco members
- 1.1 New executive committee members
- 2 Old guard calls for extraordinary general meeting
- 3 Josie Lau's letter to media
- 4 Braema Mathi sacked as CEDAW committee chairman
- 5 Old guard's response to Josie Lau's letter
- 6 Talking Point interviews new exco members
- 7 New exco holds press conference
- 8 AWARE office locks changed, centre manager fired
- 9 Old guard holds press conference
- 10 MOE contacts Thio Su Mien regarding allegations about AWARE's sexuality education programme
- 11 Minister Vivian Balakrishnan comments on AWARE saga
- 12 National Council of Churches of Singapore issues statement
- 13 Extraordinary general meeting at Suntec City
- 14 Newly elected exco to amend Constitution
- 15 Talking Point interviews Dana Lam & Braema Mathi
- 16 Reinstated old guard resumes office, makes changes
- 17 MOE reviews schools' sexuality education programmes
- 18 Attendance boost at Pink Dot
- 19 AWARE's new directions
- 20 Book published
- 21 See also
- 22 References
- 23 Acknowledgements
Dramatic leadership takeover
In March 2009, AWARE saw a dramatic and unexpected changing of the guard which some members described as nothing short of a leadership grab, ). 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 (AGM) on 28 March 2009, everyone expected the usual - no more than 30 or 40 members would turn up at its Dover Crescent headquarters, 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.
Immediate past president Constance Singam had gone for the meeting but walked out just as it began.
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 (exco) seats went to the newcomers. Longtime members took 2 other positions: Chew I-Jin as assistant honorary treasurer and Caris Lim Chai Leng was elected an exco member.
However, three hours into the AGM, Caris Lim also walked out. Red eyed and with a trembling voice, she said, 'I'm very disillusioned. I don't like what's going on inside, so I'm walking out.' She would not say more, and left hurriedly.
Approached later to comment on Lim's exit from the meeting, Constance Singam said, 'We are not resigning. It's an organisation we've been committed to for a long time.'
The elections left only one AWARE veteran, assistant honorary treasurer Chew I-Jin, with the rest of the all-new team. Longtime AWARE members were in shock.
New executive committee members
The following members were elected to AWARE’s new exco during the annual general meeting held on 28 March 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: Josie Lau Meng Lee, Catherine Tan Ling Ghim, Lois Ng, Irene Yee Khor Quin, Peggy Leong Pek Kay
Claire Nazar quits
Claire Nazar, a former corporate counsel, was an older member who had joined AWARE in January 2008 and was elected unopposed as president. She was nominated by outgoing AWARE head Constance Singam. But eleven days into her new term, and before making her first statement as president, Nazar quit suddenly, on Wednesday, 8 April 2009.
Nazar confirmed with the media that she had resigned and initially declined to comment further. It was not known who would then become president. However, Nazar later revealed to The Straits Times in an article dated 20 April 2009 that it was because she 'did not want the hassle' of working with the new executive committee, which she felt was 'too gung-ho' for her with its 'Stormtrooper tactics'.
"For starters, the new exco did not seem to take kindly to having input from former president Constance Singam or any of the veteran members of the 24-year-old women's group, Nazar said.
She was also troubled by how at the first exco meeting - a 3 1/2-hour session - about a week after the AGM on 28 March 2009, the committee replaced almost all the appointed chairpersons of subcommittees based only on a majority vote.
That broke with AWARE's tradition of allowing chairpersons who were doing a good job to continue their work.
Worse, they kept Nazar, then 37 years of age, out of the loop on various matters, and even insisted that she complete the AGM minutes within days.
The members visited the AWARE office so frequently that staff, who had not got used to the idea of the newcomers, were jittery and complained about their requests.
'They come in, take charge - almost every day they're at the AWARE office, getting hold of documents, reading them, making their presence felt.'
The irony was that Nazar had nominated six of the current remaining 11 exco members. This came about after Singam advised her to include fresh blood among the exco members who could then work with older members to ensure continuity.
Of the six, two were old-time AWARE members, Chew I-Jin and Caris Lim, and another was Nazar's former classmate, Catherine Tan. The other three, Peggy Leong, Lois Ng and Josie Lau, were acquaintances.
She picked them based on their credentials and 'the merit of their previous experience'. Besides, she added, 'they had expressed keen interest, and I thought they were people I could work with'.
Josie Lau was in fact an acquaintance of Nazar's husband, lawyer Boaz Nazar, who was also a deacon at Cornerstone Community Church. He had met her in the course of his social work.
At Nazar's urging, Lau joined AWARE at the start of the year. Nazar said that since joining AWARE, she had made it a habit of asking women to sign up.
Unlike previous AGMs, where 30 or 40 people would turn up, the March 28 meeting was attended by more than 100. Many were new faces and new AWARE members.
Nazar said she at first put it down to a recent surge in AWARE membership. 'I just thought, 'Wow this is interesting.' Nobody thought too much about it.'
She won the presidency unopposed.
But when Chew was knocked out of the running for vice-president, it dawned on her that something was amiss, she said.
Nazar responded by nominating Chew for the post of assistant honorary treasurer. Chew was returned unopposed.
In the end, all six of Nazar's nominees got into the exco. Five others - all recent members - were also voted in.
She was shocked at the outcome, she said. 'Of course I was. Who wouldn't be?'
It soon became apparent that the new exco did not share many of her views, she said.
Being a member of AWARE for only a little over a year herself, she felt that she and the exco's newest members could use the advice of those more senior.
Ultimately, she said, 'the majority of the new exco members did not share my views or direction, particularly with regard to their call for an overhaul of existing chairs of key sub-committees to be replaced by new members. I personally disagreed with the exco's approach'.
She quit to avoid the 'in-house politicking'.
'I didn't want to waste my time. Every hour spent at AWARE means one hour away from my family and children...I'm quite happy to step out of the picture,' said the mother of two young children, who is also a marriage counsellor.
Josie Lau appointed new president
On Wednesday night, 15 April 2009, during a new exco meeting which lasted nearly four hours, Josie Lau Meng Lee, then 48 years of age and a DBS executive holding the post of vice-president of consumer banking group cards and unsecured loans, was appointed as AWARE's new president. She had been on the new exco since the AGM elections held on 28 March 2009 but did not hold any office.
After midnight, in the early hours of 16 April 2009, the new exco issued a press release announcing Lau's appointment as president. It acknowledged the contributions of AWARE and its past members and pledged to build on their work.
The new team did not indicate what they intended doing differently from the previous leadership. Nor did they deal with the buzz over their takeover of AWARE, in particular, concerns expressed about their conservative views on sexuality.
A beaming Lau refused to take questions from reporters when she emerged from the exco meeting. But she said she was pleased and delighted to be president.
'Together with the new exco which was duly elected under the Constitution, I will build on the good work of the past AWARE members who advanced the causes for women in all areas of society through advocacy, research and community work,' she said.
The following day, on Friday, 17 April 2009, Lau sent the media a statement (see section further below) in which she said, among other things, that the new exco was eager to start work but 'there were repeated delays in convening the first exco meeting. Nazar kept re-scheduling the meeting'.
Old guard's reaction to new exco
In response to Lau's comments, Nazar said: 'What delays are they talking about?'
She said potential meeting dates were being bandied about to accommodate the schedules of both the new and old excos, something that could hardly be called repeated rescheduling.
'In fact, when we finally settled on the date, I wrote to them half-jokingly: 'Can you please be living proof that women can work together?
As to whether the new team had what it takes to run AWARE, Nazar said 'in terms of their work skills, yes'. But in terms of their people skills, she would only say 'no comment'.
Of the fear among veteran AWARE members that the new exco was out to change the group's all-inclusive stand on matters like sexuality, she said: 'So far, in my 11 days of dealing with them, I've not found anything negative in terms of their intentions.
'What people are most worried about seems to be whether they are going to be taking an anti-gay stance. In that sense, I highly doubt it. AWARE is all about being anti-discrimination.'
The Sunday Times tried to reach several exco members for their comments on what Nazar said, but all had either their cellphones switched off or were not picking up calls.
Nazar said she was motivated to join AWARE in January 2008 because it championed women's issues.
'I've always had a passion for advocacy because both my parents were born deaf-mute. I had to learn from a very young age to take care of them and speak up on their behalf,' said the only child of a seamstress mother and artist father.
She also wanted to contribute on matters related to family and marriage, especially the plight of working mothers.
Shortly after she joined, Constance Singam, then AWARE's president, invited her to be part of the exco. She accepted.
Earlier in 2009, when Singam mentioned she needed a successor, Nazar offered to stand.
'I wanted to continue the work that AWARE was doing. I saw it as my job to review initiatives which had been left on the backburner, and revive the ones that worked.'
She said the old guard was supportive, and had urged her to hang on to her position. They also do not seem to blame her for bringing in the new members.
'The first thing I did after I resigned was to call up Constance Singam and apologise.'
She added that she would continue to stay an active member of AWARE, but said the public fallout since then has been 'the most horrible thing that has happened to me'.
Indeed, after her resignation, questions about Nazar were also raised. The buzz surrounded a letter she wrote to The Straits Times Forum page in July 2007 in which she voiced her concerns about same-sex couples.
By association, her beliefs - that she is opposed to premarital sex, abortion and homosexuality - came to the fore.
Sighing, she said: 'For the record, I am not anti-gay.'
As to the speculation that she was part of a concerted effort by the new guard to oust the old, but who pulled out at the last minute, she replied in a word: 'No.'
'I just want to see AWARE moving forward, and I really don't care who does it, as long as they can account for themselves.'"
Tan Joo Hymn & Dana Lam
Former president Tan Joo Hymn, then 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 was then a full-time mother.
Tan added, “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.
Another former president, writer Dana Lam, then 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.”
“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.
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?”
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 subcommittees 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 is a brand name and most people regard it as the leading voice of the feminists and modern women in Singapore,” said Lim.
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.”
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.
New exco refuses press interviews
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.
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. 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.
DBS Bank upset over Josie Lau's appointment
Shortly after Josie Lau announced that she was AWARE's new president, posed for pictures and made brief comments to reporters, her employer, DBS Bank, issued a statement on the night of Wednesday, 15 April 2009, expressing unhappiness that she had taken the top post.
DBS said it had told her just before the AWARE exco meeting on 15 April 2009 that it did not support her running for president. The bank said it supported employees' participation in community work, but they needed approval before taking on external appointments.
And Lau did not have the green light to be AWARE president.
'We believe that as a vice-president in DBS, she already has a challenging job with many responsibilities, and the role of president would demand too much of her time and energy,' a DBS spokesman said.
DBS said it was only on the afternoon of Wednesday, 15 April 2009, just hours before the exco was due to pick the new president, that Lau informed the bank of her intentions.
'We reviewed her request and subsequently informed her that while the bank continued to support her involvement in Aware, we could not support her intention to run for president, given the demands associated with the top post of a leading advocacy group in Singapore,' a spokesman said.
DBS was upset that Lau ignored a code of conduct that applied to all staff. 'We are disappointed that Josie knowingly disregarded DBS' staff code of conduct twice. Such an attitude is not one that DBS, or any other organisation, can condone in a leader,' the spokesman said.
The bank then conducted an internal review over how Lau disregarded its advice against taking on the top post at AWARE.
The public rebuke shocked not only Aware members who have been dealing with a string of dramatic events recently, but also others who thought it unfair for the bank to say Lau had too much on her plate at work to take on a voluntary position.
On Thursday, 16 April 2009, DBS Bank revealed that Lau had breached its staff code of conduct twice in recent weeks.
She did not tell the bank before running for a spot on the Aware executive committee, revealing that only two weeks after the 28 March 2009 annual general meeting. Yet, the bank decided to support her carrying on as an Aware exco member.
Lau could not be reached to comment as the new team wanted media queries to be channelled via the AWARE office. New exco member Lois Ng said Lau was the only Aware official allowed to respond to media queries, but she was going through 'a difficult period'.
The turn of events left some incredulous Aware members asking if they would witness the election of a third new president soon.
Former Aware vice-president Margaret Thomas thought Lau might then have to choose between her job and Aware.
She found DBS' public rebuke of Lau most unusual and it made her wonder whether there were any other reasons for DBS to be concerned about her prominent role at Aware.
The leadership change at Aware had created an immense public buzz, with concerns over what the new team was planning and its views on various issues, including homosexuality.
In 2008, DBS Bank drew protests from some customers upset that it had chosen the group Focus on the Family as the beneficiary for a charity drive. Customers pointed out that the charity, and its American parent body, took a conservative Christian stand against abortion and homosexuals.
Lau's division was given the job of recommending a charity for DBS to support. Neither she nor the bank would comment on that.
Background checks on new exco members
Anti-gay letters to press
An initial 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 associate member of AWARE who attended the AGM on 28 March 2009, helped count the votes and supported the newcomers, all wrote letters to this newspaper between August and October 2007.
In a letter dated 17 October 2007, 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 25 October 2007, 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.
A later Straits Times article dated 18 April 2009 furnished personal details on what the paper called "AWARE's power couple" - newly elected president Josie Lau and her husband Dr Alan Chin.
Josie Lau Meng Lee was described as sociable, chatty and a lover of good food by those who knew her. When Lau had her wonton mee, she liked the noodles cooked in fresh, boiling water. If it was not done right, she would send it back. That was how finicky the 48-year-old DBS vice-president and new AWARE chief was about her food.
None of her colleagues and ex-colleagues who spoke to The Straits Times had heard her speak about involvement in volunteer work.
But they were well-acquainted with her gourmet and jetsetting lifestyle, cultivated in part by her work organising glamorous fashion, food and lifestyle events, and accompanying her doctor-husband to medical conferences overseas.
In previous interviews with the newspaper, Lau said that she and her husband, Dr Alan Chin, had not missed a single World Gourmet Summit since its inception in 1997.
'I live to eat, rather than eat to live,' she said in a 2004 interview, adding that she attended seven Gourmet Summit events that year.
'I'm the type who would rather go hungry than have terrible food,' she said then. 'I send things back to the kitchen if they're not up to standard, even wonton noodles from hawker stalls.'
She was known to frequent upmarket eateries as well as hawker centres.
Friends described the well-groomed mother of two teenagers as sociable and chatty. One long-time friend said she was a 'complete opposite' of her more serious husband.
Her curriculum vitae, released by AWARE, said she was instrumental in developing high-profile events like the Singapore Food Festival, Great Singapore Sale and Singapore Fashion Festival.
A former colleague at the STB recalled another side of Lau, saying she enjoyed listening to Christian music in her office.
She would also tell single colleagues that if they wanted to find a spouse, the best place to look was in church. And she would encourage them to attend.
As for areas she would be interested in in her new role, the AWARE write-up said she was most concerned about work-life balance and the role of mothers as a stabilising factor in a family.
Lau made brief comments to reporters after her appointment as president on the night of 15 April 2009, but had otherwise remained uncontactable.
She had not taken questions about herself or her plans for AWARE, or DBS Bank's public criticism of her for flouting bank rules by joining the AWARE exco without its approval and defying her bosses' advice against becoming president.
Dr Alan Chin
A companion Straits Times article published on the same day also disclosed personal details of Lau's husband, Dr Alan Chin Yew Liang.
The report revealed that Chin was quiet and devoted to religious activities. He had expressed his views on homosexuality before in letters to the Straits Times Forum.
Lau may have been a livewire but Chin was the quiet one. His friends remarked that Chin, then 51, had never been known to be the life of the party.
In fact, he had stopped going to parties in recent years, preferring to devote his time to religious activities, according to a longtime friend.
Chin made his presence felt at the AWARE AGM on March 28 even though he could not vote.
AWARE had long accepted men as associate members and he had recently joined. His wife joined in January 2009.
Old guard members at the AGM said that he was one of the many unfamiliar new faces who turned up and, during the elections, had helped to count the votes.
Later, when they checked to find out who he was, all they could find was that he had penned six letters to The Straits Times between May and August 2007 speaking out against the "homosexual lifestyle", and citing the higher incidence of HIV cases among homosexuals.
In one letter, he said that homosexuals could change their sexual orientation.
He and three classmates set up Lifeline Medical Group, which had since expanded to encompass nine general practitioner clinics and one aesthetic clinic.
Among the partners was well-known watch collector and horology expert Dr Bernard Cheong, then 51, who had known Chin since they were first-year medical students.
'He's a nice guy, and he and Josie are a very loving couple. I would definitely want him as my doctor,' Cheong said with a hearty laugh.
When The Straits Times called him, Dr Chin declined to be interviewed, but asked to be contacted through his e-mail address. He did not respond to questions nor subsequent messages.
In an interview published in the Singapore Medical Association's newsletter in January 2007, he described himself and his interests.
He said his parents were the biggest influence on his early life, and his father told him when he was in primary school that God had given him intelligence and that he would succeed if he worked hard, he said in the same interview.
He revealed that he spent Sunday mornings going to church and spending time with his family, his favourite book was the Bible, and his favourite song was Faith by Jason Upton, an American Christian singer-songwriter.
He also let on some nuggets about himself - his biggest indulgence was buying a BMW Cabriolet and he thought everyone should watch The Lord Of The Rings because it was the 'best show and trilogy ever!'.
The BMW Cabriolet has since given way to a Toyota MPV, a friend said.
In the same 2007 interview, when asked what he wanted to be remembered for, he said, "a loving husband and father and a loyal friend".
When contacted, NMP Thio declined to answer any questions. Chin did not respond to questions e-mailed to him either.
However, checks showed that Dr Thio Su Mien and her husband, Thio Gim Hock, the chief executive officer of property investor Overseas Union Enterprise attended the church and also hold regular faith-healing sessions at their home.
Church Of Our Saviour
Up to that point, the new AWARE leaders had refused to answer questions about whether they knew each other before sweeping the elections on 28 March 2009.
When contacted, the Church's senior pastor Derek Hong would not answer any questions about his church members or AWARE.
When asked if any of the new AWARE exco members attended his church, he replied, 'No comment.'
'Homosexual practice is contrary to God's Word. So we stand against that and the active and aggressive promotion of such behaviour,' it stated.
It believed homosexuals could change, and had an ex-gay programme to counsel and help those who wanted to give up 'homosexual thoughts, tendencies and practices'.
Old guard calls for extraordinary general meeting
A group of 160 AWARE veterans launched a counter-attack, calling for an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) where they intended to table a vote of no confidence against the new committee. The 160 signatories made up about 30 per cent of AWARE's membership of more than 500 at the time.
In a statement issued on 14 April 2009, they expressed concern over the unusual nature of the 28 March 2009 annual general meeting.
Older members present were shocked when the newcomers contested and won almost all positions, beating more seasoned members by wide majorities. They were also unhappy about online speculation about the reasons why a group who joined AWARE only recently staged a leadership grab.
Those calling for an EGM also found it disturbing that Claire Nazar, who was elected president without a contest, resigned within days.
The new exco members had yet to make known publicly who they were, how they were connected, what prompted them to take over in the manner that they did, or their plans for the organisation.
Repeated attempts to reach exco members for comments had drawn a blank since the previous week.
Corinna Lim, then 44, a spokesman for the old guard and one of the 160 members calling for the EGM, said, 'It is necessary to have an EGM because we need an open discussion of what their agenda is. We've had a lot of calls from concerned members but we have had no communication from the new exco. We don’t know who these people are. We’ve not heard a word from them for the past two-and-a-half weeks. It didn’t help that people were speculating all kinds of things on the Internet. In fact, in times like these, the exco should come out to respond quickly. It is very bad if this continues. People will come up with their own ideas and it will be damaging for the integrity of the organisation.'
Responding to comments in TODAY by veteran journalist P N Balji that AWARE should live up to its spirit of “championing the need for choices in a pluralistic society” and so accept the new line-up, Lim said the EGM would precisely serve this purpose.
“It will be an opportunity for members to raise their concerns with the exco and also for the new exco to explain their values and vision of AWARE. If the general meeting is happy with their goals, we’ll go along. If not, we’ll put (the matter) to a vote,” she added.
Lim, a corporate counsel, explained that under the AWARE constitution, an EGM must be called if 10 per cent of the membership ask for one in writing. Given the rules, it could be held within a month. Members of the old guard asked that the notice to call the EGM be issued no later than 14 days from the date of the request. This was the first time that the society had called for one.
Braema Mathi, who was in the group calling for an EGM, said members needed to know more from the new exco. "This is not a case of forcing their hand,' she said. 'Members want to ask questions and the best way to do it is to have an open forum. We need to know where we are heading, and they have not been forthcoming with that so far."
The Straits Times contacted new exco members Irene Yee and Catherine Tan on 14 April 2009, but both said they did not know about the move to call for an EGM. They declined to take questions, saying a press release would be issued 'in the next few days' - which was what other new exco members said the week before.
One of those calling for the EGM was writer Ovidia Yu, who said of the new team, 'I would like them to say what their goals are. Will AWARE's ongoing projects be continued?'
Yu had joined AWARE seven years ago and was unhappy that the new members who contested the elections were not more upfront earlier about who they were and what their plans were.
'Why didn't they come and make themselves known to us first?' she asked. 'Did they form a group first and join AWARE after that? Or did they join one by one and then vote for each other? We want to know.'
AWARE’s new vice-president Charlotte Wong was tight-lipped when TODAY newspaper met her at the group’s office on 14 April 2009.
“None of us can answer your questions until the exco meets. We’re just following the rules. They are in the constitution,” said Wong. “We’ll be releasing a statement after we meet.”
However, a check with AWARE’s constitution turned up no such rule.
Josie Lau's letter to media
On 17 April 2009, Josie Lau sent the following letter to the media:
"I refer to the report, 'Unknowns knock out veterans at AWARE polls' (The Straits Times, April 10) and various letters and media articles that followed.
We are delighted in the renewed interest in the reinvigorated AWARE and its democratically elected Executive Committee.
There are a few important factors that warrant making, which will lend clarity to the nature of the electoral process which sparked such intense attention.
Ten of 12 positions were openly contested. Old Guard Chew I-Jin's position was not contested. The entire meeting lasted 3-1/2 hours as some 20 candidates gave electoral speeches and fielded questions from the floor.
As Mrs Singam noted at the AGM's beginning, AWARE's recruitment drive had succeeded through its marketing efforts. From a high of 675 in 1998, ordinary membership plummeted to 253 in 2008. At last count, there are about 400 members, and membership continues to grow at an impressive rate.
The new exco members were eager to start work. However, there were repeated delays in convening the first exco meeting. Mrs Nazar kept re-scheduling the meeting.
The first meeting was held on April 7. On April 8, Mrs Nazar abruptly and unilaterally resigned by e-mail. This left us president-less. The AWARE constitution requires seven days' notice to call exco meetings. We acted swiftly and called the second exco meeting on April 15. Josie Lau was named new president unopposed. A press release was immediately issued.
As president, I am disappointed that before the second exco meeting on April 15, a requisition for an EOGM for the apparent purpose of replacing the elected exco was handed to AWARE on April 14. This contained 160 signatures. No more than five signatories were present at the March 28 AGM attended by 99 ordinary members and three associate members. Some 120 of the 160 signatories appear to have been recruited just after the AGM in time to swell support for the requisition.
In the face of intense media and cyber scrutiny, I must ask this question: Why have some people cast aspersions on our good intentions? Why are they so angry with us? We've only just begun.
We seek to improve the quality of life of women in Singapore. We are pro-women, pro-family and pro-Singapore. What is so objectionable about that? Does the old guard harbour an alternative agenda? If so, they should disclose their motives and objectives fully and honestly.
AWARE is a secular organisation. Its members come from different races, walks of life and hold different belief systems. Our commitment to advancing the cause of women unites us. As a democratic society, we cherish viewpoint diversity.
I have full confidence in my new exco team. We know many challenges lie ahead but this team is ready for the task.
Braema Mathi sacked as CEDAW committee chairman
On 18 April 2009, The Straits Times reported that the new exco had sacked Braema Mathi as chairman of AWARE's CEDAW committee via a terse e-mail two days before. There was not even a phone call, nor any reason or "thank you" given.
She was told she was no longer in charge effective from 28 March 2009, the date of AWARE's annual general meeting.
'Talk about being unceremoniously dumped,' said Braema. She been involved in preparing the CEDAW report since 2004. She had presented one report to the United Nations in 2007, and was in the midst of finishing a second with the help of more than 20 volunteers.
'I don't know what I have done wrong or am not doing right,' said Braema, who was then doing consultancy work for Unifem.
She was not the only one upset. Undergraduate Chen Siya, 22, who had volunteered on both past and present reports said: 'It's very disrespectful and it's not the right way of doing things.
'What they did is contrary to AWARE values of allowing people committed to advocacy to continue doing such work.'
Repeated attempts by The Straits Times to contact the new AWARE leadership for comment were unsuccessful.
Old guard's response to Josie Lau's letter
The old guard submitted the following rebuttal to The Straits Times Forum on 17 April 2009 in response to Josie Lau's letter:
"We are astonished that the new Exco is asking the 'old guard' to disclose our motives and objectives! Our motives and objectives have been fully visible for nearly 25 years in the policies and programmes that have been carried out by AWARE, and which we want to see continued.
It is the motives of the new Exco that have not been made clear. Our initial questions remain: What do you want to do in AWARE that is fundamentally different from what was already being done?
On Wednesday the new Exco released a statement saying they want to 'honour' the work of past AWARE members and intend to 'build' on the solid foundations laid by the founders.
This raises the question: If you think the work AWARE has done all these years is so good and you want to 'honour' and 'build' on it, why the need to muscle your way onto the Exco? Such a tactic suggests there may be a hidden agenda that may be contrary to the stance and ethos of AWARE.
Various developments since the AGM have only deepened our concerns about the motivations of the new Exco.
Braema Mathi, a past AWARE president, was informed in a curt e-mail on Thursday April 16 that her term of office as chair of the CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) sub-committee had ended on March 28, the day of the AGM. She was told to hand over all work in progress to the Exco on Friday April 17.
Braema headed the CEDAW sub-committee for five years and, with special training by the International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, presented AWARE's shadow CEDAW report at the United Nations two years ago. She has extensive experience of the CEDAW process and to dismiss her services midway during the writing of the current report seems counter-productive.
We noted with alarm DBS Bank's statements in the last two days about the professional conduct of the new AWARE president. It is highly unusual for a company to issue such media releases and in particular to make a statement such as this: 'We are disappointed that Josie knowingly disregarded DBS' staff code of conduct twice. Such an attitude is not one that DBS, or any other organisation, can condone in a leader.'
We were further alarmed by media reports that the new AWARE president led the marketing team in DBS's credit card campaign last year which supported the evangelical Christian organisation Focus on the Family. AWARE is a secular organisation that embraces diversity of race, age, religion, culture and sexuality. It must remain so."
Margaret Thomas' response
"STATEMENT 'SELECTIVE AND INACCURATE'
'My first response is that her statement is so selective and inaccurate. She said old guard Chew I-Jin's position was not contested. I-Jin was first nominated for vice-president (but she was challenged by a newcomer and lost). She has devoted 15 years to AWARE and often VPs go on to become presidents.
She was subsequently nominated for the minor post of Assistant Honorary Treasurer and that was uncontested.'
Former AWARE vice-president Margaret Thomas, 57"
Nancy Griffiths' response
"WHY IT WAS HEARTBREAKING
'Josie asks if the old guard harbours an alternative agenda and says we should disclose our motives and objectives fully and honestly.
'They should answer that themselves. I joined AWARE because I love it that these women worked so hard to propagate values of acceptance and all-inclusiveness, regardless of race, religion, sex or sexuality.
'I attended the AGM and it was heartbreaking when I stood up and asked if they understood the principles behind AWARE. They did not answer.
'I was flabbergasted.'
Singapore permanent resident Nancy Griffiths, 56, a mother of two and an AWARE member since 2002"
Talking Point interviews new exco members
On 19 April 2009, Channel NewsAsia broadcast an episode of "Talking Point" in which AWARE president, Josie Lau, honorary treasurer Maureen Ong and TODAY newspaper's senior reporter Loh Chee Kong were interviewed by Debra Soon, Chief Editor of MediaCorp TV News, and Editorial Consultant and veteran journalist, P N Balji. During the programme, Lau questioned the intentions of AWARE veterans unhappy over the election outcome,:
New exco holds press conference
During the emotionally-charged press conference, the new exco said that AWARE had lost its focus.
Drama erupted even before the news conference started with the current Honorary Treasurer Chew I-Jin accusing the new guard of intentionally excluding her from their news conference - "I'm utterly disappointed and disgusted because I'm meant to do a presentation alongside you, Lois (Ng, Executive Committee member)," said Chew.
During the one-and-a-half hour event, the group introduced well-known corporate lawyer Dr Thio Su Mien, as their so-called "Feminist Mentor". The term was obviously contrived as an analogue of Minister Mentor, a post created in 2004 for Lee Kuan Yew after his retirement as Senior Minister, to reflect his largely advisory role. Thio was the Senior Executive Director of TSMP Law Corporation and mother of Nominated MP, Dr Thio Li Ann.
The new exco accused AWARE of becoming a single purpose organisation, overly concerned with promoting lesbianism. They repeatedly raised examples like how the old guard had backed a lesbian film screening in 2007 and organised a lesbian-friendly Mother's Day event in 2006. And they wanted to bring the association back to what they said was its original noble cause.
When contacted for comment, former AWARE president Margaret Thomas said those comments were ridiculous and not deserving of any comment. Dr Thio Su Mien also revealed that she had e-mailed several groups with her concerns about the direction the association was taking, which prompted reporters to ask if the takeover was orchestrated.
The new exco said none of them intended to step down, but revealed that taking up office had come with risks. Several members received death threats which had been reported to the police. "Each day, I fear for the physical safety of my children, my family. There's even a blog site detailing my children's names and which schools they go to," said Josie Lau. The team would go ahead with the EGM planned for 2 May 2009 and was looking for a new venue to accommodate its burgeoning membership. It stood at 880 at the time and was still growing.
"Feminist Mentor" Thio Su Mien urged takeover
Senior lawyer Thio Su Mien, then 71, revealed on 22 April 2009 that she became disturbed when she noticed what she felt was AWARE's promotion of lesbianism and homosexuality. She then began urging women she knew to join AWARE and reset its focus on women's issues. Like several of the new exco members, Thio attended the Church Of Our Saviour. She described herself as a "Feminist Mentor" to working women, and at the press conference, was pressed for her role in the leadership grab at the AWARE AGM.
Q: Dr Thio, why didn't you run for a position in the exco? You have such strong views about everything and you are speaking on their behalf.
Thio Su Mien: No, I'm speaking on my behalf.
Maureen Ong: I want to make a point clear. We are not puppets of Dr Thio. We are mature, thinking professional women. We joined AWARE to stand for a cause that we believe in.
Q: Sure, but I still don't understand why Dr Thio didn't run for an exco position, someone with her qualifications and background?
Lois Ng: Honestly, AWARE is too small an outfit for her. It's for newbies like us.
Q: But (was the leadership takeover) orchestrated, planned beforehand? Was she the organiser?
Josie Lau: I will place on record, no.
Thio Su Mien: No, no, it depends on what you mean by organiser. Actually it's kind of flattering, in a way...
What I did was that I put down, collected info, I sent to different people. So it's up to you. You want to join? You go and join. If you want me to help you, I will help you.
So I'm quite happy with that because you see, you suddenly discover that networking helps, that if there's a view we want, we network through the e-mail. And I certainly have come out from the Jurassic Age because I'm quite proficient with e-mail and it is an efficient way of educating people.
Q: Dr Thio, are you implying that you have thought of it for a long time, that you planned all this?
Thio Su Mien: No, no. No, no, I have better things to do than this, okay? I have to earn a living, I work and I do a lot of other things. But the idea came I think round about when (AWARE held an AGM and only 29 people attended). So I said, what's happening?
How Josie Lau joined AWARE
Josie Lau joined AWARE in January 2009 after her husband's aunt, Dr Thio Su Mien, suggested it. AWARE member Claire Nazar also asked her to join and help with AWARE's marketing. Asked why she joined AWARE, Lau said:
"I've been married to the (Thio) family for 20 years. We meet occasionally once or twice a year, during Christmas, Chinese New Year. And she (Dr Thio) has been nagging me for the last 15, 20 years: 'Are you doing something in the public, contributing back to the community? You have such a good life, everything, you're jet-setting all the time. When?' And I wasn't ready.
But now my kids are much older, I feel that it's time for me to contribute and when last year I personally was very, very taken aback by the (choice of the movie) Spider Lilies for AWARE's premiere gala, that set me thinking: What actually is AWARE doing?
I did not join AWARE thinking that there will definitely be a new exco. I just knew that I was joining AWARE and if I stood for election and got elected, this is the area where I think I can contribute."
"No, the answer is no. We all attend Church Of Our Saviour. We joined the church at various different times. I didn't know any of these people until I got on to the committee.
Yes, we all attend the church. And really I only know Su Mien because I was invited by one of the people who attended her Tanglin fellowship to attend a talk that was given by Su Mien. And that was when I first met her. But I don't move in her circles. I'm a working mother. I don't move in her circles.
And I don't call Su Mien up. I didn't even know her mobile phone or home number until we got onto this committee and really, because of all the problems we're having - the death threats and so on - we went to our mentor to ask if she could help us in what we're trying to achieve. And that was only after we were appointed.'
She added that although Dr Thio held regular fellowship meetings at her home, she did not attend them because she had her own church cell group, which did not include any of the women on the AWARE exco."
AWARE office locks changed, centre manager fired
The new exco had ordered the locks changed to a new card system because they said there were too many spare keys floating around. But when locksmiths got there earlier on that night, they were shooed away by an office caretaker. The locksmiths returned later to carry out the task.
At 9:50pm on 23 April 2009, Josie Lau and four exco members arrived. About a dozen AWARE members were waiting. The press was asked to leave the office, but raised voices could be heard from behind the closed doors.
Several police officers arrived and stayed for about half-an-hour. One policeman told TODAY newspaper that someone had called for assistance.
Member Corrina Lim told TODAY that issues raised at the meeting involved the new key card system and the firing of centre manager Schutz Lee. Lim added that when asked why Lee was being sacked, AWARE vice-president Charlotte Wong replied that the manager had not followed instructions. The meeting ended at 10:45pm.
Old guard holds press conference
The following day, on 24 April 2009, the AWARE old guard held a press conference of their own to clarify their stand:
MOE contacts Thio Su Mien regarding allegations about AWARE's sexuality education programme
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan comments on AWARE saga
National Council of Churches of Singapore issues statement
The National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) issued a statement on the night of 30 April 2009 saying that it did not condone churches getting involved in the AWARE saga. It also did not approve of pulpits being used for the purpose and added that its member churches were not involved in the present events.
'In fact, our heads of churches have very recently reiterated to their clergy the standing instruction on the proper use of the pulpit,' it said.
The NCCS brings together churches from various Christian denominations, such as the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Salvation Army and Syrian Orthodox churches, among others. Its leadership was rotated among the heads of the major groups.
The then NCCS president, Reverend Chew, was also Bishop of the Anglican Church in Singapore.
The Church Of Our Saviour's senior pastor, Derek Hong, reportedly urged, in a Sunday sermon, the women in his flock to 'be engaged' and support new AWARE president Josie Lau and 'her sisters' at the group.
In its statement on 30 April 2009, the NCCS said it had been following the recent events related to AWARE.
'We are concerned that religion has been dragged into the unfortunate situation. The matters related to AWARE should be solved by its own members,' it said.
The NCCS went on to say that its stance on the matter 'does not preclude individual Christians, like all their fellow citizens, from contributing in matters of social concern and well-being'.
'Nor does it preclude churches from being involved in public square discussions within the rules of engagement in the multi-religious society that Singapore is,' it added.
The NCCS also noted that on various occasions in the past, it had participated responsibly when called upon to give its opinions or when there was a need to add its voice.
It did so most recently on the issue of reimbursement for organ donations.
'We believe that we can engage together in our common spaces in a spirit of mutual respect so that we can contribute positively to the well-being of our nation,' it added.
'In this particular situation, we should all step back and give AWARE space to settle its own matters,' it said.
Meanwhile, a number of lay Christians have also voiced concern that the saga may have been giving their religion a bad name.
In blogs and forums, a number of Christian netizens also said that religion had no role in secular organisations.
University lecturer Gwee Li Sui wrote an article that had since been reproduced on many websites.
In his piece "Christians Against AWARE Takeover", Dr Gwee, an assistant professor of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, said Christians like him had been shocked, angered, and saddened by the takeover and felt that their faith has been hijacked and their views ignored.
He said the new team, although well-meaning Christians, had no right to infiltrate 'a secular organisation in order to be in a position to dictate their own values in its daily running'.
'Just as we do not force the Christian faith down someone's throat against his or her will, we should not take over a non-religious organisation for the single purpose of making others unlike us behave as we believe.'
Many other bloggers expressed the same sentiment.
In her blog Of Kids And Education, Monica Lim, who ran a communications consultancy, said: 'Here's what Josie Lau and company have done - spout moral superiority, seize control using surprise tactics, spread propaganda, claim martyrdom.'
She added: 'I do not want my children learning that as Christians, they have the right to impose their beliefs on others via underhanded tactics.'
Cheryl Tay, 21, who attended Cornerstone Community Church, said the behaviour of some of AWARE's new exco members 'just perpetuates the misconception that Christianity is right-wing, and intolerant of other people's beliefs'.
Pastor Derek Hong expresses regret for actions
In response to the NCSS' statement, Pastor Derek Hong of the Church Of Our Saviour said the following day that he regretted using the pulpit to mobilise support for one camp in the ongoing dispute over the leadership of AWARE.
'I regret that this matter has caused concern and unhappiness. My actions on the pulpit have aroused some tension in this saga. I now stand corrected,' he said in a statement on the night of 1 May 2009. He also said he would be more sensitive to similar situations in future.
Hong said he agreed with Dr Chew that the pulpit should not have been used in the AWARE saga.
In a Sunday sermon, Pastor Hong had urged the women in his flock to 'be engaged' and support new AWARE president Josie and 'her sisters' at the group.
He had said: '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.'
In an earlier statement on Thursday, 30 April 2009, Pastor Hong denied that his church was behind the move to take over AWARE. He also said the church would not allow its pulpit 'to be used to intentionally teach anything that would arouse social tensions, divisions and unrest'.
That statement also reiterated his church's stand against homosexuality.
Deputy PM Wong Kan Seng's comments
In a related development on the night of 1 May 2009, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said:
'I welcome the statement by Dr John Chew, president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS). In our compact multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, racial and religious harmony underpins our stability. One of the key rules of engagement, therefore, is the need for tolerance and restraint by all groups.
'This is the only practical way, for all groups, regardless of their size or material influence, to enjoy maximum space to pursue their different faiths in peace.
'I thank the NCCS for its statement which soberly reminds us of this reality. It makes clear the council's responsible stand.
'It will help prevent any misunderstanding that the churches are backing one side in the AWARE dispute, or that this is a dispute between Christians and other Singaporeans.'
The statement 'will help prevent any misunderstanding that the churches are backing one side in the AWARE dispute, or that this is a dispute between Christians and other Singaporeans', Wong added.
Other religious leaders support NCCS statement
The Venerable Sik Kwang Sheng, president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, said he backed Dr Chew's stand that 'religious groups as institutions should not get involved in civil society groups, and the pulpit should not be used to further socio-political causes'.
'The AWARE incident serves as a reminder to all Singaporeans that cultivating open-mindedness towards others' views and beliefs is significant in fostering social harmony and cohesiveness,' he added.
Said Ling Kin Huat, vice-chairman of the Taoist Federation: 'Racial and religious harmony is our foremost concern, and we support Dr Chew's stand that religion should not be dragged into this matter.'
Veteran mosque leader Rahmat Sulaiman agreed, saying: 'Religion should not be brought into the matters of secular civil society organisations like AWARE. If this dispute goes on, our social fabric will be affected.'
Extraordinary general meeting at Suntec City
The extraordinary general meeting (EGM) was billed as the big showdown, but there was a fear that the face-off on Saturday, 2 May 2009 between the opposing factions of AWARE could well turn out to be a big letdown instead.
Long-time members AWARE had called for the EGM hoping to table a vote of no confidence in the new exco. But it was not certain that the meeting would even get to discussing that.
On the night of 1 May 2009, the new leadership had issued a cryptic response when asked if the EGM would deal with the no-confidence vote: '(The) EGM is convened to debate and vote on the proposed constitutional amendments to give voting rights to associate members, namely men, expatriate women and minors who need parental consent to join AWARE.'
Asked to clarify, exco member Lois Ng said that other matters would also be discussed.
The biggest bone of contention for the old guard and their supporters was the agenda. Although they wanted the meeting to specifically move a vote of no confidence, Item No. 3 on the agenda merely stated that the requisition to hold an EGM would be discussed.
The first item was confirmation of the minutes of the previous month's annual general meeting, and the second, matters arising.
Thomas said: 'We do not know what will be discussed under matters arising. The meeting is only three hours and we do not know how long this is going to take.'
She said that she and other long-time members such as lawyer Corinna Lim and businesswoman Nancy Griffiths had written to the exco either to seek clarification or to add items to the agenda but received no reply or were told that their requests were not acceptable.
Lim said they had wanted the agenda to state plainly that there was a motion of no confidence in the exco, that the exco should be removed and that a replacement exco should be elected.
Under AWARE's Constitution, the exco had to send out a revised agenda with new inclusions requested by members seven days before the EGM. So far, AWARE members said they had not received any revised agenda.
Online, observers have begun asking if the new team would resort to delaying tactics or exploit loopholes in the group's Constitution to stay in power.
Low Peng Leng, who had been an AWARE member for three years, said: 'It would be unfortunate if they did. This has been too long drawn and we really need a resolution.'
Meanwhile, intense lobbying by both sides had resulted in a surge in membership in AWARE. From about 300 members a month before, membership had crossed the 1,000 mark.
Many wondered how many were expected to turn up on the day of the EGM, would there be sufficient time to register those who came from noon until the meeting started at 2pm and what security measures had been put in place.
Attempts by The Straits Times to get the new team to answer those questions and address other issues were unsuccessful.
Asked if the old guard was optimistic about how the meeting would turn out, Thomas said: 'We have to remain positive. We are here to reclaim AWARE and the values it stands for all women.'
While both camps prepared for a showdown at the EGM, they advised supporters to stay calm and respect others.
Reports on AWARE's membership at the time of the EGM placed it at about 1,800. The exhibition hall at Suntec City could accommodate 2,200 people.
"The main issue in the EGM is to debate and vote on the proposed constitutional amendments raised by the previous exco," said Ng. "Members will also get a chance to cast a vote of confidence for the new exco."
For the old guard, the agenda was "clear and simple", said founding member Margaret Thomas.
It is to discuss and put to members "a vote of no-confidence in the new executive committee", and if the vote prevails, to dissolve the exco and hold another election.
Massive queue of two opposing camps
In a scene reminiscent of the recent Bangkok protests, the new guard volunteers came wearing red shirts with the words 'Pro woman, pro family, pro Singapore' emblazoned on the back of their shirts, while the old guard volunteers wore white shirts with the words 'We are AWARE' and handed out packages with badges and pamphlet explaining the vote of no confidence against the new committee.
Several old guard members who turned up at 9am were told by event organisers to leave the voting area as it was 'neutral ground'. The women in red shirts, however, appeared to have free access to the venue.
At 10:45am, Schutz Lee, then 42, AWARE's recently sacked centre manager, arrived and tried to enter the area but was pushed back by the 'red shirt' volunteers and told to leave. They said the instructions came from the organisers. A man from the events management company told the old guard members to clear off or else he would call security.
At around 11am, Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong and his wife showed up. Siew had been an associate member of AWARE since October 2008. He said he supported the old guard. When he tried to enter the fourth floor where the EGM was to be held, Siew was barred from entering by 'red shirt' volunteers.
Yap Ching Wi, from the old guard camp, told reporters that the event organisers were pushing back the registration time to 12:30pm, instead of 12 noon, and were trying to disperse the old guard volunteers gathered outside.
Registration eventually started at 12:15pm, and as of 12:50pm, the queue had already snaked from the fourth floor to the third floor of the convention centre. The male members, who are accredited as associate members, sat separately from the women members as they are not allowed to vote.
Police officers were deployed outside the meeting venue.
New exco heckled during EGM
The atmosphere at the EGM, held in a function hall on the 4th floor of the Suntec City Convention Centre, was highly charged.
At 2:30pm, Josie Lau was greeted by boos and jeers when she stood up to make her opening remarks. Before she began her presidential address, she raised the already boiling temperature a notch higher when she asked Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong to move to the associate members' section which was for men. Siew, an associate member of AWARE since October 2008 and an ardent supporter of the old guard, refused to budge. He and his wife showed up at 11am and were barred from entering the meeting hall earlier by the new guard volunteers.
Lau was interrupted repeatedly during her speech by the audience, differentiated by the old guard members in white T-shirts and new guard supporters in red shirts. She had to ask the security guards to control the unruly members and send them out of the meeting hall.
At 2:56pm, Lau's legal counsel, Gregory Vijayendran of law firm Rajah & Tann, asked for the microphones to be left switched on so that members from both groups could speak. The old guard supporters cheered. Before that, when old guard members tried to speak, the mikes were not switched on. All photographers were then asked to leave as some used distracting flash photography. All those jeering were also told to exit.
At 3:04pm, Sally Ang from the new exco shouted angrily at the jeering audience, "Shut up and sit down!". The crowd booed and insisted that she be escorted out. Lau intervened and apologised for Ang's outburst but Ang was not subdued. She turned on the booing members again and admonished the crowd sternly to let Lau continue speaking. This incident later sparked a frenzy in the printing of T-shirts emblazoned with the quote, "Shut up and sit down!". Several old guard supporters were to wear it two weeks later at the inaugural Pink Dot at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, 16 May 2009.
At 3:13pm, Lau introduced her new exco members' profiles to boos from the crowd.
At 3:25pm, the exco skipped to items 3 and 4 on the agenda. Legal counsel Gregory Vijayendran said, "Whilst a vote of no confidence does not mean the new exco has to step down, they should consider doing so."
At 3:30pm, voters were briefed on the voting procedure. Only ordinary members was entitled to vote and each could cast one vote. Men, who were associate members, were not allowed to vote.
At 3:42pm, a new member recited part of the Singapore pledge, stressing "justice and equality", and pointed out that the old guard had not been treated equally. The crowd was exuberant and cheered as she attributed the increase in membership to the old guard. It then became chaotic as the supporters of the old guard and new exco both shouted at the mike.
At 3:43pm, popular actress Irene Ang took to the mike. She said, "I'm a Christian and I love God as much as you do. But I don't agree with what the new exco is doing."
At 3:47pm, the crowd chanted, "Where were you?" after Constance Singam asked the new exco where they were for the past 24 years. Lau requested the old guard supporters for the right to reply.
At 4pm, several new members stepped up to express their displeasure at the new exco. "You have not shown the grace of God at all", one said.
At 4:02pm, "Feminist Mentor" Thio Su Mien took the mike and asked the audience to "show respect to your elders". To bolster her claim as "Feminist Mentor", she held up a book published by AWARE in 2007 and declared that she was "charmed" to be mentioned "on page 73".
At 4:10pm, Siew Kum Hong asked for their team of scrutineers to monitor the vote counting process. The new exco's legal counsel agreed. Votes were then cast.
At 4:28pm, the votes were counted. In the meantime, the new exco discussed proposed amendments to AWARE's Constitution.
At 4:46pm, a 10-minute break was called. The discussion on the proposed Constitutional amendments was adjourned for a while.
At 5:06pm, in her right to reply, Josie Lau said that former AWARE president Constance Singam was asked to step out of a recent meeting after the 28 March 2009 AGM as sensitive matters were discussed. Lau also said that Schutz Lee, AWARE's ex-centre manager, was fired for 'insurbordination'.
At 5:21pm, the old guard supporters questioned the new exco about the money spent on booking the location for the EGM. The cost amounted to more than $20,000.
At 5:27pm, Chew I-Jin revealed that she stepped down as assistant treasurer because of a lack of transparency, as she was not given the information on costs incurred for the EGM and security.
At 5.32pm, an associate member stepped up to speak. She said Constance Singam reminded him of his deceased mother. To acknowledge the compliment, the three-time former AWARE president gave him a motherly smile.
At 5:52pm, a new member asked the exco if helping all women included helping lesbians. Would AWARE be less or more gay-supportive? She said that she was a devout Christian and sent her kids to attend AWARE's programmes. Lau replied that she would stand up for lesbians who were discriminated against.
At 5:59pm, Maureen Ong said in response to a member that the new exco had spent about $90,000 in the one month that it had been in office.
At 6:38pm, a sex education trainer from AWARE's comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programme said that materials which were supposed to be privy only to trainers were posted on AWARE's website. She said homosexuality took up only 1.5 minutes of the three-hour lesson, compared to 30 minutes for abstinence from sex.
New exco quits after vote of no confidence passed
At 8:10pm, a vote of no confidence on the new exco was passed, almost six hours after the EGM started. It was achieved with a majority of 1414 votes to 761, a ratio of about 2 to 1. Auditing firm Deloitte was tasked to count the votes at the meeting. The assembly then called for the mass resignation of the new exco.
At 8:15pm, AWARE's legal counsel Gregory Vijayendran said that the new exco was legally allowed to stay in office even though the vote of no confidence had been passed.
A break was called for the new exco to consider if they wanted to resign.
By 8:43pm, the audience was still waiting for Josie Lau and her team to come back on stage to respond as to whether they would resign or not, following the vote of no confidence vote.
At 8:47pm, former AWARE president Braema Mathi said, "I declare by their conduct they have resigned." The new exco had not made an appearance since the vote count was announced.
At 8:51pm, the event organiser said that Josie Lau and her committee members would be coming back shortly. The old guard demanded that they return by 8:50pm or the assembly would pass a motion to remove the new exco.
At 8:59pm, the old guard proposed a motion to remove the new exco. This was passed with two objections. The assembly then proceeded to elect a new exco - position for position.
At 9:05pm, former AWARE president Dana Lam was nominated the new President, Chew I Jin the vice-president, Yap Chang Wi the honorary secretary, Corrina Lim the assistant honorary secretary, Tan Joo Hymn the honorary treasurer, and Lim Xiao Yun the assistant treasurer.
At 9:14pm, Josie Lau strode onstage to state, "We have decided to graciously step down. We wish AWARE all the best."
Maureen Ong, who had been the honorary treasurer announced, "We need not step down, but we considered it and came to the conclusion that for the sake of AWARE, we would step down."
Lau, who had been AWARE president for less than two months said she hoped the organisation would return to its original roots in accordance to its constitution and continue to contribute to the advancement of women.
Interview with new AWARE president Dana Lam
Ex-new exco interviewed after loss
At a post-EGM news conference, Josie Lau responded to criticisms raised over the S$90,000 spent in the past month under her watch. Out of this amount, S$23,000 went into renting the exhibition halls at the Suntec convention centre for the meeting.
She said, "I am sure we are very above board in those expenditures, given the circumstances surrounding events in the last few days. We had to spend what was spent."
Going forward, Charlotte Wong Hock Soon who stepped down as vice-president said she would be happy to contribute to AWARE in the area of education if invited to do so by the newly elected exco.
Wong was a former sociology lecturer at the National University of Singapore.
Newly elected exco to amend Constitution
Dana Lam announced that future candidates seeking office on AWARE's exco may have to be volunteers with the women's group for at least year before they are eligible to do so.
Lam said this was one of several more stringent criteria in the Constitutional amendments her exco would be looking into.
This was to prevent another leadership grab similar to the one that happened on 28 March 2009.
Lam said that the most immediate tasks were to reclaim ownership of AWARE's Dover Crescent premises, including removing the CCTVs put in place by the new guard and to revive the work of the subcommittees which had stalled as a result of the saga.
"The biggest challenge is to restore confidence within AWARE itself and the people outside. We will have to do a lot of work to reassure our supporters, members and staff that things are just not going to be the same, that we are moving forward," Lam said.
The new exco, hailed by Lam for its diversity of races and religions, saw the return of several of the old guard to the helm, but half of the 12-women line-up were new faces, including fresh graduate Joanna D'Cruz, doctorate student Martha Lee and new media practitioner, Hafizah Osman.
In a statement, President of SCWO, Dr Ann Tan said SCWO would like to underscore once again the need for civil societies to function as and remain as secular organisations so that all would stand to benefit from their good work. And that it trusted that AWARE would fulfil the mandate that they had been given to carry on with their work.
SCWO looked forward to working with AWARE to achieve their common goals for the well being of the women of Singapore.
Talking Point interviews Dana Lam & Braema Mathi
One day after the victory of the old guard at the AWARE EGM, on 3 May 2009, new president Dana Lam and former president Braema Mathi were interviewed on an episode of Channel NewsAsia's Talking Point,:
Reinstated old guard resumes office, makes changes
MOE reviews schools' sexuality education programmes
On 6 May 2009, Channel NewsAsia reported that the Ministry Of Education was reviewing schools' comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programmes in the light of issues raised by the expelled exco during the AWARE saga:
Attendance boost at Pink Dot
The breakout of the AWARE saga gave rise to an immense amount of indignation amongst the LGBT, human rights and feminist communities in Singapore, as well as interested observers from the general public, towards the underhanded modus operandi and anti-LGBT agenda of the disgraced exco.
It galvanised people to attend the first Pink Dot held on Saturday, 16 May 2009 at Speakers' Corner, Hong Lim Park to make a stand against the encroachment of noninclusive religious ideology into Singapore's secular spaces, in addition to supporting the "Freedom to Love".
This boosted the attendance at the event to some 2,500, far surpassing the organisers' modest expectations. Some participants even wore T-shirts emblazoned with the quote, "Shut up and sit down!", in mockery of how the ousted exco attempted to quieten the audience during AWARE's EGM at Suntec City.
AWARE's new directions
On 6 July 2009, AWARE's reinstated leadership revealed their refocused emphasis for the organisation:
In 2011, a 208-page book entitled "The AWARE Saga: Civil Society and Public Morality in Singapore" was published by NUS Press (Paperback; dimensions: 229mm x 152mm; ISBN: 978-9971-69-551-4).
In it, academics and public intellectuals examined the AWARE saga within the context of Singapore's civil society, considering the political and historical background and how the issues it raised related to contemporary societal trends. In addition to documenting the milestone event for Singapore's civil society, the authors offered provocative interpretations that would interest a broad range of readers.
- 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.