Three-time president describes her unhappiness with the new team in a letter to long-time members. Wong Kim Hoh reports.
One voice had been silent in the controversy currently swirling around Singapore’s most well-known women’s group – that of stalwart and three-time president Constance Singam.
Yesterday afternoon, however, she broke her silence in a letter – marked confidential – to long-time members of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
She told them she had quit as adviser to the new executive committee steering the group. As immediate past president, Mrs Singam – under Aware’s Constitution – automatically earned an advisory role to the new committee.
The three-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Sunday Times, described her unhappiness with the new team, which took office after a leadership grab last month.
Mrs Singam, 72, wrote that although the team had publicly said that they would honour Aware’s founders and build on the good work of past members, their private behaviour suggested otherwise.
‘In private meetings, the exco showed a complete lack of respect for me, ignoring my advice and keeping me out of an exco meeting when I had the right to be there, as stated in the Constitution,’ wrote Mrs Singam who has served three terms as Aware president over the last 20 years.
She told members that she was especially unhappy with the new exco’s proposal to replace all the heads of Aware’s sub-committees with exco members.
There are about half a dozen sub-groups in Aware working on various women’s issues such as ageing, singles, work life, and Cedaw (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).
Former Nominated MP Braema Mathi was axed by e-mail last week as chair of Cedaw, a position she had held since 2004.
Mrs Singam wrote in her letter: ‘I protested and said it was Aware’s longstanding practice to give more women, especially young women, the opportunity to acquire leadership skills and empowering them through experiences in sub-committee work.’
The exco ignored her advice, she said.
When contacted, Mrs Singam confirmed that she has quit as Aware adviser and that she penned the letter.
She told The Sunday Times she was not abandoning ship.
‘I am still an Aware member. Being outside the exco gives me more freedom and right to speak up, assert and push for the work that Aware has done all these years.’
The events of the last few weeks, she admitted, have been traumatising.
On March 28, the group was taken over by unknown faces who joined Aware only in recent months.
The takeover was like a bolt out of the blue.
‘I spent the first two days crying. It makes you suddenly realise the danger of not being vigilant.’
However, she added: ‘But that’s not the nature of the society. It’s always been open and welcoming and I will continue to fight for it to be open and egalitarian.
‘I’m not going to be defensive. It has happened, it’s a hard lesson, but Aware will continue.’
Mrs Singam is aware that the old guard has been described as sore losers by some who pointed out that the new team was legitimately voted in.
‘Why are we sore losers? We are just fighting and defending our values.
‘They walked in, took over, and they refused to tell us what they were going to do with Aware. They say they would honour the work of past Aware members, and the first thing that they do is to fire Braema.
‘There are just too many questions they are not answering.’
She said their silence has stoked and fuelled too much unhealthy debate, especially online, with speculation about the new team’s religious affiliations and anti-homosexual stance.
‘I am not at all happy where this is going. This is not a gay versus Christian debate,’ she said.
‘It is getting away from what Aware stands for. We have spoken up and initiated discussion on a lot of much broader issues – foreign worker abuse, domestic abuse, financial intelligence, education, body image, sexual harassment.
‘We address issues that have large and wide implications which affect society.’
She is concerned about the ‘possible ideological opposition of many members of the new team’.
She wrote in her letter: ‘Our values are based on the fundamental rights and responsibilities of women as women. These include being treated as informed individuals capable of choice, being deserving of opportunities equal to those of men in education, marriage and employment; and being able to control their own bodies, particularly with regard to sexual and reproductive health.’
Meanwhile, news of her resignation upset many longstanding members.
Lawyer Halijah Mohamad, who is in her late 40s, said she was flabbergasted by the apparent high-handedness of the new team: ‘Bearing in mind that they are very new members, how could they disregard the advice of someone who has been such a long-time member, and who has an institutional knowledge of Aware?
‘By shutting her out, they are just showing that they have absolutely no interest in continuity.’
Madam Halijah was Aware’s vice-president in 1999/2000.
‘She should not have been put in that position to feel compelled to resign. We were aghast.’
Counsellor Ravqind Kaur, 24, a volunteer since 2006, agreed.
‘By keeping her out of decisions, they are showing her no respect. Any little confidence we might have in them has just been washed away.’
Postgraduate student Martha Lee, 32, said: ‘Constance has been with Aware for more than 20 years, and she would never resign without a good reason.
‘She has tried to engage them, reason with them, but they are not listening. They ask why we are being hostile and they said they want to reconcile but I don’t think reconciliation is on their agenda.’
Ms Lee has been a volunteer on several sub-committees since 2001.
Attempts by The Sunday Times to contact the new exco for comments yesterday were unsuccessful.
Mrs Singam said the jolt might have its upside: It has brought Aware members closer together.
It has even rallied new members such as Internet executive Hafizah Osman, 39, who joined Aware yesterday to show her support for what Mrs Singam and the old guard have achieved.
‘I was shocked when I heard she was quitting. I think she is obviously making a statement that she does not want the fundamentals of Aware to be compromised,’ she said.
‘The old guard has done wonderful work and it is so shameful that events of the last week have negated everything to just one issue – sexuality and religion.
‘It is much more. I don’t want Aware’s broad agenda to be lost.’