Written by Ng E-Jay
20 April 2009
The new President of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Ms Josie Lau Meng Lee, has told the media that she hopes for reconciliation with existing members following the highly controversial leadership change on March 28, and that an extraordinary general meeting (EOGM) will be held soon to provide an opportunity for an open discussion. According to the newly setup facebook group entitled “We believe that recent events at AWARE concerns us all” created by Ms Olivia Tan, the EOGM will be held on 02 May, Saturday, from 2pm to 5pm, at First Choice Auditorium, HSR Building.
Ms Lau and AWARE’s new honorary treasurer Ms Maureen Ong appeared on Channel News Asia’s half-hour Talking Point programme aired on Sunday night. They said they could not understand why the AWARE old guard had been unhappy with the change, and that their takeover was not a coup, as “they had only just got to know each other“. (Straits Times, “Aware chief wants to heal rift with upset members”, 20 April 2009)
The new leadership of AWARE must think the general public is made up of complete fools. From the moment they took over the reigns of office at AWARE, they have been non-transparent about their motives and intentions, and they have refused to explain adequately why so many new members ran for office despite having not made any significant contribution to AWARE, or worse still, despite not even being able to articulate what AWARE’s values are.
The new leadership also took draconian and undemocratic steps to alienate the old leadership, such as unceremoniously sacking Ms Braema Mathi from her position as chairman of AWARE’s Cedaw Committee. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) is an international convention adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 — Singapore acceded to this treaty in 1995. Countries under the treaty submit two reports, one by the state and another by an advocacy group, every four years to a UN committee which then issues recommendations on compliance. Ms Mathi has been involved in preparing the Cedaw report since 2004. The new leadership of AWARE has not disclosed why they abruptly dumped Ms Mathi, at a time when she was in the midst of finishing a second Cedaw report with the help of more than 20 volunteers. (Straits Times, “Sacked by a terse e-mail”, 19 April 2009)
In a letter explaining her decision to resign from the post of Immediate Past President, which was released to the mainstream media over the weekend, Ms Constance Singam wrote that her advice on a number of issues had been ignored by the new Exco, despite her experience at AWARE. She also said: “… in private meetings, the Exco showed a complete lack of respect for me, ignoring my advice and even keeping me out of an Exco meeting when I had the right to be there as stated in the constitution“.
Both Ms Singam and Ms Claire Nazar, the former President who resigned just a few days into her tenure, also lamented that about a week after the AGM on March 28, AWARE’s new Exco had replaced almost all the appointed chairpersons of sub-committees with new Exco members. This broke with AWARE’s long-standing practice of giving more women outside the Executive Committee the opportunity to acquire leadership skills through experience in sub-committee work. In her letter, Ms Singam wrote that she reminded the new Exco that the coordinators have been working on these issues for some time and that summarily replacing them would be disrespectful and counter-productive. However, her views were ignored.
The actions of AWARE’s new Exco run directly contradictory to their publicly stated stand that they would honour AWARE’s founders and build on the good work of past members.
The apparent anti-gay stance of some of the new members of AWARE are also of concern, given that they have only recently joined the organization and have thus far been tight-lipped about their views towards sexual minorities.
AWARE’s new honorary secretary Ms Jenica Chua had an ST letter published on 17 Oct 2007 in which she said that NMP Siew Kum Hong “overstepped the boundary as an NMP when he chose to represent the homosexual interest group”, and that he “should not adulterate the NMP role further by becoming the proxy representative of the homosexual interest group”. Going by Ms Jenica Chua’s twisted logic, no one then should have the right to voice opinions on any issue, as that would mean representing only a certain segment of society.
Long time AWARE member Ms Nancy Griffiths had this to say about the new honorary secretary Ms Jenica Chua:
“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. And then I asked a very blunt question. I said: ‘Do you accept homosexuality?‘ And Jenica Chua stood up and said categorically: ‘No.’”
“I was flabbergasted.”
Singapore permanent resident Nancy Griffiths, 56, a mother of two and an Aware member since 2002
In an ST forum letter entitled “Beware the high-risk gay lifestyle” published on 08 Aug 2007, Ms Josie Lau’s husband, Dr Alan Chin Yew Liang, who was present at AWARE’s AGM, wrote that a gay lifestyle is “extremely unhealthy” as gays have a “high risk of contracting not only HIV but also a slew of other sexually transmitted diseases”. Dr Chin’s blatant attack on homosexuals was completely unfounded and unjustified, as it is obvious to everyone in the medical community that BOTH homosexuals AND heterosexuals are EQUALLY at risk if they choose to lead a promiscuous lifestyle.
All in all, Dr Chin had penned six letters to The Straits Times between May 2007 and August 2007 speaking out against the homosexual lifestyle, one even going to the extent of saying that homosexuals could change their orientation.
Dr Alan Chin had helped count the votes at AWARE’s AGM, despite him being an unfamiliar face with the existing crowd.
Many of the newcomers in AWARE’s leadership are attendees at the Anglican Church Of Our Saviour at Margaret Drive. They include the new president Ms Josie Lau and her husband Dr Alan Chin. Other Exco members believed to be members of this church include Ms Charlotte Wong, Ms Irene Yee, Ms Jenica Chua, Ms Maureen Ong and Ms Sally Ang. The Anglican Church Of Our Saviour is well known for its vehement stance against homosexuality and frequently conducts public campaigns on the issue (see here).
Ms Josie Lau’s background and motives in particular should also come under closer scrutiny. She is the vice-president for consumer banking group cards and unsecured loans at DBS, the unit that came under heavy fire last year for supporting a US-based charity called “Focus of the Family”, a right wing Christian organization which has been conducting vicious campaigns against homosexuality under the guise of family values (see here).
Ms Josie Lau had also twice disregarded the staff code of conduct at DBS bank by running for and accepting the post of President of AWARE without prior approval from the bank.
When the news of the leadership grab of AWARE first broke, long time members of AWARE such as Ms Mathia Lee, as well as myself, decided to give them a chance to prove themselves before we passed further judgment. Sad to say, they have squandered the opportunity to show that they are willing to work in unity with the Old Guard at AWARE or that they believe in equality both for women as well as sexual minorities.
The new leadership at AWARE took over the helms not by proving themselves worthy of the positions through hard work and sacrifice, but by exploiting existing vulnerabilities in AWARE’s membership and voting rules. They have thus far given at most shady and vague answers to what they hope to achieve for the organization, and have refused to commit to continuing AWARE’s tradition of being open and tolerant to all.
It has therefore become abundantly clear that the new leadership at AWARE invaded the organization with the purpose of imposing their own ideology on AWARE, an organization that has thus far been at the forefront of championing Singaporean women’s rights and promoting equality and respect for all groups.
To be sure, a significant part of the blame for what has happened must also lie with long time members of AWARE. Before this year, AWARE’s membership was in the order of 300 to 400, yet as some members have confessed, only around 30 to 40 would turn up at each AGM. This shows a lack of commitment from many of AWARE’s existing members — a vulnerability which has been exploited by the new leadership to co-opt themselves into the Exco.
Over the years, AWARE has made significant advances in promoting the interests of women, such as its contributions to revisions to the penal code concerning issues of marital rape, its contribution towards addressing gaps in Singapore’s human trafficking legislation, or its contribution towards according the same citizenship rights to the children of Singaporean women married to foreigners as for Singaporean men. Strangely, these achievements were never mentioned by the mainstream media throughout the whole fiasco.
By taking over the helms of leadership at AWARE through the use of subversive tactics and then alienating the Old Guard, the new Exco has damaged the organization and disrupted the good work that it has been doing thus far. It has done a great disservice to AWARE and to all Singaporean women. If it truly wants to set things right, now would be a good time to do so.
If the new leadership of AWARE continues to deny that it had staged a coup and remains non-committal about its future direction and its stand on sexual minorities, I think we can be certain that its real intentions are not to serve the interests of Singaporean women, but to impose its narrow and bigoted ideology and undermine what is possibly the most vibrant NGO in Singapore.