Turning up in full force (which include several founding members) to set right the inaccuracies lay out by the new AWARE team.
In a press conference on Friday evening, several veteran stalwarts from AWARE turned up to clarify several issues and accusations raised by the new AWARE team a day earlier.
Apart from the familiar faces of Dana Lim and Constance Singam, was Dr Kanwaljit Soin who broke her silence in public on the AWARE debacle. Dr Soin was one of the founding members of AWARE, and the president of AWARE from 1991 to 1993. She had also served as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) in Singapore from 1992 to 1996.
“As far as I know AWARE has not deviated from its original purpose,” Dr Soin said.
Dr Soin had made it clear that AWARE had been founded on the principle of inclusiveness, and clarified the misconception of AWARE being pro-gay. “We cannot condemn, deny or exclude any woman because of her sexual orientation, because she’s been abused by her husband or because she’s a single mother. And so we accept people for what they are,” she said.
Dr Soin said that AWARE is an organisation for women that supports the idea of women choosing the lives they want in another founding principle of ‘Women’s Lives, Women’s Choices’ or ‘Women’s Choices, Women’s Lives’. Dr Soin added that AWARE will offer support to women who approach the organisation for assistance.
Corinna Lim rubbished the talk that the screening of the lesbian movie Spider Lilies showed that AWARE is single-focused and gay-oriented. Lim pointed out that AWARE had also participated in other movie screenings such as the wholesome local family film Singapore Dreaming.
Lim explained that film distributors have approached AWARE to tie-up for charity events and sees this as a good fundraising activity for AWARE. Terms and conditions vary requiring AWARE to sometimes purchase advance tickets or publicising the membership, with AWARE taking a small profit.
Dr Soin also explained there’s a need to address the issue of homosexuality in its sexual education programmes if the programmes are to be comprehensive: “AWARE cannot be an ostrich and buries it head and pretends that it [homosexuality] doesn’t exist. But we don’t go out with this programme and say it’s okay to be lesbian.”
Constance Singam said that the sexual education programmes were introduced in the context of the increasing number of teenage sex, pregnancies and abortions three to four years ago.
“AWARE is not a religious organisation. We do not impose religious values,” Singam said.
She added: “What we are offering are the facts. Kids need space for open discussion where they can get facts, examine themselves, and that is the purpose, objective.”
Dana Lam explained that the education programme had been developed over a period of time with pilot workshops conducted with parental knowledge and involvement. “And we have received good feedback,” she said. “The mention of homosexuality is so miniscule compared to the whole topic.”
Meanwhile, the veterans have also clarified its process for its selection of trainers. In the pre-selection process, candidates have to go through an interview and essay-writing round. After the training programme, the trainers have to go through examinations.
AWARE has so far provided its sexual education training programmes to 12 schools, some of which had approached AWARE to conduct the programmes. The veterans also clarified that the schools have full knowledge of the programmes with teachers having seen and vetted the them before they were given the go ahead. An opt-out form is also provided for those who do not feel comfortable participating in the programmes.
Also present was Veronica Wong who attested to the stringent standards and audits of AWARE having been interviewed by the Public Education Committee and an audit panel of parents and school counsellors before a module for Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE) Programme was approved. Wong’s programme was designed to get teenagers to understand their basic needs in relation to engaging in sexual behaviour, and getting them to self-evaluate if their behaviour helps or hurts them in satisfying their basic needs.
Wong who is Roman Catholic initially found it unsettling to educate youths about contraceptives and condoms: “Nevertheless, I also realise the kids don’t have much of a fighting chance working on just ‘abstinence’ alone. And teaching them protection in safe sex is still not enough.”
The old guards clarified that teachers and social workers have audited the programme and AWARE has its own auditing process and when necessary made modifications.
Dr Soin also defended her decision to allow associate male members in AWARE. “I realise we cannot change the world for women until we bring the men on board. So we have to work with men hand in hand to change society into a more equal, compassionate and inclusive society.”
The claim that the old guards’ AWARE was trying to get men into the organisation was “inaccurate”, they said. The issue of giving men voting rights first surfaced at the 2008 AGM. A motion was tabled for this purpose but it was defeated. However, it was brought up again at the AGM in March 2009 where the new exco was voted in. At this meeting, the “election took the bulk of the time” and the issue was not debated.
Meanwhile Dr Soin said while she knows who the founding members of AWARE were, she is unaware of any involvement of Dr Thio Su Mien.
“I’ve not heard of Dr Thio Su Mien as being a feminist, so this was a little bit of a surprise for me. But then, we always have closet feminists,” Dr Soin said to laughter from those present.
In her tenure as an NMP in 1995, Dr Soin tabled a Family Violence Bill as a Private Member’s Bill in parliament. The Bill would allow for the protection of victims against family violence and marital rape and police intervention. Although the bill fell through, the issue on family violence has gained public awareness and prominence. The Women’s Charter was later amended by the Singapore government in 1997 and adapted principles and concepts from the proposed Family Violence Bill which gave women more protection from violence.