Govt's message: Don't get too worked up and unwittingly end up dividing Singapore. PN Balji.

The government’s strategic intervention in the Aware saga

PN Balji / Picture by Damien Chng

In a different time and under a different political leadership, the acrimonious public tussle for the leadership of Aware would have seen the knocking of some heads and the twisting of some arms.

Thank God that did not happen, though the ingredients for such a direct government intervention were all there: A well-planned plot to grab power at the 25-year-old women’s organisation, the new guard’s reluctance to engage the public fully about their intentions, the positioning of the debate as an issue between the pro- and anti-gay lobbies and finally the unfortunate use of the pulpit to influence last weekend’s fight-back for power by the old guard.

The government’s instincts must have been to step in, what with some media reports suggesting that such an intervention might be necessary.

Instead, we saw what I would call strategic intervention by government leaders, from DPM Teo Chee Hean downwards, drawing some kind of out-of-bound markers. Don’t push your views too hard, don’t forget we are a secular society and go for a “rainbow coalition” approach to settle issues.

Underpinning these statements — which the media took some pains to show were made at the sidelines of functions the ministers were attending or (at least in one case) in an email interview — was a clear signal to the warring parties not to get too worked up and unwittingly end up dividing Singapore.

Still, things could have gone all wrong — if these events had not taken place:

One, the coming out into the open of the new guard’s inspiration and motivator, Thio Su Mien. The timing is important here. Coming just nine days before the extraordinary general meeting that was called to seek a vote of no-confidence in her team and just one day before three ministers spoke on the issue, Ms Thio’s appearance at a quickly-arranged press conference addressed two missing links in the story: Who was really behind the move to capture power and what was the insurgents’ real agenda.

Miss Thio said clearly and forcefully that Aware had lost sight of its mission by focusing on lesbianism and homosexuality. She zeroed in on Aware’s sexuality programme in 30 schools and asked somewhat dramatically, like a lawyer would have done in arguing her case: Are we going to have an entire generation of lesbians?

The press conference must have eased the anxiety of a government that has made its stand clear on why those who want to provide leadership and mentorship for civil society groups must do so openly and declare their intentions explicitly. 

The Thio story is not over, though. With the Ministry of Education saying it will want to get more information from her on the feedback she claimed to have received from parents on Aware’s talks in schools, a fringe debate is on the cards.  

Two, the National Council of Churches of Singapore’s statement that churches should not get dragged into the affairs of other organisations, followed quickly by a “I stand corrected” apology by Pastor Derek Hong.

Pastor’s Hong’s use of the pulpit to campaign for the insurgents would have provided a good reason for direct government intervention. Instead, the council stepped in, rightly so, and gave the priest no wriggle room but to tell Singaporeans categorically that it was a grave mistake to politicise the pulpit.

Finally, the savvy move by the police to get the Singapore Expo not to say yes to the holding of the weekend meeting at its Changi venue. This was the closest the government came to intervention.

With a large Christian conference taking place at the same place and time, the police move avoided what could have turned out to be a very ugly affair sparking a government crackdown.

That would have set civil society and the country back many years. Thank God it didn’t turn out that way.