Scholar at Large / United States
Pictures by Damien Chng & Kenneth Tham
The AWARE fracas has finally come to a close with the return of the Old Guards on 2 May 2009. Many would agree it was heartening to witness so many concerned Singaporeans actively coming forward to determine the fate of a beloved civil society organisation. If 8 March is International Woman’s Day, let me declare 2 May as Singapore Woman’s Day – the day Singaporean women collectively reclaim their dignity.
Nevertheless, the proceedings were often less than civil. It’s worth noting that in any civil debate, mutual respect is paramount – it is the precondition for tolerance, and its better, compassion. Whatever our beliefs, we are fallible beings, and sometimes make mistakes that may damage the very causes we feel passionately for. Certainly this was in evidence on both sides of the AWARE tussle.
Euphoria aside, it is important to differentiate between the two sets of issues that were in contention during the episode:
- The problem of process: Was Josie’s Committee’s method of taking over the reins at AWARE fair? Was it democratic? Was it helpful to either Christianity or civil society?
- The question of belief: From a Christian point of view (or from the opinion of Josie’s Committee), is a homosexual orientation or homosexual acts inherently sinful? If so, what should Christians do about it? What is the appropriate stance towards homosexuality in society?
The Problem with the Process
Was the takeover of AWARE democratic by Josie’s Committee? Yes: by the letter of the law. The new faction recruited supporters, got them to vote, and won the AGM Election. The failure of old members of AWARE to participate vigorously in the March AGM set the stage for the new committee’s takeover.
But was it fair? No, because it was effectively underhanded. By signing on for voting rights in an organisation whose agenda (whether real or perceived) they did not believe in, Josie’s supporters were engaged in what amounted to subterfuge. They signed on with the intention of remaking AWARE towards different ends — and failed to declare this sweeping purpose before the elections. At any time, they could have fairly and reasonably set up a rival organisation to advocate their views instead — but chose not to do so.
At first Josie’s Committee denied that their participation was at all coordinated. This denial was later exposed to be a sham by the unveiling of their so-called “feminist mentor” Dr Thio Su Mien. She took credit for prompting the takeover. Their evasiveness suggests certain ambivalence about their means: They understood it wasn’t really fair play.
Why this discrepancy between what is democratic and what is fair? Democratic processes (i.e. representation via free and fair elections, with countervailing minority rights that ensure majority rule does not oppress minorities) are important precisely because they safeguard against the pragmatic probability that people left to their own devices will seek unfair advantage. Why have regular elections? The point is to hold any group in power accountable for their actions at reasonable intervals, because the assumption is that people will try to get away with as much as possible if left unchecked. Anyone who believes in democracy and hopes it will not be messy, confusing, contentious and occasionally ugly, is missing the point — and in for a rude shock. This does not mean that it is not worth the trouble. As Winston Churchill once said, Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.
The biggest objections to the approach of the Josie’s Committee are that they locked out the Old Guard, fired long-established women staff members and outright refused to engage in dialogue with the one remaining member of the Old Guard who still held an Executive Committee position. This is in violation of democratic process, because when you sign on to an organisation and win an election, you commit to working with all its members, not just those who share your beliefs. Moreover, these actions violate Christian ethics – they do not demonstrate love for one’s neighbour, they were callous and rude to the staff workers whose jobs were lost, and demonstrate an “ends justify the means” mindset that is certainly un-Christian.
The Problem of Belief
It is still unclear what the beliefs of Josie’s Committee are, and how they were planning to act on them during their term. All we do know is that their takeover of AWARE was motivated in part by the intention to push back against the Old Guard’s creeping tolerance towards homosexuality. Media interviews, statements and reports are inconclusive on the Lau faction’s exact views on homosexuality. Dr Thio Su Mien stated she was “not against homosexuals”, but later made an alarmist statement: “are we to raise a whole generation of lesbians?”, implying a certain revulsion.
Yet the Christian Scriptures teaches, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans iii.23). This message is one of human brokenness, but it is also one of profound equality. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. We all need God’s mercy, which is graciously offered to every person. This is why Christians are called to love all people – regardless of sexual orientation or otherwise – because what connects human beings to each other inevitably transcends that which divides us.
Fortunately, empathy allows us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and imagine how it would feel like to be them. If, like me, you are a heterosexual trying to understand homosexuality, this is the analogy I would draw:
Imagine you live in a world where all laws and all taboos frown upon being attracted to the opposite sex. This does not stop you from being attracted to them. It just so happens that all the people you’ve ever had a crush on, or been attracted to, are of the opposite sex. However, you feel an immense social pressure not to express this, and if you are religious, your religion assures you that you can never be happy with anyone of the opposite sex; that you should simply put aside your sexual desires for the rest of your life, or somehow condition yourself to feel aroused by people of your own gender.
This is precisely the position many homosexuals are in — study after study has proven that homosexuality is not experienced as a choice. There is by no means a consensus on the implications of homosexuality within the Christian community. Excellent and respected arguments have been made about why the Biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexuality are controversial or ambiguous. If you are a Christian, I urge you to review the various possible interpretations of Scripture and make up your own mind. It is a fact that Christians do sincerely disagree on this issue.
If, after careful consideration, you come to the conclusion that homosexual inclinations or practices are sinful, what then should the proper Christian response be? If one believes that the loving embrace of the church is the only answer to the “sin” of homosexuality, then surely condemning people’s outlooks and actions — or hijacking a secular group to do so — is precisely the best way to drive them AWAY from the church. The most effective way to win anyone to a church would be to treat them with love, respect and dignity, including helping them to overcome any discrimination they might face.
Furthermore it is one thing to hold a belief, and another to hold people who do not share your values accountable according to your belief system. Singapore is a secular, multicultural, multi-religious society. Specific religious views, say on sex education, should be expounded within a religious setting, such as a Youth Ministry or cell group, where the audience shares a common set of beliefs.
Presenting teenagers with different viewpoints and options does NOT prevent them from making their own moral decisions — it in fact allows them to make far more informed choices, which can only be a good thing. Compliance based on ignorance often means that one’s faith is based on a house of cards and vulnerable to the slightest challenge (ironically often one not essential to the faith).
All Things Work for the Good
I second Gwee Li Sui’s call on Josie’s Committee to admit to their error of Process in the AWARE takeover – which is not the same as apologising for the Beliefs, which they hold. It would be a powerful moral victory and witness to the grace of Christianity, if Josie’s Committee were to apologise publicly, having already taken the difficult step of stepping down. It would contribute greatly towards reconciliation within AWARE, and restore trust between the Christian community and the rest of Singapore.
The AWARE debacle has demonstrated that apathy — the sort that allowed the takeover to happen -– does not guarantee safety, but rather invites vulnerability. It would be a huge pity for Singaporeans to forget all they have done in defence of one precious civil society organisation, and rest on their laurels. Moderation, civility, vigilance and inclusive dialogue are called for as we move forward. Democracy is difficult, and it takes hard work. But I for one am glad to see that Singaporeans are getting a little practice in it.
Scholar At Large is a Singaporean undergraduate living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.