– By Wong Chun Han –
A year ago today, one of the most tumultuous episodes in the history of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) came to a spectacular close. The Economist billed it as a clash between liberals and the Christian right. The local media and blogosphere dubbed it a decisive “showdown” between the “Old Guard” of seasoned activists resisting a takeover by a conservative Christian “New Guard”.
The denouement to the AWARE saga was as long as it was enthralling. The marathon Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) lasted seven hours as the 3,000 people in attendance exchanged talking points, passionate criticism, fiery jibes and even the occasional insult. The curtain eventually fell on the New Guard, who bowed out after a resounding loss in a no-confidence vote. In their place, the AWARE membership elected an Old Guard team to the helm, led by long-serving member and former president Dana Lam.
To commemorate the first anniversary of that dramatic day, The Online Citizen caught up with Dana, who is in her third stint as AWARE president, to find out about new developments at the Association in the year since.
TOC: In your first message to AWARE members since taking up the leadership, you said: “An immediate task for us is to reach out and connect with all new members, to bridge differences and, to invite their participation in the work of Aware.” Do you think you and your team have achieved this in the past year? What still needs to be worked on?
Dana Lam: Many new members have stepped forward and are volunteering their time and skills. For example, nearly all members of the organising sub-committee of our 25th anniversary fund raiser, “Superwomen in Concert” are new volunteers. Not everyone is able to be an active volunteer, of course. For the rest of our members we have established a strong line of communication and connection via our revamped website and newsletter. So I think we have achieved a fair bit and we are continuing to build on this.
TOC: Given the promises and aspirations you and your team brought to the table last May, what do you consider to be the most significant developments at AWARE in the past year? What has changed and how has it been for the better?
DL: The whole organisation has been reinvigorated. Barack Obama was right when he said that crisis brings clarity. What happened last year provided the impetus for serious reflection both on a personal level and on the organisational level. The best thing is that we have renewed our commitment to our values and mission, and taken the first steps in a plan of action that has been in discussion by previous Executive Committees. We have strengthened our constitution, restructured our management with the hire of our first Executive Director, Corinna Lim, and the consequent transition of our Executive Committee to a Board.
Many of the members who joined AWARE as a response to the takeover have become very active and committed volunteers. Our restructuring, new IT system, website and newsletter were accomplished without spending extra money through the enthusiasm and expertise of our volunteers, new and old.
You can see the renewed buzz in our newsletter and website.
Most of our numbers are up – usage of our crisis helpline, counselling and legal clinic, and new volunteer and member sign-ups. Almost everyone has now heard of Aware because of the publicity last year. We will continue to capitalise on this.
We have also received very warm support from the artist community, many of whom are coming together in “Superwomen in Concert”, including the Dim Sum Dollies, Tan Kheng Hua and Michaela Therese.
These are positive developments that put us in good stead for the next 25 years. At 25 years, AWARE is at a threshold. We continue to reflect and now that we have gotten our house together, we will start to look more closely at our programmes and outreach. We will do what is necessary to remain relevant to our society as it evolves.
TOC: Since the EGM and the subsequent handover process, has there been any further engagement with the previous executive committee led by Ms Josie Lau?
DL: No. It appears they are not interested to be further involved in the organisation. This is, of course, understandable.
TOC: The current AWARE leadership took the helm last May with much public support, especially in the form of new members. Has AWARE been able to harness this successfully? Was the public fervour superficial, or has the episode resulted in sustained interest and active participation from the expanded membership?
DL: Of course, we do not expect all the new members to continue to have an active interest in AWARE. People came to vote for many reasons. Many came to support the organisation, its work and its mission. But, many also came to vote to preserve such values as tolerance, diversity, secularism, respect, choice and fairness in our society.
I believe we have done a reasonably good job of harnessing the energy of new members. We would not have achieved all that we have achieved in the past year without the help and support of our new volunteers.
TOC: In terms of quantity, how many of them have renewed their membership and what is the attrition rate for the past year? In terms of quality, how active have the membership been since the EGM?
DL: We are not a members’ club. We are a group that provides services to the public and carries out research and advocacy. I think this is of some significance to what we can reasonably expect of our membership size. We all know the spike last year was out of the ordinary and we fully expect to lose at least half the membership if not more this year. For a long time, our membership was around 300. Even at its lowest, we were consistently putting out substantial research papers and growing our support services and training programmes.
It was only after what happened last year that it fully dawned on me how remarkable this makes Aware. The level of commitment to the organisation and its work is really quite astonishing especially if you were persuaded by the view of the average Singaporean as uber-materialistic and nothing more. And, if you take into account how busy most people are and the demands on their lives.
Maybe it’s the NGO vibe and Aware is one of the earliest. We do attract earnest and talented people. Here, we have volunteers who give up their time consistently, some year after year, to get the job done. And, of course, we just had one who gave up her five-digit salary for half the pay and, likely, thrice the work! If you’re thinking you need positive reinforcement of what Singaporeans are capable of, I think you we have that at Aware.
I have been looking through our archives and it struck me the many of us who have grown up and grown old with Aware. We are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year and there are people who were right there at the beginning who are still active with Aware today – even if they’re not actually holding office. This reinforces for me how preposterous if is for anyone who has not worked in the organisation to come and purport to set us straight!
TOC: The AWARE episode was regarded by some as a ‘victory’ for civil society. Do you agree with this assessment a year on? Has it been merely a fashionable, even cosmetic, success story, or has it given rise to genuine progress in the state of Singaporean civil society and social advocacy?
DL: How do you even come up with such value judgements? It was very simply a moment when civil society rose to the occasion to defend and preserve the secular public space as occupied by AWARE. In the process, they also demonstrated their faith in the work and objectives of AWARE. I don’t think they should be judged anything for that, except that it showed to all the world, Singaporeans ourselves included, that Singapore civil society is well and alive when they choose to make a difference.
TOC: In a recent interview with TODAY, you and AWARE Executive Director Corinna Lim mentioned that the biggest challenges women in Singapore are facing today include work-life balance, domestic violence and sexual harassment. How is AWARE planning to address these issues?
DL: We just launched a programme for dealing with Workplace Sexual Harassment designed as a follow up to our 2008 survey which showed that one in four women have experienced being sexually harassed. We had over 60 representatives from the Human Resource field signed up for the launch. The feedback was very encouraging. So the programme is ready to roll. The programme developers and trainers will be working in collaboration with corporations and the community.
Work-life balance is a universal problem. We are still studying related issues, and searching for possible solutions and services that may help address this. We are also looking to expand our Befriender Services which offers support to women who have to go to court or to police.
TOC: In a Sunday Times story on the Singapore Recreation Club’s Annual General Meeting, it was reported that the SRC bars its female members from voting in its AGMs. In its response to my email query on this matter, the SRC noted that this rule has been in place “for a generally long time, understandably from the colonial times, especially with the long history of the Club going far back over a hundred years.” Is this something that concerns you, and do you think it is instructive on present-day attitudes towards women in Singapore society?
DL: Astonishing, isn’t it? It is discriminatory especially as there seems to be no justification other than a historical legacy. It doesn’t speak well of the organisation but, it is up to the SRC members to do something about it.
TOC: We understand that AWARE will be conducting research on attitudes and public policies affecting single women in Singapore. With regards to this, how has the takeover episode affected AWARE’s research work? Has the affair influenced or changed AWARE’s research interests and methods? You’ve mentioned in a recent interview with TODAY that AWARE is currently writing up a report on research conducted last year on work-life balance. Are there any tasters you might be able to provide on this upcoming piece of research?
DL: Why would the ‘take-over’ change the way we do our research? We are pressing on with the research on Singles and other current issues, especially where they pertain to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The issue of work-life balance is complex. We are continuing to study it.
TOC: One of the key issues of public concern during last year’s episode was Aware’s influence on education policy. Given that AWARE is an advocacy group, informing and influencing public policy is obviously an integral part of its work. How have the relationships between the various stakeholders in the policy-making process – namely the government, AWARE, and the general public – been affected by the events of last year? For example, how has the Ministry of Education’s suspension of AWARE’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme affected its advocacy approach?
DL: The CSE was designed to address the problem of rising incidences of sexually-transmitted diseases and pregnancies among youths and the need to provide accurate information on sexual matters which include behaviour, relationship, and self-esteem issues. There is still need for this judging from recent statistics. For example, the number of underage pregnancies is reportedly on the rise. However, the CSE has been so badly misrepresented to the public that we don’t think it will be productive to offer it to MOE at this time.
The suspension of our CSE programme has not affected our advocacy approach in any way. Why should it? It has always been AWARE’s practice to create programmes that are responsive to societal needs and where it relates to gender based issues. Many times, we have also been catalytic in focusing attention on issues that may otherwise have stayed under the radar or taken longer to be addressed by policy makers and others. We will continue to do what is needed to create awareness of and to remove gender based barriers.
A recap of TOC’s coverage of the AWARE incident can be found here