AWARE launches 12-part ‘Saga’ podcast series to recount ‘New Guard’ takeover of 2009

It is simply called Saga. But for all who were caught up in it, showed up for it, or were awakened by it almost twelve years ago, it was anything but short or simple.

Come Wednesday, Singapore’s leading gender equality organisation AWARE will finally put on record the narratives of its members and supporters who experienced firsthand the events of late March to May 2009 that have since etched themselves in Singapore’s feminist, human rights and LGBT history.

Saga recounts the momentous events that spanned across a period of six weeks and the soul searching AWARE was made to go through in their aftermath.

The ordeal began on 28 March 2009 when new AWARE members who were later found to be attending the same church and held anti-LGBT views led an orchestrated takeover of AWARE’s leadership.

The intense public interest in the agenda of these women — and the men who backed them — led to heated debate across all media channels — from mainstream news outlets to alternative ones to social media.

It ended with the ousting of the takeover group of women, dubbed the New Guard, through a vote of no confidence at the extraordinary general meeting (EGM) held at Suntec City Convention Centre on 2 May 2009.

On 9 December 2020, AWARE will be launching a 12-part podcast series in the evening from 7 pm to 9 pm over Zoom.

AWARE will also be holding a virtual premiere and “listening party” for around 100 attendees who have pre-registered.

The first two episodes of the series will be aired at the launch, followed by a short discussion.

Producers Jasmine Ng and Kelly Leow will touch on their experience producing the podcast.

They will be joined by founding member and current AWARE President Margaret Thomas, who also happens to be one of the main characters in the podcast, to talk about why they felt the project was important.

Actress and AWARE member Pam Oei will moderate the session.

Once released, Saga will be available indefinitely and for free on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and AWARE’s website.

AWARE will be releasing the first four episodes on 9 December. Subsequently, the release plan is as follows:

  • 13 Dec 2020: Episodes 5 to 9;
  • 16 Dec 2020: Episodes 10 and 11; and
  • 20 Dec 2020: Episode 12 finale.

The idea for a historical oral record of the events from the perspectives of key players in the saga was first broached in December 2018.

Sharing her views with AWARE Executive Director Corinna Lim, Ms Leow, who had worked as a magazine editor and has a keen interest in long-form journalism, said the saga left a deep impression on her 18-year-old self when it happened in 2009.

Years later, after reading more about the event and watching related video clips, Ms Leow was convinced that a story as lively and dramatic as this one would be wasted in a more staid and static format such as a book.

“I knew a podcast would be intimate enough to afford the listener a personal connection with the various speakers. It is a really personality-driven medium.

“At the same time, with music and pacing, it can have the propulsive rhythm of TV and film.” said Ms Leow, who is AWARE’s Communications Manager.

While an outsider to the saga, Ms Leow felt that she could envision the narrative and issues more clearly for the production than someone with a direct and personal take, especially given her passion for the broad themes that underlie the saga: Feminism, civil rights and democracy.

Ms Ng was roped in to be a co-producer of Saga, and this contributed greatly to the process, said Ms Leow.

According to Ms Leow, Ms Ng brought her technical expertise, story sense and a wide network of collaborators in the media, arts and civil society scenes. These included Mocha Chai Laboratories and the local band .gif that worked on the soundtrack.

Another key figure behind Saga the podcast is host Bharati Jagdish, a former radio news anchor and reporter, talk show host and writer – essentially, a household name in the tradition of audio-journalism.

She conducted dozens of interviews for hours on end throughout last year.

In all, over 50 people were interviewed for Saga, including key figures in AWARE, volunteers, and observers such as Terence Chong, Mohammed Imran Taib, Professor Tommy Koh and those who had written about the saga.

“When interviewing the key figures in AWARE, as a seasoned and skilful journalist, Bharati did not shy away from digging into the deep, dark, emotional parts of their experiences.

“Over the course of a couple of hours each, Bharati made many of them cry! They talked about their mistakes, their regrets, their interpersonal conflicts — some of which are yet to have been fully resolved. Their bravery and vulnerability were very moving,” said Ms Leow.

In making the podcast, Ms Leow made it clear that AWARE did reach out to the New Guard women.

However, they did not respond.

“We were extremely keen to speak to the New Guard and their associates. If the Saga story feels incomplete without their perspective—well, that is because it is. It was very disappointing to us that we were not able to get them to share their side of things. Their participation would have been incredible for the story, no doubt about it,” said Ms Leow.

Current President and AWARE founding member Margaret Thomas (right) listening to the proceedings of the EGM on 2 May 2009. Dana Lam, past President of AWARE, is seated to her right.

Still, Ms Thomas felt that the saga remains something to be proud of.

“I am delighted that the AWARE Saga—as well as accompanying aspects of AWARE’s long history—has been recorded for posterity, with a plurality of perspectives and voices.

“AWARE now has this 10-hour plus text that will live on for, hopefully, generations to come. And we also have a lot more recorded material that we did not use in the podcast, which is a valuable oral history,” she said.

Ms Thomas is of the view that if we do not record and analyse history, we will fail to learn its lessons, and we may repeat the mistakes.

“I strongly believe in the necessity of history as an exercise—but so often we see people and institutions neglect to capture their own histories, and thereby lose them. This happens especially often with women or any other marginalised group whose affairs are viewed as less important, less universal,” she stressed.

Leaving the future and moving back to the present, this project also has immense value for right here, right now.

“The AWARE Saga was about figuring out how different parts of society can disagree productively and fairly; the role that diverse ideologies can play in a secular, multi-cultural nation.

“Those questions are always worth asking but perhaps never more so than today when we see social media and other aspects of modern life creating profound schisms amongst us. I hope that, just like the saga did in 2009, this podcast enables us to have more such conversations,” Ms Thomas said.

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