Bread. 26 April 2009
Bloggers' maturity demonstrated in Aware saga
I will wager that this AWARE saga will prove to be one of the defining moments in Singapore's socio-political history. It has compelled a reexamination of what we mean when we say "plural society", "equality" and "inclusiveness".
It has also allowed the blogosphere to demonstrate its maturity, which should lay to rest the government's fear that internet freedom will lead to rabble-rousing, hate speech and general mayhem. That maturity can be seen from how little irresponsible, hate-filled speech there was, contrary to the government's usual characterisation of the internet, even though this controversy involved religion and sexual orientation. It can also be seen from how opinion shifted as facts emerged, disproving the imputation that netizens preferred lies and half-truths to facts.
Let me begin with a recap of how I think articulate opinion -– I wouldn't say public opinion, because without polls, we cannot tell where public opinion lies -– moved through the course of the saga.
How I did it was to call up blogs using "blogsearch.google.com" with keywords "aware", "josie lau", (later on "thio su mien") etc. I also scrutinised the pattern of comments trailing the blogposts, particularly those on The Online Citizen.
In the two weeks after Thio Su Mien's gang group took over the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), my impression, reading the blogs and attendant comments, suggested this spread of articulate opinion:
Group YJSL ("You're just sore losers") might have been the largest group, taking the view that the new guard of AWARE won the election fair and square. Although, like just about everybody else, they knew very little of the new guard, they took the view that the new executive committee (exco) should be given a chance to prove themselves.
Group SOG were supporters of the old guard, and generally more familiar with AWARE's work through the years. They were highly suspicious of the new guard in the light of their election tactics and especially when the latter were not at all forthcoming about what they stood for. They tried not to speculate on the new exco's agenda, but kept pressing them to declare themselves.
Group LGF -– the fewest -- were primarily gay men and women. They were not reticent at all about speculating. But theirs was not wild, destructive speculation; theirs was informed speculation, what some would term educated guesses. They (including Yawning Bread) said that the new guard had an anti-gay agenda, and this was their most likely motivation for hijacking AWARE.
Naturally, many in Group YJSL seized on the gay community's interest in the affair to rally to the side of the new exco: If they gays hate the exco, then the new guard must be saints -– was probably how they saw it.
Many in the SOG group too were uncomfortable with gay people speaking up. I will tell you this: I was approached by members of the old guard hoping that I could get gay folks to shut up, lest we further inflame the new guard's supporters. I said in reply that I had no such power, even if I concurred.
They didn't realise the synergy between Groups LGF and SOG. The more Group LGF speculated (with reason, as I will explain below) about the new exco's religiously informed motives, the more cause it gave to those who were asking the new exco to explain themselves. If there had been no speculation about ulterior motives, then indeed the old guard would look like sore losers.
I don't fault the people in YJSL and SOG for not seeing anti-gay motives at the start of the saga. They have no experience battling ultra-rightwing Christian fundamentalists. Gay men and women, however, can spot homophobes' work from miles away even if the latter try to conceal it, like experienced sailors who can tell from distant cloud formations alone that there is a gathering storm over the horizon heading our way. This is why I say it wasn't wild speculation, but informed speculation. And as later events proved, we were spot on.
Mid-April, the Straits Times began taking considerable interest in the matter, unearthing bits of information that cried out for answers, e.g. that many in the new exco belonged to the same church.
And then, to everyone's surprise, the mass hangings began. First DBS Bank hanged one of their own -– Josie Lau, the head of its credit card division and the new president of AWARE. Initial reaction in the blogosphere tended to be anti-DBS, in keeping with the general position of the YJSL crowd, sympathetic to the new guard.
Eye-popping though that DBS affair was, what followed was even better theatre. Starting with a TV interview on Channel NewsAsia, the rest of the team hanged themselves in public, by making unintelligible, internally contradictory statements, by displaying shocking arrogance through mass firings, and by demonstrating that they didn't know the first thing about feminism. There was a general evasiveness that strengthened suspicions that they had something to hide. As the new guards' words and deeds came to notice, opinion began to shift.
The high point of the drama was when mother superior made her grand entrance and promptly hanged herself too, at a press conference on 23 April. Her shrill allegations of AWARE having turned pro-gay, the leaps of logic each time she tried to justify her allegations, her grandiose description of herself as the "feminist mentor" only made her look unsavoury. It didn't help that the press conference also descended into chaos.
As Ng Tze Yong of the New Paper reported,
In case you're wondering, the "microphone-snatching" and "wrist-slapping" that the reporter referred to was between members of the new exco seated at the head table.
Despite the mess, things became crystal clear. The Thio-mentored gang had just one motive. It was to turn AWARE into an anti-gay organisation, in order to further their religious beliefs, or to be what Thio said in a leaked email allegedly written by her: an "agent of change for the Lord". They knew nothing about feminism and women's issues, they cared squat about AWARE's main body of work.
Fixated with the view that it was unacceptable to speak of and deal with homosexual orientation in a neutral, non-judgemental way, they argued that AWARE should either have been silent about it or condemn it, and they would ensure that that would be the case in future.
To their credit, the old guard responded within 23 hours with a press conference of their own, in which they defended their record and rebutted the wild accusations of Thio Su Mien and her new exco. They pointed out that the bulk of their work and achievements over the years had nothing to do with homosexuality. In response to Thio and the new guard's claim that AWARE had been "too focussed" on promoting lesbianism,
Indirectly referring to the motives of Thio and the new exco, Soin added:
As the true motives of the hijackers became obvious, the issue evolved into one where the central question was this: Should "plurality", "equality" and "inclusiveness" in the Singapore context include gay people and their interests?
On the one side are those exclusionists who, like the new exco, insist that homosexual orientation must be condemned at all times and gay people should have no place in Singapore. On the other side are those who think non-discrimination and inclusiveness must include gay people or else be meaningless.
Looking the numerous blogs commenting on the issue after the new exco's joke of a press conference (evening of 23 April 2009) wherein they revealed their true anti-gay colours, I observe that articulate opinion in Singapore has moved this way:
Group DH are the die-hard supporters of the new guard. For them, to be anti-gay is a paramount enough objective to justify anything from deceit to unprofessional behaviour.
Group SBGE are "sympathetic (to the new exco) but greatly embarrassed". They do not think that "inclusiveness" and "non-discrimination" should extend to gay people and therefore their hearts are with the new guard, but at the same time they are uncomfortable with the tactics employed and want to put some distance between themselves and the Thio gang. This intellectually impossible position -– discrimination against gay people is OK but of course we're all for equality and non-discrimination -– is glossed over by calling on both sides to "reconcile", without recognising that the Thio gang is driven by religious zeal, which usually leads to self-righteous, uncompromising, "burn all bridges" behaviour.
Group I take the view that "inclusiveness" must mean what the word means. It's as simple as that.
When I look at the blogosphere through "blogseach.google.com", about 80 percent are now somewhere in Group I. But when I look at letters to the Straits Times and readers' comments appended to them, many appear to be die-hard supporters of the new exco.
Why the difference? I don't know. Anyone with any theory about this? Could it be a generational difference?
* * * * *
I noticed that The Online Citizen had to delete a number of readers' comments, sometimes in response to other readers pointing out the offensive comments to editors, but that only showed community moderation at work.
If anything, it is the Straits Times that is less than responsible. It is not doing anything about online comments with no substance demonising gay people, such as these:
Would the Straits Times allow similar comments demonising adherents of a religion or members of a minority race? If one type of hate speech is disallowed, then disallow all; otherwise allow all.
Lunatic Straits Times readers aside, bloggers and their readers have now given the lie to the Singapore government's oft-repeated warning that freedom of speech will lead to chaos and strife, a scary scenario based on the accusation that bloggers and non-government-related site-owners have no sense of responsibility.
So, I am heartened, however the AWARE saga works itself out, that three good things have been demonstrated already:
And yet, that is not enough. For "inclusiveness" still bears further examination. As political commentator Chua Mui Hoong wrote in her column,
Ah, the law. Yes, there remains the unfinished business of Section 377A.
© Yawning Bread