Yawning 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,

It was a most extraordinary press conference for a civic organisation, one that was hardly civil, one that began with a near-catfight and ended with an awkward silence.

In the middle: Shouting matches, microphone-snatching, wrist-slapping and reporters interrupting one anothers' questions.

There were accusations that bordered on religious slurs, clarifications, contradictions and utter confusion.

-- The New Paper, 24 April 2009, Emotions
overflow as women exchange barbs

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,

The charge upset many past leaders.

'It's really out of turn,' said Ms Zaibun Siraj, a founding member.

Fellow founding member Kanwaljit Soin agreed. 'Aware's founding principle has been inclusiveness and because it has been inclusive we cannot condemn, deny or exclude any woman because of her sexual orientation or because she's been abused by her husband or because she's a single mother.

-- Straits Times, 25 April 2009, 'Too diversified
or too focused? Which is it?'

Indirectly referring to the motives of Thio and the new exco, Soin added:

She added: 'It's alarming how some people seem to think their truth is the only truth. Aware, as an organisation, has always been accepting of other truths and diversity of opinions.'

-- ibid.


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.





And more underhand tactics yet.

I understand that there is an email going around imputing that Constance Singam, the former president of AWARE, has been less than transparent about skeletons in her closet, in that she had made AWARE "pro-gay" because her own brother is gay. This so-called brother was named as Clarence Singam, according to this website, as accessed on 26 April 2009 at 02:14h.

The fact is: the two are not related. I have suggested to Clarence and Constance to write to the webmaster to get the statement corrected.


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?

* * * * *

Now, about maturity in the blogosphere. Although the issue revolved around a militant Christian group seizing power over a secular organisation, the vast bulk of commentary have remained intelligent and sober - and I would say this even of those comments that supported the new exco with opinions opposite to mine.

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:

Ahkohahkoh (25 April 2009): All those gays in NUS, NTU and SMU should be locked up in prison, Changi prison. Fragment of screenshot.

Luvmibiz (25 April 2009): Why not ask the pro-lesbian group to a gay aware? Cannot? They have no right to start a gay society? Since it's constitutionally illegal to practise lesbianism, then stop the bickering, you tofu women. Fragment of screenshot.

Charlllotte (25 April 2009): Gays are a deviant group. There are many gays in NUS, NTU and SMU. I am worried. Why aren't they doing something about it? It is horrifying to find all these gays students in NUS, NTU and SMU. Gays are a deviant group. How can a mother feel safe to send her sons to NUS, NTU and SMU. Fragment of screenshot.


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: 

  • Singapore netizens are as responsible as any educated society in expressing their views on a controversial subject involving religion and sexuality, 
  • they have a low tolerance for deceit and lack of integrity, and 
  • large numbers believe "inclusiveness" must include gay people.

And yet, that is not enough. For "inclusiveness" still bears further examination. As political commentator Chua Mui Hoong wrote in her column,

In recent years, much attention, for good reason, has been focused on Islamic fundamentalism, given the violence of militant groups claiming Islam as their inspiration. But religious fundamentalism of all kinds can do harm - not necessarily to the physical body but certainly to the body politic of a multi-faith society - if it invalidates others' faiths and seeks to use the law to suppress the practices of minority groups.

-- Straits Times, 25 April 2009,
Aware saga: A new militancy emerges

Ah, the law. Yes, there remains the unfinished business of Section 377A.

Yawning Bread 


I particularly like this letter by Joel Chua

25 April 2009
Straits Times Online Forum

The truth behind the fracas surrounding the so-called leadership coup at Aware has finally come to light. A group harbouring anti-homosexual sentiments had become upset over the organisation's promotion of social equity for gays and lesbians, and wanted to reinstate 'traditional values'.

Is it not pungent with irony that a group dedicated to the promotion of equal rights for women should implicitly advocate social discrimination against another group? One would expect that individuals who undoubtedly appreciate the historical struggles women had to endure to free themselves of their societal shackles, also appreciate a similar, contemporary struggle for social acceptance. Have the oppressed become the oppressors?

But I understand that, for these individuals, it is a matter of morality. Their interpretation of their religion dictates that an innate sexual condition is grounds for opprobrium.

They might perhaps consider that even today, in certain societies, their counterparts continue to face unrelenting and imaginable prejudice, also because of an innate sexual condition - that of merely being a woman. Those who oppress them do so under the banner of perceived morality as well. Stories of how women are treated in some countries by the 'morality police' shock the conscience of women and men, straight and gay alike. Is it really moral or the fruit of a religion, whose early members were themselves persecuted as ideological deviants, to discriminate against people who are different?

Ultimately, this is not just a battle between pro- and anti-homosexual factions. It is but one front in the larger war against discrimination of all kinds. But just as the tide of history turned in favour of women in Singapore, so too will it eventually turn in favour of other groups. As for the new leadership at Aware, they must now struggle to keep their heads above the choppy waters of irony.

Joel Nicholas Chua