AWARE Saga: Some Lessons

Mentions of the AWARE saga (April to May 2009) have been met with blank stares with class. Apparently, most of you are not so aware of what was arguably the single most notable event of civil society uprising in Singapore in recent years before GE2011.

Here’s a short summary of the event from the Economist. It involved a tussle between the largely conservative christian ‘new guard’ and the liberal secular ‘old guard’ over the leadership of the women’s rights group, culminating in an impassioned Executive GM where a majority of the  three thousand attendees voted against the ‘new guard”s takeover.

So what happened and what can we learn from it? You can check out socio-political blogger Alex Au’s review of the recently published  The AWARE Saga: Civil Society & Public Morality In Singapore (ed. Terence Chong, NUS Press, Singapore). Au stresses in particular the aim of the book in getting readers to see the issue beyond a simplistic conservative-liberal dichotomy.

Yet, to read the event as merely a conflict between one religion and homosexuality would be to miss much of the significance of it. As the contributors to The Aware Saga – Civil society and public morality in Singapore (ed. Terence Chong, NUS Press, Singapore) take pains to explain, the fight has both deep roots and wider ramifications. It also breaks open many questions – about the influence of the US and global Christian Right on religious thinking here, about the muscle power of hierarchical organisations versus that of flatter, more open structures – that need attention if one is to comprehend the more complex and variegated society that Singapore is becoming.

Another local political commentator, Catherine Lim, also remarked–in one of her numerous letters on the subject–about how

…it is exactly this diversity and expressiveness that marks an active, alert and robust citizenry that Singapore has often been accused of lacking. I expect that never again will Singaporeans be described as apathetic (Dare I hope, as a long-time political commentator, that the same critical voices will also be heard in the other, even more controversial arena of political issues, so that at long last, we will truly have matured as a society?)

Finally, I want to draw your attention to writer Cherian George’s essay on the subject. In summary, he outlines three key lesson to be learnt from the matter: the brand of secularism that works for Singapore; the type of representation that civil society organisations should offer; and the level of transparency and accountability that the public deserve from such groups. Here are some key excerpts:

On secularism:

When intolerant – and considerably more violent – voices have surfaced in other religious communities, the moderate mainstream had to rise up to reclaim the microphone, to assure themselves and their fellow citizens that their faith was entirely compatible with peaceful co-existence in a multicultural and democratic society. Similarly, one of the most positive outcomes of the Aware saga is the strong assertion by Singaporeans of faith and their religious leaders: we are here, our faith makes us and our society stronger, but we will not impose our values on others.

On representation and civil society organizations (CSOs):

First, while the expectation that a civil society organisation (CSO) should represent the majority view is superficially seductive, it is in fact fundamentally flawed. CSOs are not political parties, which must appeal to the majority to win elections. One of the chief values of CSOs is precisely that they fill the gaps left by political parties (and by the private sector), by serving causes that the majority may not embrace […]

While it may be unfair and unrealistic to expect each CSO to reflect all colours of the rainbow, a CSO that aims to have national impact should certainly be outward-looking. An internally homogeneous community-based CSO is not a problem in itself; it should be judged by the friends it has. It deserves to be viewed with skepticism if it is unable to work with groups representing other communities. Fortunately, several faith-based and ethnic-based groups in Singapore have excellent records of working side by side with other groups, regardless of race, language or religion.

On transparency and to some degree, government reaction:

Civil society groups that want influence and respect should be transparent in their dealings and be ready to account for themselves. It would be an understatement to say that the insurgents were unprepared for the intense public scrutiny they attracted […]

The Government is not known to be sympathetic to the progressive agenda of Aware’s liberals. Perhaps the insurgents had hoped that dragging the school sexuality programme into the debate would prod the Government to take its side. If so, they miscalculated. If there is one thing that is stronger than its antipathy towards liberal values, it is the Government’s resistance to letting its power and prestige become tools in the hands of any lobby group, whatever its ideological complexion.

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