Let me first preface this entry by stating that even at this point, no one is sure how the whole controversy over AWARE will be resolved. And that is assuming it is resolved. I think I’m not alone in thinking that most Singaporeans will forget about the whole issue as soon as is blows over. After all, one of the main reasons why the saga has garnered so much public attention is the extensive coverage by the mainstream print and broadcast media.
Till today, the government is still stating publicly that this is not a national problem and that it should be resolved internally. Well, yes and no. Yes, insofar as AWARE is concerned, this is an internal matter, and one hopes that it can be resolved without intervention by the authorities. However, my concern (and I believe this is not unwarranted) is that this won’t be the last time something like this happens.
First of all, what has actually happened? The truth is, no one really knows for sure. Alex Au has an excellent article that traces the changing tides of the public’s perception of the issue over the past few weeks. At first, many wanted to give the new EXCO a chance, and felt that it was premature to make accusations about their alleged anti-gay stance, including Mathia Lee, who had attended the AGM.
Then, more information came to light. About how several EXCO members came from the same church. That they had written to the press numerous times regarding homosexuality. That somehow, Thio Su Mien, mother of NMP Thio Li-ann (who drew both praise and scorn for her vitriolic speech during the debate on 377A) Still, not all were convinced that this was a conspiracy.
Then came the firing of subcomm heads, most notably, Braema Mathi who was head of the committee writing the CEDAW Shadow Report. Constance Singam also resigned from her advisory position on the EXCO. There was hope that the newly appointed President, Josie Lau, would finally be forthcoming about their actual intentions for AWARE. But, no, both Josie and Maureen, the Honarary Treasurer, tried to equivocate, vehemently denying that the takeover was a constitutional coup, or that they knew each other.
Then, the leaked e-mails were circulated. To contain the fallout, the new EXCO quickly called for a press conference, during which they introduced their “feminist mentor”, Thio Su Mien. She revealed that she had been alarmed by the alleged pro-lesbianism and pro-homosexuality slant adopted by AWARE in its activities and programmes. One of them was the Comprehensive Sex Education, which discussed homosexuality and pre-marital sex in a neutral light. While she had said in her Channel News Asia interview that AWARE had become too diversified, Josie now said that AWARE had become a single purpose organisation, presumably in championing gay rights.
The same night also saw the locked at the AWARE Centre being changed, the Centre Manager being fired, and the subsequent standoff at the Centre. And that’s not to mention Chew I-Jin’s confrontation with the new Exco just before the start of the press conference. These incidents merely served to strengthen the public’s image of the new Exco’s siege mentality and paranoia.
Right now, public opinion is still mixed. Most Singaporeans have expressed disgust towards the manner in which the new EXCO carried out their stealth operations. Yet, many think that they are making a valid point when calling for a review of AWARE’s programmes, most notably it’s CSE programme which seems to arm teens with the facts and encourage them to make their own choices. For many, there doesn’t seem to be an inherent contradiction in a group that purports to advocate women’s rights and preaches intolerance towards homosexuality at the same time. (What, the discrimination of a lesbian in her workplace is a controversial issue that your EXCO must hold a discussion on before deciding on your stand??) The fact is, the so-called pro-family conservative values that the new exco is championing are not exclusive to Christianity – they are also seen in other religions, as well as under the spurious umbrella of Asian values.
So, after such a long overview of what has happened so far, I’m back to the question that I posted in the title: Is this a glimpse of the future of Singapore politics? Sure, this attempt by the conservatives to take over AWARE can be said to have been well-orchestrated (in terms of getting their allies into office) but badly executed (in terms of managing the fallout, and attempting to equivocate when their religious affiliations came to light) Yes, their ability to rally support is simply remarkable. In fact, I’m quite sure they have succeeded in swelling up their numbers in time for the EGM. (But still, I hope otherwise)
So with all this support from their own followers, think what a force they would be if they could cloak their aims behind a semblance of secularism, perhaps by finding commonalities between the conservative values of the various major religions (not rocket science) and drumming up on pro-family and Asian values.
Last week, there was a talk on Singapore beyond Lee Kuan Yew, and one of the possible scenarios thrown up was of a schism within the PAP. In my opinion, such a situation isn’t very far-fetched. I believe the pragmatic PAP, the successor party of today’s PAP will the more progressive party, whereas the splinter group will be the conservative one, preaching Simply add economic welfare to their pro-family, traditional values, perhaps adopt a more xenophobic “Singapore first” attitude towards globalisation and foreign talent, and their popularity will definitely soar. True liberals will then continue to be supported by a motley crew that just can’t seem to work in concert.
Still, this situation manifesting itself is still a big IF. And will probably take a long time to be proven right. Yet, it is not impossible. In such a situation, perhaps PAP hegemony might not be so bad after all. Perhaps its these fears that is causing the government to take its time in liberalising the media, for fear of a backlash affecting their standing.
So how will the AWARE saga play out for now? Well, right now, the conservatives in the new EXCO may seem to be a monolithic bloc, but it seems to me that some of them, are probably regretting ever heeding Thio Su Mien’s call to arms. After all, no one wants to be scrutinised by the media and the public, and worse still, be seen as a mere puppet of this so-called feminist mentor!