Battling over the moral meaning of gender equality

The book review was first written for Aware, the women’s rights organisation.

As the Singapore government gradually retreats from social engineering in the face of a better educated, more assertive generation, the vacuum so produced may not be filled by any consensus of what Singapore society should be like, but become a theatre of conflict, with different civil society groups pushing forward their ideas. The March 2009 takeover of Aware by a group led by Thio Su-Mien and Josie Lau and its takeback two months later may be a harbinger of things to come. Understanding why and how it happened will go a long way to being able to see these conflicts with a wider perspective.

As it is, the Aware conflict was seen by many as a clash between conservative Christianity and homosexuality. Indeed, the actors involved — a “new guard” motivated by Evangelical Christian antipathy to homosexuality on the one side and an “old guard” with its secular ethos, allied with liberal and gay groups on the other — made such a reading almost inescapable. That it came just eighteen months after the loud public debate about Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises homosexual acts between men, in which again the conservative side was strongly identified with Evangelical Christianity, only led people to see it in the same light.

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.

Chua Beng Huat’s and Terence Chong’s opening chapters situate the conflict in the context of Singapore’s social development and educational progress, arguing that as larger numbers of Singaporeans acquire higher education, a liberal-minded constituency inevitably grows. The government’s emphasis on economic progress, which entails an outward-looking, open economy, privileges this segment of the population, and as a result, cultural conservatives feel they are pushed to the margins. Moreover, whereas they could in the past rely on the government to protect moral conservatism, increasingly the government is merely giving it lip service while its actions contradict it, a trend that Chong describes as an abdication of its moral policing role. The decision to allow casinos comes to mind; the gradual retreat from penalising homosexuality too. Cultural conservatives will increasingly feel they need to take matters into their own hands to defend their interests. Seen in this light, the takeover of Aware may not the last of such moves.

Several chapters trace the events as they unfolded. Azhar Ghani and Gillian Koh detail the government’s hesitant and carefully calibrated response, in the process throwing light on their priorities and manner of working. Perhaps to the surprise of the coup-plotters, the government ended up showing itself to be more concerned about religious leaders wading into political and previously secular space than about homosexuality. In the one instance when the government tapped on the brakes, it was the Thio group that lost out. A large number of its supporters were deterred from attending the Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) that had been called to unseat the new guard.

Likewise, Loh Chee Kong’s analysis of newspaper coverage thorough the period – the Straits Times gave daily coverage to the contest – illuminates the thinking in the newsroom. Unfortunately, despite his allusions to the media straining at the leash of the government’s expressed desire not to dwell on sensitive issues, the opportunity to more exhaustively discuss how this tension might play out in the years ahead, come other civil society or public controversies, was not seized.

Curiously, the book does not include any chapter about the role played by the internet in mobilising support for the old guard. Also lacking is a more in-depth portrayal of the new guard actors. Throughout the book, they remain two-dimensional characters; one never quite gets to understand how they see a changing Singapore and why they chose to act in the way they did. It is possible however that none of the authors could get access; if the record of the Thio group during the saga is any indication, they seem to be uncomfortable and reluctant dealing with media and intellectuals.

The EGM itself is brought alive, almost blow by blow, by Lai Ah Eng in her chapter. In doing so, she paints the incredible contrast in social cultures between the two camps. On the new guard side, there was orderliness and conformity to expected roles among its supporters in the audience, but also, after voting, a quick evaporation of interest. Among its leaders, a shocking misjudgement of the mood, futile appeals to rank and quick calls on security guards to enforce their will wrecked their plans. Ultimately, they probably never understood that the difference between them and the old guard fighting to take back the organisation and their supporters, was not just a difference of opinion about homosexuality and morality, but a complete difference in culture. When rank and authority was discovered to mean little, the new guard was left with no other lever to engage and persuade.

Interestingly, the old guard itself misjudged its supporters. It had planned meticulously for who would speak and what to say at the EGM, but it didn’t take long for the rowdy passion and feckless spontaneity of their supporters to scramble their best-laid plans.

Through this recounting of the EGM, a significant bit of insight slips in. Here is a shift in the tenor of Singapore society that we would vastly underestimate if it is seen only within the confines of the Aware conflict. It does not take much effort to see it again in the general election of 2011; no doubt we will be witnessing more of such spontaneous, rebellous behaviour in other public issues to come.

Alex Tham throws more light on this phenomenon from a different angle. In his chapter, he delineates the differences in organisation and social capital between the “new guard” and the “old”. Arguing that while the “old guard” espoused an ethos of being open and inclusive, it in fact remained a small circle of women, which left it vulnerable to a takeover by a group modelled in contrasting ways. Thio’s group was hierarchical, with enforceable trust, bringing to bear its greater social capital. The old guard, he writes, was saved not by its puny resources, but by the media defining this as a secularism versus religion debate, thus mobilising for the old guard the raw power of an incensed crowd.

However, Dominic Chua, James Koh and Jack Yong don’t even see it as a victory for liberals. Dissecting the language used, they show the links between Thio’s group and the Christian Right movement originating from the United States. Not only that, they show how the same language was adopted in other forums when discussing the Aware conflict and homosexuality. Since language shapes perception, in which direction has public opinion on homosexuality moved? As for the policy level, ultimately, looking at the way the Ministry of Education scrapped the old guard’s Comprehensive Sexuality Programme right after the EGM, the conservatives might have had the bigger prize.

The chapters by Theresa W Devasahayam and Vivienne Wee try to look for meanings both in the conflict and after. Specifically, what did the new and old guards stand for? What models of feminism were in contest? Besides the issues of pluralism and secularism which were an intrinsic part of the struggle, albeit played up by the media, at the core there was a difference in understanding what gender equality means.

Too often, the modern understanding of gender equality has one more value piggybacking on it: sexual autonomy. Proponents would argue that there can be no gender equality if sexual disautonomy, often framed by patriarchal rules, continues to operate.

The fight for Aware reveals an intriguing idea brought by the Thio gang, albeit one that may be strongly shaped by their conservative Christian ethos: that there can be gender equality without rights to sexual autonomy, because, in conservative minds, nobody has rights to sexual autonomy, male or female, straight or gay. Is this a viable proposition? Or is it so inherently problematic that such an idea can only be a smokescreen for the re-imposition of patriarchal systems?

The Aware saga clearly provides much food for thought, and one good book, as this one is, may not be enough, only scratching the surface of the social trends and cultural questions the conflict represents.

14 Responses to “Battling over the moral meaning of gender equality”


  1. 1 yuen 3 August 2011 at 07:07

    memories are short these days (maybe too many distractions available on internet?); the number of people who remember the episode must be very small; how many people would even know the name “aware”?

    the use of internet to disseminate information and organize activities was well illustrated by the incident, but people now have bigger fish to fry; opposition activists hope to use it to get more votes and more seats next election; presidential hopefuls can operate campaigns at much lower cost than rallies and posters; without the internet, Mindef’s handling of Patrick Tan’s NS would not have become widely known; civic society issues wont be able to compete with these

  2. 2 Robox 3 August 2011 at 08:21

    Simply put:

    1. The S377a debates was the first liberal uprising in Singapore.

    2. This was followed by a second closely allied one, the AWARE saga.

    3. Not far behind was GE2011, the third and only the latest liberal uprising. (All the opposition parties campaigned as they were the SDP, if you ask me, that party being THE liberal vanguard of party politics in Singapoe.)

    (#2 and #3 builf on the #1.) In short, the liberal political ideology has become a potent force in politics and is in fact dominating the discourse.

    Detractors notwithstanding.

  3. 3 Poker Player 3 August 2011 at 09:13

    As long as Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus together form the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans, whatever form of secularism we have today is safe. Me personally, whenever I see Christians proselytizing to Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus, I make “trouble” – it’s really really easy – their beliefs are no more airtight than those they attack.

    • 4 Tan Tai Wei 5 August 2011 at 09:38

      Non-theistic Buddhism, non-theistic Hinduism and philosophic Taoism (unmixed with popular common beliefs and “theistic” Buddhism) are nonetheless closer to theism than secularism. Belief in Nirvana, Brahman and the Tao as non-personal ultimate Reality that transcends the natural, secular realm agrees with theism on the question whether or not there exists an order of being beyond the natural realm.

      • 5 Poker Player 5 August 2011 at 10:33

        “closer to theism than secularism”

        What on earth are you talking about? They are not two points on the same pole. They are on different poles.

        This is like saying “closer to theism than anti-racism”.

    • 6 ET 9 August 2011 at 03:11

      PP “As long as Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus together form the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans, whatever form of secularism we have today is safe.”

      I’m sorry but that seems remarkably naive to me given the resources and tactics of a religious minority intent on gaining power in politics, education and the media, as they have in various countries in Asia and Africa.

      TTW “Belief in Nirvana, Brahman and the Tao as non-personal ultimate Reality that transcends the natural, secular realm agrees with theism on the question whether or not there exists an order of being beyond the natural realm.”

      In my understanding this is incorrect regarding non-theistic buddhism, I can’t speak for the other two. However I’m not clear what point you’re making here.

      • 7 Poker Player 9 August 2011 at 12:59

        “I’m sorry but that seems remarkably naive to me given the resources and tactics of a religious minority intent on gaining power in politics, education and the media, as they have in various countries in Asia and Africa.”

        I am not sure how you reconcile your claims with the situation in South Korea. They have a larger proportion of Christians. Evolution is still taught. And the Buddhists there are no pushovers.

        http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2008/07/117_28491.html

        And you are naive about Buddhist passivism – they are as human and can get as angry as Christians (and Muslims!). Thank God for that ;)

        Before Mohamed Bouazizi, there was Thich Quang Duc.

  4. 8 Roy Tan 3 August 2011 at 15:54

    I have compiled the most comprehensive video archive of the AWARE saga. You can watch the entire collection on YouTube:

    Cheers.

  5. 9 liewkk 3 August 2011 at 16:38

    Not read the book yet. But what i observed during the saga was that the organisation of the coup plotters actually reflected that of the PAP establishment. At the core of these lacklustre supporters of these charmless and inspireless bureaucrats drawn from the private sector and led by a “feminist mentor”. Do you see the similarities? On the other hand, do not think the old guard and their supporters are free flying individuals as well for the counterstrike had been carefully and tightly managed in both the media and during the actual EGM proceedings as well.

  6. 10 perplexed 3 August 2011 at 21:10

    As i understand it part of the reason for the AWARE saga was due to their syllabus on sexual education, given out in secondary schools. Did the book cover that as the genesis of the coup? Why did MOE then scrap the program, if the liberals are right? Doesn’t anyone think that this is too much complicated analysis over a simple outrage and rash act by the conservatives? These people are so powerful that they could quite easily get MOE to scrap it without so much hassle. To an observer this is just a foolish act on their part which is totally unnecessary.

  7. 11 ExExpat 3 August 2011 at 23:39

    Hi, I like to comment to Poker Player, first I agree on your comment and thought about the same! Then, reading this article:

    http://www.humanist.org.sg/information-on-hss/public-communication/59-carving-out-a-space-for-the-non-religious-here

    ..I would even expand this argument:

    A solid majority of Singaporeans would declare themselves as not belonging to any kind of theistic religion, strictly speaking:

    43% buddhists + 15% atheists + 8% taoists = 66%!

    Only a minority – very vocal though – is christian, and similar percentage is muslim (15% each).

    So the non-theistic majority is quite exactly as solid as the PAP one! Quite interesting this little fact.

    • 12 Poker Player 4 August 2011 at 15:19

      In case foreigners are puzzled why Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus are special, some anecdotes. There are nominal Buddhists and Taoists who take part in Thaipusam. There are Buddhist temples with a Hindu section for the convenience of Hindus.

      And no one is excommunicated for this.

      And this was the way it was in ancient times. Egyptian gods were worshipped alongside Roman and Greek ones. Sometimes even identified as equivalents.

      The “jealous God” was Moses’ gift to mankind.

  8. 14 Tan Tai Wei 5 August 2011 at 14:44

    “Theistic” Hinduism and Buddhism are historically and conceptually connectedFor instance, when Hindus worship, say Vishnu or Shiva, many knowledgeable amongst them see them as incarnations of the One Reality “Brahman” who nevertheless needs to be concretised as deity to suit worshippers’ level of cognisance. And after many centuries of development, originally “atheistic” Buddhism evolved into the “larger vehicle”, where heavenly Buddhas came to be worshipped for their grace and mercy, and their capacity to confer goodness to earthlings, facilitating their quest for Nirvana, our own Sukyamuni being only one manifestation of such divine being.


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