Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36, September 2014

Making Sense of the AWARE Saga:
The Aporetic Enactment of Feminist Responsibility in Singapore

Ingrid M. Hoofd

        [O]ne would blind oneself to the phenomenon called…the 'return of the religious' today if one continued to oppose so naïvely Reason and Religion.[1]
    Jacques Derrida

        [A]t the height of reality—and with information at its peak—[we] no longer know whether anything has taken place or not.[2]
    Jean Baudrillard

    A feminist and political incident or a non-event?
  1. Now that several years have passed since what has come to be known in Singapore as 'the AWARE saga'—the sudden takeover of executive committee positions and subsequent counter-coup by ousted former members within the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in 2009—it is time to take stock of this seemingly straightforward yet highly complex and interesting public altercation. AWARE is a women's civil society organisation committed to fostering a 'society where there is true gender equality' in Singapore. AWARE's mission is to 'remove all gender-based barriers' by way of research and advocacy, training programmes and local support services such as a telephone helpline for women in need.[3] Formally founded in 1985, AWARE is part of a long lineage in Singapore and former Malaya of organisations that foster rights for women and girls. One could trace AWARE's engagement with women's issues to the kinds of involvements in the early 1900s of mostly upper-class white and Chinese women in charity and welfare for underprivileged women and girls, in particular through missionary, medical and educational programmes.[4] Several of these women's charity and welfare organisations with members of different ethnic backgrounds came together to form the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) in 1952 to battle against the widespread practice of polygamy.[5] After almost ten years of advocacy against this practice, polygamy was finally outlawed in Singapore through the institution of the Women's Charter in 1961.[6] While SCW continued to advocate amendments to the Women's Charter in subsequent decades, another major issue captured the attention of women's rights advocates when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addressed the nation's falling fertility rate in his 1983 National Day Rally speech, urging well-educated and middle- or upper-class women in particular to produce more babies.[7] Many well-educated and middle-class women were disgruntled about Lee's insistence that women's main roles were to be producers of babies, mothers and care-givers; this led to a heated forum, 'Women's Choices, Women's Lives,' at the National University of Singapore in 1984. Some of the speakers and participants, mutually recognising that Singapore needed another women's organisation that would seek to improve women's legal and social status vis-à-vis men, instigated the formation of AWARE in December 1985.[8] The women involved were either professional women or academics from various ethnic backgrounds, and the general makeup of AWARE's committees and membership today still mirrors this.
  2. In light of AWARE's background largely residing in a history of charity and the organisation emerging in order to enable women's personal choice in the sphere of a marriage, which it primarily understands as a monogamous and heterosexual institution, most of AWARE's projects foster foremost a liberal and multi-ethnic agenda that seeks to 'reach out' to women of lower classes and education. Besides its advocacy practices around fertility issues, AWARE's projects include the inauguration of a helpline for women in need in 1991, campaigns against violence against women and girls which led to the insertion of the Family Violence Bill in the Women's Charter in 1996, lobbying against quotas on female students in the National University of Singapore's medicine faculty, financial intelligence training programmes, and a host of other research projects.[9] In trying to tread the fine line between critiquing what it sees as 'traditional' morality and government policies while relying on government and public support for its financial stability, it regularly shuns overt engagement in more sensitive or overt feminist issues such as the status of lesbian women, or in issues involving the intersections of gender with social class. For instance, when three AWARE members were arrested for their involvement in the 'Marxist conspiracy' in 1987, the AWARE executive committee decided to 'adopt a low profile.'[10] Lenore Lyons argues likewise that especially what came to be known as the 'Blueprinters controversy' serves as a constant reminder that AWARE could not become too specifically feminist if it were to keep its registration and membership.[11] Even so, AWARE continues to be an important civil society actor in Singapore when it comes to 'safer' local pro-women's rights issues and problems.
  3. The occurrence of the AWARE Saga nonetheless suddenly thrust the organisation into the national limelight. At its annual general meeting on 28 March 2009, the organisation witnessed an unexpected takeover of its executive committee by a group of largely unknown women. These new members took nine of the twelve available seats in the committee after being voted in by a large number of people who only recently had become AWARE members. It soon turned out that almost all new executive members were from the local Church of Our Saviour (CoOS).[12] The change of guard came as a shock to both old AWARE members and former executive committee members, as well as the Singapore public in general; subsequent weeks saw a highly mediatised struggle between old and new committee members, with debates ranging from gay issues to the boundary between religion and civil society. After an exhilarating extraordinary general meeting held at Suntec City Convention Centre on 2 May 2009, at which almost 3,000 people showed up to vote, the old committee eventually managed to regain its leadership over AWARE. The leadership tussle had lasted barely five weeks, but it had dominated the mass and new media spheres to such an extent that claims were made that it signalled a new and more liberal chapter in Singapore's otherwise closely controlled political environment.
  4. On the surface, the leadership tussle in AWARE appeared to be between two oppositional points of view around women's and gender roles in Singapore, each in turn represented by two highly dissimilar groups—one religious and one liberal. Most accounts of the sudden takeover of AWARE by the Christian minority group, as well as that group's equally prompt expulsion from the organisation, have largely focussed on how this public clash and the subsequent victory of the liberal stance marked the maturing of Singapore's public sphere and gender debate, notwithstanding the later loss of AWARE's comprehensive sexuality education programme to more so-called 'neutral' parties.[13] But such a hasty interpretation and conclusion about the AWARE saga does not do justice to the profound ambiguity regarding the actual function and significance of the event for gender politics and activism in Singapore that many feminists, including myself, still seem to feel. By revisiting the complexities at the heart of the leadership tussle, this paper therefore seeks to revive the more radical feminist challenge to Singapore's profoundly patriarchal and capitalist politics—a challenge that I argue ultimately did not take place.
  5. I am not interested in rehashing the arguments for or against either party in the conflict while simplistically aligning itself with one of them, even though I overall share more (though not all) sympathy with the group that has been dubbed the 'old guard'—the 'liberal feminist' executive members who were originally cast out by the CoOS women. Instead, in this paper I rework a set of problems and paradoxes implicit in the event and its unfolding, in particular around the fluctuating positions of the Singapore government and the media during the AWARE saga, and the subsequent speedy enlistment by various parties of a host of stereotypes. The paper will do this so as to shed light on how the logic of the debate resided inside as well as beyond Singapore's national borders and governance. It firstly argues that the stance of Singapore's national media, by fuelling the spectacle of a highly charged 'public' debate, should be understood in light of an increasingly accelerated mobilisation of differences—especially 'religion' versus 'reason'—and the subsequent emphasis on 'diversity' and multiculturalism in the service of emerging cosmopolitan elites at home and abroad.[14] This mobilisation of differences is not at all actively pushed for by the Singapore state itself—in fact, the onus is in turn on the state to successfully manage differences—but is an effect of a globalising economic configuration which summons such accelerated mobilisation principally by way of (new) media technologies such as the press, television and online forums. Explanations of the Singapore government's shrewd managing of religious and ethnic dissent within its national boundaries during the saga are therefore certainly legitimate.[15] But these explanations fail to account for the fact that the saga, as well as the positive evocation of a 'maturing public sphere' around the saga, is foremost a product of unequal global and media forces, and the way these forces augment the aporia at the heart of liberal thought, namely the tension between religion and reason. In other words, the paper secondly proposes that the rapid unfolding and decompression of the event suggests that it functioned foremost on what Jean Baudrillard in his oeuvre calls the 'level of simulation.'[16] This is because the event did nothing to subject the reproduction of that aporia and its relationship to local and global hegemony, to radical scrutiny or criticism.
  6. The Saga therefore allows us to understand how Singapore's contemporary gender politics operate on a national as well as transnational level, in which essentially floating signifiers like 'feminism,' 'religion,' 'secularism' and 'Asian culture' become implicated in a process of mediated acceleration. Singapore's gender politics during the saga was hence simulated through a media-space that is first and foremost neoliberal and thus not threatening at all to the Asian and western masculinist social order of competition and dissent that neoliberalism requires. To use Baudrillard's helpful phrasing, the AWARE saga was a 'sign-object' consumed through the media 'as if' it was representative of Singapore's public sphere in the Habermasian sense, where in actual fact no maturing or even emergence of such a public sphere actually took place.[17] The Saga was therefore a 'non-event' in the Baudrillardian sense: a simulation of feminist politics that in the end not only failed to change the actual state of affairs on the ground, but even solidified an economistic and nationalistic gendered state of affairs. Indeed, the saga's explosive unfolding and subsequent rapid vanishing has left the answer to the question of whether 'anything has taken place or not' wholly uncertain and un-decidable.[18] The role of new media in this process becomes apparent in how it facilitated the accelerated online refractions and intensifications around the debate, in which oppositions such as male versus female, liberal versus religious, secularism versus fundamentalism, pro-gay versus anti-gay, and western versus Asian become constitutive of contentious online communities sharing an 'illusory' common goal. An example of this is how the We Are Aware website, which came to the rescue of the ousted 'old guard,' operated as a spurious pro-homosexual space. Therefore, moving beyond the simplistic liberal-versus-religious opposition, in this paper I claim that this process of global acceleration functions by way of a pervasive postcolonial logic, in which the national management of femininity and diversity fuels a predominantly Eurocentric globalisation implicated in the emergence of a new Asian cosmopolitan elite. This means that AWARE, as well as the new Christian right, by way of mobilising such false divisions and stereotypes, differentially partake in this new form of technocratic upward mobility.

    Gender, nation and globalisation: the techno-dissemination of messianic responsibility
  7. In order to grasp how the saga was a 'non-event,' we need next to delve into the contemporary relationship between gender, religion and the nation-state. The centrality of gender and sexuality to systems of inclusion and exclusion, especially of those forged by the nation-state, has been comprehensively examined by Nira Yuval-Davis in her important work Gender and Nation.[19] Particularly useful to this analysis of the AWARE saga is how Yuval-Davis asserts that women's roles in the reproduction of national and patriarchal hegemony work through religious ideology as well as through a relativistic form of multiculturalism.[20] The extent to which the saga revolved around religious doctrine on the one hand and the multicultural position on the other hand hence already shows that these stances are not that oppositional, as they are both involved in the reproduction of gender and other differences. The rhetoric of multiculturalism as inclusive is especially misleading since it ignores questions of power relations like class and ethnicity, which frequently lead to 'representatives' of women's and feminist organisations coming from class positions very different from those of the majority female members they (claim to) represent.[21] While Yuval-Davis's observations are therefore certainly applicable to the AWARE saga, they nonetheless fall short on two points. First, Yuval-Davis does not do justice to the centrality of media and communications technologies to contemporary processes of the gendered management of national, class and ethnic borders, but merely sees them as a neutral corollary of globalisation and possible transnational alliance-building.[22] Second, her understanding of how religious fundamentalism is connected to processes of globalisation—as simply a defensive reaction to the 'despair and disorientation' engendered by globalisation—remains too superficial, even if it does acknowledge that 'being active in a religious movement allows women a legitimate place in a public sphere' that otherwise might be off-limits.[23] In order to grasp the full complexity of the saga, this paper will supplement Yuval-Davis's valuable argument with a more intricate understanding of the function of new media technologies and the rise of so-called religious fundamentalism.
  8. Yuval-Davis does suggest at some point that the promotion of traditional familial ideologies, whether religious or otherwise, may be connected to the weakening or non-existence of the welfare state under neoliberalism.[24] Contemporary religious fundamentalism and its almost inseparable companion, the reverence of the traditional patriarchal family, may hence perhaps be more in line with globalisation than opposed to it. This suggests that the nostalgic heteronormative image of the 'traditional family' functions really as a false origin in service of technocratic globalisation—in short, the 'traditional family' is an utterly contemporary construction aimed at the segregation of differences in terms of nationality, ethnicity and class. Accordingly, far from religion and liberalism being radically different from each other, or a 'mad' religion simply opposing the liberal idea of 'reason,' they are in fact intricately related. This intricacy, and the logical rise of religious fundamentalism under technocratic and neoliberal globalisation, is succinctly dissected by Jacques Derrida in his essay 'Faith and Knowledge.' Derrida traces monotheistic religion as well as Enlightenment thought back to their mutual central concern with responsibility towards the other.[25] Derrida shows that this central responsibility in the face of the other displays itself in the common tropes of Christian and Enlightenment thought: the notion of light (as God and enlightenment), of the Promised Land (as the utopia of liberation), of teaching tolerance and the 'ought to give others space to speak' notion.[26] Since being responsible requires an openness to any other that religion and Enlightenment seek to mould into a 'truth for all,' and hence into an imperialistic or messianic programme, a fundamental tension appears within each of them, as well as between them. Reason after all requires faith in reason, and religion requires the critique of non-faith, which means that both are marked by what Derrida calls 'auto-immunity'—an inconsistency within its internal structure which constantly tends to undo that very structure and hence needs to be repressed.[27] Within this logic, faith must incessantly haunt reason and reason must incessantly exasperate faith. Liberal Enlightenment thought, and its emphasis on gendered and raced justice, therefore is always open to its own critique (not in the least because the idea of gendered justice is aporetically based on a patriarchal history of 'brotherhood'), but this openness is also its democratic possibility. Derridian scholar Nick Mansfield therefore points out that 'the challenge of fundamentalisms of all stripes is that we must work out how to deal with their very modernity and their rationalism, not their imagined "primitivism".'[28]
  9. For my analysis of the saga, this means that under the current globalisation of liberal ideas of reason and rights, as Carl Raschke puts it quoting Derrida, the 'compression of religiosity' within the 'limits of reason alone generates a…pure disclosure of difference within the Enlightenment project.'[29] Understood in this way, the fundamentalist contestation in the saga allows us to address the limitations of AWARE's liberal and secular 'old guard' politics as they tried to get out-bidden by 'fundamentalist' patriarchal 'new guard' rhetoric, and hence open up the debate again beyond its simplistic oppositional articulation. Religious fundamentalism for Raschke also represents not just the 'return of the repressed' within liberal thought, but also the 'auto-immune' reaction (however knee-jerk) under complete domestication under a totalising techno-rationality. So-called 'fundamentalism' is therefore not conservative at all, even if it nostalgically tries to hark back to supposed bygone eras of true community, family and brotherhood. It paradoxically also uses this techno-rationality to profess and disseminate its faith, as can be glanced from the numerous online confessions on websites from organisations such as CoOS. Derrida moreover remarks that today 'tele-techno-science' provides the 'site of repeatability' of the ideal of responsibility that inhabits Christianity as well as liberal thought.[30] This causes 'the same unique source' of religion and reason to 'divide itself mechanically' because of their mutual commitment to 'respond as much before the other as for the high-performance performativity of techno-science. [emphasis in original].'[31] The invocation of some nostalgic ideal community against the 'disorientation and despair' of global technological fragmentation is nonetheless a projection into the past of an original 'whole' that is exactly conjured up by these new technologies.[32] So (new) media technologies intensify and multiply this aporetic division between religion and reason, because they themselves operate through a spectral logic which represses its constitutive 'other' in seeking to make reality self-evident. Media technologies are after all based on the objectivist idea of perception as 'accurate representation' that relies on dissimulating its own technical, economic and social construction.
  10. Additionally, the accelerated logic of mechanical reproduction, says Mansfield, is a form of 'automation that we can define as the very idea of God's un-conditionality,' which causes 'one thing necessarily, even automatically, [to] turn in on itself.'[33] I therefore argue, if indeed this automation today increasingly provides the a priori of any sort of representation, that this opposition between religion and reason becomes a simulation of politics which foremost works in the service of contemporary social and economic forces. This is because Baudrillard conceives of simulation as an implosion of the semiotic with the realm of capital flows. In other words, religious fundamentalism becomes (or is) liberal Enlightenment's 'other'—the spectre that incessantly haunts the Enlightenment due to the latter's internal conceptual aporia, as well as its contradictory self-narrative as a break with religion and yet being an act of faith. This aporia is of course similarly present in the liberal feminism of AWARE's 'old guard.' In the light of the recent global rise of such fundamentalisms, it was only a matter of time for such an 'auto-immune reaction' to announce itself in rapidly globalising Singapore.

    Contested feminisms and the reproduction of false differences
  11. From the onset of the leadership tussle, it became clear that the new executive committee members (or 'new guard') had their own definition of feminism. One of their leading women, a former dean of the law faculty of the National University of Singapore, Dr. Thio Su Mien, even claimed that she was a 'feminist mentor,' much to the amusement of many of the old guard's associates.[34] The fact that the term 'feminist' became one of the contested concepts during the saga, with both sides claiming they were advancing a feminist politics, is however not entirely surprising. Also this contestation should not have one conclude that one of the parties in the debate was intentionally lying in order to further a stealth politics. Instead, it shows that no one group can claim final authority and total authorship over the term 'feminism,' since the fundamental aporia inhabiting 'responsibility towards other women' that Derrida describes causes the term to be counter-appropriable. In other words, the mobilisation of such a term must always exceed the original intentions of the feminist agent. In the end, the feminist subject of emancipation is then also very much produced in her specific cultural, ethnic, historical and economic context, making the interpretation of 'feminism' always contingent upon its intersection with other axes of oppression.[35] This potential excess of the term has increased especially due to global processes of accelerated dissemination and appropriation. Furthermore, the term has suffered from extensive media stereotyping and western-centric historiography, as if feminism were merely an individualist lifestyle choice (which then simply becomes a woman's 'right') or only about women's liberation and equality (in particular, providing women with the career choices previously reserved for men). But feminism is actually a rich and internally diverse field of politics and thinking, also in 'the West'—in fact, feminist theories and politics are quite often profoundly in conflict with each other due to the liberal aporia. So while feminisms at their base share the general aim of responsibly advancing the rights of women or ending sexist oppression, there are myriad ways to interpret this definition, and therefore myriad ways to take feminist action.[36] This is also to note that the goal of women's equality to men already implies, quite paradoxically, that women and men are a priori separate symbolic categories, and hence different social subjects. In other words, the goal of equality assumes a fundamental difference, while simultaneously seeking such equality with men of a certain class.
  12. Logically then, the accelerated dissemination of the term has displaced its supposed western-liberal 'origins' because these origins were always already a mirage brought about by a Eurocentric historiography. So while old guard member Dana Lam in an online video posted before the extraordinary general meeting correctly accused the new guard of having 'only one view and one truth,' this nonetheless failed to acknowledge that the old guard also exhibited only one view of feminism as mere liberal-inspired women's equality.[37] It is foremost this aporia within feminist thought (and indeed, as we saw with Derrida, in the very idea of social justice) and the subsequent slipperiness of the term as such that allowed for the term to be swept up in the neoliberal logic of mediated refraction and acceleration of differences during the saga. This happened even though at first glance, a conservative Christian group of women claiming to be 'feminists' wishing to 'return AWARE to its original purpose' may seem absurd from a dominant-liberal point of view.[38] Nonetheless, due to the function of media technologies to represent the 'truth' of the matter in terms of neat categories—thus repressing the 'abject' truth that they are mutually constitutive of new global inequalities—the local broadcast media quickly differentiated the stakeholders in the debate into two groups: the liberal-feminist-multiracial and the conservative-monoracial-Christian. The newspaper media overall seemed to align itself slightly against the new guard in favour of the liberal old guard, which was particularly obvious in the visual representation of unwilling and aggressive new guard members, but also through the use of words such as 'hijacking,' 'coup' and 'organised electioneering.'[39] Especially in the online media (but also to some extent offline), this false representation of liberalism versus fundamentalism intensified through accusations of AWARE being in support of homosexuality, and the religious group being against it. This pro-homosexuality stance was in turn negatively depicted as being pro-western by the religious group, and even Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng cautioned eventually that 'homosexuals…[should] not…assert themselves stridently as gay groups do in the West [emphasis added]'.[40] What has thus surprised many critics of Singapore's national politics was that a by and large patriarchal and conservative Singapore government and its media appeared to align itself with the liberal-feminist old guard, even when just in 2007 that very same government decided against repealing its anti-homosexual sodomy law (Section 377A in the Penal Code) on the grounds that the majority of Singapore citizens are conservative-religious and in favour of traditional Asian family values.[41] We can see here the emergence of a host of false 'differences' produced through the media, which in turn were consumed by various people as sign-objects in lieu of an oppositional identity politics. But these identity politics, in all their arbitrary mobilisations, were nothing but effects of economic and national forces.
  13. It was through such utterly obscure, contradictory and finally empty categories of 'Asian' and 'western' that much of the debate was forged and the outbidding of religion and reason spiralled—contradictory because not only are such categories extremely internally heterogeneous, but they also currently circulate as oppositional signs in favour of a new global elite emerging in Singapore which is not simply 'Asian' or 'western,' but arguably 'both' (or neither anymore). In keeping with the logic of the mediated acceleration of such slippery signs in favour of the new elite, the mass media implicitly constructed the old guard as representing the 'correct' version of feminism—a women's politics founded on a liberal equality and multicultural model—which in many ways has become the dominant, safe and middle-class version of feminism that has enjoyed global media dissemination in the last decades, and that is often problematically typified as 'western.' Yuval-Davis also identifies such a multicultural politics as generally perpetuating non-threatening differences.[42] In turn, the new guard were depicted as standing for a version that sought to protect and revalorise an 'Asian and family-oriented' femininity in opposition to the supposed deterioration of female values by western 'perverting' influences like individualism and homosexuality. Self-proclaimed 'feminist mentor' Dr. Thio even used liberal academic jargon by calling the 'infiltration' of Singapore by gay rights activism a form of 'neocolonialism.'[43] Almost without delay, the abovementioned aporia within feminism, together with the speed of (online) media reporting, led the debate to detonate into a whole range of pertinently false oppositions and stereotypes. For instance, no one can escape the irony of the new guard's condemnation of 'western' perverting values, while Christianity—and especially CoOS's version—is foremost professed in the West. The condemnation itself of homosexuality is therefore arguably also a 'western' value, while an 'Asian' value instead could very well contain the more neutral stance to homosexuality that many Buddhists profess—and Singapore's resident population consists in fact of 42 percent self-identified Buddhists.[44] In other words, the oppositional representations dissimulated the silent majority in Singapore, who either could not care less since the tussle was, as one reader commented in email, 'rich women's antics,' or did not fall quite so neatly into any one of the 'for' or 'against' categories.[45]

    'Western' versus 'Asian' continued: the mobilisation of 'homosexuality'
  14. 'Homosexuality' henceforth became, within the span of a few days, the central yet unreal theme in the tussle—a centrality that was also initially forged by the local mass media, who questioned whether the new guard harboured a 'hidden agenda' with their 'hijacking' of AWARE, namely their 'strong stand against homosexuality.'[46] The gay theme became a highly symbolic node that allowed the media to present the fight as oppositional in order to discredit the 'invasion' of a religious minority group into a supposedly secular Singaporean public space. The assertion invariably made by many online, as well as by one civil society stalwart in the Straits Times, that the stance that 'homosexuality [is] normal, healthy and acceptable is just not acceptable to most parents' thus rings false in that it utterly generalises and obscures the various perspectives of 'parents' on the issue.[47] It also does not engage in a debate around whether it is healthy or morally justifiable that these parents hold such views at all (which would be the more radically feminist discussion). What is more, the 'homosexuality' theme problematically simplified the leanings of each group into 'for' or 'against' where such simple divisions were actually absent. As prominent Singaporean gay rights activist Alex Au noted, it is inaccurate that homosexuality is regarded as neutral in AWARE or that AWARE actively fosters gay rights, even though some of its members express hope that AWARE stands for non-discrimination in general.[48] Old guard member Margaret Thomas for instance stressed in an interview with I-S Magazine that it was a 'misconception' that 'AWARE now has a pro-gay agenda' and repeated that AWARE 'has never promoted homosexuality.'[49] The mobilisation of 'the gay issue' in the fight thus pitted two groups of female professionals against each other by 'turning a marginalised minority into an object of fear,' as Cherian George afterwards appropriately commented in the Straits Times.[50] This gay 'object of fear' was again a sign signalling the saga's 'non-eventness'—the saga's gay politics remained safely sealed inside the media sphere.
  15. The slipperiness of the term 'feminism' as an ethics of women's rights therefore also exploded into the debate over whether 'the public sphere should be secular,' implying that religion had no place in that sphere. But as we saw with Derrida's point on the aporia that inhabits religious-liberal responsibility, secular as well as religious values always revolve around certain moral and ethical values, and it is not at all obvious that actual homosexuals are more oppressed in a religious context. Derrida also shows with his discussion of Carl Schmitt's notion of 'the political' that secularism in most western European countries evolved out of Christian ideals around care, empathy and solidarity, and many European legal systems still display Christian traits (of which the maligned Section 377A in Singapore's Penal Code is a remnant).[51] Furthermore, inasmuch as religions in many secular countries are often above the law—for instance, explicit homophobia is punishable by law in the Netherlands unless it is made out of religious conviction—one could perhaps say that contemporary secularism protects rather than dismantles certain religious morals.[52] In this sense, the AWARE old guard's claim that the sphere of civil society and a women's advocacy group should at any time remain free of any religious influences is conceptually untenable, especially since many volunteers join AWARE out of Christian and otherwise religious feelings of compassion for women in need. In short, the insurrection of the border between the secular and the religious is always arbitrary and constituted in power relations, and as such maintains and displays the social status quo. This does of course not mean that religion should influence all public debate but that it always will, and that arguments in the media for a 'reasonable' distinction between the two should actually have set feminist alarm bells ringing. Historically after all, the appeal to 'reason' and 'impartiality' tends to favour a patriarchal politics in which female subjects need to be 'calmed down'—words also tellingly used by Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng in an interview with the Straits Times.[53] The tussle between the old guard and the new guard, and the settling of the final score in favour of the old guard's stance on secularism, were therefore involved in the reproduction of that border in service of an emerging national and global hegemonic order. Sadly, that border reproduced women once again as moral bearers of the Singapore nation-state. As such, the debate over and reproduction of that arbitrary border was again a form of shadow-boxing signalling a 'non-event.' Wong notably commented that '[w]hatever happened in AWARE was not going to change Singapore or the government's social policy' towards gender and sexuality.[54]
  16. It was ultimately through the overt representation in the media of the saga as essentially revolving around a 'hysterical femininity' that some of the state's managerial attempts were made vis-à-vis the possible proliferation of real (feminist) dissent. Besides the photograph in the Straits Times of a belligerent new guard, the leadership tussle was condescendingly referred to as a 'catfight' and one deputy political editor even claimed that 'somebody might need to step in and knock some heads together.'[55] On a slightly different note, though with a similar trace of condescension, Cherian George—as a rather unexpected 'manager' of national boundaries—argued that the 'AWARE battle was between those who understand Singaporean secularism and those who do not.'[56] George's utterance also draws attention to the relationship between the appropriateness of a group's 'feminist' behaviour and the group's capacity for media spin. Each party's validity and credibility was produced within a highly neoliberal media space rife with false differences and stereotypes, which in turn gave the impression that each party harboured a genuine oppositional stance vis-à-vis the other. This means that 'genuineness' was the most basic operational term around which the tussle revolved. The saga involved not simply a matter of each party's 'authentic' aspirations immediately slipping into the spaces of mediation, but the quality of 'genuineness' becoming an effect of the tussle's mediated construction. This resulted in a sensation of 'correct' information being 'dug out' by the mass and online media regarding the 'stealth' politics of the new guard as well as the 'real' standpoint (on homosexuality) of the old guard, where in fact the space of media-acceleration modelled the debate from its inception. Since this logic of acceleration—the media as model preceding the event—nonetheless heavily relies on the extent to which signs can be 'sent spinning,' it simultaneously generates the sensation of un-decidability, like an abyss in which all meaning vanishes. Was the new guard driven by religious motives or were they 'concerned citizens,' as political correspondents at the Straits Times wondered?[57] Was the old guard's explicit denial of being involved in gay rights genuine or a political ploy? Was the new guard's stance against homosexuality authentic or an insidious attempt at winning over Singapore's conservative majority in order to stop AWARE's comprehensive sexuality education programme? The short answer to these questions is that the 'or' in all statements already does not make sense. In any case, the acceleration of homophobic 'spin' around 'homosexuality' in the online sphere eventually led the Ministry of Education to discontinue AWARE's sexuality education programme, even though the programme had not had any complaints at all from parents or students before the saga.[58]

    Re-opening the feminist debate beyond the limits of neoliberalism
  17. In conclusion, one of the central issues that was hidden from scrutiny in the AWARE saga was the reproduction of global and local class differences as well as non-threatening femininities through the simulation of gender politics. This simulation is possible because religion and liberal reason themselves are already constitutive of each other, and hence come to haunt one another, as Derrida would have it, 'at the limits of reason' and its current technocratic and economic apparatus. In a sense then, we could understand the AWARE saga as a reflection or miniature of the 'global wars of religion and reason,' enacted through the 'safe' space of the Singapore media, in a country that is known to present itself as a challenge to 'western' democratic thought. This reflection or sign called 'the AWARE saga' was subsequently consumed in the online and mass media space as if it was representative of Singapore's emergent or maturing public sphere, where in fact the collapse of the economic and the political-representation makes impossible the very existence of such a sphere in the Habermasian ideal sense at all today, whether in 'the West' or in 'Asia.' With participants in the saga consisting of relatively affluent women from Singapore's professional-managerial classes, both groups are in different ways part of the new upwardly mobile elite under a largely neoliberal globalisation—the old guard by virtue of their emphasis on secularism, rights and multiculturalism, and the new guard by virtue of their religious outlook being produced by an American-centric technological condition, both of which Derrida claims are part of an ever more internally unstable 'globalatinisation.'[59] The tussle was especially a simulation insofar as the two 'oppositional' groups of women represented and reproduced the wholly false and arbitrary borderlines between secularism and religion, heterosexuality and homosexuality, as well as Asian versus western, in service of the emerging national-global elites. The arbitrariness of the meaning of these terms shows itself especially in the fact that 'AWARE' simultaneously and completely contradictorily became an emblem of pro- and anti-homosexuality. The hegemonic borders between the religious and the secular were reproduced, and the 'hysterical femininity' of AWARE was once again contained and domesticated.
  18. We could therefore extend Yuval-Davis's incisive analysis of women's roles concerning the symbolic and biological reproduction of the nation-state as today also involving the accelerated reproduction of a postcolonial and neoliberal global state of affairs through the outbidding between the 'faith in reason' and the 'religious' critiques.'[60] If there is anything to glean from the saga, it is that a thorough rethinking of the mediated logic and the various paradoxes involving the saga as a Baudrillardian 'non-event' may nonetheless belatedly turn it into a true feminist event—a new local or global feminism that understands and engages with its own complicity in the reproduction of accelerated patriarchy, whether through religious or liberal values. The unearthing of the essential un-decidability of the boundary between liberalism and religion, which gets mirrored in the un-decidability of whether an event has taken place, would suspend religion as well as reason in order to clear the ground for a renewed responsibility. Only such an opening up would attest to a truly maturing public sphere, whether in Singapore or in 'the West.' Because eventually, the whole saga has done nothing yet to 'open up space for debate,' as the subsequent president of AWARE Dana Lam recently and rather hopefully stated, but rather locked the (feminist) debate securely away in the archive of (new) media technology, just as much as this paper is locked away in this special journal issue.[61] Who will open that book again, and to what ends?


    [1] Jacques Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge: the two sources of "religion" at the limits of reason alone,' in Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998, pp. 1–78, p. 28.

    [2] Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 44.

    [3] 'Overview,' AWARE: Association of Women for Action and Research, n.d. online:, accessed October 2011.

    [4] Mandakini Arora, 'Women's activism and reform in colonial Singapore,' in Small Steps, Giant Leaps: The History of AWARE and the Women's Movement in Singapore, ed. Mandakini Arora, Singapore: Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007, pp. 31–43.

    [5] Constance Singam, 'Women's activism and feminism,' in Small Steps, Giant Leaps: The History of AWARE and the Women's Movement in Singapore, 2007, 14–25 , p. 23.

    [6] Mandakini Arora, 'Moves towards gender equity in Singapore from the 1950s,' in Small Steps, Giant Leaps: The History of AWARE and the Women's Movement in Singapore, 2007, 58–65, p. 59.

    [7] Lenore Lyons, 'The birth of AWARE,' in Small Steps, Giant Leaps: The History of AWARE and the Women's Movement in Singapore, 2007, 84–117, p. 85. See also Lenore Lyons, 'Localised voices of feminism: Singapore's Association of Women for Action and Research,' in this journal issue.

    [8] Lyons, 'The birth of AWARE,' p. 89.

    [9] Lenore Lyons, 'Action and research,' in Small Steps, Giant Leaps: The History of AWARE and the Women's Movement in Singapore, 2007, pp. 12–141.

    [10] Lyons, 'The birth of AWARE,' p. 112. See also Lyons, 'Localised voices of feminism,' note 15.

    [11] Lenore Lyons, 'Internalised boundaries: AWARE's place in Singapore emerging civil society,' in Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore, ed. Michael Barr and Carl Trocki, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2008, pp. 248–63.

    [12] This church has a substantial following in the United States. The Singapore CoOS has currently around 4,000 mostly Chinese members and is closely aligned to the local Anglican Diocese. The church is well known for its healing prayer practices for people with addictions and to 'help people recover their God-intended sexual identity,' which generally entails attempts at making homosexuals heterosexual. 'Choices,' Church of Our Savior, c.a. 2009, online:, accessed January 2014.

    [13] I use the concept of the 'public sphere' here in the sense of a locus in society for critical democratic debate and consensus building which is ideally independent from state and economic interests and institutions, as suggested by Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989, pp. 31–42 and 52.

    [14] I mean 'spectacle' here in the sense of a spectacular media and organisational event while also gesturing to Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, which connects the spectacle to the logics of economic consumption in late capitalist societies. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone Books, 1994, pp. 25–34.

    [15] Following the extraordinary general meeting on 2 May 2009, incoming 'old guard' AWARE president Dana Lam, when asked why the government would first be for, and then be against 'homosexuality' or 'western values,' replied that its politics are 'schizophrenic', but offered no reason why this is so. In this paper I hope to shed some light on this perceived 'schizophrenia'. Dana Lam, personal communication, National University of Singapore, 24 June 2010.

    [16] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994, p. 22.

    [17] The concept of the 'sign-object' indicates the conflation between the sphere of consumption and the sphere of media representation under late capitalism, which sees the emergence of the 'consumption of difference'. See Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981, p. 65. I use the term consumption in the fashion suggested by Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard.

    [18] Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion, p. 44.

    [19] Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, London: Sage, 1997.

    [20] Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, pp. 39–42.

    [21] Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, pp. 57, 119–20.

    [22] Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, p. 65.

    [23] Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, pp. 62–63.

    [24] Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, p. 122.

    [25] Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge,' p. 64.

    [26] Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge,' pp. 6–8 and 22.

    [27] Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge,' p. 52.

    [28] Nick Mansfield, 'Deus est machina: technology, religion and Derrida's autoimmunity,' SCAN Journal of Media Arts Culture: Technological interventions vol. 3, no. 3 (2006), online:, accessed January 2014.

    [29] Carl Raschke, 'Derrida and the return of religion,' Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, vol. 6, no. 2 (2005): 1—16, p. 5.

    [30] Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge,' p. 6.

    [31] Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge,' p. 28.

    [32] It is for this reason that many traditional Christian churches and organisations do not recognise themselves in contemporary CoOS-style Christian 'fundamentalism,' which was a concern voiced by many other Christians in Singapore during the tussle. Nonetheless, this also concerns the issue of what 'original' Christianity is, as well as the question to what extent the attempt to split justice from violence is itself already a violent gesture. As Derrida remarks, 'Never treat as an accident the force of the name in what happens.' Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge,' p. 6. I do not have the space to go into this issue here.

    [33] Mansfield, 'Deus est machina,' p. 4.

    [34] Aaron Low, Jeremy Au Yong and Zakir Hussain, 'Should faith-driven groups take over secular organisations?' Straits Times, 2 May 2009.

    [35] Patricia Hill-Collins, 'Moving beyond gender: intersectionality, situated standpoints and black feminist thought,' in Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, pp. 201–88.

    [36] bell hooks, 'Feminism: a movement to end sexist oppression,' in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, Boston: South End Press, 1984, p. 17. The slipperiness of the term does of course not mean that any type of activity can be interpreted, mobilised or appropriated as 'feminist.'

    [37] 'Video Interview with Dana Lam,' We are Aware, 28 April 2009, online:, accessed April 2010.

    [38] Low, Yong and Hussain, 'Should faith-driven groups take over secular organisations?' p. 1.

    [39] Low, Yong and Hussain, 'Should faith-driven groups take over secular organisations?'

    [40] Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng, 'Exercise restraint, mutual respect, tolerance,' Straits Times, 15 May 2009.

    [41] For further discussion on the Section 377A issue in 2007, see Melvin Chng, '"We the Citizens of Singapore, Pledge Ourselves as One United People…." But what if i'm gay?: The homosexual as a discursive citizen in Singapore' in this journal issue.

    [42] Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, p. 55.

    [43] Low, Yong and Hussain, 'Should faith-driven groups take over secular organisations?'

    [44] Leow Bee Geok (ed.), 'Table 38 resident population aged 15 years and over by age group, religion and sex,' Census of Population 2000: Administrative Report, n.d., online:, accessed 5 February 2014.

    [45] Eleanor Tee, 'Thoughts on the AWARE Saga,' Straits Times, 9 May 2009.

    [46] Dawn Wei Tan, 'Some attend the same church,' Straits Times, 18 April 2009.

    [47] Willie Cheng, 'Standing up to be counted,' Straits Times, 6 May 2009.

    [48] Alex Au, 'Pirates ahoy! Gay netizens and the AWARE hijacking,' Yawning Bread, 21 April 2009,, accessed March 2010. My personal experience with AWARE also taught me that the organisation largely shuns issues of homosexuality and transsexuality.

    [49] 'IS Interview: Margaret Thomas,' We are Aware, 14 June 2009,, accessed March 2010.

    [50] Cherian George, 'Pertinent lessons from a fiasco,' Straits Times, 5 May 2009.

    [51] Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge,' pp. 28–29.

    [52] While in the Netherlands malignant homophobia is generally punishable by law, exceptions involve for instance the explicit standpoint of the Dutch Reformed Political Party (SGP) against homosexuality. See for instance 'Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij,' Wikipedia, 14 January 2014, online:, accessed January 2014. Also included is the possibility for religious civil servants to refuse to marry a gay or lesbian couple. See 'Trouwambtenaar,' Wikipedia, 4 February 2014, online:, accessed February 2014. See also the European Union report by Kees Waalwijk, Rick Lawson and Nelleke Koffeman, 'Legal Study on Homophobia and Discrimination on Grounds of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,' European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, April 2010, online:, accessed 5 February 2014.

    [53] 'Exercise restraint, mutual respect, tolerance,' p. 3.

    [54] 'Exercise restraint, mutual respect, tolerance,' p. 4.

    [55] Paul Jacob, 'Dangerous turn in domestic dispute,' Straits Times, 20 April 2009.

    [56] George, 'Pertinent lessons from a fiasco,' p. 1.

    [57] Low, Yong and Hussain, 'Should faith-driven groups take over secular organisations?'

    [58] Esther Ng, 'AWARE debate still raging in cyberspace,' Channel NewsAsia, 5 May 2009, online:, accessed March 2010; Sum Chee Wah (Director, Education Programmes), 'Reply to recent comments and claims about AWARE's sexuality education programme in schools,' Ministry of Education Singapore, 28 April 2009, online:, accessed March 2010.

    [59] Derrida, 'Faith and knowledge,' p. 13.

    [60] Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, pp. 39–67.

    [61] Dana Lam, 'President's message: the crisis that opened the space for debate,' Association of Women for Action and Research, 29 August 2009, online:, accessed May 2010.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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