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

Localised Voices of Feminism:
Singapore's Association of Women for Action and Research

Lenore Lyons

  1. Singapore's rich history of women's activism is an indigenous history based on the concerns and actions of women embedded within the particularities of Singapore society. Contrary to the claims of the patriarchal state and its supporters, women's activism and feminism are not expressions of 'western values' but reflect the aspirations of multiple generations of Singaporean women. This does not mean, however, that the women's movement in Singapore has not been influenced by events or movements elsewhere in the world. The international women's movement has played a role in shaping the character of feminism in Singapore from the colonial period to the present. Nonetheless, Singaporean feminists and women's activists are not beholden to an international or western feminist ideal. Feminist ideas constantly circulate between different scales—the international, national and local—and become translated into concrete practices within specific organisational contexts.
  2. This chapter explores the ways in which gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity and class have intersected in the construction of historically and culturally specific feminisms in Singapore over the last century. I trace the historical origins of these networks from the mid-1880s during the period of British colonialism through to independence in 1965, and explore the formation of Singapore feminist movements from the latter half of the twentieth century to 2010. Since the mid-1980s, the women's movement in Singapore has been based around a limited number of nationally-oriented non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Of these groups, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) is Singapore's most prominent feminist organisation and it is the main focus of my analysis.

    Colonial antecedents: women's activism under the British
  3. The Singapore women's movement has its origins in the dense web of transnational networks that linked its migrant populations to their countries of origin. The island of Singapore became a site of British trade and administration in 1819. Under British rule, large numbers of men from China, South Asia and Southeast Asia migrated to Singapore as indentured labourers or traders. These men were later joined by migrant women who began to arrive in significant numbers in the early 1900s. By the 1920s the ethnic mix of the population had stabilised to include a sizeable Chinese majority and two large minority groups consisting of Malays and South Asians (or Indians). Most women's activism during this period was focussed at the local level and oriented around ethnic and/or religious identity, although there were several exceptions to this practice. Examples of women's locally-oriented social engagement include vegetarian houses or anti-marriage associations established by working-class Chinese women, and charitable and philanthropic associations set up by middle- and upper-class women.
  4. The vegetarian houses were an important precursor of working-class women's activism. They were based on similar associations formed in southern China in the late 1800s. Janice Raymond notes that although these migrant women did not form a cohesive marriage resistance movement in Singapore, they 'preserved much of the spirit and many of the traditions of sworn sisterhood.'[1] This included running associations or clubs which had a mutual aid or social purpose. Middle-class women's feminist activism often had a similar purpose. It can be traced back to a tradition of activism and reform by European missionaries, as well as the wives and daughters of colonial administrators and wealthy settlers. Women involved in organisations such as the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Chinese Ladies' Association (later known as the Chinese Women's Association), the Kamala Club and the Young Women's Muslim Association, set up schools for girls and provided medical services for women.
  5. In addition to self-help and charitable work, women of the colonial period were also actively engaged in lobbying for social change to improve the status of women. European women campaigned to repeal the Contagious Diseases Ordinance (CDO), which was enacted to counter the spread of sexually transmitted diseases through the creation of regulated brothel zones.[2] Their actions were part of a global alliance of women's groups campaigning against the trafficking of women and the invasive laws that regulated prostitution. Their efforts to stop the reintroduction of the CDO into Malaya continued up until the Second World War.[3]
  6. It was through their involvement in the repeal of the CDO that women's activists in Singapore had their most sustained interaction with 'first-wave feminism' of the West. The combination of religious conservativism and advocacy for women's legal equality which dominated the so-called first wave, shared much in common with the platform pursued by Singapore's first women's rights' activists. Their common focus on women's rights within marriage, for example, was actively taken up by a cross-section of women from different class and racial backgrounds in Singapore. Among them was Shirin Fozdar, an Indian-born woman who participated in the All Asian Women's Conference in Lahore in 1931 and presented at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1934 on the topic of 'Equality of Nationality for Women.' Fozdar arrived in Singapore in 1950 and was active in the establishment of the Singapore Council of Women (SCW). The SCW was the first women's organisation in Singapore to specifically identify 'women's rights' as an issue of social and political concern.[4] It was strongly aligned with the anti-colonial movement and its leaders saw the struggle for women's rights as part of the wider struggle for democracy. The Council is best remembered for its campaign in the 1950s to criminalise polygamy. In the lead-up to Singapore attaining self-government in 1959, the People's Action Party (PAP) was the only political party to specifically include women's rights in its campaign platform, and when it introduced the Women's Charter in 1961 it altered the system of customary marriage rites and gave women greater security within marriage.
  7. With the Women's Charter enacted, the SCW lost momentum and it was not until the International Women's Year of 1975 that the women's movement in Singapore gained renewed vigour with the formation of the National Council of Women (NCW). The NCW was a national advisory committee for women's affairs, with the goal of co-ordinating the activities of women's groups and eliminating discrimination against women.[5] The number of women's groups affiliated to the NCW remained small and it was later replaced by the government-sanctioned Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO). Not long after the formation of the SCWO, renewed interest in the status of women was sparked among Singaporean women in reaction to the 'Great Marriage Debate.' Prior to this event, interest in women's issues was characterised by what Nirmala PuruShotam calls a 'modern not feminist' or 'modern/liberated' perspective amongst women.[6] It was a position which asserted that equality based on gender complementarity had already been achieved. The Great Marriage Debate challenged this view and saw the establishment of Singapore's first avowedly feminist organisation—the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).

    Women's action and research
  8. The Great Marriage Debate grew as a public reaction to a series of statements by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In the National Day Rally speech in August 1983, Lee called attention to a trend in which graduate women were delaying or forgoing marriage and children for their careers. An avowed eugenicist, Lee argued that while all women can be mothers, it was better-educated women who should be mothers.[7] He cited the 1980 census which showed that while women with limited formal education were producing an average of three children, those with secondary or tertiary education had 1.65 children. Lee referred to this as a 'lop-sided procreation pattern' and the issue was dubbed the 'Great Marriage Debate' by the local press. In November 1984, in reaction to government policies aimed at encouraging graduate women to become mothers, the National University of Singapore Society held a forum on the issues facing modern Singaporean women. The forum attracted a crowd of several hundred women and some men, all keenly aware of recent controversies surrounding Lee's statements. After the forum a group that included the keynote speakers and members of the audience came together to determine whether Singapore needed a feminist organisation. Out of their discussions AWARE was born.[8]
  9. AWARE's activities fall into five broad areas: research and public education; direct community services; fund-raising; working with other organisations; and regional networking. This balance between research and activism is central to AWARE's philosophy and is embedded in AWARE's name, which implies action backed by research. AWARE has always been committed to a broad-based membership that is representative of Singapore's multicultural society. Its membership is open to all women over the age of eighteen who are citizens or Permanent Residents of Singapore. Members come from all ethnic and religious groups and social and educational backgrounds. Male Singaporeans, foreign nationals without Permanent Residency, and girls aged between fifteen and eighteen can also join as associate members.
  10. Given the centrality of the Great Marriage Debate to AWARE's formation, it is no surprise that AWARE has had a long-term interest in population and reproductive rights issues. In particular, it has been concerned with ensuring adequate recognition of the parenting roles of husbands and fathers through paternity leave and equal sharing of household responsibilities; ensuring government and employer recognition of gender equity in marriage and parenting; highlighting anomalies in existing legislation that impact on parenting roles; and supporting the role of single women including single mothers.[9] Despite the organisation's strong and persistent stance on population and family matters, however, these campaigns have had limited success in introducing family-friendly work environments.
  11. AWARE has also advocated for equal employment opportunities for women, access to equal educational opportunities for girls, and changes to laws on domestic violence. It is in relation to this latter issue that AWARE and SCWO have had the greatest success. Together they successfully lobbied the police to change the way victims of family violence and rape are dealt with. Significant changes have also been achieved in areas of active discrimination against women. These include the lifting of quotas on female medical students at the National University of Singapore, changes to citizenship laws and the removal of discrimination in public service employment entitlements. However, there are still many areas of legislation where the legal position of women is different to that of men, including tax laws and inheritance laws. While the Women's Charter ensures women's basic rights and the Singapore Constitution guarantees protection against discrimination on the basis of religion, race and place of birth, there is no specific act that protects against discrimination on the basis of sex. Examples of such discrimination include different salary rates for men and women employed in the same positions, job advertisements which specify the sex of staff required, and a lack of public housing support for single mothers.[10]
  12. AWARE was at the forefront of Singapore's 'second wave' of feminism. Like women involved in the second wave in the West, AWARE members were concerned not only with legally inscribed gender inequalities, but also with the impact that culture and socio-economic factors had on women's status. AWARE advocated for changes to media representations of women, for changes to the 'double standards' applied to women's sexuality and for gender equity in the household division of labour. While these concerns echo many similar issues raised in the West, they should not be seen only as an extension of women's activism elsewhere. Unlike western feminism of the second wave, AWARE recognised the importance of 'difference' (particularly of ethnicity and religion) from its very beginnings. While these issues may not have always been managed well (see below), there was an explicit acknowledgement of women's diversity and the need to accept and respect women's difference.
  13. Although many Singaporean women's rights' activists read feminist literature from the UK and the US and were thus familiar with international feminist debates, and some participated in events such as the UN Women's Conferences, very few had first-hand knowledge or experience of 'western feminism.' In fact, many women eschewed western feminism on the basis that it was a movement characterised by a preoccupation with sex, single motherhood and the breakdown of the American (the archetypal 'West') social fabric. Within this discourse, women who are feminists were considered to be unfeminine, undesirable and irresponsible. To avoid these negative labels, in the 1980s and 1990s Singaporean women's rights activists' consciously strove to distance themselves from western models and ideas.

    Can one organisation be a movement?
  14. Speaking in the mid-1990s, Singaporean sociologist Vivienne Wee described the women's movement in Singapore as a 'one-organisation movement.' She said:

      If you come out and say you are a feminist, of one kind or another, whatever kind, it's like you have to join AWARE. What other organisation is there in Singapore to join? There is nothing [else]…. In a way we dominate the women's movement in Singapore.[11]

  15. At the time Wee's comments were certainly accurate. AWARE was commonly viewed as Singapore's only feminist organisation and it quickly became the face of the women's movement. This is not to deny that there were many other women's organisations in Singapore throughout the 1980s and 1990s. None of them, however, adopted an avowedly feminist or activist stance, and few attracted the same degree of public and media scrutiny of their activities. AWARE found itself to be not simply a Singaporean women's organisation, but the Singaporean women's movement. Not only did this require the organisation to become a place in which all women found their natural feminist home, but it also put pressure on the organisation to succeed because to have collapsed would represent more than the failure of a women's organisation—it would signal the demise of the entire Singaporean women's movement.[12]
  16. In describing the character of the women's movement in Singapore it is important to keep in mind that Singapore is a small city-state of 4.8 million people, of whom 25 percent are non-residents. State control of the space of civil society has meant that the diversity and richness of women's organising that characterises cities of a similar size elsewhere has not emerged. Although the PAP's role as the women's movement's 'founding father' may be overstated, the political and legislative environment it has created has certainly been a significant deterrent to the emergence of a broad-based and diverse feminist movement. The requirement for all civil society groups to formally register under the Societies Act means that the women's movement is dominated by NGOs. Informal networks and collectives deliberately maintain a low-key status in order to avoid state scrutiny. The Internet has facilitated the emergence of a more diverse and less formalised women's movement, but even cyberspace has been the subject of state surveillance.[13]
  17. Singapore's small population has affected the character of the women's movement in other ways. A core group of activists drawn from elite and middle-class circles tends to dominate the sphere of civil society. Prominent members of AWARE are involved in other organisations that have a pro-woman or pro-feminist orientation, including the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO), the Singapore Association of Women's Lawyers (SAWL), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and UNIFEM Singapore. While this facilitates information sharing and networking, it can also lead to stagnation and entrenched positions, as well as inevitable rivalries between individuals and in some cases organisations. Formal alliances or joint campaigns have not been a strong feature of Singapore's women's movement. This lack of alliance-making reflects a separation between what are often regarded as separate organisational constituencies, as well different understandings of women's issues.

    Managing diversity
  18. The differences posed by class, ethnicity and nationality have sometimes proved to be significant barriers to AWARE's ability to advocate on behalf of all women.[14] For example, although AWARE's twenty-five year campaign against the state's pro-natalist policies has addressed the factors that drive demand for foreign domestic workers (FDWs), it has not focussed on the issues that face domestic workers on arrival in Singapore. The reasons why AWARE did not taken up the issues facing FDWs are many and complex. In particular, the association of foreign workers with the 'Marxist Conspiracy' of 1987 has meant that until recently few NGOs were willing to address migrant worker rights.[15] Like many topics deemed 'too sensitive' or 'taboo' for activist intervention, the issue has never been publicly identified by the PAP government in its official statements as an area that is 'out of bounds' (OB) but this event had a profound effect on AWARE's decision to avoid issues related to foreign workers.[16] AWARE and other civil society organisations work within a framework commonly dubbed the 'OB markers.' The ruling PAP elite is responsible for determining the limits of the OB markers, a task that it largely performs retrospectively with the result that what actually constitutes 'unacceptable political engagement' is often unclear. Faced with the prospect of inciting government wrath, most NGOs adopt a cautious approach in their activities.[17]
  19. Since the late 1990s, however, AWARE has begun to make public statements in support of migrant workers, particularly in relation to the need to punish the perpetrators of violence. In 2001 when the brutal assault and death of a nineteen-year-old Indonesian domestic worker by her employer sparked a national outcry in Singapore, AWARE played a pivotal role in a civil society network which met to discuss the issues facing domestic workers in Singapore.[18] Several prominent members of AWARE were actively involved in establishing a new NGO called Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) which grew out of the network. As TWC2 has grown in size and strength, a natural division of labour has emerged which sees TWC2 focused on migrant women and AWARE on local women, thus reinforcing an 'us and them' divide in public understandings of 'local women's issues' versus 'migrant women's issues.' A case in point is the lack of formal alliances on the issues of women's reproductive health. For example, although AWARE, TWC2 and UNIFEM Singapore agree that Singapore's pro-natalist policies have driven demand for FDWs, none have made a link between the state's interest in controlling the reproductive capacity of Singaporean nationals (i.e. a local women's issue) and its intrusive monitoring of FDW sexuality (i.e. a migrant women's issue). Under current labour laws, any migrant domestic worker found to be pregnant or to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease is forcibly repatriated. The regulation of domestic worker sexuality is enforced through a program of compulsory six-monthly medical check-ups. This issue, however, has largely been ignored because women's groups recognise that the issue would gain little sympathy from either the government or public, which are supportive of the restrictions placed on Singapore's guest workers.
  20. Questions surrounding migrant women's sexuality are not the only issues considered to be 'off the agenda' in feminist organising in Singapore. Broader issues of sexuality—including non-normative heterosexuality, religion and the role of shari'ah law and class-based social divisions—are commonly regarded by civil society activists as areas that are off limits and to date there have been few attempts to formalise women's activism on these issues. This does not mean, however, that these issues have been ignored by the women's movement. Religion and class have traditionally been pursued through organisational structures that reflect the backgrounds of their advocates—for example, Muslim women advocating for and on behalf of other Muslim women. Sexuality has been the least publicly debated issue, with LGBT groups maintaining a low profile and networking at the individual level and through the Internet.[19]
  21. The status of religion and sexuality as issues that are 'out of bounds' to feminist activists was tested in 2009. In March that year at AWARE's Annual General Meeting (AGM), nine relatively new members of the organisation were elected to the twelve-person Executive Committee (Exco). Less than two weeks later the newly elected president resigned. Events surrounding the president's resignation and the behaviour of the new executive members led to an extraordinary general meeting (EOGM), at which a motion of no-confidence in the new Exco was put to the membership. The motion succeeded and AWARE's leadership was returned to the so-called 'old guard.' The incident is notable, not only because it attracted intense media attention over several months, but also because it appeared to hinge on two previously regarded taboo topics of public discourse: religion and homosexuality.
  22. Soon after the new Exco was installed, it was revealed that six of the nine new members attended the same Christian church and held strong anti-gay and anti-abortion views. It was later exposed that a former staff member of the National University of Singapore law faculty, Dr. Thio Su Mien, had styled herself as the women's 'feminist mentor' and encourged them to take over AWARE because she believed it was actively promoting homosexuality. Thio claimed that AWARE's sex education workshops (run under the Ministry of Education's Comprehensive Sex Education Programme) encouraged young people to see homosexuality in 'neutral' terms instead of 'negatively.' She warned that 'this is something which should concern parents in Singapore. Are we going to have an entire generation of lesbians?'[20] As further evidence that the incident was motivated by the women's religious beliefs, the day before the EOGM the media reported that the women's pastor had urged his congregation to support their fight against the no-confidence motion.[21] Although the pastor retracted his comments and affirmed that religious tolerance was a cornerstone of Singapore's multireligious, multicultural society, the perception that the incident was the product of anti-gay Christian fundamentalism prevailed.
  23. Public debates about what happened and why reveal deep cleavages within Singaporean society. Each side in the unfolding drama held passionate views, and in the context of Singapore's closely monitored civil society, these caught both commentators and the government off guard. As the debate raged in the print media and in cyberspace, a minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Lim Hwee Hua, urged all involved not to 'allow these disagreements to become a vehicle for views on contentious, divisive issues to be pushed aggressively. This would polarise our society and have a very adverse effect on our social fabric.'[22] Several months later, the issue was raised in the prime minister's National Day Rally speech, which is generally considered to be a barometer of the ruling elite's views on current affairs. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that: 'What worried us was that this was an attempt by a religiously motivated group who shared a strong religious fervour to enter civil space, take over an NGO it disapproved of and impose their agenda.'[23] The government's concerns about the takeover were widely shared by a public which has grown accustomed to seeing religion as a private matter, not something to be openly debated or discussed in the public sphere.
  24. The failed coup has had a wide-ranging impact on AWARE. In the lead-up to the EOGM, AWARE's membership swelled from less than 400 members to over 3,000 as supporters sought to have their say in the outcome of the no-confidence motion. It is difficult to gauge the number of members in each camp, but there is no doubt that the membership was divided. While the total membership figure has inevitably dropped as supporters of the ousted Exco failed to renew their subscriptions, AWARE is faced with a much larger membership base than before. The increased membership base has both positive and negative consequences. The leadership has been renewed and the committees which form the lifeblood of the organisation have been invigorated by an influx of new members. The challenge facing AWARE is to meet the expectations of this diverse group, many of whom have had no previous exposure or involvement in Singapore's women's movement or broader civil society. To address this need, AWARE's leadership has focused on rebuilding lines of communication with members and portraying a positive role model of Singaporean feminism. To avoid a similar situation in the future, the organisation's Constitution has been amended, and all members are requried to sign a statement affirming AWARE's values on joining or renewing their membership. In order to understand the incident and its ramifications the incoming Exco has also organised seminars for members on the status of the women's rights movement in Singapore, and on Christian fundamentalism and its impact on women.
  25. The incident has been detrimental to AWARE's public standing. In the immediate days following Thio's allegations about AWARE's sex education programme, the Ministry of Education initially defended AWARE's activities. In May 2009, however, it suspended AWARE's involvement, claiming that some of the content in its instructor's manual was 'too explicit and inappropriate, and convey[ed] messages which could promote homosexuality or suggest approval of premarital sex.'[24] AWARE's role as an advocate of women's sexual rights and of the need for open and informative sex education has been damaged. The impact that the negative publicity surrounding the sex education programme will have on AWARE's relationships with other NGOs, civil society actors and public bodies remains to be seen.

    I'm a feminist, but….
  26. While there is inadequate space here to examine the multiple issues surrounding the events of the 2009 AWARE AGM, it provides an important site for a consideration of the meanings associated with being a feminist in Singapore.[25] Since its establishment, AWARE has been confronted with public and media perceptions of feminists as man-haters, lesbians and radicals, and with the political association of feminism with encroaching 'western values.'[26] In response, the organisation often adopts a shifting and fluid identity that changes to suit public and state constructions of feminism, women's rights, equality and social change. In its first decade, the organisation was more reluctant to position itself in relation to feminism, leading to a paradoxical situation in which everyone knew that it was feminist, but few members openly acknowledged their feminist colours.[27] As the organisation has matured and the state's interaction with civil society has become less heavy-handed, both individual AWARE members and the Exco have been more willing to describe the association as feminist. By this, they mean a political commitment to gender equity for all.
  27. In an organisation characterised by diversity there is inevitably tension, and sometimes conflict, over the meanings associated with 'being feminist.' An incident that occured in the mid-1990s acts as a precursor to the 2009 tussles over the definition of feminism. In 1994 a group of AWARE members wrote a discussion paper, 'AWARE Blueprinters Suggestions for Future Directions and Strategies' (hereafter 'Blueprint'), which aimed to 'provide a means to chart future directions by providing signposts and reference points to members and the leadership.'[28] The Blueprinters proposed that an AWARE manifesto and a programme of conscientisation be developed to assist the organisation in its ongoing work. The manifesto would act as a 'reference point' in AWARE's day-to-day activities and the conscientisation programme would provide training to all members on 'what feminism is about.' The Blueprinters believed that such a programme was necessary to achieve both organisational continuity and clarity of objectives.
  28. The Blueprint was presented at an EOGM in July 1995 and it was rejected on the grounds that it appeared to insist on one way of being feminist. Critics of the document objected to what they saw as an homogenising tendency in the proposed conscientisation programme. The Blueprinters denied this, arguing that conscientisation was not about creating commonality but exploring diversity and raising awareness. Another group of women argued that AWARE was not and had never been feminist. While the Blueprinters argued that they wanted to explore 'feminisms,' not feminism, they were shocked by the latter suggestion. They argued that while AWARE had often avoided the feminist label, everyone knew that it was a feminist organisation. In fact, by adopting a shifting and fluid identity, AWARE had frequently avoided taking a strong stance on feminism, thus allowing some women to reject the label for themselves and the organisation. Those who rejected the Blueprint believed that in adopting an openly feminist conscientisation programme, AWARE was inevitably embracing a feminist identity. The Blueprint episode proved to be a painful moment in AWARE's history. Many members were emotionally distressed by the confrontation and some of the Blueprinters resigned. Others retained their membership but decided to keep a low profile in the organisation.
  29. The Blueprinters affair challenged AWARE's understanding of itself as a feminist organisation. Prior to this event, AWARE members were certainly conscious of their differences and many saw this as something to be encouraged. I have argued elsewhere that the organisation was held together by a shared 'ethics of respect' based on the validation of each woman's difference.[29] Many members believed that as a 'women's rights organisation,' it was AWARE's role to affirm a diversity of standpoints. These differences were dealt with at an organisational level through an insistence on ambivalence—a strategy of partial silence in which AWARE attempted to become all things to all people.[30] As a consequence, there were few attempts to define 'feminism' or indeed 'AWARE's feminism.' Instead, the Exco persistently used ambivalence as a means of negotiating the beliefs and sentiments of individual members—in particular, the views of those who openly identified as feminist, as well as those who adopted an anti-feminist (but pro-women's rights) stance. This meant providing room for all members to pursue their own visions of feminism or women's rights. The Blueprinters questioned this stance and ultimately demonstrated the weaknesses in this approach.
  30. The failed coup of 2009 drew attention to some of the very same issues that the Blueprinters had raised many years earlier, including 'what does it mean to be a feminist in Singapore'? Unlike the Blueprinters episode, in 2009 the question came from outside the organisation by a group of women who were not socialised into AWARE's organisational ethic and who appeared to have little understanding or knowledge of the principles that underpinned AWARE's activist and research agendas. Whereas in 1995 the Blueprinters' proposal was rejected by the membership via discussion and debate, what is striking about the events of 2009 is that the old guard was momentarily sidelined by a democratic election process that precluded any engagement with members' views and attitudes.[31] The incoming Exco wrested control of the organisation's leadership and, by refusing to engage with members, shut down any debate about their goals, beliefs and values.[32]
  31. In mobilising the membership and other supporters, and in pro-actively using the media to promote their cause, the 'old guard' re-asserted the organisation's core ethic of inclusiveness. This position is summed up in a statement made in the lead-up to the EOGM by Dr. Kanwaljit Soin, a founding member and former president of AWARE:

      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.[33]

  32. In the war of words that surrounded the incident, it is clear that the divisions between the new Exco and the old guard were primarily about the meanings attached to women's rights, feminism and feminist activism. The new Exco declared that they were following in the footsteps of AWARE's founding members and were 'pro-women, pro-family and pro-Singapore.'[34] Their decision to stand in the AWARE Exco elections reflected their view that the organisation had 'lost sight of its original purpose and had become pro-lesbian and pro-homosexual.'[35] As evidence of their view that AWARE had taken a 'homosexual turn,' they cited the sex education programme and events such as a fund-raising evening that featured a film with lesbian themes.[36] Those involved in the sex education workshops responded to the allegation that they were promoting a lesbian lifestyle by stating that homosexuality was discussed as a 'neutral issue in an exercise which helps young women understand all the different aspects of their sexuality.'[37] The aim of the programme was to provide young women with accurate information with which to protect themselves and make decisions, rather than dictate certain actions and behaviours.
  33. The prominent positioning of homosexuality as the key difference between the sides forced AWARE to clarify its position. The public sensitivities surrounding the issue are demonstrated in the following quote by incoming President Dana Lam, who acted to reassure the public that AWARE was not a pro-lesbian organisation:

      We would like to point out that homosexuality has never been 'a major issue' for the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Our stand, throughout the 24 years of our existence, has been identical to that of the government. We agree that the heterosexual family is the norm for our society. But homosexuals are also part of our society and they should be able to live freely and happily, free of any discrimination. It must be made clear: AWARE has never promoted homosexuality…. The allegation of a 'gay agenda' was made by Dr. Thio Su Mien, and the team of women she handpicked to join AWARE and take over its leadership, on the strengths of bits of information taken out of context and strung together to create an imaginary and inaccurate picture of AWARE's activities.[38]

  34. As this statement demonstrates, trying to explain what it means to be an organisation that is open to diverse forms of sexuality is difficult in a social context where the discussion of non-normative sexuality is constrained. AWARE has always been conscious that sexual difference could be a divisive issue within the organisation and could shape negative public perceptions. For this reason, AWARE is attentive to the need to present a publicly hetero-normative image of its leadership and members. Speaking in the mid-1990s, founding member Margaret Thomas said:

      One thing we were conscious of in a negative way was the concern that AWARE might get caught up in the gay movement…. Unfortunately, Singapore was not ready then, and will not be for a long time I think, for gay rights to be an issue.[39]

  35. In line with community and government attitudes AWARE has therefore adopted a cautious approach in its public discussion of sexuality. While it has provided a space for the discussion of non-normative sexualities, it has never adopted a 'gay rights' stance in its activist agenda. In line with its policy of inclusiveness and tolerance, however, it has always encouraged members to respect women's diverse forms and expressions of sexuality. The failed coup attempt demonstrated that while AWARE may seek to be 'all things for all women,' many conservative women's rights' activists do not see inclusiveness as a cornerstone of feminist practice.

    A new generation of women's activism
  36. The events of 2009 did more than just focus attention on the underlying tensions within Singapore society between conservative religious forces and liberal feminists. It shattered the myth that Singaporeans are apolitical or apathetic when it comes to political debate. Singapore's civil society has long been regarded as risk-averse and lacking in the skills and techniques of mass mobilisation. The EOGM revealed a very different story. It is perhaps in this event that we are witnessing the birth of Singapore's third wave of feminism. Like its western counterpart, this movement is irreverant, diverse and may not always cast itself as 'feminist.' In a very short space of time both sides were able to mobilise thousands of supporters. They demonstrated extraordinary organisational skills honed not through the cut and thrust of NGO politics, but based on their experiences in Singapore's highly efficient corporate and public sector work environments. Many supporters acted independently of the old guard leadership. They set up websites, Facebook pages, online campaigns, blogs and a telephone hotline, and used mass SMS and Twitter messages to keep local and international supporters updated with the latest news. In a short space of time the mobilisation team had organised T-shirts, fact sheets and placards, and had prepared for the logistical challenges of a large (and perhaps unruly) meeting. Thousands of women and men turned up at the EOGM. Singapore had not witnessed such levels of mass participation outside of the political sphere for over fifty years. The meeting lasted over eight hours and was characterised by passionate and often spontaneous speeches, as well as raucous and sometimes disrespectful behaviour. The meeting epitomised the spirit and values that had underpinned AWARE's activism for twenty-five years—it was a celebration of women's diversity and women's activism. Above all, it showed in no uncertain terms that the Singaporean women's movement is alive and well.


    [1] Janice Raymond, A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection, London: The Women's Press, 1986, p. 137.

    [2] Mandakini Arora, 'Women's activism and reform in colonial Singapore,' in Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of Aware and the Women's Movement in Singapore, ed. Mandakini Arora, Singapore: Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007, pp. 26–57, pp. 40–41.

    [3] Vicki Denese Crinis, 'The silence and fantasy of women and work,' Ph.D. thesis, University of Wollongong, 2004.

    [4] Phyllis Ghim Lian Chew, 'The Singapore Council of Women and the women's movement,' in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 25, no. 1 (1994): 112–40.

    [5] 'Towards a united voice,' in Voices and Choices: The Women's Movement in Singapore, ed. Jenny Lin Lam, Singapore: Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, 1993, pp. 91–101 p. 93.

    [6] Nirmala PuruShotam, 'Between compliance and resistance: women and the middle-class way of life in Singapore,' in Gender and Power in Affluent Asia, ed. Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 141–42.

    [7] 'PM's National Day Rally Speech,' Straits Times, 15 August 1983.

    [8] Lenore Lyons, A State of Ambivalence: The Feminist Movement in Singapore, Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2004; Mandakini Arora, 'Women's activism and reform in colonial Singapore.'

    [9] AWARE, 'Beyond Babies: National Duty or Personal Choice?,' Singapore: Association of Women for Action and Research, 2004.

    [10] AWARE, 'Cedaw Shadow Report,' Singapore: Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007.

    [11] Vivienne Wee, personal communication, February 1995.

    [12] It is also important to note that AWARE was the first politicised NGO to emerge post-independence. Former AWARE President Constance Singam points out that the implications of AWARE's survival extended beyond its impact on the women's movement to the sphere of civil society as a whole (personal communication, August 2005).

    [13] Terence Lee, 'Internet use in Singapore: politics and policy implications,' in Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy, vol. 107 (2003): 75–88.

    [14] Lyons, A State of Ambivalence.

    [15] The 'Marxist Conspiracy' is a term used to describe the arrest and detention of twenty-two people under the Internal Security Act in May 1987 for allegedly threatening the state and national interests. Among those arrested were Catholic social workers and lay workers from the Geylang Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers. For further discussion of this event see Michael Barr, 'Singapore's Catholic social activists: alleged Marxist conspirators,' in Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Postwar Singapore, ed. Michael Barr and Carl Trocki, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2008, pp. 228–47.

    [16] Lenore Lyons, 'Dignity overdue: women's rights activism in support of foreign domestic workers in Singapore,' Women's Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, nos 3/4 (2007): 106–22.

    [17] Lenore Lyons, 'The limits of feminist political intervention in Singapore,' Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 30, no. 1 (2000): 67–83.

    [18] Lenore Lyons, 'Transient workers count too? The intersection of citizenship and gender in Singapore's civil society,' Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, vol. 20, no. 2 (2005): 208–48; John Gee and Elaine Ho (eds), Dignity Overdue, Singapore: John Gee and Elaine Ho, 2006.

    [19] To date, no LGBT or gay rights organisation has been successful in registering under the Societies Act in Singapore.

    [20] Zakir Hussain, 'Lawyer's key role in Aware coup / Dr Thio upset about sexuality programme,' Straits Times, 24 April 2009.

    [21] The pastor was quoted as saying, 'It's not a crusade against the people but there's a line that God has drawn for us, and we don't want our nation crossing that line.' Nur Dianah Suhaimi, 'Church against homosexuality as "normal alternative lifestyle",' Straits Times, 1 May 2009.

    [22] Robin Chan and Jaimee Ee, 'Aware rift: govt leaders call for tolerance,' Straits Times, 25 April 2009.

    [23] Lee Hsien Loong, 'National Day Rally speech at the University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore,' 2009, online:, accessed 28 October 2010.

    [24] Diana Othman, 'Aware sex guide suspended,' Straits Times, 6 May 2009.

    [25] For a comprehensive account of the 'AWARE Coup,' see Lenore Lyons, 'The Christian right and the Singaporean feminist movement,' in Social Activism in Southeast Asia, ed. Michele Ford, Oxon: Routledge, 2013, pp. 187–203.

    [26] Lenore Lyons, 'Disrupting the centre: interrogating an 'Asian feminist' identity,' Communal/Plural: Journal of Transnational and Crosscultural Studies, vol. 8, no. 1 (2000): 65– 79; Lenore Lyons, 'Believing in equality: the meanings attached to 'feminism' in Singapore,' Asian Journal of Women's Studies, vol. 5, no. 1 (1999): 115–39.

    [27] Lenore Lyons, 'A state of ambivalence: feminism and a Singaporean women's organisation,' Asian Studies Review, vol. 24, no. 1 (2000): 1–24.

    [28] Blueprinters, 'Aware blueprinters suggestions for future directions and strategies,' 1995.

    [29] Lenore Lyons. 'Negotiating difference: Singaporean women building an ethics of respect,' Forging Radical Alliances Across Difference: Coalition Politics for the New Millennium, ed. Steven Schacht and Jill M. Bystydzienski, London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001, pp. 177–91.

    [30] Lyons, A State of Ambivalence.

    [31] The group's self-styled 'feminist mentor' Dr. Thio has stated that the group intended to influence AWARE's activities via their presence on the Exco, perhaps suggesting that they too were surprised by the ease with which they came to constitute the majority on the committee.

    [32] Radha Basu, 'Long-time member and new Exco lock horns,' Straits Times, 24 April 2009.

    [33] Kanwaljit Soin quoted in Wong Kim Hoh, 'Too diversified or too focused? Which is it?,' Straits Times, 25 April 2009.

    [34] Aaron Low and Jeremy Au Yong, 'The saga thus far…,' Straits Times, 18 April 2009.

    [35] The Sunday Times, 'Nothing "sneaky" about elections,' Straits Times, 26 April 2009.

    [36] Basu, 'Long-time member and new Exco lock horns.'

    [37] J.Y. Yang, 'Aware's comprehensive sexuality education programme,' We Are AWARE, 2009, online:, accessed 29 October 2010.

    [38] Dana Lam, 'Aware has never had a "gay agenda",' Straits Times, 16 May 2009.

    [39] Interview with Margaret Thomas, cited in Lyons, A State of Ambivalence, p. 132.


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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