ST letter: Volunteer tells why Aware’s EGM turned raucous

ST letter by Ms Pamela Oei
07 May 2009

ST Online link

I READ Ms Sumiko Tan’s article on Tuesday, ‘More losers than winners’, with dismay. There were some 3,000 people present last Saturday at the extraordinary general meeting (EGM) of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). Emotions were charged, people came to correct what they thought was a grave injustice to the core principles of Aware, they came to stand up for what they believed in, they came to speak up.

If Ms Tan expected 3,000 people in these emotionally strenuous conditions to sit like sheep and make polite conversation, then obviously she had not thought through the gravity or extent of the event.

I was one of the volunteers for the old guard and my duties included keeping peace in the hall. As volunteers, we were prepped for these conditions and we braced ourselves for extreme ugliness. There was none. There was no violence and considering what we had to put up with, I think the crowd was very well-behaved.

In fact, everything was relatively quiet until Ms Josie Lau’s team started to switch off the microphones on the floor at the start of the meeting to silence the crowd. When one is trying to speak up in a hall as cavernous as the one in Suntec City with no microphone, one is left with little choice but to shout to be heard. Even the new guard’s legal counsel, Mr Gregory Vijayendran, advised that the microphones be left on as this was normal procedure at an EGM.

Ms Lau’s team’s actions set the tone for the EGM, the crowd did not. This ‘unbecoming behaviour’, which Ms Tan described as ‘disquieting and disgusting’, was not ‘bitchiness’ as she claimed. This was passion, which Ms Lau’s supporters did not have, made clear by the fact that most of them left after voting, without even caring about the outcome.

We protested when Mr Siew Kum Hong was told to go and sit with the men at the sidelines. There is nothing in the Constitution that dictates segregation of sexes at an EGM. Furthermore, Mr Siew was acting as legal counsel for the old guard, so he had every right to sit with them.

We protested when Ms Lau started making her president’s address; we had not come to listen to her speech. This was not an ordinary meeting, this was a meeting requisitioned for by 160 Aware members to submit our vote of no confidence in Ms Lau’s exco. Ms Lau proceeded with her speech eventually and we protested again when she brought up a slide that showed the achievements of Aware in the past 24 years, none of which she or her team was responsible for.

We protested when Ms Lau tried to credit the spike in membership from January to last month to her new exco. The spike in membership had nothing to do with the work of her new exco, they had not done any.

We protested when Ms Sally Ang shouted the now infamous ‘shut up and sit down’ line into the microphone. We were treated like primary school children from the start and we were not about to allow that to happen.

We protested when Dr Thio Su Mien hijacked the microphone from people who had queued for up to an hour and a half for their chance to speak.

We protested when she started to boast of her credentials and why she deserved the self-named title of ‘Feminist Mentor’. This was the woman who had admitted that she was the driving force behind the March 28 takeover of Aware.

We protested when she demanded that we respect our elders; as a member of the meeting so rightly called out, respect has to be earned.

We protested when it was revealed that $90,000 had been spent by Ms Lau’s team in the past month, a staggering figure that made many of us gasp in shock.

As a volunteer peacekeeper, I found certain times very trying myself, such as when a male supporter of Ms Lau’s team twice referred to the crowd as ‘the congregation’. We were not a congregation, but we were certainly expected by Ms Lau’s team to behave like one.

Pamela Oei (Ms)

More losers than winners

Straits Times, 05 May 2009
ST link

By Sumiko Tan, Sunday Times Editor

NOW that the votes have been counted and the victor declared, can we finally move on from that sad, sorry saga that was the Aware tussle?

The ‘old guard’ (technically now the ‘new old-guard’) must be savouring how they wrested back control of the women’s group, while the ‘new guard’ (now known as the ‘old new-guard’) must be licking their wounds.

There were more minuses than pluses in this episode, more losers than winners.

There are those who see the saga as a win for pluralism, secularism and civil society. Certainly one of the conclusions one can draw is that Singaporeans – or most Singaporeans – believe secular civic groups should remain just that.

Singaporeans saw red when it was revealed that the executive committee of the country’s secular women’s group had been taken over by a group of Chinese Christian women from the same church. They wanted to impose change based on their religious beliefs and – this is crucial – refused to be open about their motives until they were forced to do so.

Last Saturday’s EGM drew about 3,000 women and even some men from many walks and ways of life, including Christians. They voted for pluralism and secularism.

It was also a triumph for Singapore civil society. A friend who was there described it as a ‘momentous and historical occasion’. ‘It showed that when Singaporeans are down for the count, they can be moved to stand up for what they feel is right. They are not apathetic. They will fight for fair play and the importance of moral authority,’ she said.

Well, that’s the good part.

I’d add that the Government scored points for the way it handled the matter. It decided, wisely, to adopt a ‘you-solve- your-own-problem’ approach and so riled no party.

One couldn’t really see its hand until towards the end, when one pastor’s religious fervour seemed to cross the line. One suspects that at that point, certain religious leaders must have been prevailed upon to cool things down.

But the Aware saga saw more losers.

In a debate on civil society, there sure was a lot of uncivility.

The volume of bile that was flung by both sides and their supporters was incredible and deplorable. Character assassination, name-calling, the spreading of false information and private e-mail, the display of strong-arm tactics, plain rudeness, discourtesy and even death threats – they were all deemed par for the course.

It’s one thing to be passionate about your beliefs and robust when you push your cause or fight for what you feel is right. But when it degenerates into rumour-mongering, death threats and plain bad behaviour, how can this be good?

Both sides’ supporters were guilty of it.

One new guard leader saw her family being dragged into the picture and her children subjected to vicious rumours. A blogger called on Singaporeans to boycott an exco member’s business, which she depends on for her livelihood.

Then there was the Christian website article alleging that veteran Aware member Constance Singam had a gay agenda because she was the sister of a man who preaches at a pro-homosexuality church.

The information was wrong. She has no such brother.

Both camps came out badly.

The supporters of Aware clearly hadn’t cared enough about their society to attend the AGM where the new faces were voted in by other new members. And why had the leaders allowed membership to slide over the years? Complacency?

The new faces in the exco were wrong not to have been open about their motives in taking over Aware – that is, wanting to change its school sexuality programme which it felt promoted homosexuality.

No one’s stopping you from promoting your religious beliefs but don’t do it via a secular body. And if you weren’t happy with Aware’s programme, why didn’t you raise it with them? Or set up your own group to provide the ‘right’ sex education?

DBS Bank, the employer of new guard president Josie Lau, came out badly for making public its censure of her for standing for elections. What is so wrong with a staff member taking on a role in a civic society? Does DBS impose the same standards on its male staff who sit on other bodies?

Christianity, too, suffered because of the actions of some of the new guard supporters, including pastor Derek Hong of the Church of Our Saviour. His call to his flock to ‘be engaged’ and support Ms Lau and ‘her sisters’ at Aware because ‘there’s a line that God has drawn for us, and we don’t want our nation crossing that line’ won’t be easily forgotten, even if he later said he regretted his words.

To me, the biggest losers were women.

Saturday’s EGM brought out the worst in us. Hecklings, taunts, chants, self-righteous one-upmanship, plain rudeness. Talk about bitchiness.

Again, both sides share the blame: new guard Sally Ang’s ‘shut up and sit down’ was outrageous but some of the old guard supporters behaved not that much better.

Sadly, many people will see this as confirmation that women are overly emotional and ever ready to tear down their own kind. How’s that for promoting the cause of women?

This was a saga which saw people taking sides and passionately too. As journalists, we must keep an open mind but it was sometimes difficult to do so in this case. For myself, I was sympathetic to whoever the underdog at a particular point was, and this shifted throughout the saga.

But after a while, I didn’t give a hoot any more. There was just too much unbecoming behaviour being displayed by both camps. It became disquieting and disgusting.

So now that the votes have been counted, let’s put this behind us and move on – please.

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