Unknowns knock out veterans at Aware polls
Unknowns knock out veterans at Aware polls: Caught off-guard by big turnout, longtime members lose to fresh faces
Singaopre's best-known women's group, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), has seen a dramatic changing of the guard - which some members are describing as nothing short of a leadership grab.
When Aware held its annual general meeting on March 28, everyone expected the usual: No more than 30 or 40 members would turn up at its Dover Crescent centre, and a prepared slate of candidates would be voted into office easily.
Instead, more than 100 people came, the majority of whom had joined Aware only in recent months.
And when the election of office bearers began, almost every position was challenged by new faces, who won by wide majorities.
In the end, nine out of 12 executive committee spots went to the newcomers.
One older member who won without a contest was Mrs Claire Nazar, a former corporate counsel nominated to be president by outgoing Aware chief Constance Singam.
But barely a week into her new term, and before making her first statement as president, Mrs Nazar quit suddenly this week.
She confirmed that she had resigned, but declined to say any more when reached by The Straits Times.
It is not known who will now become president.
Longtime members took two other positions: Chew I-Jin as assistant honorary treasurer and Caris Lim Chai Leng was elected a committee member.
The election results have left longtime Aware members in shock.
Former president Tan Joo Hymn, 38, told The Straits Times the big turnout at the AGM surprised her.
'I arrived at the meeting late and found out that I was No. 100 on the attendance list. I've been a member for 10 years, and never before has there been such a turnout,' said the former lawyer who is now a full-time mother.
Another former president, writer Dana Lam, 57, said: 'There were many faces I had not seen before, and I found that very strange.
'In previous years, even if there were new members, they would be known to one or more of the older members.'
The first indication that something was afoot came when Ms Chew, an Aware veteran, was challenged and defeated handsomely by new member Charlotte Wong Hock Soon for the post of vice-president.
Ms Chew was later elected unopposed as assistant honorary treasurer.
'It was alarming,' said Ms Lam. 'How could a new member who had just joined for a couple of months, and whom we knew nothing about, be picked over someone who has been with Aware for more than 15 years?'
Some of the older members immediately began checking the attendance list.
Ms Tan said: 'We found that about 80 of the 102 who turned up were new members who joined between January and March this year.'
Aware, a feminist group that has prided itself on being 'all inclusive', has never vetted the people who apply to be members.
Men can join too, as associate members.
As it dawned on them that a leadership grab was imminent, some older members at the AGM tried asking the newcomers who they were, what they stood for, and why they wanted to be in charge.
They got only the briefest answers, they said.
Ms Lam said she tried suggesting that new members serve a stint on Aware's various sub-committees before standing for election to leadership positions.
But such suggestions went unheeded as the election proceeded, with more newcomers winning executive committee positions by landslide margins.
Ironically, the old guard at Aware had been working towards changing their Constitution to make it a rule that only those who have been members for at least a year would be eligible to join the ex-co.
There is currently no rule to bar a brand new member from seeking office, and that was what happened at the AGM.
Ms Tan said: 'We were simply outnumbered. Technically, they got in legitimately.'
She added that the way the election proceeded was so unusual, it was hard to imagine that the takeover was not a planned effort.
'It could not be pure coincidence,' she said.
But little is known of Aware's new leaders, aside from the fact that they include women from the corporate sector, lawyers, company directors and academics.
Older members said the newcomers spoke well but would not elaborate on their plans for Aware.
'When asked if they believed in equality, they kept repeating they were there to support women and to make sure they got ahead and got all the opportunities given to them,' Ms Lam said.
Older members were keen to know if the newcomers shared Aware's vision and values, including equality for all regardless of race, religion or sexuality.
But one outspoken new member from the floor, who identified herself as Angela Thiang, said questions about the new office bearers' religion and their stand on homosexuality were not relevant.
Former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Braema Mathi, a two-term president of Aware, told The Straits Times that she, like many other members, was concerned.
'If you are keen to serve, you don't challenge every position. We do not know who they are,' said the former journalist who is now in Bangkok doing consultancy work for international women's group Unifem.
'It is very troubling, more so because I've heard the new president has resigned.'
Almost a fortnight into their new roles, the new leaders of Aware were not entertaining calls from the media this week.
New honorary secretary Jenica Chua Chor Ping told The Straits Times a press release would be issued 'in a few days' and added that until then, the committee would not answer any questions.
A check showed that some of those at the AGM and on the new committee have appeared in The Straits Times Forum Page.
Ms Chua, Ms Thiang and Dr Alan Chin, a male member of Aware who attended the AGM and supported the newcomers, all wrote letters to this newspaper between August and October 2007.
In a letter on Oct 17 that year, Ms Chua said NMP Siew Kum Hong had overstepped his non-partisan role and advanced the homosexual cause by tabling a petition in Parliament to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises homosexual sex between consenting men.
In another letter on Oct 25, she took issue with a Straits Times report which said NMP Thio Li-Ann had been 'visibly distraught' when she opposed Mr Siew's petition vigorously.
Ms Chua said Ms Thio had dealt with several points succinctly, with humour and passion.
Dr Chin and Ms Thiang both wrote letters to caution against the risks of promoting the homosexual lifestyle.
Meanwhile, news of Aware's AGM has spread among older members who did not attend the meeting, as well as civil society groups.
The most frequently-asked questions: Who are the new women in charge, why do they want the leadership, and what are their plans for Aware?
Ms Mathi said: 'The building of an institution takes many years; building its value system is even harder.
'Why can't they come in and be part of the process, and build it together and in a more evolutionary manner? That way, the comfort level will be high for everyone.'
Former newspaper editor and media consultant Peter Lim, a longtime associate member of Aware, said he was very surprised to learn what had taken place.
Asked why he thought a group of newcomers would want to take control, he said he did not know if it was an orchestrated effort.
But he thought Aware would be attractive to those seeking to be in charge of an established institution. Setting up a new outfit would take too much time and trouble.
'Aware has built up its credentials over the years and achieved more than a few things,' he said.
Three former Aware presidents - Ms Claire Chiang, Dr Kanwaljit Soin and Ms Mathi - have served as NMPs.
'Aware is a brand name and most people regard it as the leading voice of the feminists and modern women in Singapore,' said Mr Lim.
Who are these people?
Flash back below...
NMP overstepped role in championing gay cause
Straits Times Print Forum, 17 October 2007
I am writing in response to the article, 'NMP to submit Parliamentary Petition to repeal gay sex law' (ST, Oct 12).
As a Nominated MP, Mr Siew Kum Hong is supposed to be non-partisan and should not be affiliated with any particular political group.
However, he has chosen to be the sponsor of a parliamentary petition to present the homosexual agenda.
While he is free to present his personal views on any issue, Mr Siew has overstepped the boundary as an NMP when he chose to represent the homosexual interest group.
MPs in Parliament have to run for election, look after their constituents' interests and represent their views. As an NMP, Mr Siew bears no such burden.
He should not adulterate the NMP role further by becoming the proxy representative of the homosexual interest group.
This is especially so as the Government has already taken one year to review the Penal Code, with input from various consultation channels, and taken into consideration the views of the majority of Singaporeans who are for maintaining family values and preserving Section 377A of the Penal Code.
Jenica Chua Chor Ping (Ms)
Beware loose use of term 'sexual minorities'
Straits Times Print Forum, 10 August 2007
I refer to Mr Ho Chi Sam's letter, 'Why is gay forum against public interest?' (ST, Aug 8).
Apparently, this forum was not banned in its entirety, as Mr Ho claimed. Its organisers, a self-professed homosexual lobby group, reported on their website that 'the event will still go on. The topic may be altered slightly, but will still focus on the law and sexual orientation'.
Regretfully, the organisers had not posted the forum's programme on their website. However, Fridae.com, an Internet portal providing services aimed at homosexuals, posted an article attributed to the foreign speaker concerned, which presumably contains the gist of what he intended to convey.
This article argues for the repeal of criminal laws against unnatural sex by using foreign precedents and international law in certain ways, noting that decriminalisation paves the way for the next step in the agenda, i.e., to redefine marriage.
It presupposes that the repeal of such laws benefits our society, and, in so doing, sidesteps the very issue that we are trying to work out for ourselves, i.e., whether decriminalising homosexual conduct serves or undermines Singapore's interests and well-being.
Mr Ho introduced the expression 'sexual minorities', a term coined by political groups in countries like Canada and the United States to lobby for special (rather than equal) rights for self-professed homosexuals.
Attempts had been made to extend such special rights, to the point of banning religious texts like the Quran and Bible as 'hate literature' for 'incit(ing) hatred against sexual minorities' because these texts categorically reject homosexual behaviour.
An uncritical importation of such politically charged and legally loaded terminology not only confuses but also endangers the racial and religious harmony that Singapore has laboured to enjoy and keep.
While a group of people may be a numerical minority as a social fact, that cannot be the sole or conclusive criterion for conferring legal recognition as a minority at law, so as to merit the enjoyment of additional protection or privileges.
Under Singapore law, the only legally recognised minority groups are racial and religious groups. Sexual preferences do not qualify as a marker for special legal protection.
Lastly, I fail to see the relevance of Mr Ho's confession of being 'straight' in the context of a rational and informed debate in matters of public interest. What matters is the substance and veracity of what is being said, not the identity of the speaker.
Angela Thiang Pei Yun (Ms)
Beware the high-risk 'gay lifestyle'
Straits Times Print Forum, 8 August 2007
In the article, 'Most with Aids virus don't know they have it' (ST, July 18), Senior Minister of State Balaji Sadasivan announced that a study of 3,000 blood samples in government hospitals showed that 1 in 350 samples was positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes Aids. The male to female ratio of these cases was 15:1.
What conclusions can we draw?
The 15:1 ratio means that the HIV epidemic is still confined mainly to the high-risk groups (concentrated epidemic) and has not spread to the general population (generalised epidemic). If it were already in the general population, the ratio would be much closer to 1:1.
Therefore we still have time to do something before the situation gets worse.
Who constitutes these high-risk groups?
Data released by the Ministry of Health on HIV last year showed two groups of men were responsible for approximately 83 per cent of HIV cases.
53 per cent of the cases were men who contracted HIV via unprotected high-risk heterosexual sex. This group was infected overseas or by local unlicensed prostitutes; our licensed prostitutes are screened for HIV.
30 per cent of the cases comprised men having sex with men (MSM). Based on the prevalence of 2.8 per cent of men being homosexual or bisexual, there are about 67,000 men in Singapore who engage in MSM.
I highlight this second high-risk group as it is a matter of public interest and concern, given the ongoing debate on the review of the Penal Code relating to Section 377A.
Extrapolating from the infection rate of 1 in 350 and 15:1 ratio of males to females, the conclusion is that among men who indulge in MSM, about one in 20 has HIV and does not know it.
This means that someone who indulges in MSM and has 20 sexual partners would have exposed himself to HIV.
A survey conducted in the United States has shown that 75 per cent of homosexual men have more than 100 sexual partners and 28 per cent of them have more than 1,000 partners.
I feel that not enough has been done to warn our youth that leading a 'gay lifestyle' is not cool. On the contrary, it is very unhealthy. There is a very high risk of contracting not only HIV but also a slew of other sexually transmitted diseases.
Dr Alan Chin Yew Liang
Any idea what are their secret agenda for taking over now?
Yes, that's it. Can't be more obvious.
Association of Women for Action and Research,Aware,Claire Nazar,Chew I-Jin,Charlotte Wong Hock Soon,Jenica Chua Chor PingAnti-gay in Singapore