Monday, April 27, 2009

Aware saga: A new militancy emerges

April 25, 2009

Tolerance is critical in the public sphere in a multi-religious society

By Chua Mui Hoong

THE battle lines have been drawn. And it is not just between Aware's new executive committee and its old guard.

The leading women's advocacy group saw a stunning leadership change when newcomers captured nine of 12 executive committee posts at the group's annual general meeting on March 28. Older members questioned their motives as well as the sudden influx of new members who joined Aware just months before the AGM.

Four members of the new exco held a press conference on Thursday evening. At the same time as the press conference was proceeding at Raffles Town Club, an exco meeting was called at Aware's Dover Road premises. The new team sacked the Aware centre's manager, a paid employee, changed the locks at the Aware office and had a stand-off with old guard members who turned up later.

Some see this episode as a 'catfight' among ambitious women. Others see it as a tussle for control of a prominent women's advocacy group, three of whose presidents have served as Nominated Members of Parliament.

With four of the new exco members attending the same church - and having the same 'feminist mentor' in the shape of lawyer Thio Su Mien - and all espousing 'pro-family', anti-gay sentiments, some are calling this a fight between the Christian Right and the Gay Lobby.

There is also an intra-Christian element here. For even within the Christian community, there is concern about religious zeal spilling over into the public sphere and giving Christianity an unduly aggressive image in peaceful, multi-religious Singapore.

Some of the new exco members have been reportedly threatened, with one receiving a death threat. Even if that were the act of an eccentric, threats of violence against activists should never be condoned and Singaporeans must be firm in denouncing such behaviour.

There is such a cauldron of emotions swirling over this issue that it is hard to take a cool look at it. But that is precisely what is needed - a hard-headed look at why this issue has roiled so many people.

At the risk of stating the obvious, religion mixed with socio-political controversies is always a combustible combination. Especially when faiths are interpreted in a fundamentalist way.

Tolerance and accommodation are critical attitudes for people of different faiths to adopt towards one another in the public sphere. Religion can be divisive, especially when it insists on a religiously-informed view on any particular social, moral or cultural issue.

Secular, multi-religious societies must draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not in the public domain. There is nothing objectionable about zeal for one's faith per se. But action aimed at invalidating or challenging other religions or enforcing a particular religious view on everyone can have harmful social and political consequences in a multi-religious society.

It is especially troublesome when people go beyond spreading their religious beliefs to attempting to legislate their preferred moral practices. For example, they may believe that the moral values their church subscribes to should govern civil law. So if their church says homosexuality and abortion are grievous sins, then the laws of the land should outlaw such practices, even if many other people do not agree.

The so-called Christian Right has made its presence felt in recent years: in opposing the setting up of casinos, and in lobbying against a motion to repeal section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between males.

While other religions too have been vocal on these issues, they have adopted a live-and-let-live attitude, preferring to preach to their own flock than convert others. The Christian Right is more organised, vocal about claiming public space for debate, and savvy in using constitutional means to advance its causes.

Concern over just where religious and social zeal will lead the new Aware leadership is the reason many have reacted strongly to news of its grab for power. Many are concerned that this group has established a benchmark for religiously inspired activism that may well be emulated by people of other faiths.

It would have been different if the group and its mentor Dr Thio had been upfront about their association. It would have been even better if they had formed their own organisation to propagate their social plans.

But their decision, from the looks of it, to use Aware as a convenient organisation to launch their cause has raised eyebrows. While the new group was properly elected, its method has sown mistrust. They were not a model of transparent organisation.

In recent years, much attention, for good reason, has been focused on Islamic fundamentalism, given the violence of militant groups claiming Islam as their inspiration. But religious fundamentalism of all kinds can do harm - not necessarily to the physical body but certainly to the body politic of a multi-faith society - if it invalidates others' faiths and seeks to use the law to suppress the practices of minority groups.

Singapore has long guarded its public sphere and common space zealously to keep it free from religious strife. We should be no less vigilant in guarding against new forms of militancy that may harm the body politic.

[It is becoming increasingly clear that despite the legitimacy of the new Exco rise to power, this is in effect an attack on AWARE and an attempt to gut it from within. Certainly there are other ways, perhaps less effective, of challenging and attempting to change AWARE. They could have questioned and publicly challenged AWARE's sex education programme for example. But that would have led to a whole series of letters to the press and dialogue and while all this is going on, the programme would continue. Whereas this way, the new Exco can in effect radically change the programme or even cancel the programme outright. No dialogue necessary. No debate or discussion.

That is why it is an attack, with a take no prisoners approach, and a shoot first don't ask question policy. The old guards are right to feel demonised, as it is an attack on their policies, their practices, their philosophy, and their legacy.

The charges of pro-gay/pro-lesbian agenda, and of promoting homosexuality with their sex education made by Thio Su Mien being so prominently featured in the Straits Times has been unquestioningly accepted as fact by many parents.

What is clear is that the new Exco is not interested in dialogue, or debate. They have their views and they are not discussing it or changing it.

The Old AWARE should move fast to secure a restraining order to require the new Exco to do nothing that would endanger or cause the destruction of the AWARE library and materials developed and accumulated over the years. As with fundamentalists, "book-burning" is a predictable action they may take.]

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