Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pertinent lessons from a fiasco

May 5, 2009

By Cherian George

THE battle for control of Aware can be a learning experience for civil society activists and the wider public. There are at least three lessons to reflect on.


SOME may view the outcome of the Aware showdown as a triumph over religious values - and then despair or gloat, depending on their standpoint. But this would be a wrong reading of events.

The battle for Aware should be seen instead as a struggle over how - not whether - to insert faith-based values into public life. While there are some societies that interpret secularism as delegitimising the entry of religious values into the public sphere, that has never been Singapore's way. Secularism here acknowledges that many Singaporeans are spiritually oriented; it respects their right to inject faith-based views into public life.

Crucially, however, the state stays separate and equidistant from the different religions. Even more crucially, when there are disagreements over public matters, Singaporean secularism cannot recognise religious arguments as a trump card. One could allow one's reading of God's will to dictate how one runs one's own household or faith-based community (and even then only within the limits of the law); but God's word cannot be the final word on how collective decisions are made in the public sphere.

People of a particular faith must therefore be able to translate their values into secular terms to the satisfaction of fellow citizens who do not share those values, or else accept that their desires are, for the moment, incompatible with what the wider society wants.

The Aware battle was not between the profane and the sacred, but between those who understand Singaporean secularism and those who apparently do not. The concerted steps they took to rid its leadership of its traditional diversity showed that the insurgents did not want merely to be part of a conversation; they wanted to be the only voice.

When intolerant voices have surfaced in other religious communities, the moderate mainstream had to reclaim the microphone. One of the most positive outcomes of the Aware saga is the strong assertion by religious Singaporeans as well as religious leaders: We are here, our faith makes us and our society stronger, but we will not impose our values on others.


THE Aware old guard accused the insurgents of not reflecting Singapore's cultural diversity. The insurgents retorted that their conservatism was more representative of Singapore's majority than the old guard's liberalism. Who was right? Both, probably. But neither diversity nor representativeness is a sufficient criterion for assessing civil society groups.

First, while the expectation that a civil society organisation (CSO) should represent the majority view is superficially seductive, it is in fact fundamentally flawed. CSOs are not political parties, which must appeal to the majority to win elections. One of the chief values of CSOs is precisely that they fill the gaps left by political parties (and by the private sector), by serving causes that the majority may not embrace.

Indeed, if crude democratic logic had been applied to gender issues, there would have been no Aware: when it was set up, most Singaporeans held sexist views about the proper place of women. That many CSOs are not representative is a fact, and a healthy one.

Still, some may wonder if society should tolerate CSOs that embrace seemingly far-out views. Again, it is important not to confuse CSOs with political parties. Electoral politics is more or less a zero-sum game. The winning party controls the government.

Civil society space is quite different. CSOs can gain influence, but have no power to set national policy. Furthermore, multiple CSOs can work within the same space simultaneously. A CSO has no obligation to be representative in its values. If others are fundamentally opposed to its direction, they can set up their own organisation.

While it may be unrealistic to expect each CSO to reflect all colours of the rainbow, a CSO that aims to have national impact should certainly be outward-looking. A homogeneous community-based CSO is not a problem in itself; it should be judged by the friends it has. It deserves to be viewed with scepticism if it is unable to work with groups representing other communities. Fortunately, several faith-based and ethnic-based groups in Singapore have excellent records of working side by side with other groups, regardless of race, language or religion.


SETTING aside the substantive disagreements, the Aware saga offers lessons about civil society governance and process. What alarmed many neutral observers was the way the insurgents went about their plans.

Civil society groups should be transparent in their dealings and be ready to account for themselves. It would be an understatement to say that the insurgents were unprepared for the intense public scrutiny they attracted.

They were secretive in their plan to take over Aware and coy about their intentions. Based on their public statements, it is still unclear how much they were motivated by a single issue: their opposition to Aware's liberal stand on homosexuality. If this was their target all along, it does not speak well for them that they did not state it publicly at the outset.

If this was not their primary concern, then an even more troubling concern arises. Their allegations at the height of the dispute, that Aware had been promoting homosexuality to children and teens, smack of a cynical political ploy: win support from the masses by turning a marginalised minority into an object of fear.

In many societies, the tactic would have worked. Fortunately, it did not work here. The Ministry of Education's measured response took the wind out of the sails of the insurgents.

The Government is not known to be sympathetic to Aware's progressive agenda. But if there is one thing that is stronger than its antipathy towards liberal values, it is the Government's resistance to letting its power and prestige become tools in the hands of any lobby group, whatever its ideological complexion.

No doubt, the weekend's events would have made the insurgents feel utterly misunderstood and underappreciated, as losing factions are wont to. They have nobody to blame but themselves.

The writer is an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. A longer version of this essay is available at http://journalism.sg/aware

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