Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Process, pluralism, protection

May 4, 2009

The Aware saga shows that transparency and OB markers matter

By Janadas Devan

'THE Aware Saga' has come to an end. What lessons does the episode hold for civil society? There are undoubtedly many, but here is a preliminary set of what I believe are the chief lessons:

Lesson No. 1: Ends and means

The group that captured Aware on March 28 presented themselves as exceedingly moral beings. The group's inspirator extraordinaire Thio Su Mien - lawyer, self-styled 'feminist mentor' and, by the looks of it, the world's foremost expert on homosexuality - described her mentees as just a group of women who wanted to contribute to society.

There is no reason not to accept at face value this characterisation. It is impossible to believe this group woke up one day and consciously decided to do ill by taking over Aware, as the caricature on the other side would have it. Which is precisely why one wonders about the methods they chose to employ.

The means used in pursuit of any cause ought to be commensurate with the ends proposed. Bad means cannot encompass good ends. If your goals are fairness, justice and goodwill, you cannot achieve them by employing surreptitious, opaque and divisive means. The moral universe does have a balance sheet: You cannot be in the red on means and expect to be in the clear on ends

Dr Thio's team got this equation wrong. Whatever one might have thought of their ends - and there are good people on both sides of that argument - it was difficult not to notice that their means did not measure up.

They did not declare openly who they were - until they were pressed to do so; they were not transparent about their policy aims - until their aims became apparent despite themselves; they did not answer questions - until it was too late to dispel doubts.

We know process matters in the law and politics. The Aware Saga has taught us it matters in civil society too, which tends to attract passionate, committed and often self-righteous people.

It is precisely because the self-righteous have so often in history cited their ends to justify whatever means they employed that democracies have learnt to insist on transparent and open processes.

Lesson No. 2: Pluralism matters

There is nothing wrong with religious people involving themselves in secular groups - as individuals. The vast majority of Singaporeans are religious. We would have hardly anyone in politics, Government or civil society if we were to insist people checked in their religious beliefs before entering these secular realms.

But that does not mean that the spiritual and the secular, the church and the state, should be confused. It does not mean that the faithful of any religion can impose their views on others. And it most certainly does not mean that the religious should organise themselves in groups to pursue secular agendas. It is actually against the law in Singapore to have a Buddhist Action Party or a Christian Reform Party or a United Muslim Front.

There is no reason to doubt the assurances of Dr Thio's group that they were not acting on behalf of any particular religion. The clear statement on Thursday by Dr John Chew, president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore, that the NCCS did not condone any church getting involved in Aware's leadership tussle, set the record straight.

It was nevertheless daft - no more appropriate word comes to mind - for six people from the same church to have attempted this takeover at Aware. What were they thinking of?

That people wouldn't learn they came from the same church? That people wouldn't mind a secular organisation being taken over by a group clearly identified with a particular church in a particular denomination of a particular religion? And if they had won last Saturday's vote of confidence, having depended on support solely from their co-religionists, that they could have continued credibly as leaders of a secular organisation?

If they had prevailed, Dr Thio's group would have established, inadvertently perhaps, a new benchmark for social activism among the religiously-inspired. It's hardly credible that Buddhists and Taoists - who together constitute close to half the population - or Roman Catholics, Muslims and Hindus, would have, in response, left the field uncontested to Protestants.

Everyone realised that would not be good for Singapore. Thus Dr Chew's statement and the strong support it received from other religious leaders. It was good that they combined spontaneously to draw a firm line.

Lesson No. 3: OB markers matter

As controversies go, The Aware Saga was minor. It did not permanently alter the body politic. Socially, it was the equivalent of a group of women, setting off on what they assumed would be a diverting walk, falling into a ditch. But it could have been worse - and that is precisely the point.

There were moments when things got uncomfortable. Ms Josie Lau, the erstwhile Aware president, received a death threat. The pastor of her church, Mr Derek Hong, spoke in terms that he later regretted. There was loose talk of Christians versus the rest.

The so-called 'liberals' in Aware have won. I am personally glad they did. But here is something that some 'liberals' may not be comfortable with: This episode proves why we need many 'illiberal' laws - including the Religious Harmony Act, Group Representation Constituencies, HDB racial quotas, etc.

Religious and racial harmony here are not givens. You have got to work at maintaining them. The Aware Saga shows we still have some work left to do.

[In summary, I believe that the "insurgents" were well-meaning women with strong faith and strong views. Views so strong that Clare Nazar called them "stormtroopers", and resigned as she did not want to deal with the hassle of bringing them in line.

Constance Singam also resigned in frustration and despair when her views were not respected and not heeded.

Members were left in the dark as to the plans, intent, and objectives of the new committee.

Maybe there was something sinister, but I believe it was nothing more than human nature. The new members did not know AWARE except what preconceptions they already have about its sex education programme. That coloured their perceptions of the society as well as the previous leadership. As new members, they had more affiliations to the other church members in the committee. Church membership is a form of social "shorthand" in terms of understanding each other and trusting each other on the basis of shared faith and values.

So instead of connecting with the members and the former leaders, they naturally gravitated or chose to look inward and form their own clique. In any case, they had ulterior motives that would not have sat well with the the other members. So they naturally had to exclude the others.

When they had their own ingroup, the rest of the members and particularly the old guards became the outgroup and the division was as much of their own making as it was thrust upon them by their own faith and religious affiliation. They knew they could trust their church members, but they don't know if they can trust the other members. Perhaps they even knew that the other members would not share their views or their objectives.

And so they tried to remake the old into the new without understanding, and perhaps naively thinking that the war had been won with the elections.

And that is the folly of new members trying to lead what they do not understand.

You can't put new wine in old wineskins. ]

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