President’s Message: The crisis that opened up the space for debate
AWARE faced a crisis earlier this year. But, says AWARE President DANA LAM, it was a crisis that was good for Singapore because it got Singaporeans thinking and talking about sensitive issues. And it led to Singapore women taking a stand that will let AWARE continue its work for gender equality.
The Prime Minister’s National Day rally speech gives us pause. We share his concern for balance and secularism.
Activists for women’s rights the world over have long identified the rise of fundamentalist religion as the major threat to women and contemporary societies this century. The ‘AWARE Saga’ as it has been described showed that fundamentalist religion is on the rise in Singapore. After the news broke, stories of evangelism, proselytisation, hospital bed conversions – many of them first person encounters – began to surface and abound.
The news that a secular woman’s group in Singapore could be taken over by a bunch of fundamentalists was a shock to many. It jolted them out of their comfort zone and spurred them to stand up and be counted. It became clear that there are many in Singapore who value our secularism above other things, and that this secularism, taken for granted for so long, needs to be protected.
For us at AWARE, the battle was not only for the preservation of Singapore’s secular space but also for gender equality, for the continuation of our nearly a quarter of a century’s work to level the playing field for women, to remove the obstacles that keep women from reaching their potential.
Fundamentalist religion inevitably returns women to the dark ages. In the most extreme forms of fundamentalism, women are regarded almost as chattel, with no rights, no role other than that of a totally subservient and submissive wife and mother. Even in a less repressive form of fundamentalism, such as seen in Singapore, women are deemed to be subordinate to men.
When it was discovered that a good number of the women who had staged the takeover of AWARE came from the Church of Our Saviour, we looked at the church’s website and noted with great concern statements that it was in the natural order of things that women should rank after men, that the woman’s role was to:
2. Bear children
3. Guide the house
4. Not be a reproach to her husband.
This brought back memories of the mid 1980s when Singapore women, making good progress on the road to gender equality, suddenly found themselves caught in a resurgence of patriarchy. This was when the government, noting that graduate women were not marrying and that those who did marry were either delaying having children or not having them at all, produced a slew of draconian pro-natal policies that privileged one group of women over another group.
Graduate mothers were provided with incentives to have more children, non-graduate mothers were penalised for having a second or third child. Women in lower socio-economic groups were provided with monetary incentives to surgically remove the possibility of further pregnancies.
It was in that climate of patriarchal attitudes and policies that AWARE was born in 1985. It was reprehensible to find, in 2009, that AWARE had been taken over by a group of women who appeared to accept patriarchy and whose faith-based values were in direct contradiction to AWARE’s.
Since 1985 AWARE has played a pivotal role in challenging the status quo and in identifying and addressing those areas of habitual thought that still impinge on and discriminate against women’s equal participation in family and society. This includes recognising and respecting women’s rights over their own bodies, their sexuality, and procreation matters.
Much has been achieved, but the work goes on.
As we celebrate this 44th year of Independent Singapore, women are still grappling with issues that limit them because of their gender. One such issue is the stand taken by far too many employers on pregnant women. This attitude is seen in a letter to the media in early August: “…pregnant women…fail to understand the damage and loss caused to an employer …by having to maintain on its payroll an employee who, throughout her maternity leave, saddles her colleagues with heavier workloads, does not contribute to the company’s revenue and causes loss to the company by continuing to draw pay.”
Coincidentally, this letter was published around the time of the 14th Apec Women Leaders Network meeting that was held in Singapore. One of Singapore’s most outstanding women, Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, made this observation in her opening address at the meeting:
“The more open the country, the deeper the rule of law, the greater the transparency, the more rooted its political and social institutions, the deeper the respect for human rights, the more women can fulfil their lives.”
Ambassador Chan added she did not get the sense that young Singapore women were short of role models. She said: “They believe they can be what they want to be. They believe they are entitled to a good education. They also tell me that they do not feel their employers doubt their intelligence and abilities. Rather, the employers question their commitment to their careers because the assumption is that they will get married and start families.”
As Singapore enters its 45th year of independence, and as AWARE prepares for its 25th anniversary, there is still much to do to ensure true and lasting gender equality. A few months ago, AWARE faced a crisis. But it was a crisis that got Singaporeans thinking and talking about the sensitive issues of race and religion. It opened up the space for debate, bringing to the surface a shared concern about the rise of fundamentalist religion.
And it led, on 2 May 2009, to a decisive stand by Singapore women and not a few good men for secularism, for inclusiveness and openness, and for AWARE to continue its work for gender equality.