November 18th, 2010

Constant Braving

Constance Singam

Reflecting on the last 25 years, past president Constance Singam says the mark that AWARE has left on Singapore, on women, and on herself, is indelible.
I remember the day I received the invitation to the launch of a new women’s organisation called the Association of Women for Action and Research. It was 1986, and AWARE had by then been registered as a society for one year. The launch was going to take place at the Cairnhill Community Centre. I didn’t go for the launch. I was too shy; too intimidated. It was to take me another year before I felt comfortable enough to become a member. There were many women like me who, for many different reasons, kept their distance from AWARE. AWARE was too loud, too feminist; too bold; too daring. I was to realise then that this was no ordinary women’s organisation. But because of that AWARE was going to stand out as being courageous. This in turn won the respect of many Singaporeans.
After the campaign to end polygamy, and the enacting of the Women’s Charter in 1961, the founding of AWARE on 25th November 1985 was the third-most important event in the history of Singapore women. The very establishment of AWARE challenged Singapore’s patriarchal values and public policies – because AWARE’s baseline was that there is inequality, and we want to address it. AWARE became the first non-governmental organisation in a long time to question the state’s policies. A good example of this is domestic violence and rape. That was a very important contribution to civil society.
At the time domestic violence was seen as “a private matter”, something authorities preferred not to interfere with. In response, AWARE said in no uncertain terms that the personal is political, framing inequality and oppression in family as concern of the state. AWARE opened up unprecedented public discussion of issues previously seen as private, and therefore beyond public scrutiny.
Twenty-four years later this courage to stand by our convictions, consistent hard work and tenacity of purpose came to the fore during a time of crisis – when a group of women surreptitiously joined AWARE and voted themselves into office attempting to take over and push their own pro-religious, anti-feminist agenda. The takeover not only threatened all the values that AWARE stood for but also Singapore’s secular society. We fought tooth and nail to reclaim AWARE. In what was dubbed the “AWARE saga”, over 2000 women gathered in a historic May 2nd Extraordinary General Meeting at Suntec City Convention Centre, and 1414 of us cast a vote of No Confidence, ousting the group, and re-instating AWARE’s rightful leaders.

Constance at the 2009 EGM. Picture: The Online Citizen

During the entire process, AWARE gained overwhelming support from many Singaporeans, the event was considered a watershed in civil society and showed that we, as a people, are far from apathetic and willing to fight for what we feel is right.
Both these historical markers – the founding of AWARE and the “AWARE Saga” – revealed the exceptional ability of Singapore women to rise above Singapore’s “inhibiting” political and social culture and to suspend their individual discomfort in participating in a very public political event when something threatens their values. Equally important for AWARE is that after 25 years, the AWARE Saga has re-energised AWARE members and supporters and compelled it to re-affirm its democratic feminist values of gender equality, egalitarianism, respect for the individual and individual choice.
AWARE’s values, are based on its feminist belief in women, in women’s ability to strike a healthy balance between their public and private lives as well. We also believe that we can draw strength from the commonalities that bind us regardless of our social, cultural or economic backgrounds. All of us are vulnerable to rape, to sexual harassment, to physical and psychological abuse, to discrimination, and to exploitation. Whatever culture or place we come from we share this vulnerability and our experience as women. We also share the ability to fight it, to protect and help ourselves and one another.
Becoming an AWARE member leads to what feminist Pearl Green calls “a transformation of consciousness”, and the way one looks at oneself, the way one sees the world and everyday activities is forever transformed by this consciousness. This describes my AWARE experience perfectly.

Constance with Corinna Lim

Today I am a different person from the one that joined the association 24 years ago. I am more confident as a woman, more sure of my potential to make a difference, and more aware (pun very much intended) of my reposibilities to my community and society. AWARE blazed the trail and showed me, and many others, the way. It must continue to do so. In a political culture dominated by one ideology, AWARE must continue to demonstrate that there are different ways of seeing the world and different ways of defining ourselves as individuals. I remain grateful to AWARE for doing that for me.
I wish AWARE a very Happy 25th Birthday and best wishes for another 25 trail-blazing years. Be bold. Be fearless.

Constance Singam
15th November 2010

One Comment ...

  1. buiqes

    So inspiring. Thank you for sharing this, Constance.