November 18th, 2010

The Birth of AWARE: Part Two

What were the events that led to the founding of AWARE, 25 years ago? Lenore Lyons details The Birth of AWARE in the second of this two-part excerpt from Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore.

Continued from The Birth of AWARE: Part One

It was against this backdrop that in November 1984 the National University of Singapore Society held a forum titled “Women’s choices, women’s lives”. Organised by Zaibun Siraj, an active member of NUSS and Vivienne Wee, a faculty member at NUS, the forum brought together women from different professional backgrounds to talk about the issues facing modern Singaporean women. In addition to Siraj and Wee, the speakers included Kanwaljit Soin, an orthopaedic surgeon, Hedwig Anuar, the director of National Library, and Margaret Thomas, the deputy Sunday Editor of The Singapore Monitor.

The women were chosen specifically because they were not the current women leaders of the time – the organisers wanted fresh faces and new perspectives. Although few of the speakers knew each other, and most had never before spoken at a forum on women’s issues, they were all passionate about women’s right to choose their own destinies.

The forum attracted a crowd of several hundred women and some men, all keenly aware of recent controversies surrounding Lee’s statements about “graduate mothers”. Many were angry that the government seemed to be suggesting that women’s primary role was of a wife and mother. They argued that women had diverse aspirations – some wanted to pursue professional careers, while others wanted to stay home and look after their families: some women wanted to marry, and some wanted children. But all wanted to make decisions for themselves.

Participants were also angry with the government for singling out women (rather than men and women) as the cause of fertility decline. They further felt that the focus on women with secondary or tertiary education devalued the important contributions of women with less education as wives, mothers and workers. They were concerned that these class divisions disadvantaged women from the Malay and Indian minorities, who tended to have larger families and lower education levels.

Other issues raised at the forum were the problem of working mothers, shared parenting and home management, birth control and health, sex education, the Social Development Unit, compulsory domestic science for girls, and sexism in advertising. Many of these issues continue to be important today.

At the end of the forum an audience member, Evelyn Wong, provocatively reminded the assembled group that talk was well and good but “what are we going to do now?” The speakers and several members of the audience took up the gauntlet. They met frequently over the next few months and, taking their challenges seriously, these women studied all the women’s organizations in Singapore to determine whether or not a women’s association was needed. Their survey showed that although there were many women’s organizations in Singapore, none focused specifically on trying to improve women’s social and legal status. So they decided to start their own organisation.

[Ed: And the rest, as they say, is history. Happy 25th Birthday AWARE!]

Reproduced from Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore edited by Mandakini Arora, Chapter VI by Lenore Lyons. Published in Singapore 2007. Copies of the book will be on sale for $15 at Celebrate! AWARE’s 25th Birthday Party

One Comment ...

  1. Daphne Ong

    Happy birthday, AWARE! And kudos to our forerunners of women’s welfare and rights in Singapore!