Film event explored women’s key roles in 70s and 80s Singapore activism
On 4 August, AWARE held a screening of the film ‘1987: Untracing the Conspiracy’, followed by a discussion on the role of women in civil society in the 70s and 80s, as well as the impact that Operation Spectrum has on the women’s movement in Singapore.
Around 35 people attended the event, and the panelists – Teo Soh Lung, Margaret Thomas and Vivienne Wee – shared their memories of that period and how it continues to influence civil society and feminist activism.
The panelists pointed out that 12 out of the 22 detainees (more than half!) were women, and paid tribute to the women ex-detainees – Tang Fong Har, Lim Li Kok and Chng Suan Tze – who had been founding members of AWARE or who had played key roles in the early days of the organisation’s activities. They reflected on how AWARE, set up in 1985, was affected by Operation Spectrum, which took place so soon after. The detentions had a significant impact on the organisation’s leadership and its strategies in pushing for greater gender equity and justice over the years.
Margaret read out a note from Constance Singam, AWARE’s President soon after Operation Spectrum, about the fear and uncertainty that settled over activists at the time as a result of the arrests. She had been with Suan Tze at the time of her arrest, and was rattled by what she saw. “The fear never really left us for a long time. No-one wanted to become AWARE president, and I think it was largely because of this fear… for a long time we didn’t know why they had been detained, and we didn’t know who might be next,” she said.
The discussion also covered women’s roles in civil society in the 70s and 80s. Teo Soh Lung, a lawyer and ex-detainee, shared her experience of volunteering with the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL), founded in 1974 by 16 women lawyers with a cause to serve the community through legal advice clinics.
In 1981, Soh Lung set up her own law firm, with the support of two other women lawyers. Soon, their activities became more challenging: they found themselves assisting foreign workers and ex-offenders pro bono, attending to clients of an SOS clinic, and occasionally housing women and children facing abuse.
Soh Lung’s sharing revealed how progressive women lawyers at the time were, and the large role they played in serving disenfranchised groups and pushing for greater access to justice.
The Q&A from the audience focused on student activism and Catholic church workers’ involvement in civil society in the 70s and 80s, the experience of detention and its effect on detainees’ lives, their relationships with one another post-release, and how they continue to contribute to civil society in Singapore today.