Association of Women for Action and Research



Established in 1985, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) is a Singapore non-governmental organisation (NGO) concerned with issues of women’s rights and gender quality. AWARE seeks to eliminate gender-based barriers through research, advocacy, education, training and support services.1

Formation
The impetus for AWARE stemmed from government policies enacted in the early to mid-1980s aimed at persuading graduate women to marry and have children. These policies resulted in much public discussion that was dubbed “the Great Marriage Debate” by the press.2 In response to the debate, the National University of Singapore Society organised a forum, Women's Choices, Women's Lives, in 1984 to bring women together to discuss the issues that modern Singapore women face.3

Although from different backgrounds, the speakers of at the forum (Zaibun Siraj, Vivienne Wee, Hedwig Anuar, Kanwaljit Soin and Margaret Thomas) all argued for women’s right to choose their own destinies. Towards the end of the forum, a member of the audience, Evelyn Wong, questioned what action would be taken after all the discussion. In response, a group of women comprising the speakers and several members of the audience embarked on a study of the current slate of women’s organisations in Singapore. Finding that none of the existing women’s organisations were specifically focused on improving women's social and legal status, the group decided to start their own organisation.4


The group met regularly in 1985 and a pro-tem committee was formed to work out the aims and objectives of the intended organisation, and later its constitution.5 Hedwig Anuar suggested that the organisation be named as Association of Women for Action and Research, or AWARE in short.6

AWARE was formally launched at the Cairnhill Community Centre on 7 March 1986 by then Member of Parliament Aline Wong.7


Membership to AWARE was then open to all women over the age of 21 who were Singaporeans or Singapore permanent residents. Men, or women who were non-Singaporean, could join as Friends of AWARE.8 By November 1986, AWARE had about 76 members.9

Aims, activities and organisational structure
According to its 2012 constitution, AWARE has four main objectives:
1) to promote the participation of women in all areas, create an awareness of their contributions to society and develop their potential through education, learning and training opportunities;
2) to promote gender equality by educating the public on gender issues, equipping both sexes to deal with gender discrimination and creating awareness of their mutual rights and responsibilities;
3) to promote the well-being of women by providing emotional, psychological or legal support; and
4) to promote values and norms that would improve the quality of life of women and their families and achieve the betterment of Singapore society as a whole.10


AWARE seeks to achieve its aims through research and public education, direct community services, fund-raising, working with other organisations and regional networking. The organisation regularly organises forums, seminars and workshops to educate the public on women’s issues. It has also developed position papers and policy submissions that have influenced government policies and procedures. It reaches out to women through community services such as a helpline and face-to-face counselling.11 Most of this work is done by volunteers organised into various sub-committees.12

A board comprising a president, 1st and 2nd vice-presidents, secretary, treasurer, vice-treasurer and three ordinary board members oversees the work of AWARE. Office holders are elected every two years during the election annual general meetings and positions cannot be held for more than two consecutive terms with the exception of the president, who serves an additional term of one year in an ex-officio capacity as an immediate past president.13

These committees are supported by a small team of paid staff.14 Since 2010, AWARE has also appointed a full-time executive director to help professionalise the organisation’s operations. Corinna Lim, a corporate lawyer and long-term AWARE member, was appointed the first executive director.15

Developments and achievements
In 1990, AWARE established its first women’s centre in an old shophouse unit on Race Course Road. Before the women’s centre was set up, meetings were held in the homes or offices of committee members. By 1992, AWARE’s membership had grown to almost 300.16 Fittingly, the women’s centre moved to larger premises at Dover Crescent in 1995 to better accommodate the organisation’s expanding functions and membership.17

In 1991, AWARE launched a helpline service for women in need.18 Manned by trained volunteers, the helpline operates between 3:00pm–9:30pm on weekdays.19 The helpline was AWARE’s first attempt at providing community services and the service gave the group greater legitimacy among the general public.20 Over time, AWARE expanded its community services to include face-to-face counselling, a befrienders’ programme to support women in violent and abusive relationships, and a legal clinic.21


AWARE has played a major advocacy role for women’s rights and the elimination of gender inequalities in Singapore. It has influenced policy changes through its position and policy papers and its support of Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) who have championed women causes. Three NMPs (Kanwaljit Soin, Claire Chiang and Braema Mathi) were former AWARE presidents and advocates for women during their terms of office.

One of AWARE’s major campaigns sought to eliminate violence against women and girls. Besides public education activities, AWARE worked with the Singapore Police Force in developing standard police procedures on rape management in 1993 and 1994. In addition, AWARE also supported NMP and former AWARE President Kanwaljit Soin’s legislative bill on domestic violence. They assisted Soin with research, legal and administrative support, and ran a public awareness campaign to support the bill. Although the bill was not passed, elements of it were incorporated into the revised Women’s Charter of 1996.22

Besides their campaign against domestic violence, AWARE campaigned hard and helped bring about changes to policies that discriminated against women. These included citizenship laws that discriminated against Singapore women who married foreigners, lack of medical benefits for dependents of female civil servants, and quotas for females entering the medical faculty at the National University of Singapore.23

Controversies
Since its formation, AWARE and its members have faced various challenges and been embroiled in various controversies.

The Marxist conspiracy
In the first decade of its existence, AWARE members often feared being de-registered because of their criticisms of government policy. This was especially so in May 1987 when several members were arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act for involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy”. Fearing that AWARE was being targeted, the executive committee scaled down activities and adopted a low profile. Subsequently, it was found that AWARE was not related to the conspiracy.24


The Blueprinter controversy
There have also been internal disagreements between factions within the organisation. In 1995, a group of AWARE members (later known as the Blueprinters) who were committed feminists developed a discussion paper, The Blueprint, which aimed to set out the future directions and strategies of AWARE. One of the recommendations in the paper was for AWARE to declare itself a feminist organisation and that all members undergo training in feminism in a process referred to as “conscientisation”. The Blueprint was highly contentious as members had different ideas of feminism or did not see themselves as feminists. Few were keen on the idea of “conscientisation”. The report was eventually rejected in an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM), but as a result AWARE lost members who disagreed with the decision.25


The AWARE saga
On 28 March 2009, a group of new members defeated long-time AWARE members in the elections during the organisation’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). They won nine out of 12 spots in the executive council (exco).26

The election of these women in an apparent leadership grab set in motion a series of events that would generate much debate over AWARE’s organisational structure, activities and philosophies. In addition, it sparked discussions about larger issues of the role of religion in civil society, gay rights, how citizens are mobilised, the role of the media, and the liberal voice in Singapore society.27


Matters escalated with the resignation of AWARE veteran Claire Nazar as president days after her election.28 Her predecessor, Constance Singam, later resigned as adviser to the organisation due to unhappiness over the new exco’s seeming lack of respect and the changes it intended to make.29 AWARE members were also concerned that they still had no idea about who these women were, how they were connected, and their plans for the organisation. A group of 160 long-term AWARE members, the “old guard”, called for an EGM where they intended to table a vote of no confidence in the new exco.30

It was later revealed that the “new guard”, now led by President Josie Lau, were called to action by senior lawyer and self-proclaimed “feminist mentor” Thio Su Mien. In a press conference, Thio said she felt AWARE had lost its original purpose and had become pro-lesbian and pro-homosexual. She highlighted AWARE’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme as an example to support her claim as the programme treated homosexuality in a neutral rather than negative way.31 It was also revealed that six members of the new exco attended the same church as Thio, the Church of our Saviour in Margaret Drive.32

AWARE’s internal leadership dispute threatened to cross into religious territory when Pastor Derek Hong of the Church of Our Saviour urged its members to sign up for AWARE membership to support the new exco.33 The pastor later issued an apology after the National Council of Churches issued a statement that religion should not be dragged into the AWARE dispute.34

Nearly 3,000 people attended the EGM on 2 May 2009, with many women joining the organisation in order to support and vote for the old guard. After a long and dramatic meeting lasting over seven hours, the new guard was ousted by a vote of 1,414 to 761. After the resignation of the exco, a new committee was elected with Dana Lam as president.35

Presidents
36
1985–1987:
Lena Lim
1987–1989: Constance Singam
1989–1991: Hedwig Anuar
1991–1993: Kanwaljit Soin
1993–1994: Claire Chiang
1994–1996: Constance Singam
1996–1998: Zaibun Siraj
1998–1999: Phyllis Chew
1999–2000: Khoo Heng Keow
2000–2002: Dana Lam
2002–2004: Tisa Ng
2004–06: Braema Mathiaparanam
2006: Tan Joo Hymn
2007–2009: Constance Singam37
2009: Claire Nazar / Josie Lau
2009–10: Dana Lam38
2010–12: Nicole Tan
2012–: Winifred Loh39

Timeline
1985:
AWARE’s inaugural meeting held.
1986: Formal launch of AWARE by MP Aline Wong at Cairnhill Community Centre.
1987: Several AWARE members arrested for alleged involvement in the Marxist conspiracy.
1990: AWARE’s first women’s centre established in an old shophouse on Race Course Road.
1991: AWARE’s helpline launched for women in need.
1995: AWARE’s women’s centre relocated to Dover Crescent.
1995: Blueprinter controversy.
2009: The AWARE saga.



Author
Stephanie Ho



References
1. AWARE. (2013). Overview. Retrieved from http://www.aware.org.sg/about/overview/
2. Lyons, L. (2008). Internalized boundaries: Aware’s place in Singapore emerging civil society. University of Wollongong Research online, p. 5. Retrieved from ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1188&context=artspapers
3. Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, pp. 85–87. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
4. Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 87–89. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
5.
Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, pp. 90–91. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
6.
Anuar, H. (1998). How I became Aware. Singapore: AWARE, p. 26. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 ANU)
7.
Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 93. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
8. Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 99. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
9.
Group speaks out against sexist ads. (1986, November 11). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. AWARE. (2012, May 26). Constitution, p. 2. Retrieved from http://www.aware.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/AWARE-Constitution-approved-at-27th-AGM-on-26-May-2012.pdf
11. Lyons, L. (2004). A state of ambivalence: The feminist movement in Singapore. Boston: Brill, pp. 54–58. (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 LYO)
12.
Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 100. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
13. AWARE. (2012, May 26). Constitution, pp.6–8. Retrieved from http://www.aware.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/AWARE-Constitution-approved-at-27th-AGM-on-26-May-2012.pdf
14. Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 100. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
15.
Chew, C. (2010, March 2). Aware hires full-time exec director. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16.
Lyons, L. (2008). Internalized boundaries: Aware’s place in Singapore emerging civil society. University of Wollongong Research online, p. 13. Retrieved from ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1188&context=artspapers
17. Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 103. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
18.
Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 107. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
19.
AWARE. Helpline. Retrieved from http://www.aware.org.sg/support-services/helpline/
20. Lyons, L. (2007). The limits of feminist political intervention in Singapore. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 30(1), pp. 70–71. (Call no.: RSEA 950.05 JCA)
21.
Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 111. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
22.
Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 129. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
23.
Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, p. 132–135. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
24. L
yons, L. (2008). Internalized boundaries: Aware’s place in Singapore emerging civil society. University of Wollongong Research online, p. 11–12. Retrieved from ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1188&context=artspapers; Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, pp. 111–112. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
25.
Lyons, L. (2007). The birth of AWARE. In M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, pp. 114. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA); Singam, C. ( 2013). Where I was: A memoir from the margins. Singapore: Select Publishing, pp. 225–227. (Call no.: RSING 306.095957 SIN)
26.
Wong, K. H. (2009, April 10). Unknowns knock out veterans at Aware polis. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27.
Chong, T. (2011). Introduction. In T. Chong (Ed.), The AWARE saga: Civil society and public morality in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 300.95957 AWA)
28.
Wong, K. H. (2009, April 10). Unknowns knock out veterans at Aware polis. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Wong, K. H. (2009, April 19). 
Constance Singam quits as Aware adviser. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30.
Wong, K. H. (2009, April 15). Ousted Aware leaders launch counter-attack. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31.
Zakir Hussain. (2009, April 24). Lawyer’s key role in Aware coup. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32.
Wong K. H. (2009, May 1). Three more exco members resign. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Au Yong, J., Zakir Hussain & Low, A. (2009, May 2).  
Should faith-driven groups take over secular organisations? The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34.
Tan, E. K. B. (2011). Who dragged Christianity into the Aware saga?: Observations on the role of Christians, Value Pluralism and contestation in public discourse. In T. Chong (Ed.), The AWARE saga: Civil society and public morality in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 54–55. (Call no.: RSING 300.95957 AWA)
35.
Wong K. H. (2009, May 3). New guard ousted. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lai, A. E. Shut up and sit down! Stand up and speak out!: The AWARE EGM as performance of civil society in Singapore. In T. Chong (Ed.), The AWARE saga: Civil society and public morality in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press. (Call no.: RSING 300.95957 AWA)
36.
M. Arora (Ed.), Small steps, giant leaps: A history of AWARE and the women’s movement in Singapore. Singapore: AWARE, pp. 174–175. (Call no.: RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
37.
AWARE. 2010: A special commendation for Constance Singham. Retrieved from http://www.aware.org.sg/2010-a-special-commendation-for-constance-singam
38. Ang, B. (2009, May 5). Josie might not advise new exco. The New Paper, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39.
Durai, J. (2012, May 29). Aware elects new president and board. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 22 October 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Women's rights
Community and Social Services
Nongovernmental organisations
Gender equality
Politics and Government
Organisations