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 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 audience members 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 the AWARE’s website, the organisation’s mission is to remove all gender-based barriers to allow individuals in Singapore to develop to their fullest potential. This is done through research, advocacy, education, training and support services. AWARE also seeks to uphold the following values:

1) Embrace diversity, and promote understanding and acceptance of diversity.

2) Respect the individual and the choices she makes in life, and support her when needed.

3) Recognise the human rights of all, regardless of gender, so that everyone can realise their aspirations.10


AWARE seeks to achieve its aims through research and public education, direct community services, fundraising, working with other organisations, and regional networking. The organisation regularly organises forums, seminars and workshops to educate the public on women’s issues. Its position papers and policy submissions have influenced government policies and procedures. AWARE reaches out to women through community services such as a helpline and face-to-face counselling.11 Most of this work is done by members organised into various sub-committees, which are supported by a small team of paid staff.12

Since 2010, AWARE has also appointed a full-time executive director to help professionalise its operations. Corinna Lim, a corporate lawyer and long-term AWARE member, was appointed the first executive director.13 This appointment followed a change in AWARE’s constitution that year, which replaced the previous 12-member executive committee with a seven-member board comprising a president, a vice president, a secretary, a treasurer, and three ordinary board members. Thereafter, the board focused on broad policymaking and governance, while the executive director handled the day-to-day management of AWARE.14

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. In 1995, the women’s centre moved to larger premises at Dover Crescent to better accommodate the organisation’s expanding functions and membership.15

Supporting women in need
In 1991, AWARE launched a helpline service for women in need.16 The helpline was AWARE’s first attempt at providing community services, and the service gave the group greater legitimacy among the general public.17 Manned by trained volunteers, the helpline operates on weekdays. Its original operating hours were extended by five hours in 2019, following a 32 percent increase in calls the previous year.18 In 2018, the helpline was extended to three more languages besides English and Mandarin: Malay, Tamil and Hindi.19

Over time, AWARE expanded its community services to include face-to-face counselling.20 In 2011, AWARE opened the Sexual Assault Befrienders Service, the first support service for survivors of sexual assault in Singapore.21 It was replaced by the Sexual Assault Care Centre in 2014, a care centre that provides immediate and free or low-cost support services to those who have experienced sexual assault.22

Beginning in 1993, AWARE has been offering free legal clinics for women in need of legal advice.23 Since 2018, AWARE has expanded their legal clinic services to also support women on issues regarding Sharia Law.24

Against sexual harassment and violence
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 Nominated Member of Parliament (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 1996.25

In 2011, AWARE also made a submission to repeal Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act, which permitted the sexual history of sexual assault victims to be used against them in court. The act was later repealed by the Ministry of Law.26

Inspired by the global #MeToo movement in 2018, AWARE launched Aim for Zero, a two-year campaign aimed at helping more sexual assault survivors and pushing for a culture of zero tolerance against sexual harassment and violence.27

Fighting for gender equality
AWARE has also 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.28

In their fight against gender-based barriers, AWARE has also successfully advocated for the improvement of single parents’ access to housing through research, campaigns and petitions.29 In March 2018, the Ministry of National Development announced that divorcees could now buy subsidised flats without a three-year restriction.30 Additionally, AWARE launched the Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory in 2019, a free service offering advice and support to individuals facing harassment and discrimination at work.31


AWARE has also been a leading figure in research on caregiving responsibilities in Singapore, which often falls on women. The organisation published an extensive report on the issue in 2019, which found that primary caregivers often experience a loss in income due to a reduction of working hours or withdrawal from the workforce.32 AWARE also pushed for the inclusion of income support for caregivers and mandatory paid eldercare leave in Budget 2020.33


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 these AWARE members had been arrested for their work at AWARE, the executive committee scaled down activities and adopted a low profile. Subsequently, it was found that AWARE was not related to the conspiracy.34


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) 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.35


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. They won 9 out of 12 spots in the executive council (exco).36


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, the mobilisation of citizens, the role of the media, and the liberal voice in Singapore society.37

Matters escalated with the resignation of AWARE veteran Claire Nazar as president days after her election.38 Her predecessor, Constance Singam, later resigned as adviser to the organisation, because of unhappiness over the new exco’s seeming lack of respect and the changes it intended to make.39 AWARE members were also concerned that they still had no idea about who these women were, how they were connected, and what their plans for the organisation are. A group of 160 long-term AWARE members, the “old guard”, called for an EGM in which they intended to table a vote of no confidence in the new exco.40

It was later revealed that the “new guard”, led by President Josie Lau, was 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 programme as an example to support her claim, as the programme treated homosexuality in a neutral rather than negative way.41 It was also revealed that six members of the new exco attended the same church as Thio, the Church of our Saviour at Margaret Drive.42

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.43 The pastor issued an apology after the National Council of Churches released a statement that religion should not be dragged into the AWARE dispute.44

Nearly 3,000 people attended the EGM on 2 May 2009, with many women joining the organisation 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.45

The new exco subsequently announced in July 2009 that changes would be made to the organisation’s constitution to prevent a repeat of the apparent leadership grab in May that year. The main constitutional changes would include only allowing those who had been members for at least two years to stand for election to the executive committee, and granting executive committee members the right to expel any member who does not support the objectives of AWARE.46

In 2016, male and non-binary members of AWARE were given the right to vote at the association’s general meetings following changes to the group’s constitution. However, male votes could not amount to more than 25 per cent of the total votes on a resolution.47

AWARE launched a 12-part podcast series chronicling the events of the Saga in 2020 as part of AWARE’s 35th anniversary.48

Presidents49
1985–87:
 Lena Lim

1987–89: Constance Singam
1989–91: Hedwig Anuar
1991–93: Kanwaljit Soin
1993–94: Claire Chiang
1994–96: Constance Singam
1996–98: Zaibun Siraj
1998–99: Phyllis Chew
1999–2000: Khoo Heng Keow
2000–02: Dana Lam
2002–04: Tisa Ng
2004–06: Braema Mathiaparanam
2006: Tan Joo Hymn
2007–09: Constance Singam50
2009: Claire Nazar / Josie Lau
2009–10: Dana Lam51
2010–12: Nicole Tan
2012–16: Winifred Loh52
2016–18: Teh Hooi Ling53
2018–: Margaret Thomas54

Executive director
2010–: Corinna Lim55

Timeline
1985: 
AWARE’s inaugural meeting is held.
1986: AWARE is formally launched by MP Aline Wong at Cairnhill Community Centre.

1987: Several AWARE members are arrested for alleged involvement in the Marxist conspiracy.
1990: AWARE’s first women’s centre is established in an old shophouse on Race Course Road.
1991: AWARE’s helpline is launched for women in need.
1995: AWARE’s women’s centre relocates to Dover Crescent.
1995: Blueprinter controversy.
2009: The AWARE saga.
2010: Corinna Lim becomes AWARE’s first executive director
2011: AWARE launches Sexual Assault Befrienders Service.
2014: AWARE’s befrienders service is replaced with the Sexual Assault Care Centre.
2018: AWARE’s helpline is extended to five languages.
2019: AWARE’s helpline extends operating hours.
2019: AWARE launches the Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory (WHDA).
2019: AWARE publishes an extensive report on caregiving responsibilities in Singapore.
2020: AWARE Saga podcast is launched.


Author
Stephanie Ho and Andrea Kee



References
1. “About,” AWARE, last accessed 9 July 2021. (From NLB’s Web Archive Singapore)
2. Lenore Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” in Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore, ed. Mandakini Arora (Singapore: AWARE, 2007), 85. (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
3.  Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 85–87.
4. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 87–89.
5. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 90–91.
6. Hedwig Anuar, How I Became Aware (Singapore: AWARE, 1998), 26. (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 ANU)
7. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 93.
8. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 99.
9. “Group Speaks Out against Sexist Ads,” Straits Times, 11 November 1986, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
10. AWARE, “About.”
11. Lenore Lyons, A State of Ambivalence: The Feminist Movement in Singapore (Boston: Brill, 2004), 54–58. (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 LYO)
12. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 100.
13. Cassandra Chew, “Aware Hires Full-Time Exec Director,” Straits Times, 2 March 2010, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Cassandra Chew, “Aware AGM Today Looks Set to Be a Quiet Affair,” Straits Times, 28 August 2010, 18; “Corinna Lim to Run Aware as Executive Director,” New Paper, 2 March 2010, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 103.
16. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 107.
17. Lenore Lyons, “The Limits of Feminist Political Intervention in Singapore,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 30, no. 1 (2007): 70–71. (Call no. RSEA 950.05 JCA)
18. Cara Wong, “Aware Extends Operating Hours after Spike in Helpline Calls,” Straits Times, 21 March 2019, 2. (Microfilm NL34700)
19. Toh Wen Li, “Aware Wants to Extend Its Social Support,” Straits Times, 9 September 2017, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 108.
20. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 111.
21. Jennani Durai, “Helpline for Sex Assault Victims Launched,” Straits Times, 26 November 2011, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “New Sexual Assault Care Centre, No Appointment Needed,” New Paper, 23 May 2014, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Magdalene Lum, “More wives Cry for Help,” Straits Times, 5 March 1995, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Free Legal Clinic,” AWARE, last accessed 9 July 2021. (From NLB’s Web Archive Singapore)
25. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 129.
26. “Section of Act to Be Repealed,” New Paper, 26 November 2011, 16–17. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Cara Wong, “Speaking Up on Sexual Abuse,” Straits Times, 30 November 2018, 4. (Microfilm NL34627)
28. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 132–35.
29. Toh Yong Chuan, “Petition to Ease Single Parents’ Housing Woes,” Straits Times, 14 May 2017, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Angela Teng, “Good Day for Activism in S’pore’, Says MP Louis Ng on Rule Changes for Divorcees to Buy Subsidised Flats,” Today, 7 March 2018. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
31. “Aware Launches Free Advisory Service for Those Facing Workplace Harassment, Discrimination,” Straits Times, 25 September 2019. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
32. Rei Kurohi, “More Support Needed for Caregivers of Elderly Family Members: Aware,” Straits Times, 18 September 2018. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
33. Aware Wants Budget 2020 to Give Caregivers of Elderly Family Members a Monthly Income,” Straits Times, 13 January 2020. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
34. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 111–12.
35. Lyons, “The Birth of AWARE,” 114; Constance Singam, Where I Was: A Memoir from the Margins (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2013), 225–27. (Call no. RSING 306.095957 SIN)
36. Wong Kim Hoh, “Unknowns Knock Out Veterans at Aware Polls,” Straits Times, 10 April 2009, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Terence Chong, ed., “Introduction,” in The AWARE Saga: Civil Society and Public Morality in Singapore, ed. Terence Chong (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), 6. (Call no. RSING 300.95957 AWA)
38. Wong, “Unknowns Knock Out Veterans at Aware Polls.”
39. Wong Kim Hoh, “Constance Singam Quits as Aware Adviser,” Straits Times, 19 April 2009, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
40. Wong Kim Hoh, “Ousted Aware Leaders Launch Counter-Attack,” Straits Times, 15 April 2009, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Zakir Hussain, “Lawyer’s Key Role in Aware Coup,” Straits Times, 24 April 20009, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Wong Kim Hoh, “Three More Exco Members Resign,” Straits Times, 1 May 2009, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Jeremy Au Yong, Zakir Hussain and Aaron Low, “Should Faith-Driven Groups Take Over Secular Organisations?” Straits Times, 2 May 2009, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
44. Eugene K. B. Tan, “Who Dragged Christianity into the Aware Saga?: Observations on the Role of Christians, Value Pluralism and Contestation in Public Discourse,” in The AWARE Saga: Civil Society and Public Morality in Singapore, ed. Terence Chong (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), 54–55. (Call no. RSING 300.95957 AWA)
45. Wong Kim Hoh, (2009, May 3). “New Guard Ousted,” Straits Times, 3 May 2009, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Lai Ah Eng, “Shut Up and Sit Down! Stand Up and Speak Out!: The AWARE EGM as Performance of Civil Society in Singapore,” in The AWARE Saga: Civil Society and Public Morality in Singapore, ed. Terence Chong (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011). (Call no. RSING 300.95957 AWA)
46. Sue-Ann Chia, “Aware to Report on Status of S’pore Women in New Plans,” Straits Times, 7 July 2009, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Seow Bei Yi, “Aware Gives Men Voting Rights,” Straits Times, 29 November 2016, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Gracia Yap, “Events of 2009 Aware Saga Now a 12-Episode Hit Podcast,” New Paper, 18 January 2021, 1. (Microfilm NL35120)
49. Mandakini Arora, ed., Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore (Singapore: AWARE, 2007), 174–75. (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
50. Melissa Sim, “Familiar Face Returns to Head Women’s Group,” Straits Times, 9 April 2009, 23 (From NewspaperSG)
51. Benson Ang, “Josie Might Not Advise New Exco,” New Paper, 5 May 2009, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
52. Jennani Durai, Aware Elects New President and Board,” Straits Times, 29 May 2012, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
53. “Aware Gets New President,” Straits Times, 27 April 2016, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
54. Ervin Tan, “Male Members of Aware Vote for the First Time,” Straits Times, 3 May 2018, 8. (Microfilm NL34492)
55. “Corinna Lim to Run Aware as Executive Director.”



The information in this article is valid as at July 2021 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
Gender equality
Organisations
Community and Social Services
Politics and Government
Nongovernmental organisations