Women's group coup awakens Singapore civil society

Thu May 7, 2009 5:02am EDT
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By Nopporn Wong-Anan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A power struggle in Singapore's top women's advocacy group has awakened the conservative city-state's civil society and created rare public debate about the taboo issues of sex and religion.

As two groups of women were tussling to control Singapore's Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the pro-government media became a battleground where supporters and opponents of the two sides exchanged brickbats about homosexuality, Christianity and free speech.

A group of Chinese Singaporean women from a local church launched a surprise takeover in March of AWARE, which had been run by the same group of women, although more diverse on ethnicity and religion, for more than 20 years.

Skepticism over the motives of the Christian insurgents led hundreds of women signing up as new members. The previous leadership then launched a no-confidence vote against the new board this month and in a chaotic meeting won a landslide victory.

The AWARE saga had all the political ingredients seen in many other Asian countries, but hardly ever witnessed in Singapore. The People's Action Party has ruled since independence in 1965 and has never lost more than four seats in any election.

"This is an instance for civil society in Singapore that went through its decision-making process -- politics without the intervention of the state," said Terence Chong of the state-backed Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

"This is very important in Singapore because the state intervenes rather regularly."

The now ousted board had said after taking power they felt AWARE was promoting homosexuality through sex education classes in a country where gay sex is banned.   Continued...