Transcribed and compiled by Teng Siao See
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) was established in 1985 as a non-profit organization that campaigns for gender equality through research and advocacy as well as through provision of social services for women. In March 2009, AWARE was briefly taken over by an evangelical conservative Christian group of women. The saga ended two months later with the return of the “old guard” (longtime AWARE activists) in an Extraordinary General Meeting.
Since then, AWARE has been organizing feminism workshops for its members. In her personal capacity, the then newly appointed Executive Director, AWARE, Corinna Lim, talked to Kwee Hui Kian and Teng Siao See from s/pores about what feminism means to her and AWARE. A member of 18 years, Corinna had then left the law profession to work full-time at the organization.
This dialogue took place in August 2010 at a food centre outside the AWARE premises.
(C: Corinna Lim, H: Kwee Hui Kian, S: Teng Siao See)
H: How long have you been with AWARE?
C: Eighteen years.
H: How did you come to join AWARE?
C: I was working as a lawyer in a large law firm. It was a prestigious job but not fulfilling. I started doing legal counseling with the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL) and that kind of opened my eyes to problems that people, especially women, had with the law. That was before joining AWARE. AWARE also had legal counseling for the community, and they needed more lawyers, so I joined them. I liked what AWARE did as they not only provided advice on individual cases, but also advocated for change on a policy level. I started to go for their meetings and found the people to be very nice, warm, and socially minded. .
H: Was there any experience in your life that makes you feel like you want to “fight” for feminism?
C: I am actually from a family where during my whole upbringing I was more than equal to the boys. I came from a family of three girls. My dad was thus in the minority. My mum is super strong. I loved the whole missionary school background – girls can be anything that they want and all the role models you see are women. The Convent also imbued in me a strong sense of justice. Then I went to CJC where girls and boys were treated equally. I did not have any issues with my rights and opportunities as a woman at that stage of my life.
It was only when I became a lawyer and started to do legal counseling that I realized how disadvantaged women were in Singapore, in particular, those going through a bad marriage. They seemed to get the short end of the stick most of the time. Women were almost always the ones who left work to take care of their children. When they became housewives, their husbands found them uninteresting and neglected them or wanted to leave them. These women were thus faced with very limited and difficult options. If they became single mums, most of them would have a hard time maintaining themselves and the kids as many husbands stopped paying maintenance and maintenance enforcement procedures were extremely weak. If they stayed in the marriage for the kids’ sake, they would be subject to continuous disrespectful and sometimes abusive treatment by their husbands. My heart really went out to these mothers who really lived and endured great hardship to ensure a good education and stable home life for their children. Seeing these cases, one after another, for many years, made me see how unjust the system was. I saw first-hand how far we were from achieving gender equality. Although women now have made much progress in terms of education and at work, I feel that there is still a long way to go, especially in relation to familial roles.
Single women’s choices and rights were also restricted by the State, and were also constantly harangued by their families to get married. Because of HDB polices, many could not afford to get their own flats except by getting married or waiting till they reached the age of 35.
And I felt sad for the men too – they are straitjacketed into the provider role and not given an equal opportunity to be involved in their children’s lives. This is changing with the new generation but I have seen how distant many older fathers were from their young children because they felt that it was not their place to be too involved in child rearing.
I was particularly indignant about Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s statement in 1994 that “the government was “young, ignorant and idealistic” when it gave men and women equal employment and education opportunities after it first took office. “Attractive and intelligent young ladies” should go to finishing colleges so that they will be “marvellous helpers of their husband’s career.” Statements like this really fire up the feminist in me.
I also received some informal feminism education as a member of AWARE. AWARE held various discussions and forums on gender issues and many of these were quite thought provoking. There were also a few AWARE members like Constance Singam and Nirmala Purushotam who were more steeped in feminist theories and who influenced my thinking. When I looked at certain issues, I would look at it from a “rights” kind of view because I am a lawyer. They would look at it more from a sociological point of view, a feminist point of view. And they gave me perspectives I never thought about, like why women were the way they were, the part that society had played to define women, the concept of social constructs.
For example, the issue of why there are so few women in top management positions. Many people, including the most successful headhunters, say that women simply don’t want to step up to achieve those positions. They are supposed to be less ambitious or prefer to spend more time with the family, as if the reason is due to the genetic coding of women. But, if we look at it from a sociological perspective, we will see that there are many societal norms and expectations at play:
First, the expectation and the perception that women are still the primary caregivers at home. Thus, the married male employee is highly valued (if he is seen as the provider, then he has every reason to do his best at work). The married female employee is less valued as her family may be her priority over work.
Second, girls are brought up to be “sugar and spice and all things nice”. So, for women, being assertive is seen as “bitchy” and “difficult to work with”. Society has different standards for men and women. For men, being assertive is seen as being a good leader. But if a woman becomes tough like a man, she is not appreciated. Yet, if she is not tough like a man, she may not be seen as leadership material. So, for a woman to succeed in a corporation, she must generally be very good at what she does to overcome all the prejudices and biases that people have.
S: Does AWARE regard itself as a feminist organisation?
C: That’s a good question and the answer is Yes. But we also have to define this properly.
We are feminists in that we seek to end discrimination against women and girls. So, implied in this definition is that we still see that “the fight is not over” i.e. that we have not reached a stage where there is no gender discrimination. This is a critical point. I think that many people actually believe in gender equality but they think that women in Singapore have it already and thus they do not appreciate our advocacy for more rights for women. In fact, some men actually think that women’s rights have become so strong that men are now the victims of gender discrimination.
Feminism is a loaded word and actually, we don’t officially describe ourselves as a feminist group as the term carries with it a lot of baggage and misunderstanding. Many will just think “bra-burning”, unshaven lesbians, men-haters, unfeminine and ugly. They usually have little experience with feminism and have not thought about it, but these images of feminists have become part of conventional thought.
So, on our website and in our official mission statement, we don’t use the word, ‘feminists’. We use the phrase ‘gender equality’ and we talk about ending gender discrimination. This helps us to convey to the public at large what our goal is, without having to deal with the negative connotations that people may be thinking in their heads if we had used the word “feminism” instead. This does not mean that we do not use the word ‘feminists’ or talk about it.
We are proud to be feminists but why use this term to the general public if it is something that is going to be immediately misunderstood.
On the website, we have a nice piece on the “11 Myths and Facts about Feminism”.
However, in a setting where we are able to have a conversation with someone to whom we can explain what we mean by ‘feminists’, we would use this term as a descriptor.
H: Under what circumstances would you choose to call yourself a feminist and what do you mean by that? And also, do you think it is really necessary to use the word?
C: In smaller groups where it is relevant and where there is a chance to clarify if people have questions, I would use it. For example in a meeting with other women’s groups, I think it is useful to say the word ’feminist’ because then it sort of says where you are coming from and makes it very clear that we are an advocacy group, not just providing social welfare services.
In our own internal meetings with members and volunteers, we would definitely use it. But we also make it clear that members do not have to identify themselves as feminists in order to be members.
What is more important to us is that members identify with the values of feminism. It does not matter that they do not think of themselves as feminists.
We know that people feel discomfort with it, that’s why we want to explore it further. Instead of asking whether someone is a feminist, we ask them three questions when they apply for or renew their membership. We ask, “Do you believe in gender equality?” “Yes? Ok, that’s very good” That’s the first one. Do you believe that a woman should have sexual autonomy –the right to control her own reproduction?”. “Yes? Ok, good.” “Do you believe that AWARE should support a woman regardless of her race, religion, sex and sexuality?” That is the third value. These are the three values that you need to subscribe to in order to join AWARE. We don’t use the word “feminist” in qualifying people for membership in AWARE. It is more useful and precise to ask them these three questions to ascertain if they have the right values.
H: But do you yourself see that as your sense of what being a “feminist” is?
C: It comes pretty close, it has these values of gender equality, fairness, no discrimination on the basis of sex. It also touches on the sensitive issues of reproductive rights and non-discrimination on the basis of sexuality.
S: Why did you start doing feminism classes in AWARE?
C: We are a feminist organization. We are not just a group that wants to help women. We are guided by feminist ideals, principles, ethics and norms. Choice, mutual respect, equal rights, the right to realize one’s full potential – these are all ideals that bind and animate the organization.
It is important to give our members and volunteers as many opportunities as possible to really dig into and explore these ideals and its relevance to today’s world and to their lives.
We are part of a movement that started a long time ago where women had to fight for basic rights to vote, to be educated, to work, to have their own surnames and to own property. When members can feel that they are a part of this movement and are doing their little bit to make the world better for their daughters and sons, they find what they do as volunteers all the more meaningful.
H: So, a total of how many members have gone through this course?
C: Not that many as it was only just introduced. It is not compulsory, but we encourage our members to go through this. We also include an introduction to feminism in our Helpliners training course. This is important. The approach a helpliner takes when she believes that every woman is equally worthy irrespective of whether she is single, married, divorced, straight or gay, is very different from someone who starts from the perspective that a woman’s worth depends on her marital status or her sexuality.
S: From what you know about other countries, and even from the overseas experience you had, why do you think there is less public interest here in feminism?
C: We are really a bread and butter society. This is not about economics, money or… these are intellectual discussions that maybe only take place in university. The younger ones, if they come, will really enjoy the discussions. Yah, I find that the general public, the women just accept that they have double roles, double burden. They become the super woman, that’s it – they don’t question it.
H: What brand of feminism does AWARE represent?
C: AWARE started with second wave feminism. Second wave is really about rights. everything AWARE has done: removing quotas for medical schools, female civil servants to have the same rights as male civil servants in terms of medical benefits. We look at what policy is unfair, males get more than females and we say that is wrong. We are very much about equality, family violence protection … Basically AWARE started with second wave. Now it is second wave moving slightly to third wave.
S: So what are the concerns of the third wave that is different?
C: I would say that the third wave is more into self-expression and sex positivity i.e a celebration of sexuality as a positive aspect of life. For example, they might use sexuality more, to assert themselves and to get power. If you remember this pub that gave out free drinks according to the size of your boobs. When AWARE wrote to the press saying that this was objectionable as it objectified women, there were young women who found our stand “prudish”. We said it is objectification of women, they said it’s empowerment. Where do we draw the line? Which one is it exactly? And how do you decide? There definitely are some grey areas and I expect that in future, there will be many interesting discussions about issues relating to sex and sexuality, such as empowerment vs objectification, porn and sex work. We thought the pub case provided a very good case study to be included in our feminist workshops to show the distinction between second and third wave feminism. Feminism is evolving and AWARE will continue to evolve as well to continue to be relevant.
H: What members of staff do you have?
C: I have a lean team right now. I have about 9 paid staff, including myself. About half of these are part time staff. I am full time. More than full time actually, as this job is extremely consuming.
I also have many good volunteers, a few of whom come to work at AWARE a few times a week. They are either in between jobs or on sabbatical or retired. We also have 25 helpline volunteers at any one time coming in once or twice a month for their shifts and many volunteers who work on projects, usually on their own time, outside the office. Volunteers are extremely crucial to us and increase our capacity greatly.
H: How does AWARE get its funding?
C: Donations and fund-raising. Membership – 40 dollars per year, it mainly comes up to about 3% of our funding needs, but we have supportive members who will generously support our annual fundraisers. The government covers about a quarter of our social services expenses, which is about one-tenth of our total expenditure. But we have IPC status, which is extremely important for fund raising purposes.
S: Who is your biggest donor?
C: The foundations. But compared to other organizations, we are also heavily dependent on donations from individuals, who believe strongly in what we do.
H: Are you ever short of funds?
C: It’s a constant effort to raise funds but so far, so good.
H, S: Thank you very much for your time, Corinna, and we’re sure that your change of career track is a huge boost to AWARE.
 For more details and analysis on the AWARE saga, please refer to The AWARE Saga: Civil Society and Public Morality in Singapore (2011) edited by Terence Chong.
AWARE currently operates with 6 full-time and 3 part-time staff. The organisation relies heavily on volunteers and is continually looking to maximize its outreach. It receives its funding primarily from institutional grants and various individual sponsors. Those eager to participate in AWARE activities and/or to assist the organization can refer to the AWARE website for further information.