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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinky

One of the most chilling scenes I've ever seen in a movie is this part when the Titanic hits the iceberg:

It's not the frantic action and the utter devastation below decks that gets me, but what happens up at the passenger levels.

Where... nothing much happens really.

Rose and Jack just see some chunks of ice drop onto the deck, while other passengers look on sheepishly at what they thought was a near collision.

It all seems very boring.

But yet, at that exact moment, the Titanic was already doomed to sink "with mathematical certainty".

In hindsight, these boring scenes at the passenger levels give an eerie sense of forboding.

Today, I got a similar feeling when I read this news (pipette tip to Lucky Tan):

Unknowns knock out veterans at Aware polls

Caught off-guard by big turnout, longtime members lose to fresh faces

By Wong Kim Hoh

SINGAPORE'S best-known women's group, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), has seen a dramatic changing of the guard - which some members are describing as nothing short of a leadership grab.

When Aware held its annual general meeting on March 28, everyone expected the usual: No more than 30 or 40 members would turn up at its Dover Crescent centre, and a prepared slate of candidates would be voted into office easily.

Instead, more than 100 people came, the majority of whom had joined Aware only in recent months.

And when the election of office bearers began, almost every position was challenged by new faces, who won by wide majorities.

In the end, nine out of 12 executive committee spots went to the newcomers.

One older member who won without a contest was Mrs Claire Nazar, a former corporate counsel nominated to be president by outgoing Aware chief Constance Singam.

But barely a week into her new term, and before making her first statement as president, Mrs Nazar quit suddenly this week.

She confirmed that she had resigned, but declined to say any more when reached by The Straits Times.

It is not known who will now become president.

Longtime members took two other positions: Chew I-Jin as assistant honorary treasurer and Caris Lim Chai Leng was elected a committee member.

The election results have left longtime Aware members in shock.

Former president Tan Joo Hymn, 38, told The Straits Times the big turnout at the AGM surprised her.

'I arrived at the meeting late and found out that I was No. 100 on the attendance list. I've been a member for 10 years, and never before has there been such a turnout,' said the former lawyer who is now a full-time mother.

Another former president, writer Dana Lam, 57, said: 'There were many faces I had not seen before, and I found that very strange.

'In previous years, even if there were new members, they would be known to one or more of the older members.'

The first indication that something was afoot came when Ms Chew, an Aware veteran, was challenged and defeated handsomely by new member Charlotte Wong Hock Soon for the post of vice-president.

Ms Chew was later elected unopposed as assistant honorary treasurer.

'It was alarming,' said Ms Lam. 'How could a new member who had just joined for a couple of months, and whom we knew nothing about, be picked over someone who has been with Aware for more than 15 years?'

Some of the older members immediately began checking the attendance list.

Ms Tan said: 'We found that about 80 of the 102 who turned up were new members who joined between January and March this year.'

Aware, a feminist group that has prided itself on being 'all inclusive', has never vetted the people who apply to be members.

Men can join too, as associate members.

As it dawned on them that a leadership grab was imminent, some older members at the AGM tried asking the newcomers who they were, what they stood for, and why they wanted to be in charge.

They got only the briefest answers, they said.

Ms Lam said she tried suggesting that new members serve a stint on Aware's various sub-committees before standing for election to leadership positions.

But such suggestions went unheeded as the election proceeded, with more newcomers winning executive committee positions by landslide margins.

Ironically, the old guard at Aware had been working towards changing their Constitution to make it a rule that only those who have been members for at least a year would be eligible to join the ex-co.

There is currently no rule to bar a brand new member from seeking office, and that was what happened at the AGM.

Ms Tan said: 'We were simply outnumbered. Technically, they got in legitimately.'

She added that the way the election proceeded was so unusual, it was hard to imagine that the takeover was not a planned effort.

'It could not be pure coincidence,' she said.

But little is known of Aware's new leaders, aside from the fact that they include women from the corporate sector, lawyers, company directors and academics.

Older members said the newcomers spoke well but would not elaborate on their plans for Aware.

'When asked if they believed in equality, they kept repeating they were there to support women and to make sure they got ahead and got all the opportunities given to them,' Ms Lam said.

Older members were keen to know if the newcomers shared Aware's vision and values, including equality for all regardless of race, religion or sexuality.

But one outspoken new member from the floor, who identified herself as Angela Thiang, said questions about the new office bearers' religion and their stand on homosexuality were not relevant.

Former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Braema Mathi, a two-term president of Aware, told The Straits Times that she, like many other members, was concerned.

'If you are keen to serve, you don't challenge every position. We do not know who they are,' said the former journalist who is now in Bangkok doing consultancy work for international women's group Unifem.

'It is very troubling, more so because I've heard the new president has resigned.'
Almost a fortnight into their new roles, the new leaders of Aware were not entertaining calls from the media this week.

New honorary secretary Jenica Chua Chor Ping told The Straits Times a press release would be issued 'in a few days' and added that until then, the committee would not answer any questions.

A check showed that some of those at the AGM and on the new committee have appeared in The Straits Times Forum Page.

Ms Chua, Ms Thiang and Dr Alan Chin, a male member of Aware who attended the AGM and supported the newcomers, all wrote letters to this newspaper between August and October 2007.

In a letter on Oct 17 that year, Ms Chua said NMP Siew Kum Hong had overstepped his non-partisan role and advanced the homosexual cause by tabling a petition in Parliament to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises homosexual sex between consenting men.

In another letter on Oct 25, she took issue with a Straits Times report which said NMP Thio Li-Ann had been 'visibly distraught' when she opposed Mr Siew's petition vigorously.

Ms Chua said Ms Thio had dealt with several points succinctly, with humour and passion.

Dr Chin and Ms Thiang both wrote letters to caution against the risks of promoting the homosexual lifestyle.

Meanwhile, news of Aware's AGM has spread among older members who did not attend the meeting, as well as civil society groups.

The most frequently-asked questions: Who are the new women in charge, why do they want the leadership, and what are their plans for Aware?

Ms Mathi said: 'The building of an institution takes many years; building its value system is even harder.

'Why can't they come in and be part of the process, and build it together and in a more evolutionary manner? That way, the comfort level will be high for everyone.'

Former newspaper editor and media consultant Peter Lim, a longtime associate member of Aware, said he was very surprised to learn what had taken place.

Asked why he thought a group of newcomers would want to take control, he said he did not know if it was an orchestrated effort.

But he thought Aware would be attractive to those seeking to be in charge of an established institution. Setting up a new outfit would take too much time and trouble.

'Aware has built up its credentials over the years and achieved more than a few things,' he said.

Three former Aware presidents - Ms Claire Chiang, Dr Kanwaljit Soin and Ms Mathi - have served as NMPs.

'Aware is a brand name and most people regard it as the leading voice of the feminists and modern women in Singapore,' said Mr Lim.


A number of bloggers have voiced their opinions on this issue (Sam Ho has a good compendium of their responses).

Some of them suspect a conspiracy and are concerned about the possibility of an anti-homosexual agenda by the new Exco members and their supporters.

I should say that I'm surprised that Dr. Alan Chin (who is no stranger to us at Clearthought Singapore; check out his views on homosexuality here, here and here) is a member of AWARE.

Nevertheless, here at Fresh Brainz we are obsessed with systems science and thus are more interested in the plausible strategy of the takeover. From this perspective, all those discussions about homosexuality are just "chunks of ice falling on the passengers' deck".

What is more significant is the fact that a group of total newcomers have swiftly taken over the reins of leadership from a core of established veterans!

Incumbent leaders of other organizations who have been looking on sheepishly should sit up now and pay attention.

Assuming that the events depicted by the Straits Times is factually true, this is the approximate timeline of key events:

Jan - March 2009

- Spike in AWARE's membership.

28 March 2009

- Unusually large turnout during AGM, about 3 times bigger than normal, nearly 80% are newcomers.
- 9 of 12 Exco positions goes to newcomers, so new that they have no subcommittee experience.

Early April 2009

- President Ms. Claire Nazar resigns.
- Media blackout regarding the new Exco.

Here are three plausible system-level weaknesses:

1. Lack of defence mechanism

- no vetting process for membership.
- no consensus standards for evaluating eligibility of Exco candidates (whether they publicly support AWARE's vision and values, eg. equality for all regardless of race, religion or sexuality).
- no subcommittee experience, or minimal membership time required for Exco candidates.

2. Voter apathy

- low turnout on regular AGMs permitting a takeover via manageable number of supporters (~100).

3. Lack of rapport/schism between veteran core and ordinary members?

- May explain low voter turnout.
- May explain why some members are not alarmed by the sudden takeover.

Would you like to know more?

Are you aware of AWARE? (Sam's thoughts)
The AWARE AGM 2009 — my personal take: beware of ST (Mathia Lee)


Sam Ho said...

thanks for the link. linked you too.

you should win an award for this article's title. serious.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Thanks Sam.

As for the award... will you give me a vote?


angry doc said...

Wow. AWARE. Considering how much political clout they have, we should really be scared.

But seriously, anyone who's against chicks getting it on with chicks must be stopped!

Or are they just against dudes getting it on with dudes?

angry doc said...

Actually, this gives me an idea... when is the next SMA election again?

Lim Leng Hiong said...

"Actually, this gives me an idea... when is the next SMA election again?"

I actually LOLed at that... XD

angry doc said...

Look, this kind of thing is an obvious weakness for any type of professional or special interest group that has a disproportionately small membership compared to the population it is supposed to represent, and a ridiculously small quorum required AND present for its AGMs - the SMA for example has a required quorum of 50 and I believe usually has that kind of turnout for its AGMs. Anyone with 60 friends in cahoots can take over the SMA and then presume to speak for 7000 doctors in Singapore!

Only thing of course is that SMA is not worth taking over...

Lim Leng Hiong said...

"Only thing of course is that SMA is not worth taking over..."

Maybe AWARE's previous exco thought in the same way?

socguy said...

"Only thing of course is that SMA is not worth taking over..."

This is so true, I know of at least one student committee within a certain prestigious local institution, that always had problems finding people to FILL its positions. But then again, the student population cannot increase so dramatically over a short period of time, and the size of the represented population isn't much to speak of either