It was, as they say, a scandal that gripped the nation. Just over 12 years ago, on 28 March 2009, Singapore’s leading gender equality organisation, AWARE, was taken over by a group of mysterious new members, who were elected to AWARE’s executive committee at an unusually well-attended Annual General Meeting (AGM). It was weeks before AWARE’s veteran members, working in tandem with the press, uncovered the secret connection between their new leaders: namely, that most of them attended the same church.
This church, the Anglican Church of Our Saviour, had been for many years at the centre of Singapore’s anti-gay movement. It had even pioneered its own conversion therapy programme with the help of a well-known ‘ex-gay’ American pastor. But why were its members interested in a feminist NGO?
The answer was soon revealed at a dramatic press conference: The AWARE coup had been masterminded by Dr Thio Su Mien, a prominent lawyer and staunch Christian who had spent months quietly rallying supporters with a potent brand of fearmongering. Thio’s theory: AWARE was being used as a front by LGBT activists, who were disseminating pro-gay messages into schools via the organisation’s progressive sex education programme, with the ultimate aim of producing, in her words, “an entire generation of lesbians”.
The story exploded into both mainstream news and the then-burgeoning landscape of social media. It sparked the ire of thousands of women and men around Singapore, who joined AWARE as members, outraged by the seepage of religion into civil society and determined to help evict AWARE’s so-called New Guard. On 2 May 2009, more than 3,000 people attended an epic, nine-hour Extraordinary General Meeting, during which the New Guard lost a dramatic vote of no confidence. AWARE was restored to its original leaders, who vowed to helm the ship more conscientiously into the future.
As the above events — ‘the AWARE Saga’ in local parlance — unfolded, I was 18, preparing to go to college and blissfully uninterested in the efforts of Singapore’s civil society. But when the Saga burst into national consciousness, I snapped to attention. Bloodless coups, tearful televised conferences, mind-boggling conspiracy theories, and a climactic vote to determine the fate of two rival sides? It was more drama than I had ever imagined possible in my placid hometown. What’s more, for perhaps the first time in my life, I felt an electric current of conviction charge through me: I felt with sudden clarity that the takeover had been wrong, that AWARE should be allowed to continue in its gender-equality mission free of religious interference, and that sex education should indeed teach that being gay was normal and fine. Those opinions, once forged, stayed with me well past the Saga, into my college life and beyond, though I came to forget their genesis over time.
Then, in 2018, I attended a workshop with AWARE and met Executive Director Corinna Lim, a key player in the events of 2009. Corinna told me that 2019 would be the 10th anniversary of the Saga, and that AWARE had been planning to commemorate the anniversary somehow. Thinking of Serial, S-Town, and other hits of the podcasting medium, I suggested a limited-series narrative podcast. I expected the idea to be declined in favour of something simpler, like a book or a website. But Corinna got back to me: They liked the podcast pitch. Would I produce it? Perhaps with the help of AWARE board member Jasmine Ng, a well-known local filmmaker?
And so we were off to the races. It quickly became apparent that a podcast of the scale we were envisioning — a highly produced narrative experience interweaving dozens of interviews with a host’s voiceover — would take a lot longer than a few months to create. So we looked past the 10th anniversary and moved the goalpost to the end of 2020 — AWARE’s 35th birthday, and a fitting occasion for reflection on its history. Jasmine and I brought on Bharati Jagdish, a respected former journalist and radio presenter, as the podcast’s host. With the help of a diligent associate producer and interns, we dived into research and lined up intensive interviews with anyone willing to share their account of 2009.
By the end of the two-year production, we had interviewed 50 people: from AWARE founding members and leaders Constance Singam, Kanwaljit Soin, and Margaret Thomas, to the volunteers, staff, and long-time members in the thick of the action, as well as thinkers like Terence Chong, Imran Taib, and ambassador Tommy Koh, who had written about the Saga and/or pertinent themes. What a privilege it was to sit with each of these interviewees as Bharati (or sometimes myself and Jasmine) picked their brains for hours, on such topics as feminism, civil rights, democracy, and the role of religion in a secular society. Everyone was surprisingly open about their experiences, detailing mistakes, regrets, and interpersonal conflicts (some of which had never been fully resolved) with generosity and vulnerability.
Of course, we wrote as soon as we could to Dr Thio and the New Guard — the women who had pulled off the coup at that fateful 2009 AGM — to invite them to interview with us. Only Thio responded, though, with a flat no. It was a blow. We had hoped to capture their perspectives and puzzle out some of the remaining mysteries in the story. In the end, the best we could do was include as much archival footage of the New Guard as we could (from press conferences, meetings, and news clips), knowing that at least we were presenting them in their own words. We also sought out people who could shed a little light on their thinking such as Gillian Koh (to whom Dr Thio granted an interview post-Saga) and Tong Yee (a Christian who works to bridge differences and hold dialogues within the Christian community). We even spoke on background with Stefanie Yuen Thio, Dr Thio’s daughter-in-law (who was not involved in the Saga herself).
On 9 December 2020, we released Saga to the world. It was Singapore’s first-ever narrative long-form podcast, and we had no idea how it would be received. (We had been told, in fact, by industry experts that long-form audio didn’t appeal to local audiences.) So it was a real thrill to see Saga climb the podcast charts over the next few weeks, entering the top 20 Spotify podcasts in Singapore by the time all 12 episodes were out. In their reviews, listeners called the series ‘gripping’ and ‘riveting’, describing bingeing on episode after episode into the wee hours as their devices ran out of battery. Gen Z listeners who had been children during the Saga learned about the landmark event for the first time, and posted lengthy Twitter threads to express their amazement. And—perhaps most poignantly—messages poured in from women (and a few men) who had been compelled to sign up as AWARE members, or renew their lapsed memberships, so that they too could stand up and be counted at AGMs to come. Saga had reminded them of the importance of being present in civil society, of participating in feminist activity however they could, and not taking progress for granted.
These AWARE members will have their work cut out for them in 2021 and beyond. Compared with the venerable but faltering AWARE of 2009, whose volunteers were burning out and dwindling, AWARE today is a totally different animal. It boasts a full-time staff of around 30, which allows for a broader, more ambitious, and more intersectional approach. The organisation today is at the forefront of issues that many would not necessarily assume to be feminist, including freedom of expression, migrant rights, and ageing and eldercare.
AWARE is also less shy now about its support for LGBT rights than it was in 2009, and rightly so. After all, the AWARE Saga galvanised the gay community to lend support to Pink Dot, a pride event that has since 2009 ballooned into an international affair with more than 20,000 participants. Indeed, Singapore today is host to a far wider range of LGBT organisations than ever before — working together to shrug off the yoke of Section 377A of our Penal Code (which prohibits gay sex), as well as the bigotry that animated the New Guard, and continues to animate conservatives now. If the central question of the AWARE Saga was how different parts of society could disagree fairly in a multicultural nation, it’s a question that bears even more discussion now, with social media echo chambers creating profound schisms amongst us.
Our hope is that, just like the Saga did in 2009, the podcast can start productive conversations about the above — and spark more efforts to record feminist history in Singapore, whether by podcast or any other format. As Margie Thomas — AWARE president and star of Saga — often points out, women’s history has been given short shrift throughout Singapore’s existence. Our 12-episode series hopefully plays a small part in filling that absence, though there are so many more stories to tell.
Kelly Leow is the co-creator of the podcast Saga. She is also Communications Manager at AWARE, a position that she rashly took on shortly after starting work on the podcast, resulting in a serious lack of sleep between 2019-2020.