“Many of us felt the injustice of being ordered around, being told to do this or that, but never being consulted.” AWARE was born in 1985, when the government was embarking on large-scale campaigns to address the falling fertility rate.
“In 1985, AWARE was formed as one of the first civil society organisations in a context of strong state and social authoritarianism. … It did not obey the traditional authoritarian ‘shut up and sit down’ reproach but built up the ‘stand up and speak out’ approach, and in doing so has made many contributions to Singapore women and society,” wrote [Dr Lai Ah Eng].
[In the 1970s], the lack of an organisation devoted to gender equality, compounded by the complete absence of women in Parliament, meant that women’s issues often took a backseat. This changed in the 1980s, as women began to organise and groups emerged once more.
The 1980s was also a time when the government was embarking on large-scale campaigns to address the falling fertility rate. The Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme was introduced to give priority to children of university-educated women when it came to registration for primary school. The pressure was on for young men and women – especially young women – to get married and have children before it was “too late”.
Partly as a reaction to all this rhetoric, the National University of Singapore Society held a forum in November 1984, “Women’s Choices, Women’s Lives”. The forum was organised by Zaibun Siraj, daughter of Mrs Mohamed Sirah, and Dr Vivienne Wee, and brought together women from different professional backgrounds. Speakers included orthopaedic surgeon Dr Kanwaljit Soin, director of the National Library Hedwig Anuar and deputy Sunday editor of the Singapore Monitor, Margaret Thomas.
Participants of the forum were upset by all that was being said and done by the government in their family and population policies, particularly how women were being singled out as being responsible for the falling fertility rate.
“Many of us felt the injustice of being ordered around, being told to do this or that, but never being consulted. … Most of us felt very, very angry that we were not consulted on such important issues. I think that we were all at boiling point when that forum was held,” Lena Lim said in an interview with Lenore Lyons in 2005.
Following the forum, it was felt that there was a need for an organisation that would specifically focus on improving women’s social and legal status in Singapore. “Looking at the present number of women’s organisations in Singapore, I couldn’t see how I could fit in anywhere. I had these different views about a woman’s role, and these other groups were largely social groups, and they weren’t really interested in advocacy work or bringing changes to the status of women,” forum organiser Zaibun Siraj recalled in an interview for this feature.
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) was launched in 1985 after a year of discussion to write and refine the organisation’s structure and constitution.
Women’s Action is a memory project that documents and celebrates the history of the women’s movement in an independent Singapore.
Featured Image: Women’s Action