Tuesday, April 28, 2009

AWARE, Jihadist Sleeper and Unanswered Questions

I had the privilege to meet playwright Alfian Sa'at in person at the recent Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance (SinQSA) meet-up last Saturday.

During the SinQSA meet-up, I (cautiously and politely, I was probably scared shitless by the turn-out) addressed the implications of the AWARE saga on Singapore, and at the same time talked a little bit about sexual identity and orientation.

A member of AWARE also dropped by to share with us her experience in counselling and social work. She also talked about the kind of help that AWARE provides for the community.

Yes, back to Alfian. Deep down inside, I was a little awed talking to him. I guess I am like that when meeting most people I have read about in the news. (Maybe if I meet George Lim Heng Chye, I might feel a bit awed too). Perhaps it is the respect I have for such figures and personalities.

We discussed for a while about the death threats made to one of the new executive committee members. One exco member was reported to have received a letter by a "masculine gay", who is a "Jihadist sleeper".

I gave my thoughts to Alfian, after which I said I wanted to blog about it but felt I was not in the right position to comment. Firstly, I am not a Muslim. Secondly, it is religiously sensitive. He said it's ok I talk about it, so here goes.

The "masculine gay" term seems to be awkwardly constructed. From what I hear, read and research, people will usually identify as "gay", "gay man", "homosexual", but seldom "masculine gay".

In fact, even "masculine gay", which somehow presents an oxymoron, is more remotely used, and would rank before, say, someone who identifies as a "twink", "bear", "chub", "cub" and so on. That said, a gay man is seldomly likely to say, "Pleased to meet you, I am a bear!"

So, self-identified homosexual men will normally use "man" or "male" as the noun to their adjective "gay" or "homosexual". In fact, "man"/"male" is already more obvious, and the statement/declaration would be simply "gay".

In a world fraught with terror and American discourses on terrorism, I can't help but feel a bit skeptical about the death threat, knowing that it came from a "Jihadist sleeper".

First and foremost, from what I know, the word "Jihadist" is an anglicised word, set in a Islamophobic context. Simply put, a Muslim person will not identify himself/herself as a "Jihadist". "Jihadist" is a label from an Islamophobic discourse, created for the rest of the world, non-Muslims in particular, to "understand" terrorists who happen to have identified as Muslim.

Words, symbols and terms change in time. The pink triangle, originated from the World War Two Nazi persecution of homosexual people, took a couple of decades or so to be finally used as to represent queer identities/movements.

Currently, I doubt we are "mature" enough to embrace "Jihadist" as a positive or neutral word, let alone a symbol for a social movement. It is still too early for us to shed away the Islamophobic undertones of the word.

I have heard from various Muslim elders and in documentaries, and a rather inspiring piece of philosophy, that "the greatest Jihad is from within". It is rather unfortunate that Islamophobic discourses have hijacked the philosophical nature of Jihad and associated the term with overt violence.

Jihad represents the struggle with the self. I may not understand the tenets of Islam, or the deeper abstract spiritual/religious notions associated with the statement, but even a simple literal understanding of it is sufficient for me to see how Islamophobic discourses have change our idea of "Jihad". To this extent, I feel "Jihadist" is a colonised version of the word "Jihad", to come to embody unsympathetic impressions and conceptions of Islam.

Death threats, in this case the ones that the new AWARE exco members received, have no place in our society and they ruin dialogue and civil society. However the nature of the death threat involving the "Jihadist sleeper" is a bit suspicious.

Of course, perhaps the writer of the death threat wanted to write a message in the "language" of the reader, who might probably be more inclined to Islamophobic rhetoric and discourses. That too is a possibility, but that will require a lot more cultural savviness on the part of the angry writer.

And even if the issuer of the threat is a culturally savvy person, why would he/she/it/hir/hyr/zhe (in case the person might be transgenderal, we need to consider these self-identifiable pronouns too!) make a self-reference of a "Jihadist"? Like I said, the word "Jihadist" is currently imbued with negative meanings from the Islamophobic lens. The term "Jihadist" is currently a third-person's label, and it does not help that a majority of people in the world, influenced by media and rhetoric, have attributed it to acts of terrorism.

I hope what I say here makes sense. So please think about the "Jihadist sleeper" threat.

I believe there are more civil ways to "threaten" people (not really threaten actually). Boycotts are an example of non-violent measures to get your message across. But you should have tried engaging in dialogue first, before finding other strategies to be heard.

Operation Leper is one form of boycott. It is an initiative that calls for the boycott of businesses owned/managed by various members of the new exco. I believe this is part and parcel of life in civil society and the community. We are always making negotiations and demands, and in the process there is a lot of arm-twisting.

Since dialogue is useless to improving transparency and honesty, a boycott of related businesses is a sound strategy to send a message. Physically, there is no harm. But for an middle-to-upper class person, it hits hard at the money. Any way, the call to boycott is only effective if people heed the call and act. So there is an element of personal choice, where the "boycotter" voluntarily decides to stop patronising the business. There is nothing malicious here. All is fair in the world of business. Business is built on the foundation of good relations with your publics any way. Maliciousness is when people want to burn your coffeeshop down, not stop buying coffee from you.

So when the business of middle-to-upper class people who are involved in civil society are hit, they will probably move down the Maslow's hierarchy of needs and their true priorities will come to be revealed, whether they care more about society or the money-making stuff.

Still, the death threats posed to the new exco should be taken seriously and condemned. Death threats are a threat to pluralism, although the new exco members are also a symbolic threat to pluralism themselves. In pluralism, you have got to have the representation and participation of various people, not only middle-to-upper class Christian ethnic Chinese women. Can women of other backgrounds, culture, religion, etc. feel safe like that?

Back to threats, I hope the matter is resolved quickly. Do not make threats, especially death threats. If you feel aggrieved, there are many channels to help you. Unless, of course, it is MINDEF, where there are no such channels because you have ultimately no rights, and dozens of deaths and suicides cannot shake its uncompassionate and soulless structure.

Instead of writing death threats, you can talk to community leaders, your MP, any MP actually, a Minister (who is only one email away), talk to the press, or get someone who is a respected public figure to represent your views. After Seng Han Thong was, on two occasions, punched and torched, I am sure MPs will continue to reassure people that they will do their best to help them, and I am sure the government will make a greater effort to listen, just to reduce the possibility of more casualties.

Don't "participate" by bringing violence into the picture, because there are better ways to be heard and to be respected for what you have got to say.

By the way, the AWARE extraordinary general meeting has been moved from Toa Payoh to Expo. It is a huge thing. Even if the new exco members retain their seats, I expect greater backlash, in the form of boycotts, aggregated public information (i.e. information of the members that have previously been on the internet, so that is not really an invasion of privacy) and of course pressure on the organisation to be "inclusive". At the philosophical level, I am interested the kind of feminism the new AWARE will adopt. They will be under a lot of pressure to define and explain it all.

Ideally, the vote of no confidence should stand, simply because AWARE needs plural and diverse participation and representation.

At the same time, I do not think the AWARE coup on March 28 was as elaborately orchestrated as what most speculations would have claimed. But I believe that each of these (new) women have individually garnered support and membership (for their supporters) prior to the AGM, and it probably spread among family and friends, so it will not appear too obvious that each of them actually engineered their own victory, never mind all of them engineering the takeover together.

If only we knew the truth. This world is a shitty place because of two things, people don't listen enough, and they are not honest enough.

So what if Dr Thio Su Mien is their "feminist mentor"? She has only "good" intentions as she claims. Mind you, the women who stood for elections had to be democratically elected. A lot of the "legitimately elected/voted" rhetoric has clouded and diverted attention away from the fact that AWARE has seen a surge in membership from January onwards.

This leads me back to one of the very first few questions I posed. How and to what extent has the influx of new members in January to March affected the AGM elections?

Attention should be given to these new members. Have they been recruited to vote for these candidates? Sure, they may not know the candidates personally, but have they been instructed or advised or mentored to vote for specific candidates?

Sometimes we allow the rhetoric of "democracy" to pass through the metal detector. But this time, we must look at how the constitution of AWARE was (ab)used in the first place. If it is a case of "majority wins", why not bring your own majority in to win?

The press should find out more about the members who joined AWARE from January to March, and who have attended the March 28 AGM to vote. It is strange and risky for an organisation to be lead by women, most of which have yet to pay their dues in the organisation, and all of whom are voted by people who probably haven't paid their dues either. At the same time, not having your hands dirtied doing community work, counselling, running programmes under the banner of AWARE, makes your criticism of AWARE less credible.

It is very much similar to someone criticising television programmes and actors. Most of them have not been part of production or acting before. From experience, I can safely say it is not easy.

Moreover, in the case of the new exco, what kind of feminism do they subscribe to? Do they know what feminism is, or rather, what feminisms are? If they know, good for them, and they do not really need a feminist mentor. For instance, a criticism of poor media representation of women is not constitutive of feminism. You may claim masculinist oppression at the level of the media institution, or at the level of market demand for such misrepresentations. That is not feminism to me, at least not in today's context. You must also consider the choice and the agency of women, and to an extent people who identify as women, as well as people (females) who do not want to identify as women. Is the new exco's feminism homophobic, biphobic, transphobic? Is the new exco's feminism Chinese elitist? Does the new exco see "feminism" as a singular entity, variations of which are nonexistent? Think about that.

On May 2, I believe it is only the beginning. Life will still go on. People will still be unhappy. We can carry on our voluntary boycotts and dialogues. If you believe in furthering the cause of women in Singapore, please go, join and vote; do not vote blindly and without conviction, or just because your friends/family asked you to. You must be convinced that you are contributing to the organisation and to women in Singapore. Women come in all shapes and sizes, all minds and souls (like men, although I occasionally feel men are actually getting the poorer end of the gender equality deal in Singapore these days).

I will be having my first anniversary, so there are personally more important things out there. I love society, but family comes first. For your info, when Adam Sandler said "family comes first" in the movie 'Click', it moved me to tears. Family to me is feeling safe, being honest and happy.

Unfortunately, there are too many people out there obsessed with the form of the family. For me, it is the function that matters.

Yes, this blog entry is over 2,000 words. Congratulations for coming to this sentence. Write in the comments section the secret password "I made it, Sam!" to redeem a special prize from me.


Joshua said...

I'll bite.
'I made it, Sam!' What's my prize? =)
By circuitous circumlocution (that is to say, a link from Singaporenewsalternative) I arrived at your site, if you're wondering why I'm here.
I'll state outright that I'm a Christian and I believe in a rather literal interpretation of the Bible. If that makes me a 'fundamentalist' well I suppose that label could be applied.

I think both sides are reacting out of fear: gays from fear that Christians are going to shut down their space, and Christians from fear that gays are going to encroach on theirs. I for one shudder at the thought of 'gay pride' parades down our streets. Honestly, if gays kept it behind closed doors then it really is their private affair. But to push the boundaries (from fear?) provokes an equally fearful reaction I think.

Non-Christians need to know that Christians who literally believe the Bible would know these words of Jesus: "My kingdom is not of this world." We're not looking for a theocracy established by politicking and suchlike manipulation. If Singapore became a theocracy (of any sort) ruled by moralists I'd be rather annoyed. So those who fear some kind of "Christian-right conspiracy to take over the world" are rather misguided. There will however be opposition of various types to the gay agenda (whatever that may be), just as there will be (as you've stated) opposition to the Christian agenda (whatever that may be).

popchess said...

I made it, Sam!

I found your blog via google with the keywords "aware josie lau" too. And I, who sat behind you for most of my JC life.

I didn't know you had such a LARGE blog. My own is.. well.. not pretty.

That, and I'm listening to Il Divo sometimes, nowadays. Scream at me if you want, but do it on facebook or thru sms/phone.

I'll say this about the whole AWARE thing:
Growing up in church really makes one realise the immense power that religious leaders have. Do not be surprised if the new team stays in.

Chrisloup said...

well. they moved the venue to singapore expo. right next to a mega church event held by 40 churches. probably they will be exhorting people to go over and join/vote. perhaps the ISD should take them all down first (under maintenance of religious harmony act)

seen on 1 blog, current membership of oldguard = 600, COOS and other fundie churches = 1000

Starbucks said...

In today's papers, Pastor Derek Hong is quoted as saying: "..there's a line that God has drawn for us, and we don't want our nation crossing that line." Sounds like he's telling the government how to run Singapore. Can't wait to see him picked up for a sedition charge.

Xtrocious said...

Hi Sam

Always thought that the death threat sounded suspiciously like an inside job...

Everything was laid on so thick that it's dumb...

Japhethite said...

Yours is the most neutral and level headed article on the incident I've seen so far, offering a very lucid and balanced insight not found elsewhere (flames everywhere i went... ouch :P). Too bad I can't say the same for the comments, though. What has "telling" the Govt how to run the nation got to do with sedition? Did Derek Hong stage an uprising? It seems the comment came from the camp supporting the old guard and was posted without first being process by the cerebral cortex.

Incidentally, do you still have any cycles of reservist left? MINDEF might silence you on account of your comment about them, better watch your back... lol...

Sam Ho said...

a virtual hug for those who said they made it!

that's your prize - give you some love.

i think we should give space and respect the space for faiths in singapore, and more so if we want to maintain spaces for secularism and those who do not want to have a religion.

i believe that giving spaces to different communities, although it might indicate segmentation, actually creates the foundation for integration and harmony.

if no spaces are given (by the government and by the people), people will take it into their own hands the contestation for space (and supremacy).

the thing about MINDEF, well, it has caused me a lot of distress. it will take me away from my research for about 2.5 weeks. no amount of money can reimburse that. more over, i'm on scholarship and have teaching assistant duties, so that will set my work back too.

it is causing me a lot of stress and anxiety.