Aware saga inspires artists to create letters exhibition focused on women advocacy

Part of the Power of Letters exhibition, showcasing some 50 forum letters by former Aware personnel and members of the public. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
Part of the Power of Letters exhibition, showcasing some 50 forum letters by former Aware personnel and members of the public. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — In 2009, theatre actress Noorlinah Mohamed signed up as a member of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) to attend its extraordinary general meeting (EGM).

Prior to this meeting, Aware had in the same year held an annual general meeting (AGM), which drew over 100 members - far more than those held in previous years.

Most of the members had joined Aware shortly before the meeting, and nine of them won most of the executive committee seats during a vote.

The incident, known as the “Aware saga”, had dominated headlines: the new committee members attended the same church and had strong views against homosexuality, in contrast to the inclusive stance of past committees.

They were later ousted in the EGM that Noorlinah attended in May of that year.

“I was there in the hall in 2009. The reason why I was affected by it, because it was the first time I experienced and felt what civic consciousness look like,” said the 51-year-old artist.

“And I was amazed by the pouring of (forum) letters that came out in that period of April to May,” she quipped. “10 years down the road, it's still reverberating in me.”

The saga inspired her to embark on a project to track the journey of women advocates in Singapore and their motivations.

This led Noorlinah, and her research assistant Jovelle Leong, on a months-long research project beginning in April, where the duo scoured over about 200 published and unpublished forum letters by Aware personnel and members of the public.

Visual artist Dahlia Osman piecing together the exhibition on 9 July, 2019. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
Visual artist Dahlia Osman piecing together the exhibition on 9 July, 2019. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

Alongside visual artist Dahlia Osman, the effort culminated in an exhibition titled Power of Letters, which will see 50 of these letters displayed, alongside a giant timeline that tracks the milestones of policy changes and women advocacy.

Over a hundred forum letters will be placed in folders for visitors to read.

“I have never written a letter to the forum pages. But I have a strong desire to display the letters that other women have written,” said Noorlinah. “And through this display, I also invite the public to see it.”

The curated forum letters, written over the years from 1988 to 2018, and the research for the exhibition gave Noorlinah a glimpse into several “unequal practices”.

Among them was the one-third quota imposed on female medical students set in 1979, which was later abolished in 2002 as more female doctors remained in their jobs over the years.

Another was the fact that Singaporean women who married foreign husbands were not allowed to sponsor citizenship for their non-citizen spouses until a law was passed in 2000 permitting them to do so. Prior to that, the law only accorded Singaporean men the right to sponsor citizenship for their non-citizen wives.

Noorlinah also noted that it was after 14 years of fighting in 2005 that married female civil servants received the same dependant healthcare benefits as men did.

“There was a particular quote that makes me laugh,” she added, in reference to one made by then-finance minister Richard Hu in national broadsheet The Straits Times in 1993: “It is the husband's responsibility to look after the family's needs, including the medical needs. This is how our society is structured, It would be unwise to temper with this structure.”

(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

But Noorlinah stressed that the fight for women's rights is also about the fight for broader human rights. “Because when you have inequalities, you have inequalities in all areas,” she added.

Over the years, issues brought up in these forum letters varied as they began to shape behavioural and attitude changes, such as on the presence of women in Parliament in the ‘70s to ‘90s.

For instance, back in the 1980s, they typically focused on the issue of domestic or sexual violence. These days, issues concerning women in the workforce take centre stage, including the perennial question of men breaking away from traditional mould and doing household chores, according to Noorlinah.

“It's more than just policies - policies are shaped by human beings. And human beings are shaped by their attitudes, right?” she added.

The Power of Letters exhibition is part of the inaugural annual not ordinary work (N.O.W) festival, helmed by eight women, including Noorlinah, who is N.O.W’s artistic director from 2019 to 2021.

Held from Wednesday to 28 July at TheatreWorks’ 72-13 arts venue, the interdisciplinary arts festival will take a look “at the powerful role that women have played in supporting other women in pushing the needle in raising awareness and making a difference in society,” said Noorlinah.

Its programmes include film screenings, Apotropaic Text, an exhibition on protective magic, Three Fat Virgins Unassembled, a 2019 edition of Ovidia Yu’s play written in the early 1990s on Singaporean women stereotypes, and a staged reading of The Book of Mothers, an examination of motherhood.

Noorlinah will also be conducting a companion workshop for students - aged 15 and above - on the process of writing for a cause. Another workshop, conducted by former Aware president Constance Singam as well as artist and activist Dana Lam, will be open to the public.

(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

“(Civic-mindedness) is even more important today, especially when we are facing greater encroachment on civil liberties, such as the law on fakes news for example,” Noorlinah quipped.

The expression of views can also be done on social media, not just through forum letters, provided it is not just a “rant and rave”.

There should be proper research to cover “all perspectives” so as to facilitate discussions among people with different viewpoints, said Noorlinah.

She raised the example of National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Monica Baey, 23, who wrote extensively about her experience with a Peeping Tom on social media.

The incident involved Nicholas Lim, a fellow male NUS student who was caught filming Baey, in a hostel toilet within the university in November last year.

The NUS Board of Discipline had ordered Lim, also 23, to be suspended for one semester. He was banned from entering into hostel premises on campus, had to undergo counselling sessions and ordered to write a letter of apology to Baey.

Lim, who was a first-time offender, was also given a 12-month conditional warning by the police.

The incident spurred the university to implement tougher penalties on sexual misconduct in June.

“(Baey) didn't just go on a rant and was bullet pointed with what happened...She recorded due process, she recorded everything,” said Noorlinah, adding that gender studies should be incorporated into primary and secondary school education.

She plans to do the same on her Facebook, in response to the Media Development Authority (MDA)’s issuing Power of Letters an Advisory (Some Mature Content) rating.

Arts entertainment with an Advisory rating are accompanied by consumer advice to enable the public, especially parents, to make an informed choice for their children.

Mature content includes - but is not limited to - crime, juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, gangsterism and critiques on race, religion and politics.

For now, the N.O.W. team has sent an email inquiry to the MDA for the rationale behind the rating. “How is it mature content when people have read it?” asked Noorlinah.

“They were published in the newspapers, which are encouraged to be read by 14-year-olds. Why is this mature content? Are you telling me that the newspapers shouldn't be sold?”

(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

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