Christian Coup Foiled in Singapore Women's Club

Women's associations are usually thought of as dull social clubs for the retired and others with far too much time on their hands. For the last 25 years, Singapore main women's body - the Association of Women for Action and Research, or Aware - was seen in a similar light and few Singaporeans had even heard of it.

But an abortive coup by a group of anti-gay fundamentalist Christians has thrown the organization center stage, in the process revealing the growing clout of Singapore's online activists, and the surprising strength of civil society.

The saga has pushed the boundaries of public discourse in Singapore, where discussions about homosexuality are normally taboo, in the process attracting the close attention of senior government ministers and Singapore's largest bank, DBS. The government has always maintained an uneasy balance over religion, allowing plenty of it as long as it doesn't get too fervent. In the 1980s, the government cracked down on a group of Catholic activists and threw them in jail. It has nailed the odd Islamic extremist here and there and arrested them. It has taken a largely tolerant attitude towards sex despite the island's conservative image. There are plenty of prostitutes and transvestites plying the streets without visible intimidation although Immigration seizes the obvious foreign entrants and sends them back to wherever they come from.

However, fundamentalist American-style mega-churches that peddle a heady mix of religion, showbiz and virulent social conservatism have been gaining strength. Taking the kind of approach to indoctrination normally employed by Communist insurgents or Al-Qaeda operatives, these churches eschew traditional Bible reading sessions in favor of "cells". They make explicit attacks on homosexuality, claiming in defiance of all medical expertise and any notion of equality and common sense that it can and should be "cured." And they also usually pay their pastors big bucks.

Singapore's Church of Our Saviour, housed in an old cinema west of the city center, is one such organization and it is from within this church that the plot was hatched to seize control of Aware. Led by a 70-year-old lawyer called Thio Su Mien, a group of born-again Christians had become frustrated with the way that, as they saw it, Aware was promoting homosexuality and lesbianism through its sex education programs.

To most observers, there was nothing even remotely controversial about Aware promoting tolerance, informed choice and safe sex to Singaporean youngsters. But to hectoring, self-styled moral guardians like Thio and her cohort it was unacceptable, so they decided to secretly seize control of the group. Using classic sleeper tactics, scores of women from the fundamentalist Christian community were urged to join Aware ahead of its annual general meeting at the end of March. The born-again Christian soldiers followed orders faithfully and to the consternation of Aware stalwarts, six unknowns – who it would later emerge were all members of the Church of Our Saviour acting under the mentorship of Thio – were elected to the executive committee and several well-respected female rights activists voted off.

But, in the days that followed, the anti-gay cabal refused to show their hand and most Aware members remained unaware, so to speak, of the true nature of the remarkable coup that had just taken place.

As rumblings of discontent about the takeover started to seep out from the old guard, as the ousted members became known, it was Singaporean bloggers and online citizen journalists who started to unravel the murky details of the plot.

They found out that several of the new members of the Aware board regularly attended the Church of Our Saviour, which offers "counseling and spiritual help for those who want to be set free from homosexual thoughts, tendencies and practices," and also revealed that some of these women had had letters published in local newspapers that made their anti-gay views clear.

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The story was still largely confined to a handful of blogs and websites, with little interest shown outside of Singapore's community of determined, if sometimes conspiracy-obsessed, netizens. That changed when DBS took the extremely unusual step of publicly rebuking one of its senior executives, Josie Lau, another Church of Our Saviour attendee, after she was chosen to be president of the new Aware executive committee.

Like other blue chip companies in Singapore, DBS likes to keep tabs on what its senior executives get up to in their free time and the bank claimed that Lau had run for office against its advice. DBS stressed that it was concerned about the extra pressure that the new role would put on Ms Lau. But many saw another explanation for DBS' nervousness: last year, the bank came under fire after the credit card marketing division, headed by Ms Lau, launched a charity campaign whose beneficiary was Focus On The Family, an evangelical American group known for its anti-gay views.

Even as further evidence of the coup continued to emerge, Ms Lau and the other new Aware executives continued to insist that they had no secret agenda and that they had not known each other before being elected.

But once they had pushed the boundaries of popular disbelief to their limits, Thio finally came clean in a hastily-arranged press conference, revealing that she had, in fact, been behind the coup. While the women had not known each other, she had operated as their "feminist mentor" and convinced them to take control of Aware in order to reverse its supposed support for homosexuality.

It was only once all this information was out in the open that it became clear what a spectacular own-goal Thio and her mentees had scored by deploying such underhand tactics.

Public opinion began to turn against the group and hundreds of women joined Aware to voice their opposition to the new guard at an extraordinary general meeting that the old guard had called. The membership of Aware swelled from 300 to 3,000 in a matter of weeks as both sides prepared to fight it out.

The government of Singapore, as it usually does, also felt the need to get involved, with a number of cabinet ministers warning both sides not to advance their religion or their views on sexuality in a way that would threaten Singapore's delicate social balance. These were not just empty words from a government that, while respecting freedom of religion for the most part, has always taken a dim view of religious groups becoming too aggressively involved in social issues. The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Moonies' Unification Church have been outlawed because they are deemed a threat to social stability.

At a riotous EGM last weekend, the Aware old guard triumphed with the anti-gay plotters eventually resigning after losing a vote of no confidence. But they are continuing their fight and have convinced the ministry of education to suspend the use of a sex education manual produced by Aware.

As the dust settles, the government and the handful of opposition politicians in Singapore will be taking note. This sort of divisive public battle for control of a civil society group is unprecedented in the normally quiescent city-state. It is far from the clear that this activism will translate into the stale sphere of Singaporean politics, where the ruling People's Action Party has won every election since independence with an overwhelming majority.

However, one thing is clear. Empowered by the freedom of communicating through the internet and fueled by a deep sense of justice and tolerance, people power (of sorts) has finally arrived in Singapore.