Why the AWARE cat fight is so important to Singaporean civil society?

April 23, 2009

russian_doll_bigger_to_smaller_lg_whtWritten by Darkness of the brotherhood – It hardly requires any elaboration; people should try to resolve their differences peacefully.


Only one problem; I don’t agree completely with what I have just wrote above.


The way I see it some disputes could well do with a no holds bar slug out; the bloodier the better; as its conceivable one reason why events took such a sinister turn with AWARE – when a group of unknowns suddenly came in from the sun and swapped out the old could well be a by product of what usually happens when contentious subjects are usually swept underneath the rug instead of being argued out thoroughly in the cut light of the open – that’s what usually happens when people shy away from conflict – they go behind, scheme and plan the pay back – no da Vinci code there, no mystery even, that’s what happened in AWARE.


You could even say it stands the test of reason; when contentious issues such as Christian versus liberal gay rights are treated as sensitive and out of bounds; people don’t just make teeth sucking sounds pack their bags and go back home to their board games – these points of contention don’t just go into some dark corner, fall silent and die – usually they find alternative means of expressions which are closer to the cloak and dagger genre – that’s the problem when we fear conflict to such an extent everyone is so busy pretending to play happy families instead of trying to hammer out their differences in a robust and spirited manner – politics is pushed into the preamble of darkness.


My feel is, instead of avoiding conflict; we should actually learn how to manage it and if possible even use it as a basis to move ahead.


One reason why I dont like avoiding conflict is the latent fault lines shows up in the practice it inspires. For one the arguments each side holds have to be crumbly at best – as they have never been forcefully dragged out and given a thorough and robust examination by their detractors.


A politics that brackets (excludes from discussion) morality and religion too completely soon generates its own disenchantment – as not only does it produce a type of discourse that is shallow but it also lacks moral resonance and frequently creates missing blanks in the narrative. Result: they find undesirable and even sneaky outlets for expression – or worst still hucksters, charlatans and fanatics step in where angels fear to thread.


Anyone who is concerned over the fate of civil society and where it’s heading in Singapore should take a closer look at the AWARE saga – as what’s panning out isn’t nearly the polished sheen of civil society that we usually associate with the Western model – where it could be said, the system can reliably be entrusted to contain under conditions of peace if not civility, a remarkable range of moral, ideological, and religious conflicts and yet still manage to sort it’self out without imperiling the system.


What we have instead in the guise of the AWARE impasse is something closer to a Darwinian primordial soup version of civil society; part of that stems from our crippled social heritage in never having to manage conflict and that corrosive culture takes it’s cue from officialdom where the mantra has traditional been, “if it’s sensitive, don’t go there!” – the trouble is the AWARE impasse is the point when the karmic wheel closes and it all comes back to bite us – so its fair to say without the benefit of experiential knowledge many of the stakeholders in AWARE will struggle to find their footing to successfully articulate how they should deal with many of these contentious topics without running the real risk of imploding into a thousand pieces.


What’s at stake isn’t just the question of how some of these conflicts should be pursued; as sooner or latter both factions will have to fashion a happy middle ground to set aside what radically divides them –  if they are serious about making headway – hanging on the balance is not only women’s welfare, the role of religion versus secularism but the broader question of how Singaporean civil society is going to pursue their competing ends without having to threaten the means by imperiling stability and legitimacy?


In this respect the AWARE impasse represents a very significant milestone in setting the tone and cadence of how civil society will evolve in Singapore. As not only do the actors have to deal with a host emerging challenges which have never been broached before ie religion vs liberalism. But its conceivable each faction would also have to step out from their respective comfort zones and even try to seek to understand new ideas that contravenes their own value system – if they fail, then it’s fair to say, these conceptual divides i.e faith vs liberalism will remain forever conceptual islands, as each side would probably revert to their traditional defensive lines – should that happen, then it’s game over – as I really cannot see any way for AWARE to make headway in wordsmithing something close to a set of ”community values.” That’s just not possible.


Here the mental shift from “old” to “new” requires a transformational change on how business used to be transacted by both the progressives and Christian movement. As the mere fact that certain practices are sanctioned by a social group are not by themselves enough to make the “new” system work like it probably used too with the AWARE  and Christian movement of past years. Neither does the traditional Christian right method of moralizing as they often do from the apparent safety of the five foot way and sometimes Parliament offer anything in the way of a cogent solution – The sum of all these rumminations be it Alex Au’s and Thio Li Ann’s lamentations will amount to what our Northern cousin prosaically describe as “tak boleh pakai lah” material. The are worthless! As what is urgently required here is not merely commentary about what’s just or right; but rather something mechanically practical that allows both sides to move forward despite their glaring differences, which in my opinion cannot be reconciled.


The enormity of the challenge to pass from the realm of theory to reality has to be daunting as whatever answers emerges will have to depend on a certain understanding of the complexity of moral theory – the question: do all moral standards derive from a single universally accepted principle? That just goes to scale the enormity of the divide. As it suggest the search for pure principles (be they from the liberal movement or Christian right) may essentially be self defeating – as no one answer can possibly bridge the divide.


The real challenge for AWARE would be to find a ”new” way to accomodate these differences by craving out a completely different public square from what is currently on offer which I like to term as the Singaporean black and white public square, where life is increasingly assuming a binary form – here one is either anonymous or credible; worth reading or simply not worth engaging; functional or dysfunctional; straight or gay; moral or immoral; with or against us – the formation of this ”new” public square is imperative, as at the crux of the divide that threatens to riven AWARE further is not a conceptual or even a philosophical divide which may lead us all to believe this is simply a faith versus liberalism tussle – rather the nub is whether those “grey” areas which the binary world has conveniently elided can be managed effectively? Here, its important to emphasize, we are not just talking about what rights may be just or should be promoted, but whether even something as basic as ”rights” within the “grey” domain can be identified, justified and agreed upon by both factions in a way that does not presuppose any particular conception of good that effectively marginalize any one segment of society?


That in a nutshell is how I see the new AWARE challenge – as a new way of doing business where the goal is not to seek agreement on every object of interest which each faction subscribes too; but rather as a new way of agreeing to disagree on even key points, yet being able to move forward as one entity – you could just as well throw everything else out of the window and it wouldn’t do the slightest violence to your understanding of the issues.


To paraphrase stakeholders have to craft a “new” public square with others (and maybe even have enough space to accommodate the lunatic fringe) whose views they may even openly disagree and despise – it remains to be seen whether this tabula rasa can be fashioned – I for one harbor reservations given the enormity of the task and the deep divisions.


Nonetheless, if AWARE can crave out that mythical new public square (then I would also probably have to issue out a public apology for terming it a ”cat fight.”) – they will certainly emerge as a stronger and leaner outfit – as not only will this case study represent a reliable model on how to “agree to disagree” and yet move on to foreclose on common objects of interest on the behalf of community which others may choose to emulate – but it will also stand as a worthy testament to lay one of the most important cap stone on how civil society in Singapore is able to successful manage conflict, mitigate the risk diversity and even turn it to its advantage thus fulfilling the broader ethos of what civil socieities have traditionally done so well in the West – proving time and again – despite our many differences, some which may even be irreconciliable; be it religion, race or sexual orientation – the cohesion of our society can still be stronger than its divisions to keep us as one people.


I wish AWARE the very best of luck and god speed. Now please carry on and hantam away!


Darkness 2009

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