An Ethicist speaks out on AWARE

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AN OPEN LETTER ON AWARE

Having had the opportunity to work with AWARE on several previous initiatives, I would like to state for the public record, that I was deeply impressed with the seriousness, sincerity and depth of commitment of AWARE volunteers and counsellors that I have encountered over the years. AWARE, through the efforts of generations of long-term members, has made invaluable contributions to the protection of women, to supporting vulnerable members of the community, and to public education.

I was therefore deeply disturbed to learn of the events at AWARE’s AGM in which there appeared to have been a concerted attempt at hijacking an organisation that has worked consistently and quietly in Singapore to protect and promote the interests of women. What is particularly objectionable is the lack of transparency of the new office bearers concerning their alternative vision for Singapore’s oldest women’s group. What is it about their new vision which is so threatening that they feel they are unable to communicate it publicly? If, on the other hand, as they say, they are not communicating their position because they are new office bearers and have not as yet gained an understanding of the organisation, then questions need to be raised concerning their suitability for office as it suggests that they are ill-prepared and ill- qualified to lead this organisation. This is especially true when you consider the wealth of experience and talent already existing in AWARE, from whom office-bearers could be drawn. The secrecy which has shrouded the new executive committee and also the manner in which the new leadership has come to power has left significant doubt in the minds of concerned observers as to their integrity, honour and good intentions.

The press has pointed to the religious affiliations of many members of the new Executive Committee of AWARE. I respect the rights of all persons to commit themselves to lives of conscience. However, the appropriate exercise of a life of conscience in civic society is to form one’s own religiously-based advocacy group and to be clear about the fact that those religious values are the values that animate its services. It is neither necessary nor appropriate for such a group to engineer a take-over of an organisation with a clearly secular pedigree and in the process, disenfranchise and marginalise a group of women who have worked tremendously hard to be heard and taken seriously. The composition of the new executive committee is hardly representative of Singapore’s multi-religious, multi-racial heritage.

I wish to place on record, as a professional ethicist and philosopher, my deep reservations concerning the future impartiality and professionalism of AWARE’s counselling and social education programmes in light of the religious affiliations of most of the members of the new Executive Committee. This is a point of particular concern given the fact that AWARE’s counselling services are often the last resort for many women at risk who deserve our special protection and care. In particular, the religious affiliations of the executive committee appear to be such that they are unlikely to endorse the following:

a) that victims of familial abuse be given advice and support to leave their families and spouses where necessary if it is determined that they are at risk, given the “pro-family” stance of the executive committee.

b) that rape victims be given access and support to all options during their counselling sessions, including advice on abortion, given the “anti-abortion” stance of the religious organisations many of these women belong to.

c) that sexual education programmes will include information about the use of contraceptives in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, given the “pro-abstinence” positions of the religious organisations many of these women belong to.

d) that homosexual women seeking advice and help be supported in their struggles to come to terms with their identities in a supportive environment since it is clearly documented in previous letters to the press that members of the executive committee believe homosexuals are psychologically disturbed — a position that is clearly and unequivocally at odds to the official positions of numerous professional bodies of psychiatrists and psychologists, including the American Psychiatric Association (APA), American Psychological Association, The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, The World Heath Organisation, the Chinese Psychiatric Association amongst others.

I would be significantly reassured by the executive committee if they were to state unequivocally for the public record:

a) their exact positions on the points raised above pertaining to the social service programmes of AWARE so that clients may be better informed of the ethos and principles which govern the counselling they will be provided and may choose to go elsewhere if they do not agree that vision.

b) offer an assurance of non-interference in the professionalism, independence and impartiality of their counsellors to provide advice with courage and concern only for the welfare of the clients who seek them out.

This is not an issue of religious versus secular life, or of endorsement or condemnation of homosexuality, or of being anti or pro-abortion. It is an issue about transparency and honesty in the provision of social services and leadership so that women can make informed choices about the sorts of organisations they want to support and to have support them. Transparency and honesty, however, have been sadly lacking in the new executive committee of AWARE.

Alexandra Serrenti

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