What do you say when you meet a legend? The first thing I confessed to Constance Singam over Zoom was that I had been incredibly nervous for our interview before I met her. “You’re one of my heroes,” I professed, which she waved off with the grace of someone who had heard that statement countless times throughout her life.
At 86, Singam is one of the most celebrated civil activists Singapore has ever seen. Having been inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015 and served as president of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations for two years, Singam first got her start in activism when she joined Aware—the city’s leading gender equality advocacy organisation—in 1986, quickly ascending to the role of president in 1987.
“I joined Aware one year after its founding. Before that, for 14 years, much of the activism in Singapore had been silenced through the forcible harassment of civil society activists. When we came upon the scene, just the founding of Aware itself was an act of challenge.”
Singam served as the president of the organisation for three different stints, the latest one lasting from 2007 to 2009. In fact, she had just passed the baton on to her successor Claire Nazar and assumed her new role as adviser to the executive committee in 2009 when the infamous Aware saga took place. The incident, which involved the sudden and hostile takeover of the organisation’s executive committee, left many of its original members, including Singam, traumatised at the time.
The fascinating series of events that followed have been vividly covered in a 2021 podcast produced by Aware, which Singam played a key part in informing through various interviews. Of course, Singam herself had also written about the Aware saga in her 2013 memoir—Where I Was: A Memoir From the Margins. Now, with the incident propelled back into public consciousness, Singam is updating her memoir and retelling her stories for a younger audience. “The readership I intended to reach when I wrote my first memoir was my own generation. Now, my focus is on much younger people,” she explains.
And why might that be? “There are a lot of young people interested in civil activism today. Women in particular, are more knowledgeable and educated about a range of issues, including feminism. They are more active and informed, but there is plenty of uncertainty because most young people don’t know how to organise themselves. It’s important that they learn Singapore’s activist history,” Singam says.
Here, the legendary activist chats about the process behind her new book, ruminates on current projects and most importantly, shares her wisdom on what the emerging generation of Singaporean activists do well—and what they can do better.
Why did you decide to update your memoir, and how has it changed since 2013?
A lot has happened over the last 10 years, both in my life and in activism. The focus for this new version of my memoir is on a younger readership—those who have gained a new interest in the Aware saga, especially after the podcast. The way the book is organised has changed, but the way I tell my stories has changed too. In my original memoir, I started writing about the Aware saga two years after it happened, so I was still trying to get over it and beginning to understand why it all happened.
10 years on, I look at it differently. It’s not just a memory—it’s still there, but I have a different perspective on it now. The book is also more focused on Singapore’s civil society activism as a whole. After a while, you can become apathetic and lose energy, so I felt like we all needed a kick in the butt to re-energise ourselves. [Laughs]
“I spent the richest time of my life as an activist. As an activist, I feel accepted, I feel Singaporean and I feel empowered.”
What is one key thing you have done in the last 10 years?
The main thing that struck me in the last decade was that activists do a lot of work that doesn’t get recognised. When the Aware saga happened, the organisation had been running for over 20 years. And yet, many people didn’t know about the work we did till the incident transpired.
There are lots of activists doing fantastic things in Singapore that have made real change in our history and our culture. I felt that they needed recognition. So I set up a committee to recognise local activists in 2014—the Singapore Advocacy Awards. It ran till 2017, and we awarded activists that were doing amazing work that many didn’t know about. It was also a way to bring civil society activists together and let them get to know each other. We all work in our own silos, watching each other with suspicion, jealousy or whatever. [Laughs] But we are better when we become friends and celebrate each other.
In your book, you talk about how you don’t necessarily relate to labels—like race labels, for example. But you seem to have readily embraced the “activist” label. Why is that one that resonates with you?
I think it’s because I spent the richest time in my life as an activist. As an activist, I feel accepted, I feel Singaporean, I feel empowered. I have a community which nurtures me and supports me. When you first go into activism because you are passionate about something, you are so eager to help. But in helping, you learn so much about yourself. In fact, I have grown so much from being an activist. I have learned how empowering it can be to work on the frontlines when you love your country and your people.
Activism in Singapore has always been fraught. What kind of setbacks have you faced throughout your career?
Your question brings me back to this one particular time I was giving a talk in front of a large group as president of Aware. As I was finishing up, a man stood up from the crowd and shouted at me, “How dare you come and talk to us? We treat our women like princesses. You are spoiling their lives by telling them these things.”
Incidents like these have happened countless times. As an activist, you will find devil’s advocates wherever you go. Many times, they are not being honest with their thoughts—they are simply challenging you for the sake of it, or to provoke you. In this particular instance, I was obviously shaken. I sat alone after everyone had left, trying to calm down. But I truly believe that the reason I was able to take it and recover from it was because I had an organisation behind me and other women who stood by me, speaking their truth as well.
How do you find that the activism landscape in Singapore has changed since you first started over 40 years ago?
I joined Aware one year after its founding, in 1986. Before that, for 14 years, much of the activism in Singapore had been silenced through the forcible harassment of civil society activists. There was nothing happening—it was an empty civil society where the government was the only player. When we came upon the scene, just the founding of Aware itself was an act of challenge. We were challenging the way women were being used for public policy purposes, through the 1984 Graduate Mothers’ Scheme and other such policies.
Back then, there were no fixed rules. Every day, we were challenging and testing OB markers—although that term only came about much later. We lived in uncertainty, and would wonder if what we were saying today would get us in trouble tomorrow. Today, a much larger number of young people are interested and informed about things like politics and women’s issues. But the uncertainty remains because most young people don’t know what to do or how to organise themselves.
“The feminist movement started with women sitting around, talking, and most importantly—believing one another.”
What advice do you have for younger activists in Singapore?
Young activists in Singapore need to organise and find community. One problem we face here is that our mainstream media rarely publicises activist events, but at least when you have a community, you know that there is a lot of work going on. At the end of the day, advocacy work needs to change people’s way of thinking by touching their sensibilities. That is what Aware did with violence against women—we changed the way the average Singapore thought about the issue. Governments don’t change unless we change. To do that, you can’t just work in isolation, you must try to find like-minded individuals to build yourself a community.
What do you think is the key to changing the way people think through activism?
Time and commitment are major factors. Sometimes you have to struggle for 30 years before you see change, and that’s what we did at Aware. It can be extremely hard in a political climate like ours—but you just have to keep at it. Younger activists also need to learn how to turn a group into an organisation, because organisations sustain. While not everyone can be a leader in an organisation—you need a mix of foot soldiers and people on the ground doing the work—everyone is equally important. When you leverage and channel everyone’s passion and energy towards a common cause, it inspires people to take action.
You are an inspiration to Singaporeans at large, but I think Singaporean women—and brown Singaporean women in particular—connect with you on a different level. What is your advice for navigating intersectional issues like racism and sexism?
I often speak to younger brown women on facing racism within institutions. And my advice remains: find community. Get a group of brown people together and have conversations. Those conversations will empower you and help you develop skills to stand up to racism together.
To me, feminism has always been about sisterhood. The feminist movement started with women sitting around, talking, and most importantly—believing one another. There was no “You were beaten up by your husband? It must have been your fault.” Instead, the basis of feminist thought is trusting women across societies. That’s the core of it—that shared kinship. So find your community and stick with them. Only then can you truly thrive.
Where I Was: A Memoir About Forgetting and Remembering by Constance Singam is now available for pre-order from Ethos Books.