New president aims to raise Aware-ness

Making more people aware of Aware's work is among the priorities of former media veteran Teh Hooi Ling, who now helms the gender equality group.

Ms Teh, 48, who was a journalist at The Business Times for 22 years, was appointed president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) last month, replacing Ms Winifred Loh.

"I'd like to see more of Aware's work being recognised in the public, and for more people to not associate us with the 2009 saga," she told The Straits Times in her first media interview as its president.

"We've done so much work. I hope people will recognise us for the good work that we're doing today and will continue to do."

Seven years ago, a group made up mostly of Christians seized control of the organisation, sweeping nine of 12 spots on the executive committee, after disapproving of what they perceived to be Aware's pro-homosexuality position.

Despite the incident's wide publicity, many people still do not know much about Aware's work - from the helpline and free legal clinics it runs, to a centre for sexual- assault victims, and training workshops for companies to prevent workplace harassment.

In its 31-year history, it has also raised awareness on a wide range of issues like rape, sexual harassment, Aids among women and the welfare of foreign domestic workers.

Aware does so much work that Ms Teh considers her past two years as its secretary an "intensive crash course" on the issues it deals with. She first learnt of the group more than 20 years ago through former colleagues such as Aware's co-founder Margaret Thomas and long-time member Schutz Lee.

She did not understand then why they were passionate about gender equality but, over time, she noticed more unfairness between the ways men and women were treated.

"My attitude then was - this is how the world is. I just have to accept it and work around it," said Ms Teh, a Buddhist. Referring to the 2009 saga, she said: "I felt that it's not right for any religious group to dominate and force their beliefs on others who may not subscribe to their value systems."

She then joined as a member, voting to oust the leadership team that came in in 2009 at an extraordinary general meeting.

"It was the first time I felt I was part of something larger than myself. I felt the tremendous energy and exhilaration when a group unites behind a common cause."

Later, she attended roundtable discussions, learning about feminism theories and starting to see how some social norms and policies are disadvantaged towards women.

For instance, "caring work" is valued less and paid less than other types of work, she said.

"If you look at pre-school teachers and nurses they are paid much less than, say, a bank officer who shuffles paper. How did we arrive at this? Well, we have a system that values competition much more than caregiving."

In 2013, she took on Ms Lee's suggestion to run for election as a board member, and became its secretary. That meant she had to take down the minutes of every monthly board meeting.

Aware's executive director Corinna Lim said: "The discussions can be quite intense. There are also lots of Aware activities happening at any one time, so I think it was a steep learning curve for her."

Ms Teh also took the effort to refer to past notes or reports when writing minutes. "When the board members talk, it's like bits and pieces of everything and you don't really have the full picture," she said.

She may be more mild-mannered than some former Aware presidents - at least three are former Nominated Members of Parliament - but she is no less influential.

Ms Lim said: "Although she doesn't say that much on the board, every time she speaks, we all listen because we know she... will come up with an interesting view.

"She has also made the most connections for us in the last two years, to funders and other partners."

At The Business Times, she started her widely followed investment column, Show Me the Money, in 2002, and her columns have been published in seven books, with another to be launched in July.

Business Times associate editor Vikram Khanna said: "She built a significant following with her astute columns and commentaries on investment themes."

Ms Teh believes her wide network of contacts, formed through her journalism career and her current job as a partner of a fund management firm, will help her raise awareness and funds for Aware.

She said 30 per cent of its funds come from four foundations and hopes to have new funding sources.

Although there is no particular women's issue she plans to focus on in her new role, she remains influenced by Buddhist values such as compassion, generosity and the belief that there is good in everyone.

"A lot of these values are espoused by Aware too. My personal philosophy and Aware's philosophy are pretty aligned."

She promised Aware members last month that she would be a "strong advocate of Aware's mission", which is to remove all gender-based barriers and allow people to develop to their full potential.

She added: "If we don't change mindsets, the same problems will keep cropping up. There is no denying the importance of providing support and care services. But there is a limit as to how many people can be helped, and this only addresses the symptoms."

This article was first published on May 9, 2016.
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