For a day of back-to-back meetings, she shows up in a white tunic blouse paired with jeans, looking a decade younger than her 55 years, with her hair in a crisp bob. “We’ll sit at the pantry, if you don’t mind?” she looks to you for approval. “I got us some kueh for tea.”
Simple yet homely, the no-frills open plan space with meeting pods and counselling rooms in the suburb of Dover Crescent is the centre of Singapore’s gender equality group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) – a non-profit organisation (NGO) established in 1985 that campaigns for gender equality through social services for women, and research and advocacy.
Its charismatic executive director Corinna Lim, who has been in the role for 10 years, wears her authority lightly. “This ED doesn’t have an office, really,” she smiles, settling comfortably at the pantry table. “I can work anywhere, it doesn’t matter.”
What really matters, though, is her body of work for Aware in the last decade that has been nothing short of stellar – transforming the volunteer-led group to a structured organisation, and spearheading a stack of initiatives that has seen positive social changes for women.
This year also welcomed another wave of change: The government amended the laws (which take effect in 2020) to decriminalise attempted suicide and treat marital rape as a crime, following years of campaigning by Aware and other groups. Last December, Corinna scored a coup, interviewing former American first lady Michelle Obama when the latter was in Singapore for a talk.
Corinna has more to do – and celebrate. In April, Aware will mark its 35th anniversary with the Superwomen In Concert gala at the Esplanade Concert Hall. The event, which will feature an all-female cast such as singers Stefanie Sun, Narelle Kheng and Sandra Riley Tang, is produced and directed by local thespian Pam Oei.
Doing More With Little Resources
And busy months are ahead for Corinna. “This year, we’re launching the research on workplace harassment and discrimination, as we seek tech companies to work with to provide solutions in the areas of sexual assault,” she tells Her World. “It’s more complex today in a sophisticated digital age.”
The solutions include policies for companies to ensure safety in the workplace, and better access to support for survivors. Corinna points to the rising figures from Aware’s Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC).
The last three years have seen a spike in technology-aided sexual violence cases, from 46 (2016) to 99 (2017) and 124 (2018), on social media, messaging platforms, digital cameras and dating apps. Last November, Aware launched a contest inviting the public to submit their ideas for projects to combat image-based sexual abuse.
“As an NGO, we always have to do a lot with very little resources,” says Corinna. “It forces us to be lean, very strategic and resourceful. Of course, we always have to find new ways of fundraising to generate revenue.” Aware’s 2019 fundraiser Time Traveller’s Ball, which raised a record sum of $600,000, saw a donor’s lucky dip, silent auction, new live auction, and gala table sales, for its research and advocacy work.
Corinna’s background as a lawyer, and having run her own tech company, Bizibody Technology, has much to do with how she transformed Aware to an organisation that now has a team of 25 employees, supported by a group of passionate volunteers, running its services and programmes.
“It wasn’t easy making structural changes as Aware had to go from being totally volunteer-run to having staff,” says Corinna, who also set up Aware’s training arm Catalyse Consulting, targeted at companies to prevent and manage workplace harassment. Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Kanwaljit Soin, Aware’s founding member and former president (1991-1993), recalls: “We had our limitations as a volunteer group. Most of us had day jobs and Aware’s work could not be the priority. Aware has become more impactful and sustainable under Corinna’s stewardship, with excellent services for women, and strategic research and advocacy programmes.”
Corinna’s relationship with Aware goes back a long way. While she didn’t enjoy her job as a lawyer, the practice opened her eyes to those who couldn’t afford legal advice. “I was doing legal counselling with the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers, and Aware also had that service and they needed more lawyers, so I joined them (in the ’90s),” elaborates Corinna, who holds a Masters in Public Administration from Columbia University.
“My heart went out to those who needed help, and I wanted my work to influence real, positive change.” Those were the early days when she learnt more about women’s rights. Dr Soin, then a Nominated Member of Parliament (1992-1996), later roped in Corinna and two other lawyers to draft the Family Violence Bill. “I remember the incredulous look on Corinna’s face when she first heard my idea to table the Bill in Parliament,” she recalls, fondly. “She offered to be part of the legal team, rolled up her sleeves and worked long and hard.” Though the bill fell through, the Women’s Charter was amended in 1997, adapting principles from the Family Violence Bill, which gave women more protection from violence.
Dr Soin adds, with admiration: “Corinna has grown from someone who was a little diffident, searching for her place in society to a confident leader and eloquent champion of women’s rights and gender equality.”
Eyes On The Ground
Like a savvy negotiator, Corinna speaks with fervour on a myriad of topics, tinged with the occasional dose of humour that puts one at ease. A quality that enables her to engage with different folks, whether heartlander, chief executive or civil servant.
Corinna, who has a twin sister, says: “I have regular dialogues with the government bodies that Aware works closely with. It’s important to provide feedback on various issues, and share the knowledge. We’re like another pair of eyes on the ground.”
While Aware has many loyal supporters, the group has its fair share of detractors who sometimes make hurtful comments on social media. Corinna concedes: “It (criticism) comes with the territory of making social changes, even when it’s for a better and fairer society. Still, we have to be empathetic, thick-skinned and focus on what’s ahead.”
With her wealth of experience, Corinna pays it forward, helping groups such as Daughters of Tomorrow (Dot). Dot’s executive director Carrie Tan says: “Corinna is a mentor and friend, and Aware is a big sister to Dot. From 2016 to 2018, Aware helped us with capacity-building, mentorship and funding.” To close friends like theatre thespian Pam Oei, there’s another side to Corinna. “She can be very blur for someone with an amazing brain power,” Pam muses. “Corinna approaches everything with curiosity, positivity and a twinkle in her eye.”
It (criticism) comes with the territory of making social changes, even when it’s for a better and fairer society. Still, we have to be empathetic, thick-skinned and focus on what’s ahead. − Corinna Lim
Self-care Comes First
Corinna admits she’s a workaholic. “Having a balanced work life is challenging for me as I enjoy what I do,” she says. “It’s really hard to say ‘no’ to opportunities, and taking on more stuff.” To unwind, she goes on hiking trips with her friends, having recently returned from Bhutan.
“I read books on meditation, do tai chi to keep myself sane, and I’m a fan of local plays.” Still, the most rewarding aspect in life for her is helping women emerge from adversities. “This is what I wanted to do from Day 1. What’s better, after they survive the crisis with a little help from us, they become ambassadors of the cause, or come back to help other women in need.”
This article was first published in Her World’s February issue.