It shouldn’t be this difficult for victims of sexual harassment to say “me too” in Singapore

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Yesterday, it was reported that national hurdler Kerstin Ong lodged an official complaint with governing body Sport Singapore (SportSG) accusing her former coach of demonstrating verbal and physical behaviour which left her “uncomfortable”. The coach has since been fired, and police investigations are ongoing.

Kerstin demonstrated great courage in stepping forward. Many women in Singapore are victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault and tet, many cases go unreported. From Kerstin’s description of her experiences, it is easy to see why.

1. The pressure to keep things hushed

“They were upset I reported it. They said I should always try to solve it from within…”
– Kerstin Ong

In Kerstin’s words, “You always respect your coach so you don’t really get angry with him, and I also didn’t dare …”. When the association interviewed her team mates, some of them who, according to Kerstin, were either witnesses or victims, feigned ignorance and others later retracted statements which backed up her account. Kerstin explained: “They were upset I reported it. They said I should always try to solve it from within…. they started ignoring me… I was really sad, they were friends and they turned against me,”

This happened, I argue, because of two problematic aspects of Singaporean culture.

First, we seem to believe that we should never air our dirty laundry in public, and any grievance should be handled “behind closed doors”, even if it is clear that the power dynamics behind “closed doors” is often disadvantageous towards victims.

Take for example the rhetoric we heard from many Singaporeans when PM Lee’s siblings made serious allegations against him – they were criticized for airing their family’s dirty laundry and that such matters should be settled in private, even though there were good public policy reasons to bring those allegations out in the public.

In any case, forcing victims to settle matters behind closed doors can lead to sickening consequences, especially when it comes to sexual assault – in Malaysia, some rape victims have been forced to marry their rapists as part of “closed door” settlements since reporting the matter would bring “shame” to everyone involved, including the victim.

Second, we prioritize the harmony and stability of the group over the well-being individuals, even when they are unjustly discriminated against or harmed in various ways.

For example, when Shrey Bhargava, a Singaporean-Indian actor, called out the producers of “Ah Boys to Men” for what he found to be a racist audition process, many Singaporeans were upset at Shrey for allegedly inciting racial tensions by bringing up a racist experience, since it sparked a divisive and uncomfortable conversation about race (mainly involving Chinese people denying racism exists, and racial minorities insisting it does). I have explained in another article why this attitude is wrong, since it is equivalent to telling an oppressed minority to tolerate oppression, since speaking out will upset ‘harmony’.

The same attitude emerges when it comes to sexual assault – victims are discouraged (even obstructed) from speaking out because speaking out will necessarily initiate an uncomfortable conversation about sexual assault, and which may lead to tensions within a group or institution. However, it is easy to avoid uncomfortable questions when one is not a victim, and certainly very advantageous if one is a perpetrator.

Hence, I argue that we should have these conversations even if it makes us uncomfortable. This is because if that is what it takes to protect the dignity of people we care about and make them feel safe, then it is damn well worth the discomfort.

2. Victim-blaming

Our society has a tendency to place the blame of sexual assault (at least partly) on the victim. I have written about how this is an extremely flawed and regressive attitude. Yet, it remains prevalent in our society.

Furthermore, if you were to ask the average Singaporean man whether they would break up with their partner if they found out that they had been a victim of rape, or at least see them in a less positive light, or consider their partner’s experience a ‘stain’ of some sort, a surprising number will respond in the affirmative. I know this because I have posed this question to others before, and based on their responses, it is clear to me that our society (and men, in particular) have a long way to go before we begin to understand that being a victim of sexual assault does not diminish a person’s self-worth, and their sexual history ought not to be a reflection of their value as a person, especially when they were subject to actions over which they could not control, and which were a result of someone else’s morally wrong choices.

Treating victims of sexual assault in a negative light, either as being responsible for their experience, or treating their experience as a ‘stain’ on their self-worth only makes it difficult for them to step forward, which worsens the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault in our society, and our ability to deal with them.

3. Refusal of institutions to take responsibility

“We have already terminated his service. The case is already closed.”
– SA president, Ho Mun Cheong

When confronted about the incident, SA president Ho Mun Cheong simply said: “We have already terminated his service. The case is already closed.”

This is an extremely horrible thing to say. Through his choice of words, Mr Ho revealed a deeply problematic attitude. He seems to suggest that terminating the coach’s service “closes” the matter – as if that is really all that counts. It clearly does not, since it does little to address the fact that the coach was employed during the alleged assault.

Furthermore, even if it “closes” the matter for Singapore Athletics, what about the victim? Did Mr Ho spare a thought for her? The matter does not simply “close” for her just because the coach was fired. She went through a harrowing experience which will remain with her for the rest of her life. What about future victims, or other current victims (e.g. her team mates) who have been too afraid to step forward?

By only bringing up the matter of the coach’s employment status with respect to Singapore Athletics, Mr Ho’s priority seems to be the well-being of his institution, and not of the victim, or future victims – there was no expression of regret, no explanation of existing policies against sexual harassment, no encouragement of any other victims to step forward and no promise to take the necessary action to deal with any future cases. Instead, Mr Ho appears to believe that by firing the coach, he could make the problem go away.

“if it’s a criminal case and the coach is found guilty, the association will let the court have final judgment. We don’t wish to comment any further.”
–  SA president, Ho Mun Cheong 

One might argue that it is best to leave it to the police; this seems to be a very common attitude. According to Toh Boon Yi, chief of SportSG’s Singapore Sport Institute, “having reviewed the contents of the complaint, we have advised the athlete to make a police report.” Mr Ho also commented on behalf of Singapore Athletics: “if it’s a criminal case and the coach is found guilty, the association will let the court have final judgment. We don’t wish to comment any further.”

Of course a police report should be filed; this is a very obvious thing to do. But only saying that a police report should be filed, and not making further comments suggests that these institutions’ knee-jerk reactions to matters like these seem to be a desire to abdicate the responsibility of investigating the matter to the police and the courts. It appears to them that that is good enough. As mentioned previously – there appears to be no need for any expression of regret, no explanation of existing policies, no encouragement of any other victims to step forward etc. In fact, they did not even articulate what their stance on sexual assault is, independent of the innocence or guilt of the coach. They appear to have simply thought – leave it to the police; it is their problem now. How is this taking proper responsibility for the well-being of one of our nation’s athletes?

The fact of the matter is, simply leaving it to the police is not good enough; a more vigorous response is needed, and the middle-aged male leaders of these sporting bodies do not seem to realize this.

“SportSG will not be making any further comments on this matter.”
– Toh Boon Yi, chief of SportSG’s Singapore Sport Institute

When the social media hashtag #MeToo emerged, millions around the world started using it to share experiences of sexual assault and harassment, and many men responded with the hashtag #IWill – meaning “I will change” or “I will do something”. It appears that the leaders of our nation’s sporting associations would have found the hashtag #NotMyProblemAnymore more appropriate for them.

Conclusion

“If it’s wrong, it’s wrong… We don’t have to be afraid, and we shouldn’t tolerate this. Why must somebody suffer in silence?”

Kerstin mentioned to the press that the #metoo movement contributed to her decision to step forward. In her words, “If it’s wrong, it’s wrong… We don’t have to be afraid, and we shouldn’t tolerate this. Why must somebody suffer in silence?” She was extremely courageous in speaking up, and hopefully her decision will inspire other victims to speak up too.

On the other hand, the way our society and our institutions deals with ‘taboo’ issues such as sexual assault is extremely damaging to its victims. It prevents them from stepping forward, and gives perpetrators a level of immunity from being held to account for their actions.

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Photo credit: Channel News Asia

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