Molesters on public transport. Voyeurs accused of installing hidden cameras in toilet cubicles. Alleged underwear thieves. A ring of husbands suspected of conspiring to rape each others’ wives. A man going around public housing estates, sniffing, then urinating and ejaculating into women’s shoes to “relieve stress.” A high-performing university student receiving a light sentence for molestation, thanks to his “potential to excel in life.”
Singapore prides itself on being one of the world’s safest countries. Theft, robbery and violent crime are uncommon occurrences, but in recent months, the same has not been true for one glaring subset of offenses: lurid sex crimes ranging from peeping toms and panty-snatchers, to molesters and rapists.
Unpacking the month of June 2020 alone is revealing. A 53-year old man was found guilty of raping his daughter twice in one night and holding a knife to her throat; a 28-year-old repeat offender was jailed for 14 weeks for molesting teenage boys on a bus; a 75-year-old sports coach was found guilty of rubbing an 18-year-old athlete’s genitals over her clothing (while similar charges against him involving a 16-year-old were dropped); a 20-year-old student was handed an 18-month probation sentence for recording multiple upskirt videos, while a non-student was sentenced to 21 months’ probation for filming students showering in a university residential hall; a lawyer at a top law firm pleaded guilty to taking upskirt and down-blouse photos of his colleague.
This same month, a doctor was acquitted of rape, with his convictions of sexual assault and outrage of modesty overturned. The doctor was accused of penetrating a patient with his fingers, lubricated with his own saliva, but in Singapore, rape is legally defined as penile penetration without consent. The Court of Appeal sided with his defense that he suffered from erectile dysfunction, and found the victim’s testimony to be incoherent.
And of course, this litany of cases does not include those that were neither reported to authorities nor covered in the media.
Complete statistics for rape and sexual assault from the last two years are not publicly available. However, a 2017 article from The Straits Times, the country’s most circulated newspaper, reported from State Courts data an overall increase in sex crimes since 2012.
According to figures from the Singapore Police Force, outrage of modesty cases—which include molestation, indecent exposure, and voyeurism—have similarly risen in recent years, and the issue “remains a key concern.” There was a shocking 21.8 percent spike in cases between 2016 and 2017, and another 11.9 percent increase the following year, followed by a modest 5.6 percent drop, to 1,632 cases, in 2019.
Meanwhile, the gender-equality advocacy group AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) observed a near-tripling of tech-enabled sex crimes, such as upskirting and revenge porn, from 2016 to 2019. Smartphones and miniature digital cameras have allowed perverts to capture and share shots with ease, both within private Telegram groups and on public boards.
“Sexual violence of any kind is about asserting power and control over victims,” said Shailey Hingorani, AWARE’s head of Research and Advocacy.
“Though sometimes seen as ‘less severe’ than acts like rape, outrage of modesty lies on the same continuum of sexual violence and is underpinned by the same factors,” she added.
Cultural and societal issues further exacerbate the problem. A strongly sexist and misogynistic streak runs through Singaporean online communities, rampant on various Facebook groups and pages, as well as the tech enthusiast website HardwareZone’s popular EDMW (“Eat-Drink-Man-Woman”) sub-forum, the rough Singaporean equivalent of 4chan’s infamous /b/ board. Platforms like HardwareZone and Telegram also happen to be self-policed, unlike Instagram and Facebook, which operate under stricter content policies.
In these male-dominated communities, women are frequently the subject of sexual objectification. Pictures of women are commonly taken from elsewhere on the internet, including personal social media profiles, and reposted on forum threads and private chat groups filled with lecherous comments, regardless of the images' original intent or audience.
Singaporean women are also often portrayed stereotypically as childish, demanding, privileged, materialistic, and vapid gold-diggers who prefer rich white men—sarcastically referred to as “Ang Mo Dua Kee” (Hokkien for “Big Dick White Guy”)—over ordinary Singaporean men, or “Sinkies.”
In a similar vein, a trio of ex-radio-DJ podcast hosts recently found themselves embroiled in controversy after passing sexist and misogynistic remarks on air. Following the incident, many on social media criticized the hosts’ attitudes towards women, and shared their own experiences with misogyny within the Malay-Muslim community.
A rampant culture of hostile sexism and sexual objectification, a lack of empathy, and a perceived sense of invincibility stemming from prevalent sexual assault myths and victim-blaming attitudes contributes to such behavior, AWARE’s Hingorani told VICE News.
“Many men still harbor beliefs that women owe them certain things—such as affection or sex—and they feel publicly shamed when they don't receive that from women,” she said.
Mandatory conscription for Singaporean men in the military, police, or civil defense forces has at times resulted in a toxic discourse around gender politics, in which men frequently take their sacrifice as justification for “all other gender inequalities that women face.”
Singapore remains a largely conservative country, meanwhile, and sex education in primary and secondary schools continues to take a “consequence-based” approach, placing an unrealistically heavy emphasis on abstinence, rather than conducting frank and comprehensive discussions on consent, contraception, and expressions of sexuality.
“There is plenty of room for greater public education to address sexism, myths about sexual violence, and victim-blaming attitudes,” says Hingorani.
“More open discussion of consent and respect for individual boundaries needs to be instilled from a younger age—for instance, through comprehensive sexuality education in the school system, instead of moralistic or dogmatic abstinence-centric programs.”