Singapore women take the #MeToo train with the internet as their main tool

The #MeToo movement has never had as much of an impact on Singapore as it has on the United States; now women in asian nation join hands in protest against toxic masculinity

According to a 2019 survey of 1,019 Singaporeans, 45% agreed that women who wear revealing clothes shouldn’t complain if men comment on their appearance. Surprisingly, almost half of these respondents were women. Image: iStock

She wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, but her case illustrates Singaporeans’ attitude to bullying: in 2019, National University of Singapore (NUS) student Monica Baey took to Instagram to denounce a comrade who had filmed her in the shower in a university hostel. NUS had treated the voyeur leniently.

A new type of solidarity has begun to take root in Singapore. The women decided to take a stand against gender-based violence. They speak up and urge the institutions to better manage the problem. And the Internet is their main tool.

Baey used it to rally support. This is particularly important in the context of Singapore, where the state controls mass media institutions – newspapers, radio and television – at the expense of civil liberties and freedom of the press. Yet 90% of Singapore’s population used the internet daily in 2022, creating fertile ground for digital activism.

Tens of thousands of Singaporeans have pledged their support through online petitions, calling for tougher penalties and a reopening of the case. Forced by public outcry and under pressure from the Department of Education, NUS formed an examination board of female students to reform its disciplinary system and deal more effectively with cases of sexual misconduct.

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For sparking a national debate on sexual harassment, Monica Baey received the Woman of Courage Award from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in November 2019.

Addressing gender-based violence remains a challenge

The fight against gender-based violence remains a difficult struggle in a country whose government seems more reactive than proactive and where most people are less brave than Baey to stand up against institutions and defend themselves. As Baey noted, many women wrote to him about sexual harassment, most of which feared the repercussions of manifesting in a society that remains conservative and patriarchal.

Along with words of support, Baey also received messages from netizens accusing him of attention seeking and trying to ruin the offender. This is an example of victim blaming, in which men deny the prevalence of gender-based violence and claim that women are responsible for their own ordeal.

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According to a 2019 survey of 1,019 Singaporeans, 45% agreed that women who wear revealing clothes shouldn’t complain if men comment on their appearance. Surprisingly, almost half of these respondents (44%) were women.

Striving to help women resist intense gaslighting and victim blaming by an unsympathetic public, activist Dani Pereira has revealed she was inspired by the #MeToo movement to speak out against inappropriate dating, psychological intimidation and sexual harassment she had suffered. Even AWARE leader Corinna Lim had spoken of her own experiences, citing the #MeToo movement as her inspiration.

However, the #MeToo movement never impacted Singapore the way it did the United States. In mid-2021, Lim was still calling for greater public awareness of gender-based violence and calling Singapore’s National Service (military conscription) an institution that breeds toxic masculinity.

The initiative of the government

In response to growing calls for state intervention and mediation in the entrenched problem of gender-based violence, the government has launched a national gender equality review in 2020. Government officials, organizations of grassroots and women’s groups participated.

In March 2022, the government presented its findings to parliament. The white paper claims to build support and awareness of resources to address workplace harassment and implement a national framework [to prevent] abuse and harassment that can occur in sport, but its limits are obvious.

Educational institutions, where many cases of gender-based violence occur, remain outside its jurisdiction. The newspaper’s vague and sometimes ambiguous wording also reveals the government’s “gesture policy”. It refers to the broad state ownership of existing campaigns or movements in the form of statements and open support, which functions more as political rhetoric and tactic rather than having substantial effect.

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Platitudes and token gestures appear to be more important than substance as the technocratic, economy-minded government engages with civil society largely out of political necessity.

In Singapore, molestation or indecent exposure carries a maximum prison sentence of just two years. Meanwhile, thieves face up to three years in prison. A stricter law could have a stronger deterrent effect on gender-based violence. Educational institutions could step up their response when students report instances of inappropriate behavior.

The recent NUS sexual misconduct complaints, which promise fair and transparent investigations, are a positive change from passivity and indifference. The test will be whether such words and intentions can begin to undo a longstanding culture of gender-based violence.

(This story was first published on 360info.org)

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