My focus today will be on Area 3 – Taking a Strong Stance against Violence and Harm. I will thereafter make two observations about workplace culture and public policy making.
I welcome the government’s recognition that there is a need to enhance protection for victim-survivors of family violence. The extent of family violence tends to be significantly under-reported worldwide. We can understand why this is so, for reasons ranging from emotional attachment to the perpetrator to not wishing to incarcerate a breadwinner. To that end, I was glad to see the footnote on page 9 of the White Paper, which recognises the need to look at self-reported data to supplement official data, if we are to have a clearer picture of the prevalence of domestic violence.
The White Paper affirms, among other things, that there is a need to strengthen societal attitudes against family violence and enhance preventive efforts for persons at risk. It was also stated that for victims, reporting of family violence should be made easier, and that immediate help should be available to reduce the risk of repeat violence. As for perpetrators, the Paper affirmed the need to increase perpetrators’ accountability and rehabilitation.
I would like to add my perspective on some areas that I believe will be critical in making a difference on the ground. This is in particular reference to Action 13 on Enhancing Protection for Victim-survivors of Family Violence.
The response and attitude of law enforcement to reports of family violence is critical. It was stated at page 54 that, moving forward, the team responding to cases of family violence will include social service professionals. I do agree that tackling family violence benefits from a comprehensive approach. At the same time, I am concerned that the proposed multi-disciplinary first response may inadvertently result in a police mindset that the social services will take the lead from the start. If the first response is, for want of a better word, a “softer” one, there may be a perception amongst perpetrators that they can try to explain their actions away. As for victims, it is vital that they do not encounter responses that appear to de-criminalise their experiences or, worse, attribute blame to them for precipitating the violence by their own behaviour. If they do encounter such dismissive attitudes, they are unlikely to report again.
On this note, I should mention the special vulnerability of persons with disabilities. There is evidence from other countries that women with disabilities disproportionately experience domestic violence and sexual violence. Given that disabled persons may be less able to defend themselves, we must be mindful of our special duty of care towards them. It was mentioned in the Paper that frontline officers currently already undergo sensitivity training. I wonder if there is any component or other training to equip officers to respond to victims of violence who are disabled?
I next move on to discuss cases of repeat violence. Repeat violence is not uncommon in family cases. Besides investigating cases after they have occurred, are the agencies looking into strategies to prevent the incidents in the first place? In particularly high-risk cases, how much resources are agencies willing to put in? At first blush, it may sound impossible for external persons to prevent incidents that happen within the home. However, it has been done, to some extent and with success, elsewhere.
To illustrate my point, I will take an example from the UK. In the 1990s, police in Merseyside innovated with a rapid response initiative to address cases of repeat violence identified as particularly high-risk. As research had showed that a repeat incident was most likely to occur within days of the first incident, victims were issued with neck pendant alarms for a short period of time; when they sensed that a violent attack was imminent, they could activate the alarm so as to open a voice channel to law enforcement officers. The officers would then be able to hear what was going on in the home, talk to the victim if needed, and decide if a rapid response to the premises should be dispatched. This initiative was indeed resource-intensive, but it reaped significantly positive results for victims not only in reducing repeat incidents but in reducing fear of crime, immensely improving the quality of life of themselves, and often, their children too. I cite this example to illustrate what a strong commitment to bringing down family violence might entail. Will our agencies be innovating their own preventive strategies in particularly serious cases?
I know that family violence is not an easy matter, as it is often multi-faceted and related to social factors such as alcohol consumption, anger management issues and the like. Victims are usually in a difficult position, as sending their spouses to jail often impacts the family economically and in that sense, can be “unaffordable”. This in turn may lead to agencies to face ambivalence from victims, who report for protection and then withdraw when it comes to prosecution.
Before I leave this topic of Family Violence, I would like to comment on possible mindset issues to be overcome within law enforcement itself. The need to strengthen societal attitudes against family violence applies to frontline officers too. This is not a new issue, and neither is it confined to Singapore alone. Being a police officer carries a certain, almost romanticized notion of going after bad guys, and girls. While there may be other motivations, there are many officers I know personally who enjoy the adrenalin rush of handling murder cases and going after organised crime syndicates. Some officers may not find handling family violence cases quite their cup of tea. If they bring reluctance or disinterest to such cases, the public will feel it. It is thus important for the official HR policy for career progression not to relegate such duties as unimportant, and thereby affect an officer’s career prospects. Beyond official HR policy, there is also the issue of the unofficial culture i.e. what officers talk about in the canteens – which is much harder to overcome.
We deserve gender-neutral work places. What does this mean in practice? Hiring and promotions of employees on equal footing, male or female, is fundamental. To this end, like Ms He, I welcome the pending anti-discrimination legislation and stronger fair employment guidelines, as steps in the right direction.
There is a further aspect that is more insidious, and that is, again, culture. There was an example of this that made international headlines last year. Then New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo faced allegations that he had sexually harassed female employees. In his defence, he said that he was unaware that his behaviour of touching female employees was offensive, and attributed it to his Italian heritage. Do we have similar challenges here too? How many women bear with unwarranted contact from male superiors because they want to keep their jobs? A fleeting touch may seem harmless to some. However, it bears remembering that physical touching without consent could well amount to the offence of outrage of modesty.
What about something less than touching, such as making loaded comments? To cite a personal experience: Decades ago, when I was a law enforcement officer, it was suggested to me by a male superior that I should put on make-up when I came to work. I did not take offence at the time, as I simply dismissed the comment as crazy since we were not running a modelling agency. But thinking back about it today, the comment was probably made innocently, but was it appropriate? Would such comments impact other women much more deeply?
We do not want to go to the extreme of resorting to litigation for such matters. But to avoid undue pressure on females in the workplace, employers and society as a whole would need to step up and educate themselves too.
Public Policy Making
The White Paper recognises that female participation is necessary for standard setting. This is seen under the section on Mindset Shifts at Action 24. There is express recognition that there is a need to improve gender diversity in the standards community, so as to develop gender-responsive standards. Examples cited were minimising workplace accidents with health and safety standards, and ensuring food in Singapore was safe for consumption. It was stated that Enterprise Singapore and the Singapore Standards Council would develop a new gender strategy in 2022.
In order to track whether such initiatives are effective, I would make the general point on the need to continually collate and publish data on a gender-aggregated basis. This is essential for meaningful analysis in gender-sensitive policy making.
Related to standard setting, there is mention in the White Paper of the importance of having more women in leadership roles as CEOs and directors of companies. That said, it is also vital to have more women in political leadership, which I consider to be standard setting at the national level. I was glad to hear Minister Josephine Teo earlier highlight the increased presence of women in this House and that society was better off for it. I had spoken on this topic in August last year, on the Workers’ Party’s Motion on Gender Equality. I do not intend to repeat myself here, save to say that this is a critical peg that we all need to work on.
In summary, I have spoken on Family Violence and shared my observations on some areas that we should consider or at least be mindful of, especially regarding the response of law enforcement. I have also touched on workplace culture and its impact on the experiences of female employees. Finally, I have reiterated that standard setting in public policy also requires gender-aggregated data and significant women participation in political leadership.