Note: The following account is to the best of my memory, and there might be slight errors of accuracy in terms of exact words used or precise order of the sequence of events. However, I believe that overall it gives an accurate picture of the interactions on that evening. I write this account in my personal capacity, and the views expressed here do not represent that of any organisation I am associated with.
I was one of the speakers at ‘Apa Itu Activist?’ Forum, a civil society conference that took place on 20th September, where activists in Singapore came together to share advocacy experiences, strategies, and build solidarity.
After the event, some activists decided to go to a café for drinks and dessert, and a friend and I were invited along.
Soon after we arrived at the café, one individual (let’s call him X) said to another person in the group, “It’s so fun to make sexist comments when there are people from AWARE here.” X went on to be really loud, boisterous and rude, and repeatedly made sexist comments to rile me up and congratulated himself every time I showed displeasure or discomfort. This has happened several times in the past when I have interacted with X, and when I have asked him to stop, he has simply talked over me or mocked me.
A while later, the friend I was there with hugged me and X said something like, “Don’t do all your nonsense here in front of me.” My friend then kissed me on the cheek, and X said to her, “Oh please, I’m not going to believe it till you fondle her breasts.” And when my friend did not, X sniggered and encouraged another person at the table to “fondle” a third party’s chest. I am unsure if this person (a man) was uncomfortable with their chest being grabbed. It is possible that they were entirely comfortable, but I cannot be sure. X then said something like, “See they did it.”
At this point, X looked at my breasts and said, “Oh you have quite a delectable pair of breasts ah?” Another person at the table (let’s call them Y), chipped in with, “Ya, she has beautiful breasts,” and then they both tried to guess what size bra I wore. This went something like X saying “I think must be 36C” and Y said “No, definitely 38” etc. There were some other comments exchanged about my breasts which I cannot exactly remember.
From the moment when X first started to comment on my breasts, I began shaking my head ‘no’, repeatedly said I was uncomfortable and told him to stop. But they did not stop. When I said “This is not OK,” X countered saying “OK lah”, meaning, “it is OK for me to comment”.
X and Y then went on to ask other men in the group what they thought about my breasts, making comments like “You also like tek tek, right?”
When X was trying to get other men to comment on my breasts, I glared at him and said, “Can you please stop,” again. This time, he said “Not ok, ah?” and after this, the conversation shifted.
No one else said anything throughout the time X and Y were making comments about my breasts despite my protests, though my friend muttered to herself a few times (in a way that was audible to me) that this was not OK.
After this, I stopped talking to X or responding to his attempts to talk to me and directed my attention towards other people at the table. But X refused to leave me alone and repeatedly poked my arm, saying “Talk to me lah. I need to be the centre of attention. Just tell me we’re friends.” I pushed his hand away several times and said “stop”, but he continued. Then he asked my friend, “Can I poke you instead?” and she said “No”. He more or less left us alone after that.
X later recounted to others at the table how, the week before, a staff member at the same café complained/expressed discomfort when X sexually harassed them (X used the term “sexual harassment” when describing his own behaviour). X said he was told by the management to stop and went on to apologise to the concerned staff. He also referred to some of his other behaviour that night (not described here) as “sexual harassment”.
After the incident, I tried to solicit support from some others at the table by asking “Why is X behaving like this? What’s wrong with him? He’s making people uncomfortable!” and was told that it was “ADD” or “insecurity”. I said to the others that this wasn’t the first time X had made me feel uncomfortable and that I have told him in the past to stop. I was told to “just ignore him”. One person at the table asked me if X had really offended me. I said “yes” and that person said, “I’ll talk to him later.” I don’t know if they did.
X has made comments about my body/appearance/dressing several times in the past, as well as made repeated sexist remarks in my presence. I’ve tried to call him out and expressed anger and discomfort many times, but he has not stopped. He has seen me get evidently upset both in the past and on that day, and responded by trivialising it, or making further sexist comments about how my reaction is typical of women/feminists. This is why I feel this cannot be resolved by speaking to him privately and directly yet again.
I am publishing this testimony because while no one should be allowed to behave like this, people who have taken on the responsibility of defending human rights, equality and social justice have to be held to especially high standards of behaviour. We cannot stand by and watch when they violate the very principles they defend.
Moreover, sexual harassment and sexist jokes/remarks are barriers to women’s participation in public life, and in this case, civil society. If women cannot feel safe participating in civil society, their voices will be heard less in the push for social change.
I have, on several occasions, avoided or given up working on civil society projects or avoided going to events I was interested in because I did not want to face such behaviour. I have also encountered other women who feel marginalised in civil society because of the everyday sexism they have to deal with, as well women who have experienced being talked over and having their views disregarded in civil society forums. Sexism therefore works to diminish and exclude women from important public conversations.
For Singapore civil society to be an inclusive space for all people, including minority or marginalised groups and individuals (especially minorities within minorities), we must interrupt each other when we see discriminatory behaviour and intervene when someone is being harassed. It is not easy to call out our friends or intervene when our peers are making someone uncomfortable, but it is essential that we do what it takes, whatever it takes, to reject harassment and exclusionary behaviour in civil society spaces, because everyone deserves to participate fully in them and be treated with respect while they do so.
I have decided not to name the activists who were involved in this particular incident because they are prominent, well-liked and active in different spheres of civil society, and naming them might have serious consequences on both them and me. Moreover, I hope to draw attention to the issues rather than the individuals. Sexism and sexual harassment are problems that transcend these few people. In fact, they are an everyday reality that women have to confront in larger society. We cannot allow for civil society to tolerate it as well. I hope, through sharing this, to have a conversation about what true inclusivity means to civil society and how we can keep these spaces safe for everyone who would like a stake in it.