“There’s a common misconception that sex crimes don’t happen in Singapore, but clearly—that’s not true,” Dani Pereira says. The lawyer and activist is talking about the viral #MeToo movement in Singapore, ahead of a panel on the same subject she’ll sit on for Awarefest 2020, Aware’s first ever festival held in celebration of their 35th anniversary.
While global in nature, #MeToo has picked up speed in Singapore in recent years, with a series of high-profile voyeurism cases showing that even on our seemingly safe island-state—sexual violence does occur. If you’re not hearing about it, Pereira says, it’s because of the stigma survivors fear they may face when they speak up.
Pereira got a firsthand taste of the same treatment years ago, when she confided in those closest to her about her own experiences with harassment. “The worst thing you can do when someone opens up to you about sexual violence is ask them what they did to deserve it,” she shares over Zoom. While several friends claimed that her talking about what she had gone through made them uncomfortable, Pereira’s mother encouraged her to try and get over it quickly to move on with her life. “My mother had the best of intentions, but didn’t understand that I needed time to heal. My boyfriend at the time, on the other hand, immediately asked me what I had been wearing when it happened. He insisted that I must have known, I must have done something to invite the harassment.”
“He started describing his sexual fantasies about me… it quickly got very graphic. This was a man I shared a room with at work”
Commonly seen victim-blaming behaviour like what Pereira faced stunted her from talking about her experience. Instead, she tried to pretend like it never happened. “I ostrich-ed,” she says, “by essentially burying my head in the sand.” Then, she chanced upon the #MeToo movement on Instagram in 2017. “I became so obsessed. I read every article about it. I got newspaper subscriptions just to spend up to eight hours each day reading every piece of coverage about #MeToo that you can possibly imagine,” she says.
Sympathising with other survivors’ stories of sexual violence helped Pereira realise that she had never quite come to terms with her own experience with sexual harassment in the workplace, which had happened just a year prior. 10 years her senior, Pereira’s boss at the time expressed his romantic interest in her at a café near their office—catching her off-guard during what she thought was going to be a conversation about work.
“I just sat there in silence as he went on and on about how he thought we were meant to be together,” she says. “I couldn’t leave the table without making a scene because he was blocking my way, so I just stayed frozen in fear and wished it would end.”
To Pereira’s horror, her boss’s words soon took a turn for the explicit. “He started describing his sexual fantasies about me… it quickly got very graphic. This was a man I shared a room with at work. I had to sit two metres from him all the time.”
Even through the fog of shock she was in, Pereira politely but firmly declined her boss’s advances. “I told him clearly, I am very sorry—but I have never, and will never feel this way about you.”
Far from taking her words at face value, her boss then launched a series of persistently inappropriate encounters—all, according to Pereira, in the hopes of persuading her to enter into a romantic and sexual relationship with him. As his employee, she endured continual and relentless harassment at his hands—from daily psychological intimidation to being kept late in the office doing inane tasks, to having his interest in her referenced during performance reviews. “It was traumatising and filled me with so much dread. I’d have to throw up in the bathroom before going into the office because I knew what was waiting for me.”
When Pereira turned to the only other female lawyer in the company for advice, the response she got set her back further. “She told me—and I’m sure she genuinely thought she was helping—to just keep my head down and not say anything.”
“Not saying anything was so damaging for me, on a psychological level, an emotional level and even a physical level,” Pereira says. She fought against the harassment by lodging formal complaints with Human Resources, but was met largely with silence and tough resistance from higher ups in the company. “They wanted me to stop with the accusations,” she recalls pensively. “It didn’t matter what I had actually gone through—they just wanted me to go away. It almost felt like I was the one who had done something wrong.”
Given the intense gaslighting and victim-blaming Pereira went through, her journey to healing wasn’t an easy one. She found that the key, however, came down to one simple thing—helping others.
“The minute I started speaking out about this in public, I cannot tell you the number of people—including my own friends—who started telling me about their own experiences. I get calls from people all the time now saying, “This happened to me at work, what can I do?” The fact that I’m able to help other survivors and share my experiences with them means everything to me,” she says.
Pereira now works closely with Aware as a spokesperson against sexual violence, as well as platforms like Hear to Change, which allows survivors to submit stories about their own experiences with sexual violence and harassment under complete anonymity.
Sparked by the spread of the #MeToo movement in Singapore, it provides a safe avenue for survivors to bare their souls if, for example, they are not able to speak out openly for legal or personal reasons. “Knowing that you can come to this website, share your story and get support is so important. We may not know who is writing each one, but there will always be a comment at the end of every story that says—we believe you. We know that was incredibly difficult to do, but thank you for sharing anyway because it helps to expand people’s understanding on sexual violence in Singapore.”
“Making the justice process as supportive as possible will help encourage survivors to come forward”
Pereira’s work with Aware—Singapore’s foremost gender equality and women’s rights advocacy group—was born out of an urgency to spread the word about the importance of the anti-sexual violence movement, as well as an admiration for the agency’s work in championing women’s rights in Singapore.
“The amount of groundwork the organisation does every single day to protect women and marginalised communities in Singapore is just amazing. At the beginning of the #MeToo movement, there was a 79 percent increase in calls to Aware’s Sexual Assault Care Centre. They are a massive source of support for survivors here,” Pereira shares. “They even work with our police force and lawyers to better equip our justice system with the tools to effectively prevent sexual violence and treat survivors properly.”
This, according to Pereira, is a key tenet in how Singapore can move forward in its journey to eradicating sexual violence and creating a safer environment for survivors. “Ideally, the criminal justice system should be more survivor centric,” she says. “My personal experience has been that the system is all about the the perpetrators’ rights—which, as a lawyer, I definitely think is important. But it does not negate the fact that the process first and foremost needs to be supportive towards the person making the complaint, because often, this person has survived something really horrific. On some occasions, having to repeat their story multiple times and field inappropriate questions can re-traumatise the survivor.”
Pereira adds, “Making the justice process as supportive as possible will help encourage survivors to come forward. For example, we should have designated, specialised police stations, or sections within the police force to deal with sexual assault reports. Everyone within those sections should be trained and qualified accordingly.”
As for how the #MeToo movement has evolved in Singapore, Pereira thinks that things are marginally better now—with lots of room for improvement. “There’s this whole new narrative about men now being scared to speak to women,” Pereira says. “That’s just not true. If you’re a normal person, this doesn’t apply to you. The #MeToo movement is something you should be excited by. But if you were going to speak to somebody in a way that was not appropriate—then yeah, be scared. Because even if you are a person with power, you cannot just get away with sexual violence anymore.”
Awarefest is hosted virtually via Zoom and will run till 29 November. Festival passes and tickets to Dani’s panel ‘#MeToo in Asia: One Continent, Many Movements’ can be purchased on aware.org.sg/awarefest. All proceeds from the festival will go towards Aware’s NextGen Fund.