Sometimes I wish I was a Chinese man. Then, when I start talking about family violence in Singapore, people listening wouldn’t look at me and think right away: That’s a sad and awful Indian problem.
It happened again this week, when I attended a meeting of people in the social service sector and the man next to me asked which agency I represented. I told him I was with Pave, Singapore’s lead agency dealing with domestic violence. He was interested in what Pave did, the kind of cases and how many we saw. And within two minutes, he asked the question uppermost in his mind about men who beat women: What race are they?
“Mostly Chinese,” I said, and his surprise was familiar. Like many others he assumed family violence in Singapore is mostly an Indian problem. When Pave’s social workers conduct training sessions for community groups, they often start by asking: “Who do you think commits violence at home?” The answer, invariably, is Indian men.
In Pave’s experience, most of the Singapore men who abuse – “the perpetrators” as the law refers to them – are Chinese. Malays and Indians follow, slightly over-represented compared to their proportion in the population. Even after being shown the statistics from more than a decade, the disbelieving will say: “Are you sure? Maybe Indians just live with it.”
The message to end family violence needs to go out to everyone, because violence has no place in any relationship. But sometimes I wish I was a Chinese man who could speak and write in Chinese so I could do a better job of convincing Chinese women and Chinese men that family violence is very much their community’s problem and that women who are abused need help, and the men who abuse need to learn to stop.
Pave has been in existence as an independent agency for 14 years, though its family violence programme goes back many more years to the time it was pioneered at the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre. Social worker Sudha Nair was working at the FSC when she spotted the cases and counselled women, children and men. It took a particularly horrific case of a severely battered woman and her three traumatised young children to convince her that more needed to be done. Together with social workers like Pang Kee Tai and Soh Siew Fong, Dr Nair worked out what needed doing and got started. Pave was later spun off as an agency on its own, and Dr Nair heads it. It now has centres in Ang Mo Kio and Siglap, with a third coming up next in Yishun to specialise in children who are victims or witnesses of family violence.
I’ve been on Pave’s management committee for a decade now, and we’re fortunate to have a superb team of social work professionals running the place. Many times our meetings have just fallen silent, as one of the social workers described a particularly shocking case, or told us of a woman abused for years until an unbearably devastating incident finally drove her to seek help.
Race is almost never the issue. Always, the questions are: Why did she put up with it for so long? Why did he think he had a right to attack her repeatedly? Why didn’t the people around them, who knew, help? So many times we’d be told the violence began during courtship, that the women married their abusive partners nevertheless, imagining that having children and the power of love would change their men. That never happened, for countless women who have come to Pave battered, bruised and broken.
Pave held its annual general meeting on July 18. The agency handled 995 cases in 2015 and two out of three were cases of spousal violence. Nine in 10 victims were female, and more than nine in 10 perpetrators were male. Pave helped 256 women obtain personal protection orders from the Family Justice Court. The agency also runs programmes for men, mainly those ordered by the court to undergo counselling. Pave has begun to see cases of elder abuse, and we expect that this will figure more prominently as Singapore ages. If it is tough for women to get away from their violent partners, it is much, much harder for old people to say their own children are abusing them. There are too many heartbreaking angles to this story.
The race breakdown of Pave’s cases in 2015? Chinese, 55 per cent; Malay, 25 per cent; Indian, 15 per cent; with a mix of others making up the rest.
I jest when I say that I sometimes wish I was a Chinese man to help spread the message better because, really, the fight against domestic violence is not about race.
It’s about what adults teach children about relationships, love and how to treat the people closest to us. It’s about what girls and boys pick up from watching their mothers and fathers, from the movies or what they learn about falling in love, marrying and that Till Death Do Us Part promise.
It’s about the countless girls and young women who think a boyfriend is demonstrating care and attention when he checks his girlfriend’s mobile phone messages, or demands to know who she saw and spoke to while she was away from him. It’s about the girl who thinks it’s sweet when her boyfriend decides what she can and cannot wear in public, or how she should do her hair. It’s about the girl who, after he slaps her the first time, is persuaded that it was actually her fault and she deserved it, because he was so remorseful and profuse in his apologies afterwards when he explained that she drove him to behave that way.
It’s about women who marry the men anyway, hoping for change, and parents who know yet allow their daughters to marry the men who will batter them for years to come. It’s about wives and mothers who are slapped, kicked and get their heads banged against the wall, who lose their hair and suffer unspeakable humiliation and injury and put up with it all – for years! – because this is too private and shameful to speak about, because they feel they have no options, and because they want to keep their families together, for the children’s sake.
It’s about men too. So much of it is. It’s about men’s notions of power, control and what they’re entitled to as “the stronger sex”, as well as their perceived rights as husband, father and head of the household. But that’s another story I’ll share another day.