I’m sitting in a circle with a dozen men and one woman and we’re talking about what it’s like to be a man in Singapore.
The group includes professionals, two cabbies, an educationist, two men in uniformed jobs, a man who wants to be a lawyer, a wedding photographer and a wine connoisseur.
These are hard-working men in their early 30s to their 60s. Most keep long hours, some juggle work and studies while trying to stay on top of their family responsibilities.
Many do their share of the housework and caring for the children. A couple of the men cook. One cleans the house, mopping the floor at night after he returns from work. Another does the laundry, and his job is to hang out and bring in the clothes.
To a man, they say they care deeply for their children, who range in age from babies to married adults. All are struggling to get a grasp on messy family situations. Two are in their second marriages.
They are at PAVE, Singapore’s pioneer specialist agency for family violence, for mandatory counselling after their wives complained to the Family Justice Court that they were being abused at home and obtained personal protection orders.
The woman in the room is PAVE veteran social worker Pang Kee Tai, who has led group sessions for so many years she could run them solo. But the men’s sessions always have a male co-facilitator, and I’m it for this group which will meet one evening a week for 12 weeks.
It’s plain at our first session that none of the men wants to be here. Everyone says he doesn’t deserve to be punished like this. There is plenty of agreement as they introduce themselves that the Women’s Charter is nasty to men. Several say their wives exaggerated the claims of physical abuse and biased judges fell for those stories because, you know, judges always believe the women.
The few who admit upfront that they did something wrong minimise their actions, and keep returning to the unfairness of landing in counselling. This goes on for a couple more weeks before the truth of each man’s situation – some much worse than others – gradually surfaces and is acknowledged.
The PAVE men’s group sessions reinforce these messages: Violence is learned behaviour that can be un-learnt; violence is a choice some men make to exert power and control over girlfriends, wives, children and others; a man who uses violence can choose to stop.
Some weeks we discuss the situations that trigger violence. For one man, it’s the sight of dirt on the floor. For others, terse WhatsApp exchanges with the wife provide the spark. One man’s suspicions that his wife is unfaithful, and her unwillingness to own up, is what it takes for violence to happen. One thing leads to another, rapidly.
Every man in the room knows the danger signals. That look on her face. When she starts comparing with other couples. His mother-in-law’s sarcastic swipes. His father-in-law’s tsks of disapproval. The children’s misbehaviour. The list goes on.
Articulating what makes them snap is key to rewriting the script, to learning to prevent trigger situations from escalating to violence. The men get this and some genuinely want to change.
As the weeks go by I realise that this is a group of men who set out wanting to be good husbands, fathers and sons but most started using violence as a short cut to having their way, to expressing dissatisfaction, exerting power, letting everyone know who’s in charge.
For many, learning to stop is easier said than done.
Who tells a boy what it takes to be a good husband, father, son-in-law and brother while also being a good worker, soldier, citizen? The men list the numerous roles they play and how little training they received for each. Who teaches boys to be men?
Most boys muddle our way to adulthood, picking things up by observing the men in our lives – fathers and uncles, our divorced mothers’ live-in lovers and new husbands, our peers and superiors in national service and the workplace. From the movies, advertisements, the Internet and even computer games.
Experts tell us that every man goes through life carrying his own “Man Box” filled with notions of what it is to Be A Man, and what can make him fail.
When we ask the men in the group to share what they have in their Man Box, they tell us: “Be strong.” “Take charge.” “Be responsible.” “Don’t cry.” “Be the leader.” “Don’t be weak.” The list goes on, and some of it was put there by women in their lives – mothers, grandmothers and maids.
Another time we ask: Can you remember what it felt like when you became a father for the first time? That was a special day for everyone, and they recalled bursting with joy and pride, and feeling like a million bucks. “It was the day I became a man,” one said.
We ask what they want for their children, and they produce a long list of hopes and dreams. “To be smart.” “To be successful.” “To be loved.” “To be a good person.”
We ask how they hope their children will remember them – the loving man who was so happy at their birth, or the violent brute they shrank from the minute he walked through the door? This shakes them up.
At the end of the 12 weeks, some of the men are determined to put violence behind them. A couple have dropped out. For the others, un-learning violence will be an ongoing challenge.
As a specialist centre for family violence, PAVE deals with some of the most horrific, sometimes tragic, cases that show the abuse men can inflict on the women and children in their lives, causing damage that lasts for years.
We know that those who seek help are only the tip of the iceberg because family violence happens behind closed doors, and even when family members, neighbours, colleagues, friends and classmates are aware, they choose to look away.
“It’s a private matter.”
“He’s a good provider.”
“She loves him.”
“He really loves the children.”
In so many cases, everyone looked away until the day the violence was too ugly to ignore, when the woman finally realised that this was no way to be loved. Sometimes it is the children – aware all along, or victims themselves – who say: “Mum, this must stop.”
More recently, PAVE has noted that the violence has worsened in intensity, with some cases ending in serious injury and even death.
Last week (May 17) a 26-year-old man was sentenced to seven years’ jail and nine strokes of the cane for attacking his four-year-old step-daughter so brutally over a two-month period that the child was left with 29 injuries, including a broken rib, a fractured forearm and bruises all over her body.
The court was told that the number of child abuse cases investigated had risen from 551 in 2015 to 873 last year. These numbers are a reason why PAVE is starting a second specialist centre later this year, for children who are victims or witnesses of violence.
For several years now, PAVE has been training social workers from other agencies and police officers and engaging various groups in dialogue. It runs programmes on dating violence and conducts talks at schools, tertiary institutions and wherever they are invited. It also uses getai performances to alert the community to the issue of elder abuse.
But little will change if boys grow up and go through life with a Man Box that tells them violence is part of what it takes to Be A Man. We’ve got to shake this rubbish out of that Box.
A version of this story appeared in The Straits Times on May 19 2017. For more information on PAVE, Singapore’s pioneer domestic violence agency, go to www.pave.org.sg