Surely not, you might argue. After all, Singapore has a broad framework of legal protection and social support - the Penal Code, the Women's Charter, the Children and Young Persons Act, the Personal Protection Orders, the National Family Violence Networking System, a Mandatory Counselling Programme for culprits, survivors and their children, and regular public education though workshops, advertisements and school programmes - but this is precisely why the statistics should alarm us.
According to Singapore's 2011 UN CEDAW Report, the number of reported rapes per year in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, rose from 118, 129, 167, to 202 respectively . If reported rape is on the rise, what about the rapes and sexual assaults that go unreported?
In 2009, the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) in Singapore found that 77.5% and 71.7% of the survivors of non-partner and partner assault respectively did not report the incident to the police, and only 7% of those who experienced violence contacted specialised agencies for assistance . Although these figures refer to all types of assault, sexual assault is definitely part of this trend of under-reporting. What is it about rape and sexual assault that silences the majority of its survivors?
The trauma of reporting rape
The fact is that it is not easy to report rape in Singapore. If the survivor is badly injured by the sexual assault, she* can only go to Kadang Kerbau Hospital (KK), National University Hospital (NUH) and Singapore General Hospital (SGH), because the other hospitals are not equipped to deal with rape cases .
Yet, even at the hospital, the rape survivor cannot undergo the rape kit procedure until she makes a police report first, which is not the case for many other countries. This means that the survivor, already traumatised and unable to bathe, wash her hands, change clothes, use the restroom, brush her teeth or comb her hair in order to preserve DNA evidence, has to make an extra trip to the police station to file a report, before the medical staff can take samples of *semen and pubic hair to conduct DNA testing - and all this to be done within 72 hours of the assault.
Even at the police station, the difficulties can continue. According to Ms Sheena Kanwar, Support Services Manager at the Association of Women for Action and Research in Singapore (AWARE), a few sexual assault survivors have shared their experiences of encountering police officers who seemed to be insensitive to their trauma. This, coupled with the intense questioning in court, can be highly traumatising for those who report the crime - little wonder then, that most choose silence.
Survivors protecting known culprits
Another factor that causes many sexual assault survivors to stay silent is that most rapes are committed by known culprits - possibly their partners, friends or family members. In fact, Singapore's 2011 CEDAW report stated that in year 2009, 195 out of 202 reported rapes - a whopping 96.5% - were committed by known culprits . And of course what is documented is merely a hint at the actual numbers.
The abuse of a trusted relationship is especially traumatizing and problematic. The IVAWS found that when women are assaulted by their partners, there is little correlation between the severity of the crime and the survivors' perception of the assault. When the survey respondents were asked to recall the latest assault committed by their partner, 42.4% "felt their life was in danger", 45.5% were "physically injured", 28.9% of those physically injured "needed medical care" - yet only 20.2% considered the incident "a crime" .
"Many of these women cannot accept they are living with a criminal," said Mr Benny Bong from the Society Against Family Violence in Singapore, explaining why many choose to 'normalise' the assault and not report it to the authorities. Anecdotally, I have heard of some who choose to suffer in silence rather than strain family relations by accusing a family member of molest. I have also heard of under-aged survivors raped by a family member, who then choose to not report the crime so that they would not 'lose their freedom' by being put into a children's home for protection.
Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act: An invitation to portray sexual assault survivors as 'sluts'
Although the Penal Code protects sexual assault survivors, the continued existence of Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act is almost a gap in the bulwark, an invitation for the accused and *his defence lawyers to further traumatise the survivor by portraying her as a 'slut', since this can aid in the defence of the accused. This is because 157(d) allows the credit of the survivor to be impeached if she is shown to have "generally immoral character" - the strange assumption being that if she has a colourful sexual history, she cannot be trusted or she must have consented to the sex act in question.
In 2002, the Law Society's Disciplinary Committee dealt with the case of a lawyer who was accused of molesting his female employee (the Complainant) . During the questioning, the accused attempted to turn the tables on his Complainant by portraying her as "a woman of loose morals", even calling her a "part-time prostitute", by producing security records which showed that the Complainant had various male visitors late at night at the office. Although she reasonably explained that this was because she feared a second sexual assault by the accused, and sought the protection of various male friends as she worked late into the night, the insinuation remained.
This is why in 2010, the Singapore Law Review's Associate Editor Aloysius Chang argued for the repeal of 157(d) - because "the privacy of the victim is compromised by such attempts to discredit her, with intimate details of her private sexual life being open to discussion and cross-examination during trial. It is also obvious that this would actually deter victims to come forward and report the crime." Agreeing with him, AWARE's Executive Director Ms Corinna Lim added that "as long as Section 157(d) exists, people will be encouraged to use it to ask the sexual assault survivor humiliating questions".
A culture of victim-blaming
Another major reason for the silence of sexual assault survivors is the fear of public humiliation and possibly being blamed for the crime. There is a difference between advising people to be careful, and blaming them if they are not. For example, the owner of an unlocked house that gets burgled might be reminded to be more vigilant in locking his doors, but the burglar would nevertheless be fully punished for his crime. Unfortunately, it is not unheard-of for rape and sexual assault survivors to be vilified, and punishments for culprits lessened apparently when the survivors are judged to be partially responsible or even 'deserving' of such abuse.
In 2010, five young men aged 17 to 20 were found guilty of a "gang sex assault of a grave nature" by forcing a 17-year-old woman into penetrative sex and oral sex with all of them. Yet, the youths were not convicted of rape but of the lesser charge of aggravated outrage of modesty, and sentenced to less than half the maximum jail sentence (Section 354A, Penal Code). There was no clear reason given for this reduced charge and punishment, except perhaps that the accused were relatively young, and the survivor "wasn't completely blameless".
"Her conduct, her actions did create a certain impression on the minds of the accused persons. We cannot ignore this," one of the defence lawyers said in court. According to them, the young woman was partly to blame for being gang-raped because "she had gone to the flat even though it was close to midnight and she had no idea who she was meeting", she "drank alcohol voluntarily" and even "gave a massage to one of the boys (who later attacked her)". Most damning of all was apparently that she had private consensual sex with one of the youths and "did not leave or show displeasure".
She was certainly naive and careless, but it is a huge leap of logic to conclude that by consenting to sex with one of them, she was somehow responsible for being gang-raped by all five of them. By reporting the crime, she had to endure intense questioning from the defence lawyers who publicly made her out to be a 'slut' with 'loose morals', someone they described as partially responsible for her own rape, thereby lessening the culpability of her rapists. Is it any surprise then that most survivors would rather keep silent than endure this potential public humiliation and victim-blaming?
Writing for AWARE, Robin Rheaume emphasised that "we should educate and encourage women to limit their risks, but this should not in any way imply that the victim is responsible for being violated. We need to stop blaming the victims of rape."
The need to understand counter-intuitive responses of sexual assault survivors
Finally, there appears to be inadequate, inconsistent knowledge about the counter-intuitive responses of some sexual assault survivors, which is a gap in Singapore's framework of legal protection and support.
In the same case of the lawyer accused of molesting his female employee , it is disturbing that in spite of a major flaw in the accused's alibi, and certain evidence that corroborated with the Complainant's accusation, the Law Society's Disciplinary Committee (DC) found no need to discipline the accused based on 'inconsistencies' in the case, although these could actually be reasonably explained.
Firstly, the DC found it "difficult to accept the Complainant's evidence" because on separate occasions, "she has given three different accounts of the nature of the assault" - that the accused "tried to kiss her", that he "had in fact kissed her on her lips" and that he "had inserted his tongue into her mouth and had tried to roll her tongue with his tongue."
Surely it is understandable that sexual assault survivors may give slightly different accounts due to their embarassment at the time of questioning. Yet, the DC rejected these three 'different' accounts - which were still nevertheless similar - due to their insistence on absolute consistency.
Secondly, the DC rejected the Complainant's points because she could not remember the exact period of the assault, and instead described it as taking place between October 1997 and February 1998. "We find it unacceptable... [and] implausible that she could not affix a more definite time" to the assault, they stated.
Yet, as pointed out in the Minority Report of the case, "it is common in criminal cases before the courts of sexual offences for the victim to not be able to remember exactly which day the offence had taken place."
Thirdly, the DC described the Complainant as "[showing] resilience under cross-examination and at various points [reacting] with anger or annoyance". Using the illogical reasoning that 'strong', 'resilent' individuals cannot be sexually assaulted, they then concluded that "we find it difficult to fully accept that such an individual would put up with an assault on her". The decision-makers seemed unaware that even 'resilient' people may behave in non-typical ways when confronted with traumatic sexual assault.
Ending the silence
Singapore's framework of legal protection and social services has done good work, but as long as the majority of sexual assault survivors remain silenced by these gaps, only the vocal minority can be helped.
So how can protection and support be improved? For one, sexual assault survivors should be able to request for the rape kit procedure without needing to make a police request first, which can be a difficult decision to make within the 72 hours following the attack. Police officers and medical staff should continue to be better trained and sensitized in dealing with sexual assault. Social services like AWARE's Sexual Assault Befrienders Service (SABS)** could be better supported financially, with more volunteers, or in terms of a smoother collaboration with the police, hospitals and courts.
There should be more education to curb and deal with date rapes and domestic violence. Marital rape, which continues to be largely ignored in Singapore, should be criminalised to send a strong signal that non-consensual sexual violence within a marriage cannot be condoned.
Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act should be re-examined, and repealed. Society, the media and our judiciary need to be more aware of the victim-blaming, slut-shaming culture in order to stop perpetuating it. There needs to be more consistent awareness of the counter-intuitive responses of sexual assault survivors, which should not be used against them in court.
And there needs to be more research on sexual violence in Singapore, even in 'invisible' areas like marital rape, the rape of men, violence perpetuated by women, violence within the LGBT community, and the so-called 'corrective' rape of LGBT people (rape perpetrated in an attempt to "cure" them of their sexual orientation or gender identity) - in order to better understand and stop this very silent crime. Certainly, very much more can be done.
*Although most sexual assault victims are female, and most culprits are male, sexual assault is not gender-specific.
** AWARE's SABS Befrienders offer a phone helpline and email support and will accompany a sexual assault victim to the police, the hospital or to court, providing information and emotional support to guide and help the victim through the various legal and medical processes. This service is free.