Blindsided by dirty old men

Singapore is such a safe place that I was surprised when my younger daughter didn't want to go running alone during our trip back last year.

I discovered why when we went to the park connector near where we were staying.

From some distance back, I could see a man, who looked to be in his 50s, running alongside her and saying something to her. He stopped only because she kicked up her pace and left him in her dust.

When I asked her later, she said he was asking her for her name. My 16-year-old. Being hit on by a man more than three times her age.

On another occasion, my daughters were lounging by the condominium pool when they were invited by some boys to a movie.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

"Wow," I told anyone who would listen. "Singaporean men are buayas."

It's only got more pronounced as they've got older. This year, even having their parents with them did nothing to deter the lascivious stares and remarks they received from men as we were out and about on the streets.

Their 16-year-old friend, visiting Singapore for the first time, was the recipient of a flattering remark on her first ride on the MRT by a man old enough to be her father who should have known better. She didn't know where to look.

They were blindsided.

In our home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, men do not make a habit of staring openly or passing remarks on women in the street.

At first, I thought it must be the big city environment that was bringing out the unsavoury behaviour.

But when we visited the Perhentian islands in the north of Malaysia, the girls were also harassed - on one occasion by locals who followed them as they were looking through swimsuits in a small beach shop.

I wasn't there when it happened, but it elicited a reaction from one of the girls, who made a gagging sound that one of their stalkers imitated. Later, there was an argument with her sister about whether it had been safe to react that way, for it might simply have made the men angry.

The child who had made the sound said it was fine since mum and dad were within sight. I agreed. I don't think those boys would have dared to try anything and I thought it was brave of her not to walk away, but let them know in no uncertain terms how she felt.

Indeed, it made me feel ashamed that I had done nothing on any of those occasions to tell off the losers who had thought there was nothing wrong with leering at a strange woman - worse, a young girl - and making her feel uncomfortable.

Instead, I reacted as I had always reacted, which was to walk away quickly from an unpleasant situation.

That might be a smart thing to do for one's personal safety, but why does the onus have to be on a woman to avert a dangerous situation? What about men having respect and knowing how to behave appropriately by not bestowing unwanted attention?

And then I ask myself, if my daughter feels it is incumbent on her to walk away or that she has somehow brought it upon herself, what does that teach her about how to deal with more aggressive behaviour she may encounter from men in the future?

What would she do, for instance, if she was sexually harassed at the workplace?

This is a perennial issue that is getting a lot of attention now in the United States, with Fox News founder and chairman Roger Ailes being forced to resign recently because of sexual harassment allegations by a growing number of woman employees.

The accusations came to light when a former news anchor, Gretchen Carlson, brought a sexual harassment lawsuit against the 76-year-old television executive.

Even as Fox painted her as a disgruntled former employee, other women stepped forward with their accounts of how he had made sexual advances to them.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump also sparked a protest when he implied that women are harassed because they are not strong and that if it happened to them, they should look for a new career.

Ask for a transfer. Walk away.

Luckily, most people don't agree. Two weeks ago, the Attorney- General's Chambers filed a disciplinary complaint against a defence lawyer for focusing on a molest victim's body during a trial.

Edmund Wong Sin Yee was sharply rapped by the trial judge for his sexist and insinuating line of questioning, which also drew protests from the prosecution.

The right to travel on public transport unmolested is "sacrosanct", said District Judge Shawn Ho, and it is irrelevant what a victim's appearance or clothing is.

It's not a great example to set, not to call out those who think they can make sexist remarks to a female with impunity.

It might be a stretch to go from a catcall to molest or workplace harassment. But a girl who's taught not to escalate a situation and to walk away may make a habit of avoiding confrontation that follows her later in life. It's on all of us to stand up to the behaviour she is at no fault of causing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'Blindsided by dirty old men'. Print Edition | Subscribe