#Opinion Of The Day

The day I was followed home by a stranger in a car

I used to go out running. On weekends, I would run from my childhood home to the nearest mall in Kovan, then walk back up the hill listening to music on my iPod.

I stopped going on runs when I was 16.

It had been a morning run like any other, up until the part when I was walking back up the slope of Flower Road, when I noticed a car moving slowly along the road.

The driver smiled at me. He was youngish, in a neon green shirt with sunglasses perched on his head. I figured perhaps that he was property-hunting, and ignored him.

Further up the road, I realised the car was still inching along after me. The driver had rolled down the window and was trying to catch my eye. Maybe he was lost, I thought, and wanted directions. I took my earphones out.

He did not want directions. He wanted me to get into the car.

I turned away and kept walking up the slope.

The car crept after me. I ducked into a cul-de-sac, even though it was not on the way home. To my unease, he turned into the cul-de-sac too. I spun around and headed back out to the main road.

Flower Road was devoid of people. I did not ever remember seeing it so empty before. I had grown up in this neighbourhood, played in its streets, knew it like the back of my hand. It was the safest place I knew. Now I looked up and down the road at the locks on the gates, and wondered how long it would take someone to answer if I cried out for help.


The writer has stopped going for runs since the incident. PHOTO: ST FILE

The car had reached the main road again and was trailing me. I could hear the driver calling out, trying to get my attention. I kept my eyes on the road. I regretted leaving my cellphone at home. I ran only with my iPod and $2, neither of which was much good in this situation.

I tried turning into another side road and sure enough, he followed me. This road, I knew, narrowed in the middle; it would be harder for him to make a three-point turn. Once I was confident the road was tight enough, I threw all caution to the wind, spun around and ran for home.

I was not a very fast runner; I knew I had bought myself some time, but not much. Behind me, I heard the roar of the car as it came up the hill after me.

I rounded the corner and saw my grandmother in the grass patch outside our house, weeding. I fled to her; she asked me why I was running, but I was so out of breath I could not answer her. The car did not stop; the man simply drove past and disappeared.

I did not make a police report, partly because I could not remember the car plate number, partly because neither my grandmother nor I fully grasped what had happened. What might have happened, if I had not led the car into that side road; if I had not run when I did; if she had not been out weeding. I did not know if the man was doing the same thing to other girls in the neighbourhood; if, now that he knew where I lived, he might come back for me.

Perhaps, I told myself, it was a thing that happened to everyone. That all girls were, at some point in their lives, followed home by strange men in cars, and we would just have to deal with it.

Still, I could not make myself go running again. In fact, I could not leave the house unaccompanied for the next month or so, or lay eyes on any length of Flower Road without shaking.

Over the years, I did my best to forget this incident - until last week, when several international schools, mainly in the Dover area, sent letters to parents urging them to be vigilant, after students reported alleged attempts to lure them into vehicles.

The police said after investigations that these were not kidnap attempts, but rather instances of people trying to be helpful by offering the students a lift.

The reactions of schools and parents to these reports might be seen as excessive paranoia, responding to these good Samaritans with hostility and police action.

Some lament that such behaviour is likely to further discourage acts of kindness in a society that is already less and less open, where - according to a survey last year by the Singapore Kindness Movement - Singaporeans prefer their privacy to mingling with their neighbours.

It is one thing to urge vigilance against, say, terror attacks. Everyone can agree on joining forces to guard against an insidious foreign influence. It is not so easy to accept that you might also need to be vigilant against dangers that emerge from within your own society, when the lines between kindness and kidnap are so easily blurred.

There is nothing I would like more than to live in a world in which we could all depend "on the kindness of strangers", as Blanche DuBois says tragically after her mental breakdown at the end of Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire.

I would like to be able to raise my future child in such a world. But the awful thing is that I am more likely to teach her to run from strangers. Maybe she will have to walk in the rain, or take longer to get to school. But if she ever meets a man in a car who will not take no for an answer, I need to know that she will run.

My own experience is probably an outlier. But because of the terror of that one day, trusting a stranger is not a risk I feel I can take any more. And if schools and parents would rather be safe than sorry, I understand why.

But there are plenty of kind folks out there. My colleague recounts how, when she was a teenager, she and a friend got lost and accepted a lift from a stranger in a coffee shop, who took them where they wanted to go.

Another time, she was frightened when a man in a car drove up next to her, but it turned out he only wanted to let her know that her backpack was hiking up her skirt. It would be a pity, she says, if a climate of fear means people are less inclined to do these things for strangers.

What we can try to do more is to practise the sorts of kindness that help allay the fears of others. If you are walking behind a woman or child at night, you can cross the street so they feel less threatened. If you see a vulnerable person being harassed in the street or on public transport, step in to defend him or her. If a child does not wish to get into your vehicle, on no account should you follow him or her to press your case.

What we need before we build trust is empathy. Empathy makes sense of the fact that a stranger can be kind without an agenda. Empathy helps us understand that trust is a truly difficult thing to ask of some people, and to respect that.

I will always be afraid of the sound of a car coming up behind me. That fear will not go away.

But let us help one another not to live in fear, but to live with it.

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 28, 2018, with the headline 'The day I was followed home by a stranger in a car'. Print Edition | Subscribe