SINGAPORE - Girls and women here enjoy a relatively high degree of safety, but this may not be the case when they are online, said Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann on Saturday (June 5).
She and Parliamentary Secretary for Communications and Information and Health Rahayu Mahzam were speaking to the media following a closed-door public engagement session with more than 100 participants to discuss how to protect women and girls from online harm.
The session was conducted after an offensive online poll came to light in May. It ranked female Islamic religious teachers according to their sexual attractiveness.
Ms Sim said on Saturday: "I think that most women will agree that (in Singapore), our emphasis on law and order creates a very safe environment for them. We walk on the streets without worrying too much about what will happen to us... We've also come very far in terms of women's access to education, as well as to the workplace."
But she noted that the situation online is different and concerning, with reports of women getting harassed or receiving unwelcome advances.
Women in those cases may not know what to do because that treatment is "quite different from their experience in real life", said Ms Sim.
And while the harassment may take place online, the harm and distress that is caused affects victims in their real lives.
There is also a potential spillover effect, with people becoming desensitised to online discourse that objectifies women, which may eventually affect how both sexes interact with each other in real life.
Furthermore, some of these online interactions can be a precursor to offline harm, such as sexual violence, said Ms Sim.
She added: "What we hope to do is close this digital safety gap so that we avoid a situation where women feel that experiences, as they live, work, study and interact online, become quite different from real life. And we also want to prevent a deterioration of the online space, which may then translate to an undermining of women's real-life safety as well."
Ms Sim, who was formerly Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), said that she and a team at MCI have been engaging various stakeholders in an effort to tackle this issue.
A Singapore Together Alliance for Action will also be launched later this year to deal with online harm, especially the kind targeted at women.
One of the ways this could be done is by setting up a one-stop centre for victims to find support, where people can also report problematic online content.
The alliance will also educate parents on talking to their children about and moderating their exposure to online harm.
But the rest of society has a part to play too, and both Ms Sim and Ms Rahayu said they were heartened by the fruitful discussion they had with participants who raised issues such as the need to educate the next generation and foster respectful interactions between men and women.
One of the participants, Singapore Muslim Women's Association president Hazlina Abdul Halim, said that, in the 21st century, "locker room talk" where women are objectified has migrated out of locker rooms into online chat groups.
Madam Hazlina added: "The question is, how do we change the mindset so that people don't even think (such thoughts), let alone say them?"
She said that more education is also needed for the older generations so they can understand the severity of what goes on in the online world and what their children may be experiencing.
Another participant, Associate Professor Elmie Nekmat, said that men have an important role to play, and that to a large extent, women face more serious types of harm online than men.
The deputy head of the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore added that people sometimes view topics such as gender equality or female empowerment as a battle between men and women.
"But we shouldn't be viewing it that way. It's a battle that men and women engage in together... for every individual to achieve equality," he said.
Ms Rahayu noted that gender stereotypes are sometimes perpetuated by women as well and that both sexes need to be involved in tackling this issue together.
"We should apply some of our offline values to the online space, where some of us may be a little bit desensitised," she said.
She added: "There is a need to come together and talk, and do that meaningfully without necessarily cancelling anybody out, but being very firm about our stand on what things are unacceptable and what we do not wish to see in our community."