Sexual crimes remain under radar in S'pore

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 25, 2013 

LAST Friday, an unemployed 24-year-old was sentenced to jail for impregnating two teenage girls. The same day, a 38-year-old army officer was also sentenced for sex with an underage prostitute.

In recent weeks, a religious teacher, a recently released convict and a national serviceman were also sentenced - all for raping or sexually assaulting women and teenage girls.

These crimes did not make international headlines. They were all done by someone known to the victims.

As Singapore marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women today, it is timely to ponder how common, really, are sexual crimes here?

After a steady rise in the middle of the past decade, reported rape cases here have fallen in recent years - from 202 in 2009 to 132 last year. Meanwhile, outrage of modesty cases here - mainly molest cases - has risen from 1,273 to 1,420.

Data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which compiles yearly statistics on the issue, show that there were 1,546 crimes involving sexual violence reported to the police here in 2011, the latest year for which global statistics are available.

Rather than report only rape, the UN figures include less serious sexual offences, since these too can cause deep psychological scars. In some cases - like that of a teenage Institute of Technical Education student who jumped to her death after complaining of being molested by her lecturer - they can even trigger tragedy.

Significantly, the UN figures from Singapore do not include data on crimes such as sexual assault, attempted rape and sex with minors - all routinely reported by developed countries. Had these been publicly available, Singapore's overall sex crime rates could be higher.

Interestingly, international statistics show that largely peaceful, developed countries have far higher rates of reporting sexual violence than developing nations with well-documented histories of violence, war and strife.

Switzerland, for instance, reported 79.5 such crimes per 100,000 people in 2011, Canada had 77.4, New Zealand had 75, and Finland 60 - all higher than Asian countries such as South Korea (40.3), Singapore (29.8), Japan (6.4) and India (5.9).

It could thus be argued that these statistics are more a reflection of women's empowerment rather than the lack of physical safety in any given country.

Significantly, despite many of these countries offering civil damages to victims too, the number of false cases remains low.

A government study of nearly 5,700 rape cases in Britain from 2011 to 2012 showed that there was enough evidence to prosecute the complainant for making false allegations in only 35 cases.

At 84 crimes per 100,000 people, Britain has a high reporting rate for sexual offences. Other smaller studies there and in the United States and Australia have put false reporting rates at between 2 per cent and 8 per cent.

So what does all this mean for Singapore? Women's rights and family violence activists have been clamouring to raise reporting rates here ever since a survey on violence against women in 2009, which polled more than 2,000 women, showed that three in four who experienced physical or sexual violence did not report what happened to them.

The study was funded by the National University of Singapore. This data corresponds to a smaller, more recent study by women's group Aware, which runs a helpline and support service for victims of sexual assault.

Out of 132 women who e-mailed and called the helpline saying they were victims of sexual assault, only one in three had lodged complaints with the police. The vast majority knew the perpetrator.

There are many reasons for this. In a society with a premium on privacy, many women do not want the publicity that goes with dragging these cases to court. Others keep mum for fear that they would be disbelieved or bring shame on their family.

In a recent case, a 25-year-old who said a friend had raped her the previous night decided not to report the case as she did not want her parents to know she had been out drinking with a man in the early hours of the morning.

Yet others stay away because of onerous sexual assault reporting procedures here. Under the current laws, a rape victim, for instance, must report the crime to the police before being able to undergo a medical examination to assess injuries and preserve crucial DNA evidence against the perpetrator. These "rape kits" can be administered in only three hospitals.

Making public data on prosecution and sentencing rates for serious sexual crimes like rape could embolden more to report. Singapore used to make public such numbers in the late 1990s, but stopped a decade ago - significantly after a sharp fall in sentencing rates for rape.

Interestingly, at least one other developed country - Australia - has taken recent steps to improve reporting rates of sexual crimes. According to UN figures, Australia's sexual violence reporting rate - at 25.2 per 100,000 people - is lower even than Singapore's.

In a talk here in July, top cop Anthony Breen, who investigates sexual crime in Australia's Victoria state, said such crimes were the only crime statistic police "want to increase" - because that would mean more women were empowered enough to report them.

It was a powerful if provocative argument, but one that makes much sense especially in the context of Asian nations where the fear of public suspicion and shame often overrides the desire for justice.

Rather than be content that the low reporting numbers reflect safety for women in and around Melbourne, the Victoria Police embarked on a mission to make investigations more "victim centric".

Child and adult victims of all sexual offences are referred only to multi-disciplinary teams of officers who have been specially trained to deal with them. Medical professionals, counsellors and law enforcement officials are all housed under one roof to make the reporting process easier.

Unlike in Singapore, victims do not need to file a police report before they can get a medical examination or see a counsellor.

"There is no need to sign anything or fill any forms. Victim welfare is our primary concern when a victim first comes to us," said Detective Sergeant Breen, who coordinates the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigations Teams in Victoria.

To avoid circumstances that make the victim seem like the perpetrator and ensure privacy, on-site investigations are conducted by plainclothes officers who drive unmarked cars. Crime- scene tapes are not used for the same reason. The changes are recent - and thus it's too early to see results.

But for those interested in women's safety in Singapore, it's definitely a development worth watching.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 25, 2013

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