SINGAPORE: It was just a S$2.50 meal. Even then, Wendy (not her real name) had to get permission from her then-boyfriend to buy it.
And no, it wasn’t because Wendy was financially dependent on him — she graduated from Nanyang Technological University and was a former top banker before starting a business with her ex.
It was punishment for not being capable enough to generate more sales for the company. Or so, she was told.
What Wendy didn’t realise then was that she was being psychologically abused by her boyfriend, until her friend pointed it out to her.
He told me, ‘I trusted you with all these business leads and you didn’t deliver.’ It’s the slow chipping of your mind, it starts getting very messed up. You think, ‘maybe I’m really that bad'.
In another case three years ago, Afiqah’s then-boyfriend saw some old Facebook messages she sent to her previous lover.
The boyfriend flew into a jealous rage and threatened her with a knife. Afiqah, who did not want to reveal her full name, was three months’ pregnant at that time.
“He said to me, ‘I will make sure I end your life’,” said the 23-year-old.
Both Wendy and Afiqah are among the growing number of unmarried women who have been abused by their close partners.
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They were frustrated with the lack of avenues they had to protect themselves even when they approached law enforcement agencies.
Wendy said she was told by the police that she couldn’t file a restraining order because she wasn’t married.
While Afiqah was able to file for a Personal Protection Order (PPO) for her daughter after she left her abusive ex, she is unable to get one herself because she wasn’t able to produce a marriage certificate.
Filing for a PPO is one way abuse victims can seek protection. Their abusers cannot use any form of violence — whether physical or emotional — against them once a PPO has been granted by the court. However, it only applies to family members.
This is partly why, after leaving the relationship two years ago, Afiqah said she still has nightmares and sometimes fear that he might hurt her again.
More help for victims like Afiqah and Wendy could be on the way with legal changes to be tabled in Parliament “in the next few months”, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam about a month ago.
The proposed changes to the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) will make it easier for both married and unmarried victims to seek legal protection.
The changes include setting up a new Protection from Harassment Court, quicker applications for a Protection Order, expanding the coverage of such orders to include the victim’s parents and children, as well as allowing arrests to be made without a warrant when perpetrators breach the Protection Order.
While still small, the number of casework involving dating violence has gone up from 6 to 17 between the financial years of 2015 and 2017, according to family violence specialist centre Pave.
Last week, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) revealed that it received over 4,000 calls to its Women’s Helpline last year, a 32 per cent increase from the year before.
The not-for-profit organisation, which advocates for gender equality and provides critical support services for women in Singapore, tends to field an average of 3,000 calls yearly.
STATS 'DON'T SHOW THE FULL PICTURE'
The number of PPOs filed averaged around 2,768 cases each year over the last five years, according to statistics from the Family Justice Courts.
There were over 2,500 PPOs filed in 2008, increasing to over 3,100 in 2013 before gradually declining to almost 2,500 last year.
While the overall figures do move up and down over the years, the percentage of applicants that are women has consistently been at around 70 per cent.
Though unmarried victims are not able to apply for PPO, they will be able to file for a Protection Order under POHA.
Abusers served with the Protection Order cannot threaten, stalk or harass their victims. If found to have breached conditions, they can be fined or jailed.
However, there is no available data from the State Courts on the number of Protection Orders filed as a result of intimate partner violence, since POHA also covers other forms of harassment, such as those occurring in the workplace.
According to family violence specialist centre Trans Safe, the number of cases it handles involving relationship abuse has also fluctuated over the past decade.
When both physical and psychological abuses were included, the centre saw 54 such cases in 2008, 172 in 2013 and 102 last year.
As for Pave, the numbers have stayed quite consistent, with about 175 in 2008, and 184 in 2013 and 2018.
However, social workers have said that it is difficult to draw a “substantive conclusion” just from the numbers alone, as it is mostly a function of reporting.
Similarly, an increase in reporting may not necessarily mean that there is an increase in the incidence of violence but could be a reflection of better access to social and legal support.
Ms Anisha Joseph, head of care services at Aware, said that the declining number of PPOs could also be a result of women not wishing to apply for them out of fear of being seen as the one who “broke up the family”, or out of fear of their abusive partners.
“We need to triangulate more data like (police) statistics, statistics from family violence specialist centres, family service centres, hospitals, educational institutions and even public surveys to understand the true landscape of incidences of violence and trends of reporting or seeking legal remedies,” she added.
Pave’s vice-president Alan John also said that the general view it takes is that those who come forward and report their abuse represent “a fraction of those who are actually experiencing it” and that there are probably many other victims who are still suffering in silence.
'HE DIDN’T HIT ME’
Beyond the numbers, social workers and lawyers also said that they see a growing number of cases involving psychological and emotional abuse, compared with the past where physical violence was predominant.
In fact, for family lawyer Gloria James-Civetta, she is seeing fewer cases involving physical violence.
“Ten years ago, I did not have a client who came to me and said, ‘my husband is a narcissist’. It was straightforward domestic violence. Now women are reading about it (psychological abuse) and becoming more aware,” said the head lawyer for Gloria James-Civetta and Co.
Psychological abuse can take the form of hurling of vulgarities, constant criticisms or the use of demeaning words towards one’s partner. Issuing threats, constantly surveilling one’s partner and isolation from other friends and family also constitute psychological abuse.
Ultimately, abusers want to exert dominance and have power and control in a relationship, be it through physical or psychological means, social workers say.
Whenever Nina (not her real name) told her husband about a job she was interested in applying for, he would always tell her that the working hours were too long and she wouldn’t have time for their daughter. He would also constantly mock her and criticise her whenever they have disagreements.
“Everytime he brought up our daughter, I would give in. I would feel so guilty, that I’m not a good mother,” said the Singaporean permanent resident who is from China.
Nina quit her job when she moved over to Singapore to be with her husband, also from China, and who is working as a doctor in Singapore.
When her husband decided to divorce her and not provide any allowance for her and her daughter’s daily expenses, she filed for a maintenance order.
That however sent her husband into a blind rage and he attacked her in their matrimonial home, resulting in her falling onto the floor. He then hit her head against the floor repeatedly, causing it to bleed.
She has filed for a police report and a PPO.
Beyond the physical pain, Nina said her self-esteem has also taken a blow as friends have told her that she has changed and is no longer as self-confident as before.
Psychological abuse also increases the hold an abuser has over his victim. Afiqah said her ex-boyfriend did not allow her to return to her home and even took her phone away.
He also did not allow her to go to work, leading her to quit her job, nor have any friends.
Every single day, every hour, every second, I need to be with him. At first I thought it is because he cares for me and loves me. Now I realise, it is not, he was trying to control me.
Social workers stressed that it is wrong to perceive psychological abuse as a less extreme form of violence than physical abuse.
“Words have just as much of an impact as physical abuse,” said Ms Kanniga Gnanasekaran, senior social worker at SINDA Family Service Centre, which takes in cases from all ethnic communities in Singapore.
You’ll always feel you’re not good enough, you feel you’re the one in the wrong, and that’s what happens to victims all the time.
For Jane (not her real name), the shouting and put-downs she endured from her ex-husband were “far more damaging” than the instances where he grabbed and pushed her.
“It’s the way he looked at me, like ‘Oh my god, you are the scum of the earth and you look so stupid’. He would physically point a finger right up to my face, inches from my nose and go ‘Oh, look at you’,” said the 43-year-old, who has a law degree and has many years of experience working in the financial sector.
He made me think that there was something wrong with me. In any case, the only way I could defuse the situation was to agree and say ‘Yes it is me, you’re right. This is my fault’. It eroded my self-confidence and my self-worth.
Social workers said the increasing number of such cases being reported could be a result of greater awareness of what sort of behaviour constitute psychological abuse, not because such forms of abuse did not exist before.
”Now there is better understanding of psychological abuse by social sector professionals, legal professionals and survivors themselves. So we are starting to see a shift of psychological abuse from being (an) ‘invisible form of violence’ to a ‘visible form’,” said Ms Joseph said.
At the same time, experts note that the form of psychological abuse has become more sophisticated and complex.
Ms Kristine Lam, a senior social worker at Care Corner’s Project Start — another family violence specialist centre — said that she is seeing more “subtle” forms of psychological abuse, such as driving at high speeds in a reckless manner to cause fear in victims.
The increasing complexity comes amid technological advancements and the pervasive use of smart devices in everyday life.
Family lawyer Tan Siew Kim said she has handled cases where the perpetrators installed CCTV cameras all over the house on the pretext of monitoring the domestic helpers but were actually surveilling the movements of their spouses. Some abusers had also installed GPS tracker in cars.
“The moment the wife does something, she will get a text or a call, asking her ‘Why did you feed the baby this? Why did you invite your girlfriends over?’. ‘Where did you go with the car? I know you were at this location.’,” said Ms Tan, who is a consultant at law firm Kalco Law.
The prevalence of communication devices also means that verbal abuse can occur on a more frequent basis.
“In the past, the perpetrators come home and shout and scream. Now, you have phone, email, there are more ways to reach a person, they can do it from office or even overseas,” said Ms Tan.
Social media can also be an aid in perpetuating the abuse. Ms Lam said that perpetrators have also put up demeaning posts or posts that reveal something private about the victim on social media “as an attempt to shame the victim”.
While a PPO can be filed on the basis of psychological abuse, Ms Tan said the burden is on the victim to prove that psychological abuse — mostly unseen and invisible — has taken place.
“There is a very high threshold you have to satisfy, you need to show you are very psychologically affected by this. If the guy is smart enough, he can deny it. … Sometimes, there is no message, the guys raise their voices and shout at (their partners). You can’t go to court and prove that,” she added.
For Wendy, she found it difficult to articulate to others how the psychological abuse led to the “very slow degradation” of her self-esteem:
If I go to the police and I got a bruise, I can say he hit me. But verbal abuse, there is nothing. (but it) mess ups your mind a lot.
What complicated the situation even more was that Wendy’s ex seemed to be a “perfect gentleman” to his friends and acquaintances.
“It was such a show. Behind closed doors, he turned into a monster. If I tell people he is a crazy guy, they will think I’m the one who is mad,” she added.
THERE IS NO ‘TYPE’
Women like Wendy and Jane - both well-educated and successful in their careers - are clear examples that abuse is not just limited to those from a lower socio-economic status or educational levels. This is a misconception social workers have been trying to correct.
When Afiqah started attending a group counselling session at Pave after leaving her abusive ex, she was surprised to find that there were lawyers and doctors among the group.
Not only that, some of the men who abused these women were also lawyers and doctors.
Perpetrators are “not monsters 24/7”, said Mr John, adding:
The men who come to Pave, they have a pleasant and charming side. They are generally all right, they would be guys women will go out with. … It starts off like any other relationship.
The problem starts when disagreements arise and perpetrators feel the need to control their partners, thus setting the stage for controlling behaviours to become part of the relationship.
Social workers also pointed out that there is a pattern to the abuse. After a violent incident happens, the perpetrator would usually apologise and make amends.
“He will buy flowers and do the nicest thing and that is the guy (the victim) fell in love with. Everytime she sees that part of him, she sees hope that he will change,” said Mr John.
Jane, who was with her ex-husband for 13 years, said her efforts to leave him were hampered by her low self-esteem, worn down by years of psychological abuse:
It’s like slow torture. And you do believe them (when they blame you). You love this person, you want their opinion of you to be better.
“Everytime I tried to walk away, he would become this puppy, he would cry, he would sob, he would say ‘sorry it won’t happen again, things will be different’. I always hoped things will be different and so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
Wendy said she used to think women were “stupid” whenever she read about their abuse in the newspapers.
“But when I was in situation, I was exactly like that. You don’t know until you are in the situation. Imagine your mind manipulated. You are not thinking like a normal person. You cannot see because your worldview is already warped,” she added:
They stay because of the meaning and the value of the relationship.
While income or education have no bearing on whether a woman would be in an abusive relationship, social workers pointed out that some circumstances do add stresses — such as financial worries — to the relationship, which could increase the chances of the perpetrator acting out in an abusive manner.
One particularly vulnerable group are foreign women who move here with their husbands or who marry Singaporeans.
They may bring with them certain cultural beliefs rooted in patriarchy where domestic violence is “more tolerated and normalised”, noted Ms Gnanasekaran.
Foreign women who are abused also lack the social support that Singaporean women would most likely have, given that they have left their friends and families behind in their home country and are very dependent on their husbands.
“For a Singaporean woman, there is a chance somebody may notice (signs of abuse). So in your social circle, there is someone to tell you that this is not supposed to happen to you, compared with someone who is cut off and believes that abuse is normal,” she added.
Senior social worker Shannon Chew at Trans Safe Centre also said that many foreign women are here on long-term visit passes, which are sponsored by their husbands. And some men will threaten to cancel their passes as a means of controlling them.
There is also less legal support for these women as legal aid is only restricted to Singapore citizens and permanent residents.
SMALL, INCREMENTAL STEPS
While it is hard to assess whether the incidence of relationship violence has worsened or improved based on the statistics, social workers and lawyers agree that they are seeing a lot more awareness on this issue, and that more victims are coming forward voluntarily to report the abuse or to seek help through counselling.
Some victims have also come forward because an observant friend or family member suspects that they are in an abusive relationship.
And it is not just the women. While most men who go for counselling at the various family violence specialist centres or family service centres were ordered to do so by the courts, social workers have observed a handful of abusers who are voluntarily seeking help.
Several factors may have contributed to this heightened awareness: technology, more publicity campaigns on relationship violence by government agencies as well as social service agencies, changes in the way the police handle domestic violence cases and a cultural and mindset shift on the issue.
Ironically, while technology has facilitated the increased sophistication of psychological abuse, it has also made a difference in help-seeking behaviour, noted Ms Gnanasekaran, who added:
The availability and accessibility of technology makes a huge difference. Before, people don’t know where to seek help. Now everybody has a mobile phone, they know how to google.
Police have also changed the way they respond to domestic violence. While it was deemed to be a “family problem” years ago, the ground officers are now more alert to look out for signs of domestic violence, said Mr John.
That is partly a result of greater engagement between the police and social workers.
As part of their protocol now, police officers responding to cases of domestic violence also recommend counselling even if they are unable to arrest the offender, said Ms Chew.
Social service agencies reaching out to schools, and designing their own campaigns have also led to increased public education.
For example, Pave has been working with restaurants to place its coasters — which contain a checklist of what constitutes dating violence — in their premises.
“People do pick them up and say ‘Hey, I saw this’, or they pass them on. So the awareness is up,” said Mr John.
The Government also has been more willing to acknowledge the reality that violence exists through campaigns run by government agencies, noted social workers.
For example, Ms Joseph pointed to the “Break the Silence” campaign by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which “can be really impactful to encourage survivors of family violence to come forward to seek help”.
These small and incremental steps over the years have gradually led to an overall cultural and mindset shift towards the issue of relationship violence, said social workers.
“It is not such a taboo subject anymore and that is helpful in letting victims know that they are not alone,” said Ms Gnanasekaran.
“For the longest longest time, everybody just said, ‘This is not my problem. These things happen, this is behind closed doors’,” said Mr John.
The heightened awareness and willingness to report abuse is a result of the “slow and long and hard work over many years”, he added.
While there is an understanding among social work practitioners that Singapore is heading in the right direction, there are still gaps that need to be plugged.
Despite greater recognition from the Government on the broader issue of violence against women, Ms Joseph said that there is “still a long way to go at a societal and policy level”.
For example, she noted that there have been few applications for protection orders under Poha due to the complexity of the process and cost.
Mr John believes that the only way to stop violence is to stop it early by targeting the belief systems and values of both boys and girls. Hence, Pave is working on a programme focused on talking to boys about what they have learned about violence while growing up.
Why do they think it’s all right to beat their girlfriends and wives? Where did they learn this? Who said it’s okay? And as long as there are people who think this is okay, where there are girls and women who think ‘it’s okay if he beats me sometimes’, it’s not going to stop.
“For the men who come to us, it’s something they learn from watching their fathers, or growing up being told to be in charge, and you must be strong and that people must obey you, and if they don’t, then you have to show who is in charge here and one way of showing who is in charge is to beat. … Nobody came along and say ‘no, you shouldn’t’.”
Beyond wider societal and policy changes, the victims’ desire to remain in abusive relationships despite the risk to their own safety is a constant challenge that social workers often have to work with.
And that challenge may never go away, no matter how much more educated and aware people are on this issue, said Ms Gnanasekaran.
“You have the PPO and POHA and people have the knowledge of such things. But it is also whether there is the willingness among victims to make use of these tools,” she said.
“No matter how much you educate, because violence is a cycle and there is a psychological and emotional link when (the abusers) are significant others, I think there is a limit to the work we can do.”
Notwithstanding the importance of having infrastructural support in place for abused victims to get help, the decision to continue or leave the abusive relationship ultimately rests on the victims.
For the various women interviewed, the hope to see their abusive partners change was a common factor that motivated them to stay despite the torment they went through.
Threats that harm will befall them or their loved ones also held them back whenever they considered leaving.
But they all found their own strength to break free from the cycle.
For Wendy, she drew on her previous experiences as a high-achiever and realised that she was not what her ex made her out to be, while Nina discovered that she has been constantly lowering her threshold for her husband’s behaviour.
As for Afiqah and Jane, the turning point came from the birth of their daughters.
“I didn’t want my daughter to experience what I experienced. I needed to break the cycle and that gave me the strength to say no. I couldn’t let it happen to her,” said Jane.