The Big Read: Singapore’s voyeurism problem – what’s wrong with men, or the world?
Spycams and phone cameras are taking voyeurism to unsavoury new heights, but the published statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, experts say.
SINGAPORE: Every time freelance writer Clare Lee, 27, uses a changing room when trying on clothes in fashion outlets big and small, she will take a few minutes to inspect every nook and cranny in her cubicle for hidden cameras before feeling safe enough to undress herself.
For 27-year-old Fiona, who did not want to give her full name, she will always double-check that the curtains in her bedroom or hotel are fully drawn such that there is not even a teeny-weeny gap for anyone to peek through, and steer clear of unattended baskets in supermarkets.
Freelance content creator Hilary See, 27, would refrain from standing near the edge of the escalator where people can look up her skirt, and try to use either a bag or a file to cover the back of her skirt while climbing the stairs.
With spycams and phone cameras taking voyeurism to unsavoury new heights, these women are among a growing number of people who have taken extra precautions to protect themselves and their private spaces.
As Fiona, who works in the media industry, said of her actions:
This might be irrational fear and excessive caution, but it is better to be safe than sorry. We hear so many stories that hit so close to home, it’d be unwise to not be on our guard.
Singapore has thus far been spared from the epidemic of digital voyeurism that has damaged many lives in South Korea. But the furore which erupted last weekend over the case involving National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Monica Baey, 23 — who was filmed secretly while she was showering in a residential hall — is a reminder that the Republic is far from immune to the problem, and that more could be done to protect victims of voyeuristic acts.
On the same weekend that the NUS incident went viral on social media, a 19-year-old man was caught allegedly taking photographs of another man showering in a male toilet at a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) residential hall.
This was the second case in four days which occurred in an NTU residential hall, after a police report was lodged on Apr 18 against a 22-year-old male hostelite who allegedly filmed a fellow student while she was showering the previous evening.
For some victims, like a 27-year-old civil servant who declined to be named, the fear can linger on for years after the incident.
Eight years after she became a voyeur’s victim, the woman still wonders if the explicit video taken in a toilet cubicle at the now-defunct Butter Factory nightclub has been deleted for good, even after she tried to settle the matter by confronting the culprit through an acquaintance.
“I just have to have blind faith and hope it’s been erased. It has been many years, and I (still) think about it now and again,” she said.
She added that there are times when she feels that she will “run out of luck”, and the video will surface when she is at the prime of her life and “truly destroy" her.
She did not go to the police back then as she was having sex in a public space when she was secretly filmed, and was afraid she might get herself into trouble.
Ms Anisha Joseph, head of the sexual assault care centre at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), said there is sometimes a misconception here that non-physical abuse such as voyeurism is not as harmful or traumatic as physical abuse.
While victims of voyeurism aren’t physically assaulted, it does not mean that emotional and psychological damage does not exist, she stressed, pointing out that AWARE had seen cases where victims could feel intimidated, ashamed, angry or powerless at the unwanted exposure.
Psychological effects can be long-term, and can run the full gamut, from developing a fear of others, depression, and anxiety, to suffering flashbacks, numbness and denial, she added.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Experts said that the true extent of the problem of voyeurism is far deeper and broader than the ongoing NUS saga.
Unreported cases are common, said the experts who noted that published statistics are just the tip of the iceberg.
It was revealed in a written parliamentary reply in October last year that about 230 voyeurism cases involving hidden cameras were reported to the police in 2017, up from some 150 cases in 2013.
Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said this was partly because more people are willing to step forward to report these cases.
Nevertheless, the authorities have moved to tackle the problem.
The Criminal Law Reform Bill was tabled in February to address growing concerns over the surreptitious recording of people in various states of undress or intimacy — an offence which is not sufficiently covered under existing laws. It aims to criminalise the production, possession and distribution of voyeuristic recordings.
Should the Bill be passed in Parliament, voyeurs could face up to two years in jail, caned, and/or fined for each charge, and be slapped with an enhanced penalty if the victim is below 14 years of age. Current laws provide for only up to one year in jail, and/or a fine.
Criminal lawyer Rajan Supramaniam from Hilborne Law LLC, who has handled more than 50 voyeurism cases, said he had come across increasingly more cases involving the use of mobile phones and spy cameras in the past five years. And more teenagers are coming to seek his legal help.
He is currently representing a 17-year-old who was slapped with 14 charges after secretly filming upskirt videos of two of his teachers at two secondary schools last year, by placing his mobile phone, which was on recording mode, on his classroom floor.
After being caught the first time, the then-Secondary 4 student was given a conditional warning and transferred to another school, where he re-offended before he was charged. Investigations found that he had also unwittingly filmed someone showering by leaving his phone on a shelf in his own bathroom.
Clinical psychologist Joel Yang said he is seeing one new case a month, on average, in the past one-and-a-half years. Quite a number of his clients are voyeurs who have not been reported to the police, and were referred to him by concerned parents, schools, or employers.
He has also seen a few cases of individuals who sought help on their own volition.
One case involved a 32-year-old banker who was about to get married. He was afraid that his habit, if left unaddressed, might jeopardise his relationship with his girlfriend whom he had been seeing since his NUS days.
She still does not know that he had been a voyeur since university, where he had filmed women showering in his dormitory and that he had taken upskirt photos on escalators at shopping malls and in the MRT.
He had stopped such behaviour for a few years after graduation, but relapsed this year after a job switch. The unisex toilet at his new workplace was a big temptation, and he was almost caught in the act once when a female colleague from the same department walked into the washroom, and saw him kneeling down suspiciously before a cubicle.
Although she did not say anything since the banker was deft at hiding his phone in his leg sleeve, that episode was his “trigger” in seeking help, said Dr Yang.
“He realises that it is something illegal and morally wrong. He is religious, so he also doesn’t feel like this behaviour is appropriate. But he describes it as like a bit of an addiction,” he added.
Psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow, who was formerly chief of the Institute of Mental Health’s (IMH) Addiction Medicine Department, is also seeing more voyeurs seeking help at his clinic. Five years ago, he probably come across one to two such cases yearly. But now, a year can see him handling two to three cases.
ELSEWHERE, AN EPIDEMIC IN SOUTH KOREA
While digital voyeurism has reared its ugly head in Singapore and many other countries, it has become a hot-button issue in South Korea. There, the men have been slammed for perpetuating a spycam “epidemic”, where thousands of people have been filmed by “molka”, or hidden cameras, without their knowledge.
The fear of digital peeping toms has led South Korean women to stuff tiny balls of toilet paper into any holes they find in bathroom walls or cover the holes with tape, as the number of reported molka crimes rose sharply from 1,353 in 2011 to 6,470 – an average of 18 cases a day – in 2017.
In March, police said that more than 1,500 hotel guests in South Korea were secretly filmed, and their private moments unknowingly streamed live online, as suspects had planted mini-cameras with 1mm lenses in digital boxes, hair dryer holders and wall sockets of 42 rooms at 30 hotels in 10 cities.
The molka problem had already sparked much anger before this, with tens of thousands of women taking to the streets in June last year, in what local media reported as the biggest women’s rights demonstration in South Korean history. Several more large-scale protests followed, where protestors held up signs that read “My life is not your porn”.
Meanwhile, similar scandals have rocked the K-pop industry, with singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young, 30, and BIGBANG boyband member Seungri, 28, embroiled in an ongoing spycam porn sex-crime scandal.
While the problem in Singapore does not appear to be as serious as in South Korea, experts said that the situation could get out of hand if voyeuristic acts are allowed to be regarded as “normal”.
The rising cases of voyeurism in Singapore could be the result of people being exposed to excessive amounts of pornography online, said case workers and some men interviewed for this article.
A lecturer in his 30s, who declined to be named, recalled that during secondary school, he and his friends would, out of mischief, loiter at a shopping mall where the flooring had enough reflection for them to catch glimpses of women’s underwear.
He said they would cheekily whisper to each other “Eh, zao kng leh!”, using a Hokkien term to refer to how someone had accidentally exposed herself.
Growing up at a time when not every home was equipped with Internet connection yet, he also recalled how he and his peers would dare each other to visit pornographic websites, which “secretly everyone of us was curious to see”, in a display of manhood.
To him, chancing upon pornographic materials and their childish reactions to them was a rite of passage for him and his friends to explore their sexuality.
Now, as an adult, he worries that things can get out of hand for today’s youths, given factors such as advancing technology and the unfettered online environment.
Swimming coach Vickel Chan, 25, said he would be disgusted if any of his friends were to tell him that they had voyeurism videos.
“Why do such despicable things? It is other people’s privacy ... (Furthermore,) you are just going to embarrass yourself when you get caught,” he said.
Mr Steven John Lam, director of Templars Law, said the act of peeping was “not new”. The lawyer said that during his time more than 20 years ago, male students used to climb up a staircase landing of a multipurpose hall at a university here, where they could peek into the female changing room, and they would be chased away by anyone who saw them.
In the 70s and 80s, the biggest problem posed by voyeurs was them lurking in corridors of public flats to peep into rooms, and through gaps in the bathroom, Mr Lam pointed out. The voyeurs have merely changed their tactics in the past 10 years, when camera phones became widely used, he said.
Dr Yang said people tend to have stereotypical images of those who have voyeuristic tendencies — they are viewed as not very successful in getting the attention of people they find attractive, or have specific sexual fetishes.
However, he said, the issue cuts across all sectors of society, regardless of gender, education, and social-economic class, and most people who admitted to have such tendencies are normal-looking individuals, with good jobs and normal relationships.
“It could just be something that caught their attention once when they were surfing a porn site or something like that. And then it sparked their interest, and (they) wanted to go try it,” he said, noting that this did not necessarily mean that they had became obsessed with porn.
A lot of it could be maladaptive ways of coping with stress or boredom, he added, pointing out that his clients had reported thrills of being able to “get away with something”, apart from them getting the physiological turn-on.
“It is a real problem but I think if we overly-stigmatised it, then people might be less open to treatment or less forthcoming,” said Dr Yang.
Mr Rajan cited a 2013 case where his client, a banker, had been watching about one hour of pornography daily since his university days to relax, and felt uneasy and distracted when he could not watch it.
The man started his own collection of upskirt videos after being introduced to it through an Internet sex forum, where the culture was to share self-made videos with others members.
For four years, whenever he encountered attractive girls during lunchtime around Raffles Place, where he worked, he would consider following them and looking for opportunities to film an upskirt video with his handphone. By the time he was caught, he had amassed 596 obscene films in his computer.
Dr Cheow Enquan, a consultant with the IMH’s Department of Forensic Psychiatry, said that based on his experience, people with a voyeuristic problem struggle with admitting it given that Singapore is largely still a conservative society.
“This problem is viewed as shameful by many people. It is even more stigmatising when this amounts to a mental disorder and one has to seek treatment from IMH,” he said.
He noted that voyeuristic acts “bring only temporary relief at most and do nothing” to resolve the underlying stressors which are often financial or occupational in nature.
“Some perpetrators do feel guilty about their behaviour but this does not prevent them from continuing to engage in voyeurism,” he said.
He reiterated that not every voyeur has a mental disorder. For those who do, it can be treated with a combination of medication and psychological therapy. “Medication can be used to reduce impulsivity and sexual urges while psychological therapy would help to address the underlying deviant sexual thoughts,” he added.
VOYEUR COMMUNITIES EMBOLDENING INDIVIDUALS
With the formation of online communities, such as the SammyBoy forum, more might feel tempted to seek out voyeuristic thrills for themselves, having been a covert consumer of such videos.
Nominated Member of Parliament (MP) Walter Theseira noted that there is a substantial number of netizens who consume such voyeuristic content and drive demand even though they would never dream about taking part in the act of filming.
“Without active passive consumption by the online community, people won’t feel so emboldened to take these films because the consumption helps to normalise the act,” said Associate Professor Theseira, who is from the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
This could be why the norm around voyeurism is “nowhere as strong as the social norm around, say, child sex offences or rape”, he said.
The rationalisation is that if a victim never finds out, it appears to be a victimless offence. This allows voyeurs to think they are not bad people.
Recent high-profile court cases involving online voyeuristic video-sharing groups provided an insight into how such dynamics worked.
Such groups could be nodes where more boys or men solidify certain thought patterns, be it the objectification of women or other misogynistic attitudes, the experts said.
Dr Winslow said voyeurism shows up more in cultures where male supremacy is predominant and women tend to be objectified.
“I think Singapore is a lot more controlled and less misogynistic than the culture in South Korea. We generally treat our ladies with more respect,” he said.
With stern action taken (against voyeurs), I don’t think it will be a growing craze, though if people see no action being taken, there are risks of escalating cases.
NTU assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who studies transnational popular cultural flows and social media cultures, said the current phenomenon could be a case of “technology-enabled toxic masculinity” — technology enabling men to project their control over women with the “male gaze”.
“They are able to objectify women further in the most unsuspecting way, which is actually thrilling, because it gives them the power to watch – like the power of a closed-circuit television control room. That is the whole fantasy of it,” said Dr Liew.
It actually gives them this slight feeling of power and control to be able to monitor women, or objects of desire, in the most intimate settings.
The videos, in a sense, become “sexual and cultural capital” for someone who is able to find the latest recording, he added. “That’s the whole idea of porn. It is never on dated material. There is always the need to refresh with something new to satisfy desires.”
Dr Liew also find that voyeurism could be easily weaponised against women in this Internet age, and there are no lack of examples of people using nude video footage or pictures to blackmail others.
LEGISLATION AS A TOOL
While the NUS incident has sparked a public outcry calling for stiffer punishments for voyeurs, the way forward will need more than just making legislative changes, said community leaders.
Even with the upcoming changes to increase penalties for voyeurs and add new offences to deter the commission of such acts, Mr Lam said the law will have to balance between the rehabilitative and punitive aspects of criminal punishment.
“We hear a lot of voices that there should be retribution (for NUS undergraduate Lim), but where do we draw the line? Do we say that there is no second chance in life, (and) there is zero tolerance for mistakes?” said the lawyer, who is also chairman of Sengkang Central’s Citizens’ Consultative Committee.
Dr June Goh, president of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), similarly said punishment should stick to a “rational view”, and should be “fair, just and consistent”.
“I don’t think our culture is allowing these acts to flourish. There have been cases highlighted in the press and treated as a serious offence carrying a jail term. Women have spoken up,” she said.
Ms Joan Pereira, a Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency, concurs. While she stressed that every new case is still “one too many”, she noted that Singapore’s laws and culture “do act as a deterrent against such acts”.
“Our women still feel safe in Singapore and Singaporean women can even be outside at night alone, which is not something that many countries can achieve,” she said.
While a few MPs had suggested that the use of spycams — which are easily available online and in at least four shops in electronics mall Sim Lim Square — be regulated as one of the solutions, Mr Shanmugam had said in a parliamentary reply that this would be “quite unworkable”. “Mobile phones also come with cameras, and they can also be concealed to take secret photos and videos,” he added.
AWARE’s Ms Joseph suggested that the Government shut down sites where voyeuristic materials are distributed. Victims could also be given the option to apply for take-down orders online without having to resort to the many complicated steps of the Protection Against Harassment Act, she said.
ROLE OF EDUCATION
Education has a major part to play to address the problem, the experts said. SCWO’s Dr Goh said:
It boils down to respect and understand that one’s body is completely a private space.
A 29-year-old secondary school teacher noted that there is no lack of educational programmes, from sex education to cyber-wellness education. But many parents are not doing enough on their part in educating their children on these issues, she said.
As to how sex education classes are currently conducted in school, the teacher who previously taught in an all-boys school said she might not want her own child to attend these classes.
“These hormone-raging students, they are learning more from their peers than from teachers (during those lessons),” she said.
Speak of masturbation, and the whole class gets feverish with excitement.
As for what a parent could teach their children, she said she would tell a boy to understand that while men have natural tendencies to be visually triggered for instance, they are “more than” their animal instincts.
She told her students: “You are supposed to be a protector and defender, meant to lead the family unit. You need to learn how to manage your self-control, and know what areas to watch out for.”
As a way to educate her children about boundaries, the mother of two, Ms Ruchika Saluja, said she has become more mindful of taking her children’s pictures without their consent.
The 38-year-old assistant vice-president at SembCorp Industries said her eight-year-old son recently got a Global Positioning System-tracker that is equipped with a photo-taking function, and she taught him to never take pictures of his friends without their permission.
Meanwhile, institutions must also take on some responsibility in building a secure environment, some of those interviewed said.
Building owners and mall operators can provide better support by fixing clearer and more CCTVs around public areas as well, they added.
Representatives of facilities’ management, including those of hostels and gyms, interviewed for this article noted that voyeuristic filming is still a nascent problem for them. While not promising any reinforcements, they said they would at the very least do their best to help in the investigation of reported cases.
A 35-year-old former nightclub operator, who declined to be named, brushed aside the suggestion to install more cameras, saying the more pertinent issues for them are molest and assault cases. Besides, their facilities are too dark for cameras to pick up much, he said.
As spycam debugging services pop up in South Korea, spycam suppliers here have also imported devices such as radio frequency readers, as more clients have requested for such services in homes and offices.
The devices costing anything between S$50 and S$400 will pick up on radio frequency emissions from short distances and alert a person to the presence of spycams. Some models also come with a scope-like device that will make the lens of a camera reflect brightly to make them easier to spot.
Mr Pieter Tjia, from OMG Solutions, a supplier of such devices, said women can also protect themselves by looking out for oddly placed decorations in a hotel room.
If a decoration is placed at a weird height or at an odd location, there may be a camera embedded, Mr Tjia said.
Cameras can lurk in wall hooks, smoke detectors, table and wall clocks, air fresheners, electrical outlets, bluetooth speakers, night lights, books, small holes in the wall, photo frames, stuffed animals, tissue boxes and clothes hangers, he said.
As a young Singaporean navigating this digital age, actress Naomi Yeo, 25, said it is important for women to be aware of “what we’re up against”.
“I think it’s important to know that these things might and can happen to you, and that we should prepare ourselves on how to react and what to do (if potentially caught in such a situation),” she said.
Beauty blogger Roanna Tan, 27, added:
Women or men, we're all human and we have our rights to live the way we want to. It's sad that we women have to protect ourselves in many ways just to carry out our normal daily activities.
AWARE’s Ms Joseph stressed that society has to make clear that it is more of the perpetrator’s responsibility to not commit these acts than the victim’s responsibility to protect herself from them.
She said: “The solution to every form of violence against women cannot be to restrict women’s movements — whether in public spaces, workplace or online spaces.”