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Keynote address by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin at the National Family Violence Networking Systems Conference 2016

Deputy Commissioner of Police Lim Kok Thai
Distinguished guests
Fellow colleagues
Ladies and gentlemen
Good morning.

Introduction

I am heartened to see so many professionals from the public, social service and legal sectors gathered here today to share and learn about family violence, a very important area of family protection work. I also welcome our international speakers, and delegates from Brunei and Indonesia.

Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of NFVNS

Today we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the National Family Violence Networking System, or NFVNS. This is an important milestone in Singapore’s journey in protecting families.

It is an honour to be amongst the passionate and determined pioneers of the NFVNS, who have laboured long and hard over the past 20 years to protect the vulnerable, restore lives and rebuild families. May I invite these pioneers to stand – can everyone give them a big round of applause please?

I am grateful to each of you for blazing the trail in family intervention work at a time when awareness was extremely low, and the social service sector was taking baby steps to understand family violence. You have modelled what it means to understand the desperation of victims of violence, and to walk alongside the vulnerable when they were hurting the most. Thank you for being relentless in pursuing the needs for those who could not help themselves. Thank you for championing the needs of victims and their families, and for the sacrifices you have made to empower your clients. Thank you for seeding the NFVNS.

The NFVNS has indeed come a long way. Today, it embodies a rich legacy of spirited action and inter-agency collaboration, that have become distinguishing features of a system we have much to be proud of. It was a treat to watch the opening performance which I noticed had a police officer, a social worker, a community worker and a psychiatrist singing in harmony! It is symbolic, because it reflects how various parts of the system must act together in harmony to provide the necessary intervention to those affected by family violence.

Our partnerships have also extended beyond our borders. Indeed, we have benefitted from learning about how other countries have dealt with the complex issues of family violence. I want to thank our international experts and plenary speakers – Professor Jeffrey Edleson, Professor Laura Mosqueda, Mr Edward Chan, Mr Mark Wynn and Ms Sonja Parker – who are at this conference to share the depth of work that is being done in their respective fields of expertise. I believe their sharing will offer new insights on how we can better prevent and protect the victims of family violence.

In some ways, the expertise that we have developed have also provided us with an opportunity to pay it forward by sharing our experiences with others. Today, we share Singapore’s story and experiences at various forums, so that as a global community, we can all do better for our victims.

Violence in the Family

I will start off by talking about the importance of the family unit. The family is the building block of a strong, safe and stable society. Each family unit must function as a safe environment of care and protection for our children as well as other vulnerable members in the family. Unfortunately, it is not the case for some families, where neglect, violence and abuse are regular features. Where there is abuse in the family, victims bear the physical and emotional scars for a long time—sometimes a lifetime, despite our best efforts. And the cycle perpetuates. You find that sometimes, the abuser was also abused in the past. This is the painful reality which we have to grapple with.

What is this reality? Let me share a case that came to my attention recently. A lady suffered at the hands of her husband in her fifteen years of marriage. She was severely sexually abused, physically beaten, harassed, and wrongfully confined. Her husband refused to give her any money, even though she was financially-dependent on him. She would beg him for money, and sometimes, he would give it to her, but by throwing it at her face. She wanted to contact her family who lived overseas, but he made sure that he cut-off all means of contact.

One day, a member of the community happened to pass by and witness the husband shouting at the lady. That person, a Good Samaritan, was concerned enough to advise her, without her husband’s knowledge, to apply for a personal protection order, or PPO. Encouraged by the advice, the lady applied for the PPO. The Family Justice Court referred her for counselling and other support services. The Court also made it mandatory for her husband to be sent for counselling. But he was very recalcitrant and one day stomped into the agency, demanding to see his wife. When he was refused, he broke down the door. The agency called the police, and he was taken away.

Social workers continued to support the lady. They connected her with some employers, and she managed to secure a job. Within a year, she was able to independently support herself and her children. Her social workers roped in the police and the grassroots to ensure that her husband did not get close to her. Today, this lady is doing very well, carving out a future for her and her children – a future that she could never even imagine in her recent past.

This case had a happy outcome. And we want to see more of such collective efforts to empower victims to break out of the vicious cycle of violence.

Our Journey to Break the Cycle of Violence

As we continue our partnership in family protection work, I wonder if we would reach a day where no one in our community lives with the regretful thought that “I should have intervened” or “”If only I had intervened earlier”. Perhaps, we need to remind ourselves of the truths about violence.

Research has shown that elder abuse victims face an increased risk of premature death. Research has also shown that childhood exposure to violence, whether as direct victims or witnesses of violence, leads to poorer health and mental health outcomes, with some of the trauma lasting their entire lifetime. So we as a society have a duty to support these families. Our commitment, then, must be to press on with our journey to break the cycle of violence.

Everyone has a Responsibility to Prevent Abuse

Presently, we have social support systems and services in place. One key feature in the ecosystem is the NFVNS, which provides multiple access points for victims to obtain help. The NFVNS links the Police, Prison Service, hospitals, Family Service Centres, the Courts and the Ministry of Social and Family Development for closer collaboration and networking, ensuring that different agencies are clear about their roles and how to handle cases of abuse. Under the NFVNS ambit, Regional Family Violence Working Groups comprising ground agencies such as Family Service Centres, the police land divisions and crisis shelters work together to ensure that a victim need only approach any of these touch-points to receive the necessary assistance.

While we celebrate our successful collaborations thus far, we have to constantly look at ways to better combat family violence. How can we tackle family violence at a more upstream stage? We know that victims need to be helped, and to be able to receive help early. Social workers and professionals can provide that support. But, they are not always there when the actual abuse happens. This is where all of us in the community plays a role; where you play a role. We need you and those around you to be aware of family violence, and to respond appropriately and promptly.

Many Singaporeans would remember the story of little Daniel, when it was reported earlier this year. For the benefit of our international friends, who may not be so familiar with this case, Daniel was a victim of child abuse. People wrote in about the indignation they felt at the senseless abuse that Daniel suffered at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Instead of a safe haven, home became a place of fear and torture. Imagine a young boy, not more than two years old, being kicked and slapped almost daily, and made to stand with his hands on his head wearing only a nappy for many hours of the day. They stomped on his chest and force-fed him spoonfuls of dried chilli. He was found with 41 injuries on his body. 41 injuries. Daniel died last year in November.

I am deeply saddened by Daniel’s story. I ask myself if this tragedy could have been avoided. Could we, or anyone, have sounded the alarm earlier? After all, we too, could be a housemate, neighbour, relative, friend or passer-by to a victim of family violence who is crying out in distress. Could we be more vigilant and be attentive to those who may be suffering in silence? In the end, our intervention capabilities are only as good as the eyes and ears on the ground who identify the victims in need. If the alarm is not sounded, if the acts of violence are not brought to our attention, we cannot do anything about it.

Why are we sometimes reluctant to sound the alarm? In January this year, my Ministry commissioned a study where 2,000 respondents were asked what they thought were barriers to reporting incidences of family violence.

Firstly, more than half of the respondents cited the fear of breaking up a family. It is a legitimate fear. This fear is perhaps most keenly felt by the victims themselves. However, your act of seeking help on the victim’s behalf could offer him or her the courage to break free from this vicious cycle of violence and give them a new hope and future. Any threat or attack against a person’s, especially a child’s, safety and well-being, is a crime no matter where it happens or who does it. Not every report will lead to the break-up of families. Some social workers tell me early reporting can actually help save marriages and keep families intact.

Secondly, more than a third of the respondents of the same study cited uncertainty of what family violence constituted, as one of the reasons for not reporting. Coupled with this, the study found that most people held a very narrow definition of family violence. While they were clear that physical abuse constituted family violence, many did not readily associate family violence with emotional and psychological abuse. The complexity of family violence also caused them to err on the side of caution, and refrain from doing something about it.

Thirdly, close to 42% of our respondents in the study said that people do not report family violence because it is a private matter. But it is not. And it should never be seen as such. A New York Times article reported that it was not just Asians – because sometimes, we think that it’s just Asians, who are a bit more reserved – who battled with this internally. Surprisingly, this idea - that people tended to view family violence as a private matter - was a recurrent theme in the United States, and possibly a lot of other countries as well. The author of that article quoted advice from several experts.

The first advice was to not wait for the situation to deteriorate before getting involved. Said a public health educator, “If you wait for something to get worse before doing anything, it definitely can get worse and then it becomes harder to connect and be of help”. Even small acts can help to defuse a tense situation and stem the violence before it escalates in intensity and severity.

Advice number two: do not be a mere bystander. Violence is not a private matter and is not acceptable. Others who may not be brave enough to intervene, may be hoping that somebody else would do it. That the next person or someone other than themselves should get involved. Do not assume that another person will step in to help. Let that person be you. As you respond, be mindful of the need to be safe. If you don’t feel safe approaching the neighbour, for instance, make that call to the nearest Family Service Centre, Family Violence Specialist Centre or Child Protection Specialist Centre so that help can come early. Let the professionals reach out to the family, gather the facts and intervene if needed. But remember that they can only do so, if someone first sounds the alarm. And that person is you – all of us who live in the community. You can choose to remain anonymous if you wish. If it is a life or death situation, call the police immediately. But oftentimes, we do not know if it is a life or death situation. Inaction can really lead to danger, serious injury or even death.

We can step up and help by having the courage and knowledge to take action. If neighbours repeatedly hear a child’s terrified screams, or an angry adult’s raised voice, they can approach the family to check on the child. There are many different ways to do it – they can offer a listening ear or a helping hand, when they notice that a child or the family is struggling. Because sometimes, before you even get to that stage, families are stressed for various reasons. And sometimes when we realise that, we can lend a helping hand, to help them defuse that stress.

Similarly, neighbours can help when they see the signs of caregiver stress, especially in families with elderly folks or the disabled. Especially with an ageing society, and with families becoming smaller, stressors on caregivers can be quite significant. That’s when the community must step in. Step in early, before these things become a problem. We can provide support by offering the caregivers some respite. This can take simple forms --offering to buy lunch for those who are disabled. They can also bring the elderly out for an afternoon, bring them down to join seniors in the many activities that we carry out in the neighbourhood. And it allows the caregiver some time for themselves. Those are ways that we can help to relieve stress, on a day-to-day basis. It really boils down to how much we care. Do we care enough to do something? Don’t say that “Oh! Society should do this; government should do that”. These are things we can do. It doesn’t cost us anything – just a bit of effort, a bit of time. That’s how we begin to build a caring community. And these are ways to protect ourselves from family violence.

Launch of Break the Silence Campaign 

So MSF has long recognised the importance of educating the public to raise awareness on family violence. In recent years, our focus had been on the victims themselves. Where possible, we would highlight messages for their family members, spouses and dating partners too. Abusers are also targeted through the public education efforts of our family violence specialist centres.

It is now time to focus on those who are closest to the victims - family members, friends, co-workers, neighbours and even strangers on the street. It is time to equip the bystanders. We need to start a "Break the Silence" movement on family violence.

We cannot remain silent on family violence. This “silence” may lead to another unfortunate case like Daniel’s. To this end, I want to announce the start of a three-year campaign. We call it “Break the Silence”, targeting all persons who witness family violence. And we have prepared a new video to kickstart this campaign.

As I speak, my team is uploading this video on YouTube, and onto our MSF Facebook page. So can I urge each and every one of you to take out your smartphones. Log into your Facebook account, search out this video on the MSF Facebook. Make it a point to use that opportunity to “like the video” and to make a deliberate effort to spread the message and use the hashtag #breakthesilenceSG. I do urge all of you to circulate and to promote the message, as much as you can. You can start an effort to really “viral” the video and just raise awareness and to bring conversations on this front to the fore. In time to come, we hope that more and more everyday Singaporeans will also begin to be aware of the video and use the same hashtag to share their own instances on how they had stepped in to stem family violence. When people see that others are following their instinct to break the silence, they may be more likely to follow their instincts as well. Sometimes in Singapore, we say “Eh, don’t be kaypoh lah”. But this is one instance where I’m going to urge you, “Please be kaypoh. Be a busybody”. Because the consequences are not trivial.

Call to Action

Almost 37% of our respondents in the same study cited uncertainty of what family violence constituted, as the reason that people do not report abuse. So in your goodie bag, you will find a whole suite of collaterals that you can request for from us, to pass to your clients, friends and family members. So again, in different ways, help us make sure that the message heard. Because we can create this ripple effect and change the culture.

As you take your time to view the exhibits outside, I want to draw your attention to one particular segment of the exhibits - the “Breaking my Silence” art exhibition. This thoughtful exhibition comprises artwork by survivors of family violence who reside in the Star Shelter – which is a crisis shelter. The artworks are very telling of the survivors’ pain, their fear and the isolation that they feel, but more importantly, of their stories of hope and courage as they rebuild their lives and dreams. And I hope that as we build on our legacies of commitment, and strengthen our commitment to action from bystanders to agents, we make room for more stories of hope and triumph to emerge from amongst us.

In exactly one week’s time, it will be the first anniversary of Daniel’s death. This is Daniel. Let us not let this lesson be lost. Let Daniel’s death not be in vain. Let his suffering teach us all to stop being bystanders. As long as violence in the home is shrouded in silence, the violence will not cease. We can prevent other violence. We can prevent other horror stories, if we all resolve to take the stand to break the silence on family violence and offer comfort, help and support to the vulnerable. Through our collective efforts, we will be able to keep our children and families safe and secure, free of violence.

I wish you all a very successful and fruitful conference. Thank you.

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Published On Wed, Nov 16, 2016
Last Reviewed On Fri, Dec 9, 2016

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