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Debra Teng filming Under the Carpet (Image from Debra Teng)

Under the Carpet: #metoo hopes to create a safe space for Singaporeans to talk about sexual assault & harassment

If you’ve been tuned into the world news, you’d have heard about the #metoo movement popularised by actress Alyssa Milano when she took to Twitter to share her personal experience with sexual harassment following the sexual misconduct allegations on Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein.

Thousands of people around the world started to share their stories under that hashtag, #metoo – about sexual assault, harassment, and harrowing experiences they’ve had to face in a show of solidarity with others around the world. The movement was and is still the biggest movement in the modern era of people coming together to change how society views and addresses sexual harassment and assault.

But in Asia, the #metoo conversation was short lived. Many people took to Twitter and Facebook to share their stories but the ‘hype’ didn’t last and now, there’s barely any real conversation about this. Not even in Singapore. The last time a survey was conducted on this topic was a decade ago in 2008 by AWARE.

Actress and survivor Debra Teng wants to change that. Her upcoming talk show Under the Carpet: #metoo is an 18-episode show that takes a deep dive into topics that most people find difficult to talk about. The first of the Under The Carpet series, #metoo seeks to deal with the topic of sexual harassment and assault in Singapore from the different perspectives.

But making the show wasn’t a walk in the park for Debra. She had approached the Ministry of Social & Family Development (MSF) around 2017 – after the #metoo movement took off – to do a nation-wide survey to better understand how pervasive sexual harassment was in Singapore. Unfortunately, MSF didn’t have the budget for it. She then tried to pitch the show to another media group but was turned down. Finally, she joined up with IMPIXEL. With their facilities and the help of her old filmmaking course-mates, Under the Carpet was underway.

We caught up with Debra to talk about the show and #metoo in Singapore:

The team behind Under the Carpet (Image from Debra Teng)

This is essentially a passion project, for you and for your entire team. Why is it so important to you to keep this #metoo conversation going in Singapore?

The conversation never really started here in Singapore. We had the odd article and then, silence. What we are trying to do is to get these important conversations going. And the message I hope to get across is that this is not just MSF's problem, or Law Enforcement's problem, or MOM's (Ministry of Manpower) problem, or MOE's (Ministry of Education) problem - it is OUR problem, and we need to work collaboratively together so that our children will inherit a safer world.

From talking to many people while doing this show, one of the issues that stick out is this: law enforcement, parents, figures of authorities in schools or companies need to be trained to manage these cases as the first respondent. How the victims are treated by the first respondents can make or break the victim. Too often, victims are made to feel ashamed, foolish, or disbelieved. Many go away wishing they had never made a complaint or reached out for help. And, if it should happen again, they will never speak up. We need to create an environment where sexual assault/harassment victims feel safe and protected, and know that they have every right to be respected, and that they can and should speak up to assert their rights.

You had mentioned that it was tough to find people willing to come on the show to talk about their own personal experience with sexual assault and harassment - how did you manage to find the ones who were willing to come forward?

These people who came forward are all my personal friends who also believe in the cause. Some were only willing to speak up on the condition of anonymity, some because they are parents too and want to make sure that their children will “inherit a safer world”, or will grow up to treat women right. I also reached out to AWARE Singapore who is running the only Sexual Assault Care Centre in Singapore.

What can people expect when they watch the series?

They can expect to hear some painful personal stories of survivors of sexual assault. Some might have their views challenged, some might be surprised at what men go through as sexual assault victims. I hope everybody will go away thinking "What can we do to prevent sexual assault and harassment from taking place? As a parent, have I neglected the signs that something might have been amiss? As an educator, have I taught the children that asking and giving consent is important, and respect is non-negotiable. At the workplace, what can I do to make the workplace safer for everybody? As law enforcement, what can we do to train our officers to be more sensitive, empathetic and effective at dealing with sexual assault and harassment cases?”

Behind the scenes of Under the Carpet (Image from Debra Teng)

Having experienced sexual assault yourself, it must have been tough to have to dredge all of that up again in the process of filming - how did you manage that?

My amazing team who are so passionate about this project keeps me going every day.

Personally, I had to come to a point where I feel that I am ready to walk away from my work as an actress, for I know that I may never be hired by certain people again for sharing about some of the things that I have experienced in the industry. I am also braving myself for the backlash on survivors who do speak up. For me, I just want to do something right by the next generation. As a sexual assault victim, I will tell you this, one never gets over it. It will always stay in the background of your psyche. And that is a lot to live with. It is something that should never ever happen to anybody, much less a young person for whom these scars will be deeply etched. Perhaps doing this show in the hope of preventing others from suffering what happened to me is my way of managing it.

Under the Carpet: #metoo

In a country like Singapore where Asian conservative values still prevail, topics such as sexual harassment and assault still considered taboo – people are still too uncomfortable talking about this out in the open. For the victims, there’s plenty of stigma they have to face if they come forward thanks to victim blaming and little support from the authorities – many cases go unreported.

So perhaps the time is right for a show like this. Singapore is ready.  And just maybe, if we’re united by this common cause, we can create a safer and more respectful nation for every person.

Under the Carpet: #metoo production is supported by IMPIXEL while extra footage is supported by HUAWEIMOBILESG. The media launch for the show will be hosted by the British High Commission at the High Commissioner’s Resident on 19th November.

Check out the pre-launch promo for the show here: