As a stand-up comedian who also speaks on women’s issues, Ms Sharul Channa said she would not be true to herself and what she stands for if she did not share an incident of workplace harassment she experienced.
In a Facebook post on Thursday evening (4 February), Ms Sharul said that earlier in the day she was interviewed via Zoom for the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) Inconvenient Questions (IQ) web series hosted by Viswa Sadasivan, a former Nominated Member of Parliament and talk show host.
For context, Ms Sharul started by saying: “This is a professional interview for a online show that discusses socio-political issues. I have never met the gentleman before this. I had been dealing with his staff who arranged the interview. I was wearing a rose on my left collar.”
She then recounted that before the interview, Mr Viswa made an inappropriate and offensive comment, reproducing the exchange verbatim.
Mr Viswa had asked her why she was wearing a rose on her left collar, to which she replied, “I just put it on to distract from the pattern on my top.
He responded: “It would be more distracting if you were wearing only that rose.”
Ms Sharul said she was “taken aback by this innuendo”, reiterating that she was shocked.
There were four other staff members on the call, three of whom were female.
Ms Sharul went on to say that she chose to follow through with the interview as she had made a professional commitment, but that the comment still “did not ring right” at the back of her mind.
About 15 minutes after the interview ended, Ms Sharul said she called the show producer to share her discomfort with the comment made prior to the interview and inform them that she did not want to be part of the series, requesting for an apology as well for the way she was treated.
“A sexual comment was casually made in the context of a professional environment, and it made me very uncomfortable and distressed,” she noted in the Facebook post.
“Considerably distressed, even as I type this,” she added.
Ms Sharul said the producer “understood the position”, acknowledged that she and her colleagues heard the comment and that she “sympathised”.
“She was profusely apologetic and took action immediately to get the needful done,” she said.
About 45 minutes later, Ms Shahrul received an apology from Mr Viswa via email in which he “expressed his ‘unconditional apology… for causing discomfort, offense or hurt, even though it was unintended’,” she wrote.
She added, “He also shared that he ‘did not intend the statement about the rose to bear any sexual reference or innuendo’ but could ‘see how it could have come across as such’.”
In her post, Ms Sharul explained, “I am sharing this because the irony is that I was invited, in my capacity of being a stand-up comedian who speaks out about women’s issues.
“THIS is one of the biggest issues women face; workplace harassment. And If I don’t speak out about this, I am not being true to myself and what I stand for.”
Emphasising that that all women deserve a safe professional environment, Ms Shahrul said she hoped her “unfortunate experience” would help create awareness of boundaries and appropriate behaviour with female counterparts.
She advised: “If you are unsure of whether you are “over-reacting”, “making a big deal out of nothing”, are being told that these are “just harmless jokes”, here are some useful questions to ask yourself; Were the comments of a sexual or sexist nature? Were they made in a professional or work setting? Did they cause you alarm or distress?”
“If you think the answers are YES, then please reach out to seek assistance from the HR of your company, and if you need further assistance, you can consider reaching out to AWARE.”
A day after Ms Sharul shared her story online, Mr Viswa spoke to The Straits Times to say that he felt there was “absolutely no sexual innuendo intended” in what he said.
He also said that his recollection of the conversation was that he said: “It would have been more distracting if it was only the rose.”
He went on to say, “It was the farthest thing on my mind because I was conscious of time,” adding that “the whole conversation was in the spirit of a banter between a seasoned interviewer and a seasoned stand-up comic – both known for our somewhat irreverent style”.
According to ST, Mr Viswa also said that he could understand why she took offence.
He said, “Clearly, on hindsight, I could and should have avoided saying what I did, as I can see how and why it can be misconstrued as being sexual. It was an error of judgment in the moment.”
He went on to stress that he has always spoken up on and stood for women’s rights in various capacities.
ST also reported that an NUSS spokesman said on Friday that the society could not comment on the matter as it was still looking into it.
The spokesman continued, “By the very nature of the IQ programme, the views of the interviewers, interviewees or panellists are independent from those of NUSS.”