Say no and pay the price: Sexual harassment in Singapore showbiz
There are a few men in the Singapore entertainment industry notorious for their sexual misconduct. Whispers have swirled around them for years, but they are still where they have always been – major players in a business where some women are told that saying “no” will cost them their careers.
These men are said to have pressured women to trade sex for career success.
Following the fall from grace of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein because of allegations of rape and harassment from more than two dozen actresses, awareness of the issue of the sexual exploitation of women in film, television, music, beauty pageants and modelling has never been higher in Singapore.
Weinstein’s downfall came after a New York Times expose earlier this month, alleging his sexual misconduct over three decades.
More women – among them actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie – subsequently came forward to say they had been either assaulted or harassed by Weinstein, or pressured to have sex with him for career advantage.
He was fired from the film production company he founded, The Weinstein Company, and his membership to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was revoked.
Police departments in New York, Los Angeles and London have opened investigations into Weinstein following allegations of sexual assault from a number of women.
The Sunday Times spoke to a range of women and other experts in the entertainment industry here and came away with the impression that there is no one here as violently predatory as Weinstein, who has been accused of sexual assault by actresses Rose McGowan and Asia Argento and of other sexual violations by a range of well-known women.
But sexual harassment happens here nonetheless.
The Weinstein case in the United States has sparked the #MeToo campaign on social media across the world, including Singapore.
Journalists, presenters and film industry professionals have used the hashtag, though sometimes without giving details or in relation to a traumatic childhood encounter with a family member.
Some women here spoke to The Sunday Times about their experiences after sharing them on Facebook.
In Singapore, sexual predators are not as blatant as Weinstein.
Local men prefer to dangle carrots, such as promises of stardom; or use the stick, by telling the women they will get a reputation for being difficult or unprofessional.
Some might see these power arrangements as consensual – the trading of sex for advancement – but the Association of Women for Action and Research does not share the same view.
Jolene Tan, its head of advocacy and research, says that “bullying behavior in the workplace – such as shaming employees, belittling them when they reject behaviours they are not comfortable with, or threatening to sabotage their careers – is absolutely a form of workplace harassment”.
She recognizes that there is a price to be paid for whistleblowing – an act that might not even lead to punishment for the accused.
Survivors are “vulnerable”, she says, and are left with little choice but to defer to authority.
“Reporting harassment can carry economic, social and psychological costs for the survivor, without necessarily resulting in perpetrator accountability,” she says.
Among the women this reporter interviewed, at least two made complaints to their managers, but these were brushed away.
The others talked about how they feared being labelled unprofessional or attention-seeking.
Samuel Seow, an entertainment lawyer and owner of Beam Artistes, a talent management agency, gives an example of coercive behaviour.
A woman came to him for legal advice after she had been picked for a show, but then was asked to go to a “private audition” by one of the show’s male producers.
“She was a young newbie, but she felt it was weird,” says Seow, 44.
Once she was there, the producer told her she had to make “sacrifices” for her career. She was outraged and left.
Seow advised her that the best option was not a legal one, but to speak out, he says.
He made a Facebook post about the incident and she told her employers about the man, but they preferred to not rock the boat as the producer is a well-established industry figure.
She was dropped from the show.
According to a New Paper report last Thursday, a Mediacorp employee who made “inappropriate remarks” to a Channel NewsAsia producer has been dismissed.
The producer, Park Juwon, had said on social media about how her colleague said she could not be a presenter because she lacked certain bodily assets.
In an e-mailed statement, Mediacorp said the company is “committed to maintaining a workplace that is safe, respectful and energising for all our employees”.
“We embrace the diversity of our workforce and will fight any form of discrimination or harassment that threatens our core values.
“Our code of business conduct and ethics, signed by all employees every year, does not condone any form of harassment.”
There is a new generation of women who will not stand for such behaviour, especially now when so many women have stepped forward to speak about Weinstein’s transgressions, says Seow.
“Younger people are more vocal,” he says.
Sexual favors and lack of privacy
Actress Vanessa Ann Vanderstraaten, 29, has been in show business for eight years and there is one meeting with a producer she would rather forget.
“He began making remarks that made me very uncomfortable. He said I should do anything I had to do in order to succeed as an actress,” says the artist, who has been seen in local television shows such as Spouse For House and who had a recurring role in Netflix’s Marco Polo (2014).
“He asked me what I would do for a part in a big movie and I told him I would not sleep with someone for it. He asked me, ‘Why not?'”
The meetings began innocently, with others present. But over time, “it was one-on-one meetings at one in the morning”, she says.
When the producer began pestering her sexually, she was glad she had brought along her boyfriend, who was waiting outside.
She did not talk about the incident until much later. “I was embarrassed. I thought, ‘Oh god, how could I have been so stupid?'” she says. She had thought of herself as a savvy person and was angry at herself for being in a vulnerable place for the sake of a job offer.
Host Anita Kapoor, 46, relates incidents such as the time when a technician on set talked openly about her breasts and lifted her skirt when changing batteries on a microphone she was using. She made a complaint, but it was “hushed up”.
Most of the time, everyone is mindful of boundaries, but such incidents can occur nonetheless, says Kapoor, who has hosted shows on Discovery, TLC and Channel NewsAsia, among others.
Host and model Sara Ann Krishnamoorthy, who is known professionally as Sara Ann K, talks about a deeply unsettling encounter when she was 22 and new to modelling.
A photographer coerced her into taking off her top during a shoot and used physical force to do so.
“I had worked with him on a shoot, so I knew him,” says the 38-year-old. In a blog post written years after the incident, she says her mind was “a complete blank” because of the violence of his speech – he berated her for being “unprofessional” in refusing to show her breasts.
She kept her pain a secret until recently because she feared being labelled an attention-seeker.
“When people think you are an attention-seeker, they call your credibility into question,” she says.
Model Vivien Ong-Patenaude, 25, confirms that she and other models can be under intense pressure to reveal more of their bodies than they are comfortable with doing.
The Singapore-born winner of the 2010 The New Paper New Face modelling competition says the psychological pressure on models who refuse to strip is especially intense in Europe, and she speaks about a time in Paris when a photographer bullied her into removing her top.
She was 19 at the time and there were other women in the room, such as hairstylists and make-up artists, who gave her no support.
Ong-Patenaude, who has been based in New York since 2013, says that in Singapore, the worst form of humiliation she has encountered happens during catwalk shows. “Backstage, everyone is expected to change by the racks. They don’t separate the male and female models.”
That disregard for a model’s right to privacy and to say “no” is rampant in the fashion business because those in power keep the models feeling insecure and disposable. “This behaviour is so normalised. They have a way of making you feel that you cannot do your job well,” she says.
Keep it professional
If there is someone in Singapore whose power in entertainment might be analogous to that of a Harvey Weinstein, it would be Melvin Ang, chief executive of multinational media company mm2 Asia.
But his behaviour towards women cannot be more different, to hear him tell it.
In a 2012 interview with The Straits Times, he explained how he keeps the personal and professional separate.
“People say, ‘Wah, you meet so many beautiful women in your job.’ In my 16 years in the industry, I’ve never had a private meal with actors or actresses.
“If I did that, I’d let biases affect my commercial decisions. That’s why I never meet artists without their business managers present,” said Ang, 54, who is married with two sons.
Mm2 is one of Singapore’s largest production companies and is behind movies such as the Ah Boys To Men franchise and the Dick Lee musical Wonder Boy (2017).
In my 16 years in the industry, I’ve never had a private meal with actors or actresses. If I did that, I’d let biases affect my commercial decisions.
Film-makers whom The Sunday Times spoke to say they follow the same “no-mix” rule, but up to a point.
There has to be some leeway because as creative professionals, directors, who are mostly male, sometimes have to meet actresses or other female members of the team in private.
Boris Boo, director of drama-comedies Filial Party (2014) and Lucky Boy (2017), says that even so, when he meets actresses, he does it in public, such as at a cafe.
Boo, who is 42 and single, says directors or producers who use their power to badger actresses for dates will stain their reputations.
“People will talk. They will say, ‘This guy is really ‘hum sup’,” he says, using the Cantonese term for the lascivious.
Another director, Kelvin Tong, 45, says that in Singapore, there is no single person who is as “crazy powerful” as Weinstein used to be.
The film-maker is behind It’s A Great Great World (2011), Kidnapper (2010) and The Maid (2005).
The size of the industry here offers its own brake on the problem, but he does not rule out that there might be cases in which sexual favours are traded for career advancement, he says.
“There might be sexual politics, but as far as blatant coercion is concerned, I’m not sure,” he says.
But whether it is subtle sex-for-favours pressure or sexual bullying or assault, women are fearful of speaking out because they might be shamed or held responsible in some way, or fear that no one will believe them, says entertainment lawyer Samuel Seow.
“When you are in this industry, people are going to talk about you. That will be their own very biased views. But your values should not be determined by keyboard warriors,” he says.
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