by NH Rahman
This article is part 1 of a 2-part series that critically examines how the problem of domestic violence within the Malay/Muslim population is imagined. Read part 1 and if interested, the Full thesis including full citation list.
Content Warning: This post discusses domestic violence and institutional understandings and responses to domestic violence. This includes mentions of victim-blaming, retraumatisation and procedures utilised by social services and the criminal justice system.
How we think we can solve a problem tells us a lot about what we think a problem is. In the same vein, examining policy ‘solutions’ to domestic violence (DV) can be helpful, prying open what we’ve collectively imagined the problem of DV in Singapore is, particularly for within the Malay/Muslim population in Singapore.
I used an analytical method called WPR (What’s the problem represented to be?) approach to dive into an analysis of policy texts and solutions we hear commonly espoused to ‘solve’ or ‘prevent’ DV. I will use the term ‘problematisations’ here, which are basically the ways that a problem has been understood—though of course, it is not necessarily what the problem actually is. From there, we can also explore the silences within these problematisations of DV, and see where they fall short in factoring in the political, social and economic realities of the Malay/Muslim population.
“Counselling for anger/conflict management”
Family, couple’s and individual counselling is regularly offered as a policy solution to addressing DV. Some of my interview participants spoke about counselling as a solution that works to emotionally regulate men who abuse and as a remedy that can potentially stop abusive behaviours, while others spoke about the restorative effect of counselling for marriages.
A few participants discussed how men’s abusive tendencies could come from ‘anger management’ issues, lack of psychoeducation on men’s roles as husbands, and men not knowing that DV is not a good solution to their problems or ‘conflicts’. Similarly, outreach efforts by MSF to “detect signs” of DV discussed the “importance of…the ability of individuals to manage conflict”.
I believe anger and conflict management as a solution to end or stop DV problematises individual psychopathological issues within DV. As a natural continuation of this problematisation, DV then ends up being reduced in our collective understanding. It is wrongly or reductively represented as, perhaps, a problem of male anger, of conflicting parenting styles, of family conflicts and tension, of couples’ quarrelling and disagreements, of poor communication, financial insecurity, or even the result of retaliation from women experiencing DV.
While these examples could also be excused as a matter of conversation style or simplicity in participants’ choice of words, if taken at face value, these problematisations inadvertently flatten the power imbalance in abuse. They also paradoxically presuppose how DV is a problem of lack of control or power over one’s emotions, rather than the deliberate use of often patriarchal power and control over others.
In the MSF video campaign, Break the Silence (BTS) (2016), DV can be seen—through marks and bruises on the body—or heard—through pained screaming, angry yelling, verbal harassment or otherwise vocal forms of resistance and expression.
This is an unsurprising yet unfortunate outcome in our discourse around DV, given how policy documents, including social service websites, do little to name patriarchal power and control as a major root of DV. When these forces are not extensively or visibly addressed or identified, patriarchal violence is then also presented simply as learnt behaviour that individual men pick up. When policy solutions represent DV as something abusers do to address a problem, they may inadvertently place the blame on those experiencing DV, by assuming that an issue that causes a violent or controlling response is something people who are abused can ‘solve’ one way or another.
Furthermore, what this ends up doing is neutralising the power imbalances in gender roles which do not resort to violent and controlling behaviour. The subservience of women, girls and children that does not correlate directly with DV is made unproblematic, or inevitable, as a result of the silence. It represents DV as a problem that individual, ‘angry’ men use to exert power and control (an imagination we need to recognise is subject to racist stereotypes of brown or Muslim men as well), and in the absence of acknowledging patriarchal power relations in our systems of organisation, assumes patriarchy as otherwise a benevolent force.
End Domestic Violence, a more recent anti-violence campaign, addresses how non-physical and non-verbal forms of DV are equally crucial to address (official website is currently down). However, representations used in ads for the campaign still prioritise representing the physical aspects of DV.
Beyond these campaigns the spotlight on physical violence is often seen in the headlines, images and illustrations of mainstream media reports on DV.
MSF’s educational resources and social service websites such as PAVE’s briefly mention the non-physical and non-verbal aspects of DV, but much of the representation privileges support information for those whose experiences centre on physical violence: get a medical examination, apply for PPO and go to a crisis shelter, with “counselling” being the typical exception. This is consistent with how shelter policies admit mostly women who have gone through physical violence, and the difficulty of PPO applications for psychological or emotional abuse. The language of DV as ‘incidents’ is often used, imagining violence as emotional eruptions that can be tangibly pinned down as events.
These problematisations ignore the elements of power and control, the relational pattern of DV, and even the psychological or emotional aspects of DV, which are harder to single out. Coercive control, which does not necessarily have to “resort” to physical abuse or verbal denigration, is then left unproblematic. There is also overwhelming silence about the ideological forces that uphold DV, particularly patriarchal violence.
Moreover, the Break the Silence video series represent victims of violence as overwhelmingly silent or passive, as people who do not seek help, and thus need to be empowered enough to reach out. This imagination mutes the ways that women do resist: using personal strategies such as prayer, seeking support from friends and religious leaders, going through laborious processes with social services and the legal remedies, and attempting to be financially secure.
With this collective representation of DV, the problem then becomes focused on “an individual level of analysis”, viewing DV “as a problem that resides within individuals” (Salazar and Cook, 2002, p. 418). Ultimately the pattern of how DV operates as a social and structural problem, and the landscape that it happens in, is erased.
“Equipping bystanders” through public education
In the Break the Silence campaign, bystander intervention is, quite literally, the final scene in narratives about DV. Videos end dramatically with people interrupting violence, and we are left to assume that the intervention went successfully to end the violence once and for all.
The process of the intervention, the considerations that women make, and the way State systems are able to support women are unquestioned. These representations portray DV as something that will continue unless bystanders interrupt it (placing the responsibility on romanticised ideas of ‘community’), and will immediately halt or de-escalate when there is bystander involvement (which reveals a belief that all interventions are good interventions).
Similar to Break the Silence’s campaign angle, much of End Domestic Violence’s focus is on the actions that those experiencing DV can do to minimise the impact of violence in their homes, and bystanders can do to support them.
Although more nuanced than Break the Silence, the representation still emerges in simple lists of superficial dos and don’ts, revolving once again around noticing physical and verbal signs. The solutions are similarly limited to “calling the police”, listening and empathising, and accompanying people to the police or family service centre.
What these approaches do is assume that bystanders already have the information, skills, principles and ethical values required to end DV. But mediation efforts veer towards maintaining the status quo, typically for the purposes of restoration or reconciliation. Given the dominant discourse and policies that support patriarchal, nuclear families, is it reasonable to expect communities, particularly under-resourced and politically weakened communities, to mediate a couple’s ‘issues’ without reproducing values that cause further harm to women? It is also dangerous to view physical intervention as a catch-all solution that will always lead to de-escalation, especially considering how women have reported that family intervention can cause abuse to, in fact, escalate.
Amidst all this, there is silence in the way the State and services continue to enact indirect violence and oppression on families as they attempt to wean themselves out of abusive relationships. It is however painfully consistent with the State’s principle of family—and sometimes community—as the first line of social protection, rather than the State, and the privatisation of the problem and solutions of DV. This way, the State maintains its role as advisory, with an end-goal of keeping the patriarchal family unit together.
Religious and cultural counter-education
Over the years, substantive effort has been put into countering common misinterpretations of religious texts that seemingly justify DV, including through targeted campaigning and asatizah training initiatives. Often, including in my interviews, misinterpretations of religious texts is identified as one “source” of patriarchal violence against women, presupposing that religious values (however distorted) in and of themselves may be what causes men to use violence.
The privileging of the role of Malay-Muslim “culture” or religion is also seen represented in training programmes organised by government institutions. One NCSS training titled “Understanding and Working with Malay-Muslim Clients” works to focus on the “multi-faceted nature of Malay-Muslim culture, in allowing social work practitioners to attain in-depth awareness and understanding when working with Malay-Muslim clients”.
Based on the policy text alone, the problem representations demonstrate at least two assumptions: that differences with working with Malay/Muslim clients are largely cultural and religious (rather than in relation to other intersections such as socioeconomic oppression and marginality through ongoing coloniality that the Malay population face) and that religious, rather than structural, reframing is necessary for “change” to arise.
This has the effect of essentialising culture and religion, and risks over-privileging cultural reasonings to social and political problems that emerge as a result of historical and oppressive forces that are far greater than the individual Malay/Muslim ‘client’.
Thus, it is reasonable to see how culture and religion appear to be reduced to a set of attitudes, beliefs, misconceptions and dispositions that individual ‘perpetrators’, ‘victims’ and the ‘society’ hold, unlinked to the State structural conditions. This also works to represent wayward religious and cultural values within an ethnically minoritised population as major causes of DV, adding to a caricature of the Malay/Muslim “Other”.
“Legal and criminal justice remedies”
Common problematisations of DV assumes that its solutions lie in the shape and borders of the legal system: DV is presupposed as something that will be remedied or reduced according to whether laws change, and whether individuals are aware of their rights to police reports, PPOs and Magistrate’s complaints.
Take the speech made in September 2020 by Minister for Law K. Shanmugam, where he announced the process of a White Paper on gender equality. The speech uses the language of “mindset change” and education, but there was also a description of violence being a violation of “fundamental values”. While this appears to be a promising expansion of the State’s problematisation of DV, there is little self-reflexivity involved: ‘fundamental values’ is described as something that must be instilled, with State leadership, instead of something the State needs to inject into their own structures.
In his problematisation, expanding the role of the criminal justice system—through stiffer laws and harsher penalties—is a given. It represents the State’s punishments as proportionate to the amount of harm caused by DV, imagining that penalties can actually end DV.
Unfortunately, the silence in this problematisation is in the role of the State in enacting further structural violence on vulnerable families (e.g. through economic consequences on weakened, minoritised communities) and the emotional and material costs of seeking support from a legal system.
Criminal justice remedies sit uncomfortably given the reality of ethnic minority oppression within its system. There is no denying the intersection of class and race, and my interviews show how it operates within abusive households too.
In DV cases, State violence and re-victimisation occur also through victim-blaming officers and professional first-responders, inadequate support from social services, lack of holistic, long-term support for those experiencing DV, the economic oppression that Malay and ethnic minority families struggle against, and the material effects on their wellbeing, health and livelihoods. Reliance on these remedies bolsters the racism, patriarchy and homophobia coursing through criminal justice systems, and promotes an individualistic approach to ending DV. As a result, we are left grasping at straws when trying to imagine community accountability strategies that transform social and community support systems.
Despite State campaigns and statements that on the surface articulate the belief that family violence is “not a private matter”, Singapore’s social policy solutions are still privatised. The State is positioned as a solution, with rational, advisory powers to fix DV, and distinctly separate from the problem itself. Our social policies represent DV within the Malay/Muslim population as a result of collective or cultural deficiency.
This is in spite of how representations of DV by participants and in first-hand accounts, instead, show that the problem is an echo of wider structural violence—the rippling effects of colonisation, authoritarianism, patriarchy and neoliberal capitalism. The tragic poetry of this can be observed in the details:
Malay/Muslim women’s freedom of religion and faith practices are limited by men who coercively control them, and wield conservative interpretations of religious texts—an echo of how the State relies on patriarchal leadership and a paternalistic approach to govern the ‘othered’ Muslim population.
Malay/Muslim women’s freedom of movement is curbed by those abusing them, while the government’s social policies, social sector and criminal justice system supervise and police their only options for safety.
Women face violations in their autonomy in private and public spheres for instance, through clothing regulations: by men who determine what they wear, and a government that has justified prohibitions of the tudung in many job sectors.
Women articulate DV as violence that results from “disobeying” their husbands, espoused by religious leaders, while the State similarly legitimises “nushuz” in law, sanctions violence through messages within pre-marriage courses, doles out carceral punishments and regularly uses corporal violence against its own transgressors.
Devastatingly, our current system leaves in its wake an Indigenous population that bears the weight of a turbulent relationship with the State. Malay/Muslim women experiencing DV continue to seek trust and connection and resistance within their own politically weakened community, represented by a conservative leadership.
Instead of simply creating DV policies and programmes, we must radically re-imagine and change the structures in our society, including how the “domestic violence industry” (Koyama, 2006) of NGOs and social services has co-created current problematisations of DV.
Ultimately, we need vigorous interrogation of taken-for-granted solutions to domestic violence, and to reimagine what long-term eradication and recovery can look like. Policy workers, politicians and advocates alike need to always reflexively ask themselves “what is the problem represented to be?” in any policy proposal, so that abused women are never taught to absorb the effects of their current lack of inquiry by, instead, asking themselves, “Apa salahku?” – what’s the problem with me?
The solution to DV lies in the decolonisation efforts that can dismantle the violence of colonial structures. To end DV, the Singapore State has to critically confront its history and present, by recognising how it inherits mechanisms of control and stratification that the former colonial government employed, which has resulted in the marginalisation of the Indigenous Malay population.
Nabilah is a researcher, writer, and artist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington). Currently, she is doing research on how Asian migrants participate in Treaty of Waitangi justice efforts and movements in Aotearoa New Zealand. She makes art at nebula.art89.
Illustration by Elisa Tanaka