Does the Singapore Civil Defence Force have a problem with women?

A wave of sex scandals has exposed a dangerous culture of unaccountability and misogyny within the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

By Oliver Ward, edited by Francesca Ross

Sex scandals in the Singapore Civil Defence Force are dragging the reputation of the once-proud emergency response service through the mud. The latest is the conviction of a major on two counts of taking up-skirt videos of a colleague.

SCDF emergency medical services (EMS) calls in 2016


The SCDF have been the target of several high profile sexual scandals in recent years

The up-skirt case is by no means a one off. In September 2016, police were forced to investigate a video posted online showing a man engaged in sexual acts while wearing a SCDF uniform. It was allegedly filmed in an SCDF camp.

In August 2015, a 28 year-old woman who worked with the defence force as an external contractor was subjected to unwanted and persistent sexual advances from a married senior officer. The most high-profile scandal seen so far was that of Peter Lim. He was convicted for his role in a sex-for-contracts scandal that rocked the SCDF to its core.

The SCDF appear tough on sexual harassment but the punishments are not

The scandals continue because the punishment does not fit the crime. Lim was sentenced to just six months in prison, and was released after three.

Poh Siok Peng, the man who spent two years taking up-skirt pictures, could receive the maximum penalty of six weeks in prison. He is far more likely to walk away with a fine and little or no jail time. Former lieutenant-colonel Goh Wee Hong was accused of sexual harassment and stalking. He was completely cleared after compounding the charge for S$4,000 (US$2,850).

The SCDF needs to set themselves apart and hold themselves to a higher standard

Women have played prominent roles in the service since the SCDF opened its doors to women in 1996. Female officers are trained to firefight in the same programmes as men. In 2013, Captain Anne Tan received the Golden Axe award after placing first out of her 35 peers in the Rota Commander Course. A female recruit was named Best Trainee in the SCDF Volunteer Firefighting Course in 2016.

These women deserve respect. The SCDF needs to look after its women as much as its men. There must be clear boundaries and structures that ensure no officer or cadet can behave with immunity.

The SCDF has bred a culture where servicemen believe they can act with impunity

The SCDF has a deep-rooted culture of servicemen doing what they want and believing they will be immune from punishment. This comes to the surface in cases of unwanted sexual advances on colleagues, trashing dormitory rooms, or misappropriating iPads.

Tackling this requires clear HR chains that can take reports of inappropriate and offensive behaviour. It is up to the SCDF to implement this. It cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet.

Corinna Lim, the executive director of AWARE, believes there needs to be improved training on what constitutes sexual harassment. She argues this sends a message to the perpetrator – that what they are doing is wrong and they will not get away with it.

Other countries punish sexual harassment much more severely

Women in the workplace regularly deal with sexual harassment, a survey by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) said. They found that 54% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, with 17% being harassed by a superior. They found 12% of women had received threats of termination if they did not do as the harasser asked.

The SCDF cases show that despite tightening sexual harassment laws in 2014 the punishments handed out are rarely sufficient. Anyone found guilty of a sexual harassment offence can receive a maximum fine of S$5,000 (US$3,600) and a jail sentence of no more than six months.

By comparison, misogyny was deemed a hate crime in the UK in 2016. Anyone found guilty of sexual harassment through misogynistic comments can face trial. In the US, the employer, rather than the individual is held liable for sexual harassment in the workplace. If an employee is found guilty, the employer will have to pay compensation for neglecting to stop it.

What can the SCDF learn from the SAF?

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) manage to hold themselves to a higher standard. The military justice system acts as a rock, underpinning every aspect of military life, including disciplinary procedures.

Soldiers are court-martialled for misdemeanours and held to account internally, without the use of civilian courts. The goal is to rehabilitate the servicemen and reintegrate them back into their unit as a better individual and more effective member of the team.

This ensures the SAF has an impeccable record of discipline. There are effective disciplinary structures and procedures in place which provide support for the individual to make amends and reintegrate.

In contrast, the SCDF has just announced plans to outsource their disciplinary procedures to civilian organisations. The authorities are proposing to use civilian companies to conduct urine tests and arrest servicemen and women who go absent on leave. This suggests that discipline is not a priority. It is this attitude which is ruining the organisation’s record.

There are indicators that the SCDF is ready to reform its working culture

The SCDF is already stamping out sexually suggestive dances, known as daggering, at the force’s annual Carnival. It is not the image the board wants to portray, they said.

The defence force’s management needs to deal with the culture of misogynist and unaccountable actions before these rampant scandals damage its reputation beyond repair. The problem is not unique to the SCDF, but we look to the SCDF to be leaders. Their work may be saving the lives of citizens, but they are doing a poor job of protecting the rights of their own.