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Sexual violence in Singapore: a crisis

Sexual assault cases trickle into Singapore’s headlines each day. But under-reporting means many, many more cases never see the light of day. We worked with Women Unbounded to learn more about sexual violence in Singapore—and what needs to change.

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Trigger warning: Please note this article discusses instances of sexual assault and violence, including rape, molestation, harassment, child abuse—and its consequences, like depression and anxiety.

“Singapore is so safe—that kind of stuff doesn’t happen here”.

“He’s got a bright future ahead of him—all A-stars; this could ruin his life”.

“You saw what she was wearing right—of course this happened to her”.

“You’re making a big deal out of nothing”.

You might have heard, even from well-meaning friends and family, that sexual violence happens to a certain type of person, in risky places, and mostly with strangers. None of this is true. The narratives and myths surrounding sexual violence harm our understanding of how serious an issue sexual assault is in Singapore.

Frankly, many of us cannot truly understand what that feels like. But this is a reality for far more Singaporeans than we think. The lasting effects and trauma of sexual violence can impact survivors in ways that may take years to unravel.

The fact is, the data tell a story different from society’s myths about sexual violence—one as dark as it is common.

This is what sexual violence looks like in Singapore

The following data is collected from news reports from various Singapore-based publications (2017–2021). News reports vary, and not all cases are reported with the same level of detail. The detailed methodology is at the end of the story.

Who tends to be involved in sexual violence?

Gender of perpetrators

Male

Female

We start by representing each victim with a dot (e.g., V1), grouped by their cases (e.g., C1).

Almost all perpetrators are male.

Victims are mostly female.

Several cases involve multiple victims, and some have an unspecified number of victims reported—as shown by a single red bubble. The actual total number of victims is unknown, and likely greater than what we know.

Cases with many victims tend to involve technology-enabled sexual violence.

As reports of cases with more than 20 victims have many unknown variables, we have excluded them from here on.

Most victims in our sample are minors, defined here to be under 16 years of age—the legal age of sexual consent.

And even among minors, most are below 14—the threshold for statutory rape.

For male victims, most are under 16. It’s clear that victims face sexual violence when they’re relatively young.

The fact is that most victims of sexual violence are young. Their relationships with perpetrators are often dangerously imbalanced in power, leaving them especially vulnerable to exploitation.

How does sexual violence occur?

In cases where the relationship between victim and perpetrator is known, we see that most victims knew their perpetrators.

Often, perpetrators are a victim’s peers, professional authority figures, or household members.

Foreign domestic workers and sex workers are also in highly vulnerable relationships with their perpetrators.

Many get to their victims through other trusted people.

The younger the victim, the more likely they are to be violated within their closest circles of trust.

Older victims, in contrast, often deal with “indirect” offences such as voyeurism, a deliberate intrusion into another’s privacy.

Children are not able to give consent and are mostly dependent on adults for having their social and emotional needs met and for understanding what’s wrong or right. Even if a child feels like something is wrong, they are often unable to express themselves, let alone stop what is happening to them.

Where does sexual violence occur?

where treemap desktop
where treemap mobile

Proportion of locations of sexual violence mentioned in 200 reported cases of singular victims.

Home is, by far, where most sexual violation happens.

Public places: Severe sexual assault often happens in public toilets, stairwells, and carparks. Molestation and upskirting tends to happen more in crowded places, like malls, trains, and buses.

Accommodation spaces loosely refer to spaces of residence and their surroundings that are not homes (e.g., hotels, hostels, HDB areas).

Educational spaces are the site of sexual violence too—from preschools and tutoring spaces to campus toilets and dorms.

Workplaces refer to professional environments, from offices to medical facilities. Perpetrators share a professional relationship with victims; they may be supervisors, colleagues, or service providers, for example.

Many people still think sexual violence happens in risky places and that victims are partly at fault because of where they go or whom they know. But the data show that it often occurs in places that we are most familiar with—with people we have every reason to trust.

The law has recently stepped up efforts against sexual violence

After many years of civic advocacy and recent social movements (e.g., #MeToo), the Singapore Parliament has enacted important legal reforms on sexual violence.

A timeline of recent changes in the law pertaining to sexual violence, including creating new offences, extending the scope of existing offences, enhancing the maximum possible penalties.
A timeline of recent changes in the law pertaining to sexual violence, including creating new offences, extending the scope of existing offences, enhancing the maximum possible penalties.

These changes offer victims more and better protections under the law—and can deter potential perpetrators from committing these crimes. Crucially, they show that vulnerability, power dynamics, and the quality of consent all matter in sexual violence.

The laws against technology-enabled sexual offences—such as seeking and distributing child abuse material—are especially important today. There are many ways to enable sexual violence, whether directly or indirectly, and the law now recognises them as important and worth addressing.

But the law can only do so much

Despite its power, much of the law’s protection happens after the harm has been done—and it relies on the case being reported in the first place.

Why do victims keep their experiences to themselves, take months or years to share what has happened, or speak up only after someone notices something is wrong?

Trapped between not being believed and being believed but judged for it nonetheless, many victims of sexual violence bury their stories within them. Most never get the justice they deserve.

What can we do to change this?

Let’s be frank—sexual violence is complex, and resolving it calls for bolder imagination. We need to look beyond the black letter of the law to systems, resources, and individuals. Collectively, we have a responsibility—and the power—to change things. We can support recovery for survivors and uproot dangerous attitudes about gender and sex.

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Responses and resources for cases reported to the police

The Singapore Police Force has improved the reporting process for sexual violence. The OneSAFE centre, for example, allows survivors to report sexual crimes and get medical tests in one place.

Sexual violence in Singapore: a crisis

Mental health support and professional counselling for victims and survivors

Talking about one’s sexual violation can be just as painful as the experience itself. Responses that trivialise or doubt victims can make them feel even more shame, guilt, fear, and powerlessness—which may re-traumatise them further and disrupt their recovery.

Professional counselling and therapy should be made more widely available and accessible to sexual assault victims, regardless of whether or when one chooses to make a police report. Recovery is a lengthy and complex process, and it needs long-term, affordable support.

Sexual violence in Singapore: a crisis

Formal Education: Sexuality education

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Informal Education: Media

These beliefs may seem like common sense to some, but they open the door to more serious and dangerous sexual harms. Ideas like “women in certain clothes shouldn’t complain if they’re harassed” and “boys will be boys” are precisely why too many women take the blame for sexual violence—and too few men see their own hand in perpetrating it.

What now?

The status quo cannot continue. Too many victims of sexual violence live with trauma, unable to feel safe in their own bodies and homes. The shadow of sexual violence makes it hard to feel love and trust others; some victims struggle with this for the rest of their lives.

Sexual violence is a plague, spread in part by erroneous ideas and a culture that wrongly assumes who experiences it and how it happens. This results in a society that blames victims and often excuses perpetrators. The good news is that, just as deeply rooted laws and norms around whether women can work or vote have been eradicated, we can challenge and change our assumptions, beliefs, and behaviours today.

The blueprint is clear: legal changes must come with education—formal and informal—about healthy relationships, gender roles, and sexual boundaries. We must ensure broader institutional support for victims in the criminal justice system, healthcare system, and the communities victims and survivors live in.

This will be difficult, and it will take a long time. But now that we’ve seen the problem and what to do, we cannot—must not—stay silent.

Where can you learn more?

No one should experience sexual violence. If you have faced sexual violence and are looking for help—or simply want to learn more about it—please visit and reach out to these resources.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to amend a factual inaccuracy. The original version had stated that "Between 2017 and 2019, 9,200 cases involved the young and vulnerable". The correct range, 2017-2020, is now reflected in the story.

Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at hello@kontinentalist.com
This story is written in collaboration with
Women Unbounded

Women Unbounded is a volunteer-based community headquartered in Singapore, working towards empowerment through connections, mutual aid, and ideas. Intersectional feminism is at the core of our activism. We remain grounded in our beliefs of fairness, respect, and empiricism. 

Credits
Code / Siti Aishah
Creative / Michelle Wibowo, Rachel Lum
Design and illustration / Munirah Mansoor
Research and data collection / Abigail Goh, Angèle Griffin, Anna Mohan, Harvinder Kaur, Judith Ann Kumar, Nisha Rajoo, Rachel Kuo, Reema Dudekula, Sofia Lankinen
Story / Mick Yang
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