Singapore’s ‘Catcalling’ Culture
Imagine: You’ve just boarded the MRT and it’s your lucky day—you’ve managed to find a seat! As you sit down, you notice a man leering at you in your peripheral vision. Upon looking up, you see his eyes travelling up and down your body. He shamelessly refuses to lower his gaze despite you shooting him your best resting bitch face (RBF). You look away but still feel his gaze. What is his problem?
While verbal street harassment (e.g. catcalling) is rare in Singapore, non-verbal street harassment, in particular staring, is prevalent. Women do stare at guys too, but one might assume it is not as ‘threatening’, as compared to a man ogling a woman. In addition, you’ll usually hear boyfriends telling their girlfriends to ‘cover up’, not the other way round.
From personal observation, ah peks tend to make their girl-staring more obvious. Younger Singaporeans do stare too but are usually more discreet.
We’ve all heard of the classic ‘stare what stare’ argument in Singapore—we hate it. So why do certain men think it’s okay to leer at women?
Conflating Courtship With Aggressive Behaviours
Singaporean culture is generally conservative, non-confrontational, and passive. Guys are largely expected to make the first move, and reciprocated eye contact is usually the first cue they look out for.
When I relate this staring problem to my guy friends, they often counter: You chio then they stare at you what, only if the guy not handsome then got problem. How else would guys receive the cue to approach girls? While I understand their rationale, something seems off.
It’s assumed that being stared at is part of the dating game and that girls are expected to feel grateful or complimented when they get male attention, even if it’s unwanted. Their assumption is that I’ll be alright with having a good-looking boy ‘check me out’ because I’m likely to find him attractive and be attracted.
But there is a difference. I could be equally creeped out by a good-looking boy who is leering at me. However, if I am willing to interact with someone who’s trying to interact with me, I would respond positively (e.g. smiling and exchanging glances).
This shifts the interaction dynamic from one-sided to reciprocal, from negative to positive. This is only possible because I have made a choice to participate.
However, interpreting body language is not a skill everyone is adept at. Additionally, the lack of defined boundaries between flirting and street harassment via staring, tend to result in men conflating courtship and aggressive behaviours. These blurred lines can result in interactions unpleasant and messy.
It’s Power Assertion, Not Fun And Games
Staring, like catcalling, is not so much about sexual attraction, nor complimenting a woman. Rather, it is about asserting power over another through objectification. Some Singaporean men claim that when they stare, they “do it for fun”, or for a laugh with their friends. They feel that ‘checking girls out’ is part of being a man.
Furthermore, representations in the media depict the male gaze as ‘normal’.
As men’s behaviours are guided by what society values and teaches them to do, staring simultaneously reflects and reinforces a hierarchical society that privileges men over women.
Singaporean society places gendered expectations on each sex, with heteronormativity and hegemonic masculinity legitimising the subordination of women and other types of masculinities (e.g. being a homosexual man).
On a micro-level, the problem is that men are taught that they should approach girls, but not how to gauge and value a woman’s response.
When a man defends staring even when women have spoken out against how comfortable it makes them feel, they are choosing to ignore women’s needs. They are deciding that their need to express themselves publicly is more important and acceptable than offending others. They are choosing not to respect women as human.
On a macro-level, incessant staring (i.e. catcalling) is a low-level manifestation of rape culture. While it seems ‘harmless’, it provides leeway for more aggressive behaviours.
That’s not very nice.
Keep Your Eyes To Yourself
Singapore is a heterogeneous society, we are proud of our multicultural social fabric. Part of this involves the tolerance of differences, and not making others feel unwanted or unwelcome in this Tiny Red Dot.
Some foreigners who live or visit here may come from cultures where staring is socially acceptable, or is still sensitive and awed by the diversity of people here (in terms of dress and skin colour). While their staring is still unwelcome, it’s understandable why they stare, though it doesn’t make it right.
But for Singaporeans who understand the local customs and norms, there’s no excuse to leer at someone, regardless of gender.
So for gentlemen out there: If you’ve been in our shoes, I sincerely apologise on behalf of womankind, and I hope you never have to deal with what women frequently experience in public spaces.