I’m a sexual assault survivor who found strength in #metoo

By Debra Teng and Clara How, Feb 28, 2019

Debra Teng is an actress, director, producer, corporate trainer/facilitator who recently launched a YouTube series called "Under The Carpet: #metoo”. She is also a survivor of rape and sexual assault, and after many years of silence, has decided to come forward to share her story. 

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Some of my earliest memories of sexual harassment happened when I was around 12 years old. I used to attend ballet classes which would end late at night. I would take the public bus home after that, reaching the bus stop at around 11pm. There would be this group of boys who would be waiting for me, and they would catcall or chase me.

On another occasion, I saw a guy peeping at me when I was bathing at a public pool. At that age, all of this was very scary and invasive. It was the beginning of the realisation that bad things can happen. That there are bad people out there, people who will disrespect you and who did not have any regard for your personal space, or privacy or safety.  

When these things happened, I didn’t tell my parents. I had a pretty dysfunctional relationship with my parents growing up and there wasn’t much communication between us. I often felt abandoned as a child. I guess I craved love and protection, the kind of loving family life I saw on TV which eluded me in real life.

Me at 17

Me at 17

Acting was an escape for me, an opportunity to live lives and experience love which I didn’t feel I had at home, it’s probably something that many teenagers go through. I remember watching the Academy Awards when I was about five years old, someone had won the Best Actress Award. That moment touched me, it spoke to me. Tears rolled down my five-year-old cheeks. Right there and then, I knew that I wanted to be an actress when I grew up.  

As a child from a poor family, it was not a choice that made sense, but there was a strong stirring in my heart. Conflicted, I prayed very hard to God to send me a sign. And so God did. In Sec One, I won Best Actress Award at the RGS drama competition. I was up against other girls who were very popular, nobody expected me to win. So when the teachers voted for me to win the Best Actress Award, I saw it as a sign that this is what I should pursue in life. Looking back now as an adult, it may seem like an inconsequential event, but it was a big deal to me at the time as a 12-year-old.

Photographs taken when I was 20

Photographs taken when I was 20

The acting led me to a casting for a TV commercial when I was 15. It was to become a sexual assault that would haunt me for the rest of my life. Over the phone the casting director had told me to bring my bikini because they wanted a young girl to plunge into a pool for the ad.

Once I was alone in the office with him, he told me to change into my bikini in front of him. I wasn’t comfortable with that, so I told him to step outside. Reluctantly he did so. Halfway through changing I realised there was this red light in the glass panel behind his desk. My heart started pounding and I started to panic.  

When he came back into the room, he started to show me pictures of women’s naked private parts. It was my first time seeing porn, and seeing all these women’s private parts traumatised me. He came closer and put his hands under my bikini top and started to fondle my breasts, saying I needed to push them up. I quickly pushed him away and told him that I didn’t want the job anymore. I put on my clothes as quickly as I could, feeling completely sickened, humiliated and violated.

As I was leaving the office, his two receptionists outside asked me if I needed a cup of coffee. They must have known what had happened. They must have known that this man was a predator of young girls. But they didn’t do anything.  

After that, I mentally blocked out the incident. I didn’t talk about it for many years because I was so angry with myself, that I had allowed this to happen to me. I was ashamed, and I didn’t want to think about it. Because if I didn’t think about it, I could pretend that it didn’t happen.

Getting ready for Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by the late William Teo

Getting ready for Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by the late William Teo

It was only in JC2 when I finally confided in a good friend. After I told him what had happened, he cried for me. That’s when I felt a bit of redemption, that maybe it wasn’t my fault and it shouldn’t have happened. It took a long time to forgive myself.

I don’t even know what that man’s name was or how he looked like anymore. I don’t even know if he was a real casting director. But I will always remember how he made me feel.  

As I got older, I realise that it was only the beginning of other sexual assaults… sometimes they ended in indecent propositions, other times they ended in physical violations… some were worse than others, and they all made me feel sick to my stomach. But these experiences didn’t deter me from becoming an actress, because I also met many amazing, nurturing, talented people who were good and kind, who made me feel safe, and who were totally professional.

Most of the time…

A calendar from my modelling days in 1999. Photographer: Karl Maria Hofer

A calendar from my modelling days in 1999. Photographer: Karl Maria Hofer

One of the worst violations I experienced happened five years ago in my own apartment. He was someone I had known since I was a teenager, a close friend whom I had a lot of respect and fondness for. When the incident was taking place, it was confusing for me. If it was a stranger, I would have tried to hurt him, kick him, or throw something at him. But this was someone whom I cared for.

Throughout the whole ordeal, I kept telling him “No!”, but he continued to force himself on me. He pushed me into the bathroom, and I just froze because I realised that I couldn’t fight him off. I just kept thinking, let this be over quickly.  

After the incident, I stayed away from every work event that I knew he would be at. I completely isolated myself because I didn’t want to run into him. One day, he texted asking me what was wrong. I replied, “Don’t you know? You raped me.”

We had a lengthy WhatsApp exchange about what happened in my apartment that day. But, at no point did he admit that he had raped me. The closest thing he came to it was that he was sorry that I felt that way. Maybe he didn’t want the conversation to be used as evidence. But he must have known, because I kept saying “No, please don’t.”  

After we spoke, it made me very angry and upset that he refused to admit it, or take any responsibility. We met up another time, and I told him that what happened was wrong, and he must never do it to anyone else again. He appeared respectful at first, but before we parted, he kissed me goodbye on the lips. And that made me realise that he didn’t get it, that he was still trying to assert power over me.  

There were several reasons why I did not and do not want to name him. The biggest reason is out of respect for his family. I know his family personally, and he is married with children. I would never want any child to have to suffer the knowledge that his/her father raped somebody.  

I also knew that I didn’t have the financial ability to challenge him, because he is well-off and well-connected. I wouldn’t stand a chance against him. It would be his word against mine. He is also someone who is well-respected in the industry. Because we move in the same circles, I would still have to see or even work with him occasionally.  

The thing about Singapore media and entertainment industry is that it can be quite cloistered and cliquish. It’s very different from America, where people are encouraged to whistleblow and speak up. In Hollywood, you might be lauded for having an opinion. Here, you will be stoned, ostracised and labelled “difficult”. Early on in my acting career, I would ask directors and writers questions, in order to understand and try to do my job better. An agent actually took me aside and said, don’t ask questions, just do as you are told. I knew that if I went up against this man, I would be ostracised by the whole community. I would never be able to work again in my industry.

Scenes from a play I directed and acted in 1999. It was called How I Learnt to Drive, about a woman who was sexually groomed and assaulted by her uncle as a child. Photographer: Ung Ruey Loon

Scenes from a play I directed and acted in 1999. It was called How I Learnt to Drive, about a woman who was sexually groomed and assaulted by her uncle as a child. Photographer: Ung Ruey Loon

Why is the #metoo movement important to me? The catalyst was Bill Cosby, the American actor who was convicted of multiple counts of drugging women, raping them and assaulting them. When I read what he had done to these women, I was so angry. It stayed with me for a long time.

Later, when the #metoo movement started, I thought, yes, it’s about time. The future generation should not have to experience or put up with sexual assault like my generation had to. 

I saw articles about the #metoo movement in every other country, but Singapore was so quiet on the subject.

So I went to the government in 2017 and asked if we could do a nationwide survey on sexual harassment and assault, because we don’t have any recent data on this. The last survey was done 10 years ago by AWARE, on a sample size of 500 women. And it was limited to just workplace harassment.

I met someone from the Ministry of Social and Family Development, who said that it was a good idea, but they had no budget to do it. They suggested I find corporate sponsors or corporations to fund it. But I’m just one person, and this takes time - finding these sponsors would just delay the survey. I looked at what was available to me, and one solution was to do something online.

I was blessed that Pixel (IMDA) sponsored our studio space and equipment, and an amazing group made up of people from eight different countries came forward to help make “Under The Carpet: #metoo” happen, and they were willing to do this pro bono.

Our team members came from Philippines (Videolab Manila), Holland, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Australia, America, Malaysia… a mother with a new-born baby in the midst of moving countries, an expecting father, high powered executives, a cancer research scientist, a media industry veteran, weekend warriors. The Deputy British High Commissioner, Ms Alexandra McKenzie hosted our launch on Nov 19, 2018 at Eden Hall, and AWARE’s Executive Director, Corinna Lim was our Guest-Of-Honour.

At our first production meeting! From Left: Lach Madsen, Bob Hafiz, Stella Amanda, Noël Baris, Gani Mohamed, Ung Ruey Loon, me, Afiqa Anzari, Haryati Mahmood. Team members missing in the picture: Stefany Wang, Gerald Fran, and Tan Chee Hong

At our first production meeting! From Left: Lach Madsen, Bob Hafiz, Stella Amanda, Noël Baris, Gani Mohamed, Ung Ruey Loon, me, Afiqa Anzari, Haryati Mahmood. Team members missing in the picture: Stefany Wang, Gerald Fran, and Tan Chee Hong

The show was all shot within three days, due to our limitations in time and resources, with no second takes. I thought, let’s just talk about it, put it out there, and hopefully people will have opinions about the topic that they will share. It’s on YouTube, called ‘Under the Carpet: #metoo’.

The series looks at the topic of Sexual Harassment from six different perspectives… from perspectives of AWARE, a Mother, the Workplace, Sociological, a Male survivor, and a Female perspective. Each perspective takes up three episodes, and there are 18 episodes altogether.

About to start shooting with a male sexual assault survivor who requested anonymity.

About to start shooting with a male sexual assault survivor who requested anonymity.

It was a challenge getting people willing to come on the show as our guests. While many people felt strongly about the topic, many did not want to appear on camera talking about it.  

It was on the show where I finally told my story. Sexual harassment was a topic that I felt was important to address, and I kept hoping that someone else would address it but no one did. So I just felt like someone had to do it. A week after our launch, AWARE also launched their #aimforzero campaign against sexual violence.

I must admit that doing this show did leave me feeling quite vulnerable.  Even though I did not reveal his identity, the fact that I put my story out there made me feel like I would be open to a lot of criticism just by doing that.  

In fact, since the show was released, I do feel like people didn’t want to cast me as much anymore. Of course, this could be a coincidence, and they might genuinely feel that I’m not right for the role.

But I would attend industry parties, and people would joke around saying, “eh, don’t cast her because she might sue you for sexual harassment.” And I always say, “well, if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you be worried about casting me?”

Behind the scenes with guest Nora Samosir

Behind the scenes with guest Nora Samosir

But in doing the show, I felt like a weight had lifted off me. It felt like something needed to be done, I did my part, and it’s finally out there.

I’m hoping that more people will come forward to talk about this, even if it’s to disagree, because at least we can talk and begin a discussion.

I told my own story, partly because it was very hard to get people who were willing to tell their stories on camera. Some people are worried that others might deduce who their perpetrators are, or if they’ll be putting their jobs at stake, or how their families might feel.

Since the launch, I have had more people coming forward to me, offering to tell their own stories. In some way, I believe the series is helping to facilitate conversations around sexual harassment. Tertiary students have also picked it up and used Under The Carpet as their school project.  

For so many years, women were told that it’s our responsibility when men behave badly. Were you wearing a short skirt? Were you sending the wrong signals? Victims have been conditioned to believe that it’s our fault, that in some way, we invited this, whether we intended to or not. And we tend to beat ourselves up about it.

And this experience made me realise that we need to educate both men and women on the rules of engagement. And teach our children, both boys and girls, that consent is non-negotiable.

People need to realise that they need to make the right choices, be responsible and treat others with respect. And for all of us to have that courage to say no, because we have every right to demand to be respected.  

Not so long ago, I had a friend who encountered a Harvey Weinstein-esque situation. She called us crying because she felt she didn’t say the right thing and stand up to this man, whom she saw as a mentor, and who was making very overt advances towards her. She was very upset with herself, because she felt like she should have had the courage to fight back. A group of friends gathered to give her support and assure her that she did not do anything wrong.

One of the friends that evening was a parent with a young daughter. And he said that they are teaching their daughter the importance of speaking up, and saying “no” because she’s by nature a very sweet, soft spoken child. I think that it’s so great that this generation is rethinking how we are bringing up our children, to educate our sons and daughters about awareness, consent and how to stand up for themselves and for others.

At the end of the day, I don’t want a witch hunt. That’s not what this is about. We all live and deal with life as best as we can. Some people are fuelled by anger, but I need to forgive to keep going. I try to make sure what fuels me comes from a good place.

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We also spoke to one of Debra’s friends whom she confided in about the rape. This is Karen Lim’s perspective as Debra’s close friend and her insight on the nature of Singapore’s entertainment scene.  

Speaking to both parties helped us better understand why women like Debra find it so difficult to make a choice on pursuing justice. For some people, finding closure means putting it all behind and moving forward.

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I've known Debra for many years - I can't recall, but I'd say between 15 to 20 years.

We met in the performing arts circle and since then have frequently stayed in touch. When you first meet Debra, she’s lovely. She’s attractive and very friendly. But she also has strength. She’s not the namby pamby sort. She’s a person who knows who she is.

She told me about being raped within a year of the incident. It wasn’t a case of her crying and calling me immediately after it happened - it was one of those girl sharing moments when we were having a heart to heart talk, and she shared what had happened. Debra was very clear that she had told this man no, but that he pushed on. I could see that she felt terrible, that she was conflicted.

She was so worried about hurting the other person’s family, and of course, it was difficult because this was someone she knew. I did ask her if she wanted to make a report, but she couldn’t find it in her to hurt the person’s family. I felt for her, but I also understood where she’s coming from. Debra is not a doormat, but she also doesn’t like to hurt people.  

My personal thoughts are that I would be as conflicted as her. On one hand, it’s tough because this person was not punished. But if I were to put myself in her shoes, I would be in the same boat. The entertainment industry is made up of who you know. It’s cliquish. Like other industries, it helps if you know you can work well with someone. And if you stir up a hornet’s nest, the clique might say, let’s not stir it up further. It may affect your ability to get cast. Singapore is so small and within the small circle of getting jobs, it’s difficult. For Deb to come out into the open, it adds another issue on the table.  

I believe that making Under the Carpet was cathartic for her. I thought it was very brave for her to admit to being assaulted. You always worry about what people think about you, and Debra’s a good looking girl. Without knowing the story, you worry that people might think it’s your fault for dressing pretty or anything like that.

I thought it was her way of taking action and telling this man that you did wrong, because he will know that it’s a reference to him. But also, it will give strength to others who have been in the same situation as her. The series might not have had as big of a reach as mainstream TV, but it’s a launching pad for people to talk about issues.

I was more conflicted about the situation in the past, because she had bottled it in. But now that she’s taken this move, I respect her decision and support her choice.

Writer’s Note: Create Collective has offered Debra legal support should she decide to make a report. We have spoken about this issue at length with her, and respect her decision.  

We also support her idea of carrying out a nationwide survey on sexual harassment and are in talks to work out how we can take this further.  

Regarding Debra’s relationship with her parents, they are now on better terms. As an adult she spoke to them about the hurt she felt as a child, and recognised in hindsight that her parents were going through a difficult time when they were raising her. There are no longer hard feelings.  

Speaking to both Debra and Karen helped us better understand why women like Debra find it so difficult to make a choice on pursuing justice. For some people, finding closure means putting it all behind and moving forward.

Photos provided by Debra Teng.

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