Malaysia’s #MeToo reckoning

DECEMBER 7 — The #MeToo movement that upended Hollywood, politics, and the media in America and other countries has finally arrived here. 

Unfortunately, in Malaysia, the targets of the movement that held powerful men to account for predatory behaviour that they had gotten away with for decades hit allies of #MeToo supporters themselves.

The pain is doubly sharp as allegations of sexual harassment and even rape fell on BFM, one of the few progressive and “woke” media outlets in Malaysia with a liberal fan base.

To have the first #MeToo incident strike one of our own is hard to deal with, especially since the public space for liberal politics and ideas is very small and did not expand when Pakatan Harapan won the 2018 election. 

Even though worse incidents have happened, like Arau MP Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim who was charged with molesting an underage girl, the formal accusation against the Umno lawmaker somehow did not generate waves of public outrage. He was not hounded to resign from office and continues to sit in the august House, as if nothing happened.

If many Malaysians think it’s fine to have sex with children under the legal cover of marriage, or that marital rape does not exist because a wife is obligated to please her husband sexually 24/7, then what is a sexual WhatsApp message between co-workers? Or lewd remarks about a woman’s body? Or persistent sexual propositions? 

If the allegations against BFM staffers are true, then BFM would have lost its status as a progressive icon and the space for liberal ideology shrinks even more. 

Everyone would have a huge sigh of relief if the accusations turned out to be false, of course. If the accusers do not come out soon, then it is possible that the case will fade. 

It may be tempting to summarily dismiss the accusations just so that we can continue to use BFM as a platform to advance our agenda. 

The personal is political. The interests of a few cannot be sacrificed for the greater good because the overarching mission of gender equality is meant to protect the weak — individual women who are victimised by the system. If they are not protected, the cause loses meaning.

I maintain that the accused in BFM should not be judged and they must be given a fair hearing. It is wholly unfair to convict them in the court of public opinion without hearing their side of the story.

At the same time, I also understand that it is not easy for victims to come forward. Worse, potential employers in Malaysia will probably be reluctant to hire them because they may be perceived as “troublemakers”, rather than as brave women who dared to stand up to their harassers. 

Malaysia still retains, by and large, an attitude of sweeping things under the carpet. Women are expected to tolerate bad behaviour from men without saying boo about it. 

Putting aside the BFM case, horrible toe-curling stories about sexual harassment in the media industry have come out.

Things must change.

I have been lucky to mostly escape sexual harassment throughout my eight years in journalism. There were, however, a few handsy contacts of mine from the political and legal world. I told one of them off; I made sure to express my feelings even though I did it after the fact, as I was a bit stunned during the incident itself when he touched my bum. He said it was a misunderstanding and we have resolved it since. 

There was also another man who perhaps initiated a little more physical contact than I would have liked, but I tolerated it anyway because, well, his actions didn’t seem intentionally creepy or predatory.

Social interactions are messy. We women don’t want to appear to be too aggressive or to make a scene per se, because humans in general are brought up to be as pleasant and normal as possible during social encounters in public spaces. It is not so easy to break these invisible rules of propriety in social exchanges. 

You can’t just start yelling in public, “Stop touching me, you monster!”, especially when these people are your friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. 

But while women should be upfront about what they are or aren’t comfortable with, the onus really should be on men to check themselves. Don’t initiate physical contact; follow a woman’s cues and let her take the lead instead to determine the boundaries. 

Men should not avoid women completely because of the #MeToo movement, especially in the workplace as it would only marginalise women even further, who are already struggling to break the glass ceiling. 

Just don’t be ass****s. Don’t make sex jokes, comment on women’s bodies, or touch women unless they initiate physical contact. It shouldn’t be that hard to treat your coworkers or professional acquaintances with respect. 

If you want sex, there’s always Tinder.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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