How do we decide which sexual harassment cases get attention?
By Zan Azlee
None of us like sexual harassers and predators, right? Well, that’s what I tell myself all the time. I pride myself in wanting to be someone who isn’t gendered bias, especially since I have two daughters. How can I ever want them to go through life in a world that is misogynistic and sexist?
I try hard, but I’m not perfect. Going through life as a man is just very different, and I can never imagine the experience faced by women. I can read and listen to their experiences, but I can never say that I actually understand what they go through daily. So, sometimes the initial perspective and response that I give aren’t very well thought out. Basically, it takes me a while to get it. But I try.
Recently, before Chinese New Year, my social media blew up with discussions by keyboard warriors about an incident that happened at a local bookstore in Petaling Jaya called Lit Books. They had organised a meet the author session with Tan Twan Eng, who wrote the novel “The Garden of Evening Mists”, which was recently made into a film.
The issue with the event was that the individual who was moderating the session is someone who, slightly over a year ago, was accused of sexual harassment and after investigations by his employer, dismissed from his job. The individual is a well-known media personality, and his former employer is the radio station BFM 89.9.
Maybe I should give a little bit of background. In December 2018, a handful of news editors and journalists from different news organisations received an email from a supposed victim of sexual harassment. In the email, the victim who claimed to be an employee of the radio station named two male individuals who constantly harassed female employees. She also named several victims (except herself).
The matter was then reported widely by the news media, but the identities of the alleged harassers and victims were never made public. Eventually, the radio station conducted investigations and announced that they had sufficient evidence to terminate two male employees for misconduct. The sackings were reported in the media too, but their identities were never made public.
Fast forward back a year and back to the present, we are now in the aftermath of the incident at Lit Books. Many people are angry and have expressed that anger online, specifically on the bookstore’s social media platforms (Facebook and Instagram). Many showed concern at the support of the bookstore of an accused sexual harasser and felt that he shouldn’t have been given a platform. Many also felt that this was being very insensitive and offensive to the victims.
There were several people who supported the bookstore and the alleged sexual harasser. They argued that everybody is innocent until proven guilty and we shouldn’t be lynching someone who has only been accused of wrongdoing. First of all, discussing the issue passionately is hardly lynching. Secondly, the accused can never be proven innocent (or guilty) because technically, Malaysia has no laws against sexual harassment, which is ridiculous to say the least.
It has come to light that the alleged sexual harasser is now taking action on his former employers at the Industrial Court for wrongful dismissal. This case was reported by a few news media and this time, he has been identified and named in the reports. And for many of his supporters, they feel that this is his time in court to prove his innocence.
The bookstore has issued a statement of regret about the incident. They expressed regret that their choice of moderator for the event caused distress to so many people. But the argument here is that the bookstore owners are friends with the individual and when they were promoting the event, they did not state his name in any of the promotional materials, only saying that there will be a special guest moderator. Seems like they were being mindful about his reputation.
I am going to be totally transparent and say that the individual that I have been talking about is someone that I do know personally. I first got to know him through work, and we eventually became friends. We’re not the best of friends that hang out at each others’ houses, but we do chat and joke around often. I’ve worked with him and been on shows with him. Throughout the time that I have known him, he has been a very nice person to me.
So when the allegations came out against him, I have to say that I felt angry and to a certain degree, betrayed as well. To say that I was shocked wouldn’t be true because, before that, I have heard rumours of his conduct. The rumours were coming from third, fourth and fifth hands so I didn’t, and couldn’t, do anything. We definitely don’t work on hearsay. Sure, you can call me out for not investigating after hearing the rumours since I am a journalist, but I guess that’s where the bias lay. I’m sorry.
So, what happens now?
It would seem that someone who was accused of sexual harassment could just lay low for a period of time and then re-emerge as if nothing happened. And if he received the support of the people who actually have influence, then everything would be forgotten. I have not seen any of the people who run in the circle of the so-called “liberal” media who are supposedly big on human rights, women rights, individual rights, et cetera, who have actually been very vocal about this issue.
We made a big deal when we read about accusations and allegations that are made against people like Bill Cosby, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. We even made a lot of noise when we heard our local politicians make sexist remarks in Parliament and we call for their apology and resignation. But why are we so quiet about this particular issue?
I don’t have proof of anything. So I am not making any accusations here at all. I am also not naming him here. But his identity is already common knowledge. Why am I not naming him? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the bias in me because here is somebody who I believe to run in the same circle as me and hold similar principles. But I still feel angry and betrayed.
I think that it is very important that Malaysia commits to the Sexual Harassment Bill. The government spoke about it last year. Today, they are still talking about it, but it remains as talk. According to Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Ismail (photo), the bill is in its final draft and will soon be submitted to the Attorney-General’s Chambers. Please hurry.
In the meantime, I strongly feel that people who are sexual predators and harassers need to be shown the consequences. Why are people so passionately defending someone’s right to innocence before being proven guilty when there isn’t even a law to prove the guilt? How then do we handle the victims? Do we brush them off? Do we not believe them? Do we tell them to just keep quiet?
When the anonymous email was sent out, a few people, mostly those who knew him, said that it lacked credibility because it was anonymous. But think about the environment that we are living in. I have no right to mansplain the situation, but overall, it isn’t exactly an ideal situation for women. The first reaction most people would have is to doubt the accuser, especially if the accused is someone influential.
I know people who have been sexually harassed (and I believe them), and they have told me that that is how it always is. The pressures of coming out and revealing sexual harassment and assault are huge on women. Honestly, writing this article itself is stressing me out. I am most probably going to receive some hate from this (most probably from those who run in the same liberal circle as I do). But this is nothing compared to what a victim would face.
So we need these laws. We need these issues to be discussed openly and safely. I am against witch hunts, so there needs to be a proper procedure for it. That is why I bring you back to the importance of the Sexual Harassment Bill. Without any proper laws or repercussions, I am afraid that what happened with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1980s and 1990s could happen here.
I am writing this because I think it is important for me to show a good example to my two daughters and my son. My eldest daughter used to joke around saying that: “Pops is always in front of his computer writing nonsense.”
I used to reply that the “nonsense” I write is what puts a roof over her head. Sexual harassment is not nonsense. I feel like I need to express all of this. Let’s make Malaysia a safe and better place for everyone.
[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]
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