The perplexing case of Purple Light
Note: the post below contains examples of abusive language.
“Booking out, see my girlfriend
Saw her with another man
Kill the man, rape my girlfriend
With my rifle and my buddy and me.”
It started simply. Several men at a workshop on violence against women told us of these lyrics in an NS marching song. They were disturbed by the attitude expressed toward sexual violence. In their view, such lyrics should not be part of the National Service experience.
We agreed and raised the matter in a letter to MINDEF and SAF.
MINDEF and SAF agreed and said that they would take steps to “immediately halt” the singing of these lyrics.
So far, so agreed. Yet our brief Facebook update on this generated an explosive reaction and spawned a thread of more than 700 comments. Criticism of us quickly spiralled into extremely abusive language. We (and others who welcome MINDEF’s move) are, among other things, “sensitive little bitches” and a “useless bunch of morons” who run a “feminazi group” which is “pushing for female supremacy” through “nitpicking”. We should “get fucked”.
All because we think Singapore is better off without soldiers singing about their buddies and rifles standing by as they rape women, and we said so publicly.
We have also seen many positive and supportive messages from people of all genders, including men who were uncomfortable with singing the lyrics in NS. But the strength of the negative response is noteworthy. Why does this bother some people (mostly men) so much? This important question goes to the heart of why the lyrics are so problematic to begin with.
To explore this, we’re going to respond to the main criticisms we’ve heard.
1. Why did they ban the whole song? It’s not even the original version.
MINDEF told us it would halt the singing of the specific lyrics that we quoted. We repeated this on Facebook and to journalists. The idea that the ban applies to anything else originated somewhere else. Moreover, we criticised lyrics that have been sung by many and that are defended by many. That criticism doesn’t rest on it being the original version of the song.
2. AWARE doesn’t care about men.
- Why do you pick on “rape my girlfriend” and not “kill the man”? Our particular expertise is violence against women and girls, and how sexual violence is trivialised, normalised and excused. Naturally we focused our remarks on the matter closest to this experience.
- What about other verses involving sexual assault against men? Sexual violence is deplorable, regardless of the gender(s) of the victim or perpetrator. Initially, we had only been informed of the lyrics quoted above. Others have since told us about other marching song lyrics that take a cavalier attitude towards sexual violence. We will investigate these too.
3. There’s nothing wrong with these lyrics.
- They keep morale up in NS when men are going through difficult times. Do men need to sing about raping women for this purpose? We have a higher opinion of them than that. Moreover, MINDEF and SAF do not appear to believe rape songs are necessary to military operations. In view of the use of rape as a tool of war, such as in the Congo and Bosnia, we suggest it is right to be cautious about tolerating these lyrics becoming a part of military culture.
- It’s only words. So why are people so upset they might not be sung? Words are powerful. They shape social norms and our collective sense of what is acceptable. Our contention has never been that singing “rape my girlfriend” will by itself cause anyone to commit the deed. Rather, a society which treats mocking references to rape as entertainment then encourages rapists to view their acts as acceptable and causes rape victims to feel unsupported.Globally and in Singapore, rape is under-reported precisely because rape victims feel they will not be taken seriously. This is especially true of rapes by intimate partners. Contrary to stereotype, these are more common than stranger rapes involving men jumping out in a dark alley. Almost all rapes in Singapore involve a victim and a perpetrator previously known to each other, and marriage continues to be a defence to charges of rape. The scenario in the lyrics – rape by an angry partner – is not an outlandish joke. For many rape victims, it is a hellish reality.
4. AWARE has no right to make this criticism.
- Because AWARE staff didn’t do NS. Men who have done NS first raised this issue with us. Moreover, in the recent Our Singapore Conversation exercise, many said NS experiences had an important influence on their values. All of society should be concerned with an institution so central to nation-building and which has a substantial impact on a large proportion of the population.
- Because AWARE doesn’t support NS for women. We’ve actually spoken about our proposed reforms for NS many times, including several times in the last month.
- Because AWARE doesn’t stop women from breaking up with their boyfriends who are doing NS. It’s true, we don’t.
5. AWARE shouldn’t have posted about this after doing it.
Why not? Too often social and political comment focuses on what’s gone wrong, without recognition of what’s been done right. Not only is this unfair to public bodies and figures when they make progress, it encourages a politics of despair, and a perception that all social and political conversation is empty grousing, done in vain. But we believe in the possibility of change and we seek to share this belief with others. We’re told this makes us “arrogant”; we prefer “hopeful”.
6. Other things are more important.
This has come up time and again: we were “making a mountain out of a molehill”. By writing a single polite letter to MINDEF and posting one Facebook update? Perhaps these critics believe the only appropriate amount of effort to spend on combatting the trivialisation of rape is none. Some offered a laundry list of alternative issues and campaigns for us, invariably without having found out anything else about our existing work first.
But this brings us back to the start. Why did so many people spend so much time writing over 700 comments on our Facebook page, and more elsewhere?
This episode has revealed how urgent the underlying issues are. Why are so many men so deeply attached to the idea that National Service should involve singing about raping women? Why do they find it so threatening that women have raised an objection to this, and that a public authority has taken that seriously? What other common practices and assumptions contribute to a hostile and degrading environment for women, in the military and elsewhere? And most importantly, what else can you and I do about it?