Sexual Exploitation in Adolescents in Singapore – How Family and Parent-Child Bonding Can Play a Role
Dr Robin Goh
President, Section of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, College of Psychiatrists, Academy of Medicine, Singapore
Dr Ong Say How
Chief, Department of Developmental Psychiatry, Institute of Mental Health
Hon. Secretary, Section of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, College of Psychiatrists, Academy of Medicine, Singapore
Singapore, with a total population approximating 6 million living in 728km2 of land, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Around 20% of the population are aged 19 years and younger and the country’s total fertility rate is at a low 1.14 . Being one of the most expensive cities in the world and with the country’s heavy reliance on human resources, it is not unexpected for both parents to work in order to enjoy a more comfortable family life. The care of the young children is hence usually undertaken by domestic helpers, grandparents or other more senior relatives and childcare centres. Having a good education is prioritised for the children as this could indirectly translate to future employability in our country.
Domestic helpers in Singapore have to be female and must be between 23 and 50 years of age. These helpers are not allowed to perform duties beyond household and care work, and are not to undertake parenting or tutoring work . They are usually young and may be tired from all the domestic work to be effective in providing emotional attachments to the children. Their main priority lies in ensuring a clean home and cooked meals for the family, not raising children. They are usually employed for 1-2 years before moving on to work for another family. The children will usually not form strong attachments with the helper. Even if they do, the attachments will be broken when the helpers leave to work for another family.
Childcare centres can take in children as young as 18 months’ old. For children attending schools, they may go to childcare centres after school and wait for their parents to pick them up after work. The role of the childcare centres is to ensure safety and accountability of children under their care on behalf of the parents. They do not help establish parent-child bonding. Needless to say, both domestic helpers and childcare centres can never replace the parents and having grandparents or relatives to care for the children are the next best alternatives. Children need to build a bond with their parents, and regardless of how busy they are, parents need to find quality time with them to build meaningful relationships and inculcate values. Many parents place a strong emphasis on education. Some parents would choose to place their children in the tuition or enrichment classes during the weekends to ensure that they are academically competitive, thus limiting quality family and bonding time.
Parent-child attachment will likely erode over time with the “surrogate parenting”. While it is not unexpected for the children to individuate from the parents as they grow up, they will find it harder to talk to the parents as well. A personal observation over the years of working in child psychiatry was that the current parent-child relationship appears more distant and the quality of the parenting has plummeted. The parents often do not understand their child.
The child’s own past experiences with his or her parents had reinforced that it was hard to build emotional connections with them – they may be in a family but the child still feels empty and alone. Many will turn to other sources to build relationships. Since 98% of households with children attending school in Singapore had computer access at home (including internet enabled handphones) , they will have easy access to digital media apps (e.g. Tiktok and Instagram), online games (e.g. mobile legends, candy crush), and even dating apps (e.g. Tinder, Bumble or Grindr).
Humans are social beings and they crave interactions. Likewise, children yearn for attention and affirmations. They also trust easily and if they do not have discernible adults who can advise them, they are particularly vulnerable. Afterall, the parents have missed out on the quality time to bond with them in their younger years. They make friends with strangers online who can expose them to inappropriate sexual content and groom them for sexual favours. These strangers may be preying adults or like-minded inquisitive teenagers who are exploring their sexuality. Even without digital media, the children are easy sexual exploits. People close to them will be able to persuade them into physical intimacy and they will oblige out of fear of antagonising or losing them. Sex may give them certain amounts of enjoyment and gratification such that they continue engaging in the relationship and fail to realise that they have been taken advantage of. The number of child sexual abuse cases investigated in Singapore has risen from 58 to 210 from the years of 2010 to 2019 . The increase in numbers was certainly attributable to more rigorous screening tools and training to pick them up, but could the change of parenting style over the years play a part in increasing the child’s vulnerability too?
Sexual expressions and discussions are taboo topics among Asian families. Most parents are uncomfortable to talk about them and will rely on the school system to educate their children. In the same vein, children also find it hard to ask or talk to parents about sexual issues. Sex education begins in primary school  and they will be taught about sexual reproduction, safety and how to seek help. Many cases of childhood sexual abuse only surfaced after sex education. By then, the child victims would have been groomed and taken advantage of for many years. The victims will usually speak to their trusted friends, teachers or school counsellors and not parents about the sexual abuse.
It is painful for the child to share about the betrayal and the remorse over the loss of innocence. Very often they can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depressive disorders. Some may develop eating disorders and even conduct issues. A lot of professional work has to be put in to help them. The parents will also have guilt and emotional issues. The question is, can we do more to reduce child sexual abuse especially during this current age of liberalism about sexuality and nudity which were previously taboo topics? While sex education in Primary school is undeniably useful, it is disheartening to know that the victims only found out about their abuse after the lessons. They could have taught how to protect their bodies at a much younger age by their parents. Parents should and must do more. For example, they could attend parenting workshops, learn about navigating cyberspace and social media, and keep themselves up to date with current trends so that they feel confident and empowered on having that much-needed healthy discussions with their children.
As child psychiatrists, we can work with the government and community to put a strong focus on parenting and quality family time. We need a paradigm shift, and if possible, more funding and resources to educate a whole generation of parents so that they will be equipped with the skills to provide a warm and nurturing home environment.
- Singapore Demographics 2020 [Internet]
- Employment of Foreign Manpower Act [Internet]
- Annual survey on Infocomm Usage in Households and by Individuals for 2019 [Internet]
- Child sexual abuse cases in Singapore 2010-2019 [Internet]
- Sexuality Education: Scope and teaching approach [Internet]