2 August 2017

Let’s Get Uncomfortable

Let’s Get Uncomfortable

Teoh said he wants to have a “phase two” of the campaign to address other unmentioned aspects of child grooming.

ALVIN Teoh’s life changed forever two years ago when a close relative came home from school with devastating news – she had been molested by her teacher.

Completely unprepared for this moment, he didn’t know what to say. “I didn’t know what to do first – be furious at the teacher or care for her,” he said.

Thankfully, Teoh’s wife was prepared, and had spoken to said relative of the signs to look out for and what to do if something like this ever happened.

“She was very aware of what was happening as soon it took place and was already thinking of ways to get out of the room and away from him,” Teoh said.

He credits his wife for having the talk with their relative, who is now otherwise unharmed and happy, but it made him wonder if other parents were having this discussion with their own relatives.

“I think more light is being shed on this issue, but the semi-urban and rural areas need to learn more about it as well,” he said. “Who is going to reach out to them?”

Spreading the word

“We didn’t want to pull back and censor ourselves because this is something that desperately needs to be talked about,”

Teoh, executive creative director of ad agency Naga DDB, shared his story with the team, and discovered that a few of his colleagues were survivors themselves.

“We had no idea before, but they started to open up and talk more about it. One of them started to cry. She had kept it a secret for so long,” said Teoh.

With the issue becoming increasingly personal, the team jumped on Teoh’s plan to help spread awareness on the issue of child sexual exploitation.

They came up with an idea – to create a video ad campaign based on Teoh’s relative’s experience. There would be no sugarcoating or “conceptual” stuff that only hints at the dangers faced by children every day.

While working on the campaign, the team found some partners within their own industry, who helped in their own ways.

“As soon as the production and audio houses heard about the project, they all dropped their fees,” said Teoh with a smile.

Despite all the support, the team still faced a challenge in finding the right client.

Potential clients shied away from the potential backlash the project might cause.

“They were just too uncomfortable with our ideas, and left,” Teoh said ruefully.

A year passed, with nothing to show for the team’s efforts, but they stuck to their guns.

“We didn’t want to pull back and censor ourselves because this is something that desperately needs to be talked about,” Teoh said.

“There is a greater good that can be achieved by tackling the issue head-on.”

That being said, they didn’t just burst onto the scene, guns blazing.

“We were very aware of the repercussions if we went about such a sensitive subject wrongly,” Teoh said, adding they needed an expert in the field to help develop the campaign.

That expert was non-governmental organisation P.S. The Children (PSC) who jumped onboard almost immediately after meeting with Naga DDB.

PSC works to establish preventive education against child sexual abuse, and provides treatment and support services for victims and their families.

They also hold workshops, talks and panel discussions throughout Malaysia.

If anyone knew what it was like to tackle this issue in an effective yet sensitive manner, it would be PSC.

PSC president Datin Che Nariza Hajjar Hashim said they came onboard because their ultimate goal is to break the malu (shaming) and victim-blaming culture in Malaysia.

“We need to stop this ‘never mind’ attitude and listen to what our children are really saying,” she said.

“The moment an adult listens to a child about their sexual abuse and stops it, that’s when you’ve broken the pattern – by breaking the silence.”

RELATED: Watch R.AGE’s own journalists go face to face with child sex predators

Teoh baring his soul and telling an audience of strangers about his own experience with child sexual abuse in hopes of preventing another incident. (From left: Noor Nabila Akbar Hussain, DSP Tan Gee Soon, Yong, Jeremy Tan, and Teoh)

Acting it out

“Just close your eyes, and don’t make a sound. Let my itsy bitsy fingers, touch you all around.”

Naga DDB had found their client, and now the campaign – titled Stop Nursery Crimes – was finally on track to break that silence.

To reach out to a wider audience, they created three videos in different languages – English, Malay and Chinese.

These videos were basically a reenactment of the abuse his own daughter suffered, but Teoh never wavered from his decision to produce the campaign.

“Once you’ve gone through that experience (of having your child sexually abused), you don’t want anyone else to go through the same thing,” he said.

In one of the videos, a teacher and his student are alone in a classroom. He asks her if she wants to play a game, and then tickles her, singing Itsy Bitsy Spider.

But the lyrics have been altered. His last two lines go: “Just close your eyes, and don’t make a sound. Let my itsy bitsy fingers, touch you all around.”

“We’re really grateful these advertisements have been produced because most of our work is focused on prevention through educating both parents and the general public on what sex abuse is,” said PSC founder and board member Madeleine Yong.

“The more we as a community understand what sex abuse is, the more we can come up with solutions in a strategic and sustainable manner.”

RELATED: Read our journalist’s first person account of her “WeChat date from hell”

A screenshot from one of the Nursery Crimes videos titled: Itsy Bitsy fingers.

Rallying the troops

“Every time we run a programme, there will always be at least one person who comes out with a story of their own sexual abuse,”

Naga DDB is not the only organisation PSC is teaming up with to spread awareness. They also assisted R.AGE on its Predator In My Phone project, which has been uncovering online child sexual groomers through hidden camera sting operations.

PSC has also teamed up with Digi and the Education Ministry to distribute workbooks on digital safety to primary schools throughout Malaysia, especially in the rural areas.

“Every time we run a programme, there will always be at least one person who comes out with a story of their own sexual abuse,” said Yong.

“It happens to everyone regardless of race or creed, that’s why we need to arm ourselves with knowledge and open discussion.”

Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development undersecretary (policy division) Dr Waitchalla Suppiah was also at the campaign launch to talk about improvements they were making to our laws on child safety.

The new Child Act (2015) will contain 13 new sections and 69 amendments, including the introduction of a national child abuse registry.

“We’ve done a lot of engagement with PSC as well as other NGOs,” said Dr Waitchalla. “But it wasn’t just getting the adults to talk about what needs to be done, we also also got children to voice out their opinions on what else should be incorporated.”

Steady progress

It took a year for Teoh’s relative’s abuser to finally be convicted. He admitted to molesting her, but got away with just a fine, and is no longer allowed to work around children.

Teoh is now glad that he pressed charges against the teacher, but at the time, he had wondered if it would be worth it.

“The abusers are really manipulative and they know how to navigate through the loopholes in our legal system,” he said, commending the Predator In My Phone project’s campaign for new laws against child sexual grooming.

That’s why he is playing his part to help ensure these laws take effect.

“We are prepared to deal with backlash as long as this conversation is being had, because it’s being swept under the carpet too often,” he said.

He strongly believes that an issue as urgent as this simply cannot be downplayed or sugarcoated.

“You’re just going to cause more confusion. We should address these things as it is and try to be mature about it.”

Watch and share the Stop Nursery Crimes videos at stopnurserycrimes.com. To support the campaign for laws against child sexual grooming, click here.