by Marilyn Peh on

Caught for allegedly filming up a woman’s skirt on the MRT, a physical education teacher from Xinmin Primary School has just become Singapore’s latest public shaming target.

In a covertly shot two-minute clip that was uploaded to Facebook a few days ago, the man is seen placing his mobile phone on top of his bag and surveying the train cabin. Then in a matter of seconds, when a woman moves in to stand behind him, he appears to swing the bag and phone briefly under her skirt, before the clip abruptly cuts away and ends.

It could be my bad eyesight, but I had to watch the video thrice before picking up on what the cameraman actually wanted us to see.

If not for a caption that read in Chinese – ‘Pervert. I’ll make you famous with this video’ – I would have been left wondering why a documentary was being made about people spacing out on the MRT.

As fleeting as the clip was, it promptly went viral and an online witch-hunt soon pinpointed a 30-year-old physical education teacher as the alleged perpetrator. Despite little context to how the bystander had been sure of the teacher’s guilt (was he confronted? did they find the incriminating video on his phone?), social media detectives branded him a pervert faster than the police could say “investigations are ongoing”.

A smartphone user glancing at the screen of his device
Image Source: The Pride

It remains to be seen whether the teacher is guilty or innocent, and since the video was pretty inconclusive, I’ll wait for the announcement that a collection of upskirt recordings has been found stashed away in his computer before casting any judgment.

Instead, like some netizens, I found it puzzling that the bystander could have predicted when the suspicious deed would take place, since a large part of the clip shows the man gazing innocuously around the cabin, not unlike other disinterested commuters.

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More importantly, I wondered why the bystander had chosen to quietly film a video instead of coming to the alleged victim’s aid, if he had known that she was about to suffer an outrage of modesty.

In the comments section, the user who posted the video explained that his colleague had filmed it but asked him to upload it on his behalf as he hoped to avoid attracting unwanted trouble. This allergy to troublesome situations is at least consistent, because he also chose to remain passive when the actual situation was playing out before him.

Rather than raise the alarm, or alert the would-be victim, the guy who witnessed the incident went for the path of least resistance — he filmed a video.

In the here and now when we often say that social media is our second home, and how our lives are practically lived online, vigilantism seems to have been similarly redefined for an online audience.

With the video attracting significantly more likes, shares and “Pervert!!!” comments than ones asking why nothing was done to help, naming and shaming online has become accepted as a valid form of public justice.

Screenshot of a Facebook comments thread
Image Source: Facebook

It also implies that we see ruining the reputation of whoever is in the wrong as potentially fairer than actually rescuing the victim from being wronged. And so, we whip out our phones at the first sign of trouble thinking we’re doing our part to help, when in reality, we’re no more than just a bunch of passive spectators armed with flashy S8s.

So, is voyeurism becoming the new vigilantism?

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I hope not, because that would see us sink to a new low of the bystander syndrome epidemic. The law may not compel us to help, but that doesn’t mean that we should not, especially when someone is being placed in harm’s way. In an extreme example of the bystander effect, people have lost their lives after traffic accidents when bystanders refused to help or call for help in China.

If I’m ever robbed or assaulted in public, I’d hope that someone would come to my aid and stop the situation from escalating further rather than film from a safe distance with the intention of recording evidence.

A man operating his smartphone
Image Source: The Pride

Watching the clip for a fourth time, I find myself wondering if the woman he allegedly upskirted has seen the video, and how she felt about it.

Who would she be angrier at? The alleged pervert, or the witness who could film and broadcast the incident on Facebook, but couldn’t so much as warn her to move away?

Placed in her shoes of possibly discovering that she could have been sexually harassed only through a viral video that pops up on her newsfeed, my guess would be the latter.