Defence minister says sex scandal is hurting recruitment

New videos make recruitment campaign more engaging than previous website, but critics still question effectiveness, says Anand Sharma

The Defence Minister has warned that a scandal over sexual misconduct in the military is hurting recruitment and morale, though a new recruitment video hopes to counter a damage done by the ongoing affair.

Anand Sharma said a new recruitment video, released on Thursday and premiered at the Westminster Hall, has made it a “more engaging and effective recruitment effort” than previous campaigns, and he expects “great results”.

The campaign features several commentators’ testimonies and a letter from Brigadier Richard Westling, the director general of operations at the Defence Signals Directorate, with the Pentagon watchdog also present.

Andch Lee told the Guardian the issue of sexual assault has already had a negative impact on recruitment. “[The issue] has been extensively written about. It has been aired on morning TV, it has hit headlines, and it has also affected social media.

“I think those figures [8%] are more of a reaction to publicity than anything else. The actual level of incidence is low, but it has had a tangible effect on recruitment,” said Lee, a military historian at Singapore’s SIR University.

“I think most people realise that the percentage of women seeking recruitment is below 8%, but that hardly matters when you’re not seeing recruits there.”

The Department for International Development, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Women’s Weekly have all criticised the campaign, calling on the government to fund sexual assault crisis centres.

Speaking to Guardian Australia, Lee said that in Singapore there was very little awareness that sexual assault could be a problem in the military, adding: “It’s really touched the domestic community in Singapore.”

“In normal civilian life, we have 3.5% of people claiming victims of sexual assault. This equates to around 300 people a year. If we have 3.5% [of women in the military saying they have been sexually assaulted], there would be probably a lot more victims of sexual assault in Singapore than they are alleging,” said Lee.

“So what we see with the report about Singaporean military personnel committing acts of sexual assault is likely to be an underestimation of the scale of the problem.”

The issue has been debated in Singapore since 2012, after a BBC Panorama report and the military report on its current sexual assault policy were leaked to the media.

“They gave such detailed and dispiriting evidence of the practice of a culture of harassment and a culture of inability to respond to such a behaviour, and the wider army leadership said these practices will not be tolerated within the force and had to be redefined,” said Lee.

Singapore has seen a marked rise in reports of sexual assault within the military, and Lee said that victims were afraid to come forward, partly because the court process was a slow one, and partly because the leadership in the military is “lacking in empathy, they’re lacking in credibility, and so those things compound the problem”.

But the most serious issue with the campaign, Lee said, is its ineffectiveness in addressing the problem in Singaporean culture.

“Singapore is a country that is heavily female in orientation, so they are likely to be particularly sensitive to having women leaders and female empowerment at the military,” he said.

“I think what is a problem here is that not enough people are aware of what actually the causes are of a culture of sexual assault.”

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