KUALA LUMPUR - Sexual child abuse, unfortunately, has been making headlines in Malaysia recently. In the UK, Richard Huckle, now known as Britain's worst paedophile was convicted and given life in prison for the abuse of at least 23 children in Malaysia and Cambodia.
This shed light on an issue that many in the strictly religious and rather sheltered nation deny is a problem. More recently, Malaysian activist Syed Azmi exposed a prolific chat group created to discuss sex with children and to share child pornography. The 751 members of the group would take images of children off the web, often from social-media sites, and discuss what they would like to do with the children. Also recently, journalists at Star Media's R.AGE exposed the 'grooming' activities of predators.
A lack of awareness, and poor-to-no sex education in Malaysia, particularly among rural and more strictly religious communities, has been pointed out as a factor that makes Malaysian children particularly vulnerable to predators like Huckle.
A national campaign launching today, spearheaded by Alvin Teoh, ECD at NagaDDB, hopes to change that.
"My 9-year-old daughter was a victim of a paedophile teacher two years ago, but thankfully she escaped before any serious damage was done because she planned her escape as soon as he made his moves on her," Teoh shared. "Needless to say, that was the time I felt most broken. But the lesson for us was that my daughter was empowered with awareness, thanks to the efforts of my wife. That saved her."
Teoh pointed out that before the Huckle case made headlines, there was next to no reportage on the issue in Malaysia. "Even now many here see it as a White-man disease, ignoring the fact that there are countless locals who are predators. These predators draw power from ignorance, and so many have gotten away."
The first phase of Nursery Crimes, targets parents of very young children and is about getting this taboo and misunderstood topic into the spotlight, said Teoh. "We want people to talk about it and we want to drive the microsite to seek information and to seek advice and help via PS the Children, an NGO that is at the forefront of the battle against this abuse."
This stage of the campaign rides on the fact that children can't tell the difference between love and sexual abuse. Statistically, many of the crimes are committed by people they trust: neighbours, teachers, caretakers, even parents and grandparents. "This is tragic as well as shameful and is quietly swept under the carpet," commented Teoh.
The campaign features three films, one each in English, Malay and Chinese, each of which leads to a microsite that provides information on how to spot the signs of abuse, how to react to a case of child abuse and where to seek help.
"Then, each visitor to the site is invited to be an advocate of this mission just by passing on the knowledge by sharing information from the microsite."
Two years in the making
It took Teoh two years to get this campaign off the ground, because when the idea was first proposed, it made the social workers that he consulted uncomfortable.
"They were afraid that children would not understand and would start to sing these nursery rhymes we had rewritten," he said. "So we put it on hold, out of respect. But after a year of waiting, these stories started to come out and we went ahead. But we did remember their advice and the videos will be online, and if it's on air, it will be in a timebelt where children are unlikely to be watching."
The videos are extremely difficult to watch. The appropriation of beloved nursery rhymes is shocking, and there is a genuine creeping sense of dread for the child in the video. "When we were casting, we had quite a few parents pull their children out when they read the script," Teoh said. "However in the end, we found parents who understood and were fully on board with the project."
Teoh believes that there is a need to shock, and that greater awareness and education on the issue outweighed the negatives. "It's controversial and straightforward," he said. "We knew we couldn't hold back on shocking people, and we didn't want to be too clever about it. People are meant to be angry, to be in denial. Any response is a good response."
Teoh and his team donated their work to the project pro-bono, along with the production and audio houses involved. "When they heard what we wanted to do, they were keen to work on it free of charge," he said.
But Teoh was firm that the project needed the full support of a legitimate NGO. "We could have carried the project, but we don't have all the necessary knowledge," he said. "We need experts, people working in the field to advise us. We 're not social activists, we're ad-agency people. Sometimes intentions might be good, but you can cause a lot of damage because of ignorance. Someone's misery and pain is not a subject matter for award wins."
PS the Children, said Teoh, was happy to work with NagaDDB on the project and is at the forefront of working with abused kids in Malaysia. "They have given us their full support."
More to do
The campaign will air in TGV Cinemas, which has donated screen time to the campaign. Audio versions will be broadcast on Astro Radio, which has likewise given free air time to the project.
"We're also in discussions with Astro to see how we can bring this topic to life via their talk shows," said Teoh. "The media, publishers and key opinion leaders are also lending their support to amplify the project."
This is only phase one, and there is much more to do, concluded Teoh. "There's cyber-stalking, the empowerment of survivors of child sex abuse and even child brides. Malaysians need to have proper conversations around these topics."