Monday 19 January 2015

Call to educate children, parents on online risks

MPs and social workers say more must be done after 'worst of its kind' sexual grooming case
By Kok Xing Hui, The Sunday Times, 18 Jan 2015

"Don't talk to strangers" may be easy advice to give children, but it is just not enough in the age of social media, said social workers and MPs.

They called for more to be done to educate young people and parents on online risks after news that a Malaysian engineer, over a span of three years, abused 31 boys here.

"The current landscape is definitely insufficient to protect kids from such violations," said Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Social and Family Development.

Last Friday, 31-year-old Yap Weng Wah admitted to preying on 31 victims aged between 11 and 15. He has not been sentenced yet.

He sexually groomed the boys after befriending them on Facebook, and either sodomised or had oral sex with 30 of them. The acts took place at various locations, including flats in Woodlands, Yishun, Hougang and Changi, a Hotel 81 in Geylang, and swimming complexes in Hougang and Tampines, as well as Tampines Stadium.

The sexual assaults went undetected until one victim lodged a police report in June 2012. A raid at Yap's Yishun flat three months later uncovered more than 2,000 sex videos, including those involving him and young boys.

The case, described by the prosecution as the worst of its kind, has put the spotlight on sexual grooming and how children, fearing shame, stigma or being reprimanded, can keep silent about abuse.

Ms Phua said Singaporean children are "equipped with technical skills at a pace that does not match the need to discern and protect themselves".

According to a 2012 survey, Singaporean youth spend 51/2 hours online daily.

School curriculum on the risks of social media and sexual grooming needs to be strengthened, said Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Chua Chu Kang GRC MP and chairman of the GPC for Communications and Information.

Mr Chong Ee Jay, assistant manager at Touch Cyber Wellness, which provides Internet safety training in schools, echoed the call.

He said it was important for educators and parents to keep up to date on the increasing plethora of online platforms used by young people.

"If we cannot stop children from meeting online friends, at least teach them to tell someone about where they are going, or to bring a friend along," he added.

To show how easily children can fall into online traps, he spoke of a case in which a 13-year-old boy befriended someone he thought was a girl around his age.

Their online chats quickly grew "lovey dovey". "She" then asked for $50 and, desperate to fulfil the request, he asked his parents for the money. They relented only after the boy agreed to meet in a public place and to have them observe from a distance. Instead of a young girl, a man in his 40s showed up.

"That's the tricky part because when it comes to online grooming, a lot of times, it starts off being very casual, to gain trust, before the chats turn into something else," said Mr Chong. Given that perpetrators often use fake identities, it becomes even harder for a child to understand what is really going on.

Yap typically contacted the boys using the identity of an 18-year-old polytechnic student. He gained their trust by portraying himself as an older brother or mentor, in some cases over weeks or months.

Mr Chong said in his nine years of training youth in cyber wellness, most do not tell their parents about questionable online experiences.

This is why parents must maintain close relationships with their children, and create an environment in which young people do not feel they will get reprimanded "for being cheated", he added.

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, chairman of the GPC for Culture, Community and Youth, added: "Such relationships must be built from young, so that children are comfortable with sharing their thoughts, experiences and problems."

Close ties allow parents to monitor the child's activities and relationships - including those forged online - without making it look like they are policing the child, said Mr Edwin Yim, director of the Asian Women's Welfare Association Family Services.

There are warning signs to look out for. Singapore Children's Society executive director Alfred Tan said these include children being very active online late at night, or receiving gifts they cannot afford.

Mr Yim said it is also important to reach out to children who are socially isolated and have trouble making friends, and who turn to the Internet to fill the void.

He said: "The kid who sits at the corner of the classroom who's the most quiet - sometimes, he's the one with the most problems."

Engineer preyed on 31 boys and filmed sexual acts
He befriended them on Facebook, offered them gifts, companionship
By Selina Lum, The Straits Times, 17 Jan 2015

DESCRIBED as Singapore's worst case of sex offences against young boys, a Malaysian engineer yesterday admitted to preying on 31 victims who were aged between 11 and 15.

Yap Weng Wah, 31, sexually groomed these boys after meeting them online, and in all but one case, either sodomised or had oral sex with them at his rental flat, in hotel rooms and toilets at shopping centres and swimming pools.

His offences were committed over a period of three years, until one victim lodged a police report in June 2012.

When his Yishun home was raided after his arrest in September 2012, police found more than 2,000 videos on his laptop of him having sex with others, including young boys. The videos had been meticulously catalogued with the boys' names, ages and year he met them.

From the footage, the police managed to trace the 31 victims. Some boys, however, could not be identified.

There were also videos involving at least 14 other boys made during his annual visits to Malaysia.

Yesterday, with his mother, two younger siblings and aunt in the public gallery, Yap pleaded guilty to 12 charges of sexual penetration of a minor.

Another 63 charges of sexual penetration of a minor and one of procuring a child to commit an indecent act will be taken into consideration when he is sentenced at a later date.

The prosecution is seeking a minimum 30-year jail term, and 24 strokes of the cane.

The youthful-looking Yap pleaded to the court for mercy.

"I am really, really sorry towards all the victims and their family... I'm very ashamed of what I have done. I wish I could turn back time to undone the damages (sic) that I've caused," he said as his family sobbed.

He has been diagnosed by the Institute of Mental Health with hebephilia - a sexual preference for early adolescent children generally aged 11 to 14.

The quality assurance engineer moved here to work in 2009.

He befriended the boys on Facebook using different identities, but usually as an 18-year-old polytechnic student. Some of the boys accepted his friend request after seeing that they shared mutual friends.

He gained their trust by portraying himself as an older brother or mentor, sometimes over several weeks or months.

He would then ask the boys to meet him on a variety of pretexts - to hand them gifts, to swim, to let them play computer games or to give them body-building tips.

Between November 2009 and June 2012, he cajoled 30 of the boys into consenting to having anal or oral sex with him.

The other victim, 12, was persuaded to send Yap a video of himself performing a lewd act.

Yap recorded most of the sex acts with the 30 boys on his mobile phone. When they protested, he assured them he would delete the footage. However, he stored the videos on his laptop, and would masturbate to them.

After their first sexual encounter with Yap, several boys blocked him from their Facebook accounts and avoided contact.

Others continued to meet and have sex with him, either because they enjoyed his company, were sexually curious or worried that he would spread the videos.

These came to light only after the sister of an 11-year-old victim found text message exchanges between them.

In this case, after chatting with him on Facebook for a few months, Yap met the boy face to face at a shopping centre. After having lunch and playing arcade games, he took the boy to his room to watch cartoons online, while his landlord was in the living room.

An hour later, he took off the boy's clothes and sodomised him. Yap assured the boy that it would not happen again. But it did, each time the boy came over.

Yap would then take him out for meals or movies. According to court documents, the boy treated Yap as an older brother, someone to turn to when lonely.

Yap's lawyer Daniel Koh, in his plea for leniency, wrote that his client had a nine-month sexual relationship with a male teacher at the age of 12.

Yap, whose father moved to New Zealand when he was eight years old, thought that these were acts of intimacy.

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