S’pore comedienne accuses ex-NMP of ‘sexual comment’ during interview

S’pore comedienne accuses ex-NMP of ‘sexual comment’ during interview

On Feb. 4, Singapore comedienne Sharul Channa recounted in a Facebook post of an incident that happened to her earlier that day.

Sharul is a full-time comedienne and has been part of local comedy shows like “Happy Ever Laughter” and staged her own shows highlighting the challenges faced by women today like “Crazy Poor Sita”.

Here’s a summarised context:

  • Sharul had an interview on Feb. 4 at 3pm for Inconvenient Questions (IQ), an online sociopolitical series hosted by Viswa Sadasivan.
  • She was invited to speak about “being a stand-up comedian, who also speaks on women’s issues”.
  • The interview was conducted online via Zoom.
  • Prior to the interview, she had never met Viswa; all communication was with with his staff.

Apart from being the host of IQ, Viswa is also the CEO of Strategic Communications, a strategic and crisis communication practice.

He also served as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) from 2009 to 2011.

Pointed out a ‘distracting’ rose

For the interview, Sharul said that she wore a rose brooch adorned on her left collar.

According to Sharul, here’s a conversation that happened between Viswa and her, before the interview was recorded:

Viswa: Why are you wearing that rose?

Sharul: I just put it on to distract from the pattern on my top.

Viswa: It would be more distracting if you were wearing only that rose.

This conversation apparently happened in the presence of Viswa’s four staff, three of whom were females.

In the post, Sharul said: “I was taken aback by this innuendo. It was inappropriate and offensive.”

While she continued to do the interview due to her “professional commitment”, she said that the comment made still “did not ring right” to her.

“A sexual comment was casually made in the context of a professioanl environment, and it made me very uncomfortable and distressed. Considerably distressed, even as I type this.”

Asked for an apology

After the interview ended at around 3:45pm, she called the producer at around 4pm to share her discomfort with Viswa’s comment.

She added that she:

  • No longer wanted to be a part of the series.
  • Needed an apology for the way she was “disrespected in the process”.

By 4:45pm, she received an apology via email from Viswa where he apparently expressed:

  • His “unconditional apology.. for causing discomfort, offense or hurt, even though it was unintended.”
  • That he “did not intend the statement about the rose to bear any sexual reference or innuendo” but could “see how it could have come across as such.”

In the Facebook post, Sharul said that she wanted to point out the irony that she was invited in her capacity as a stand-up comedian who also speaks out about women’s issue.

She added: “THIS is one of the biggest issues women face; workplace harassment. And If I don’t speak out about this, I am not being true to myself and what I stand for.”

You can read her full post here:

Speaking to Mothership, Sharul told us that more women, who choose to remain anonymous, have come forward to share their experiences in the workplace.

“Other women are coming forward on my Facebook post and I hope people will take accountability for the things that they do. It’s been a long time that we have not talked about workplace harassment and this is a good time to start.

When one woman voices out, we need to listen. But when more women speak up, we need to wake up.”

Viswa: “I don’t think I used these exact words”

Responding to Mothership‘s queries, Viswa explained that it initially appeared to him that they hit it off “from the outset”.

“What struck me the moment she appeared on vision was the big (palm sized), bright red rose brooch on her dress. I spontaneously exclaimed something to the effect that it’s big and distracting. Ms Channa laughed and said something to the effect either that it was to distract from her dress or distract me from her dress. For me the conversation promptly turned into a banter with a seasoned stand-up comic who’s known to be quick on the uptake.”

He added that he didn’t think that he said, “It would be more distracting if you were wearing only that rose”, which Sharul had stated in her post.

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Instead, to the best of his recollection he said, “It would have been more distracting if it was only the rose.”

No sexual innuendo intended

Viswa pointed out that there is a “subtle but distinct difference” between the two quotes.

“In the latter there was no reference to what she was wearing. This is more aligned with what I wanted to convey in the spirit of the banter: How much more distracting the rose brooch would be if it was much bigger and all consuming, so to speak.

I state for the record that there was absolutely no sexual innuendo intended in what I said. It was the farthest thing on my mind because I was conscious of time i.e. that we needed to get the interview started in a couple of minutes. I reiterate that the whole conversation was in the spirit of a banter between a seasoned interviewer and a seasoned stand-up comic – both known for our somewhat irreverent style.”

He said that he was taken aback when he was told that Sharul was upset with the remarks and was going to publish the Facebook post.

He added that he regrets that “an unfortunate and unintended use of words” has allowed to go on a “downward spiral towards a gutter”.

“This is my regret – that an unfortunate and unintended use of words by me has been allowed to go on a downward spiral towards a gutter. Why the need to demonise an act to this extent — an act that is at worst defined by an unfortunate use of words. This, despite an ‘unconditional’ apology and explanation of intent.

I don’t think I am wrong to expect more grace, understanding and a greater willingness to forgive and move on, especially in a matter such as this. We don’t build trust and understanding necessarily by being adversarial to a point where we cease to listen to each other and try and see what each party’s truth is. My appeal — let’s try and listen more and fire less.”

Here is Viswa’s statement in full:

“I first saw Ms Sharul Channa on video in 2020 when she was doing a show on the plight of caregivers for the elderly. She was acting as an elderly person. It was presented by AWARE to create awareness on the issues caregivers face. It was very well done — sensibly and sensitively. Much of the credit goes to Ms Channa. I came to understand that Ms Channa was a champion of women’s causes – a subject close to my heart for decades. Therefore, I decided that IQ should feature Ms Sharul Channa in an interview.

The interview was set for 3pm on Thu 4 Feb 2021. I was very aware that both Ms Channa and I were pressed for time. It appeared to me that we hit it off — Ms Channa and I — from the outset. What struck me the moment she appeared on vision was the big (palm sized), bright red rose brooch on her dress. I spontaneously exclaimed something to the effect that it’s big and distracting. Ms Channa laughed and said something to the effect either that it was to distract from her dress or distract me from her dress. For me the conversation promptly turned into a banter with a seasoned stand-up comic who’s known to be quick on the uptake. I retorted with a remark. Frankly, I don’t think I used these exact words: “It would be more distracting if you were wearing only that rose.” To the best of my recollection I said, “It would have been more distracting if it was only the rose”. [This is what 2 of my female colleagues present told me in writing they heard me say.] It was all very fast — just a few seconds. What I am sharing is what is to the best of my recollection and that of my two female colleagues present. There is a subtle but distinct difference between the two quotes. In the latter there was no reference to what she was wearing. This is more aligned with what I wanted to convey in the spirit of the banter: how much more distracting the rose brooch would be if it was much bigger and all consuming, so to speak. I state for the record that there was absolutely no sexual innuendo intended in what I said. It was the farthest thing on my mind because I was conscious of time i.e. that we needed to get the interview started in a couple of minutes. I reiterate that the whole conversation was in the spirit of a banter between a seasoned interviewer and a seasoned stand-up comic — both known for our somewhat irreverent style.

I have always stood for women’s rights and spoken about this in various forums in Singapore and abroad. I have been a big supporter of what AWARE has been doing and has achieved. As an NMP in 2009 I met with the leaders of AWARE to explore the issues I could bring up in Parliament. I did bring up some of these issues in the House. Likewise, I have always stood for dignity and equal respect and regard for women in any context, not just the office.

This is precisely why I wanted to interview Ms Sharul Channa – to showcase her as a woman comedian with a cause and who should be taken seriously. I ended the interview commending her for fighting for the cause.

This is why I was taken aback when my colleague — who was liaising with Ms Channa — called me a few minutes after the interview to say that Ms Channa was upset with my remarks. I was told that she was intending to put this on Facebook. After listening to my colleague it became clear that what I said — even though I didn’t mean anything sexual or sexist — did offend Ms Channa. I could understand why — looking at it from her point of view. I felt the right and decent thing to do was to promptly send her an email conveying an “unconditional apology” for causing hurt and for offending. I explained that there was no intention on my part to make a remark with sexual innuendos. I was sincere and truthful in what I said in the email.

Clearly, on hindsight I could and should have avoided saying what I did as I can see how and why it can be misconstrued as being sexual. It was an error of judgment in the moment (of a spontaneous banter between two somewhat irreverent individuals). We all have said things we regret. I would like to believe we can be a more gracious and forgiving people accepting that the manner in which we convey something (the words we use, or even the tone) may not always connote an intent to insult, offend or be sexual. This is my regret — that an unfortunate and unintended use of words by me has been allowed to go on a downward spiral towards a gutter. Why the need to demonise an act to this extent- an act that is at worst defined by an unfortunate use of words. This, despite an “unconditional” apology and explanation of intent. I don’t think I am wrong to expect more grace, understanding and a greater willingness to forgive and move on, especially in a matter such as this. We don’t build trust and understanding necessarily by being adversarial to a point where we cease to listen to each other and try and see what each party’s truth is. My appeal — let’s try and listen more and fire less.

Over a span of 40 years, I have done hundreds of interviews and moderated more than 300 discussions on various subjects including highly sensitive topics such as race, language, religion, LGBTQ, gender equality, income inequality etc. I am known for my deft and sensitive handling of delicate issues and for being correct and upright. This is the first time I am being accused of something such as this. It is most unfortunate.”

Top image from Strategic Moves’ website and @thesharulchanna on Instagram.

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