In My Shoes: Dr Sudha Nair


This article is republished from the inaugural edition of Polity’s newsletter, The Garland. Polity is a public policy and current affairs interest group at the National University of Singapore’s Tembusu College.


Domestic violence, or family violence, is a term we’re all familiar with today. But just 30 years ago, family violence was thought of less as a serious societal problem than as a private matter, in which, some activists argue, the state was reluctant to intervene.[1] It took much work on the part of community and women’s groups to bring the issue to the public consciousness, and advocate for more state action to tackle this social ill. Another important facet of this early work was to create spaces that not only provided support to the victims of family violence, but also engaged the community and society at large.

PAVE, an integrated one-stop specialist service center for victims of family violence, is one such space. We spoke to its founder and director, Dr Sudha Nair, on the origins and aims of PAVE, and more broadly on the issue of family violence and its causes. We also spoke with her about the historical development of the issue of family violence in Singapore, and what the future might hold, both for PAVE and for our society at large. 


On What Inspired Her to Start PAVE

We first asked Dr Nair what inspired her to start PAVE. In her own words:

“What actually sparked PAVE was a call by three children I’d been working with. […] One day when we came from the office, there was a message left on the voicemail in which the children said ‘Aunty Sudha please come down, my father beat me.’ We took the mother and the children to the hospital. […] We were sitting there and the children told me that their father had found them the night before, and abused them from 10pm to 5am the next day. They had done everything I’d told them to do—I told them to run to a phone booth and call 999. They attempted to do that but their father caught hold of them and beat them.

[…] I realized that these kids hadn’t eaten anything since the night before, and they’re just sitting there quietly, obviously traumatized. The woman goes to see the doctor, and then from there she is told she will have to make a police report, at the police station, and then be called by the IO (Investigation Officer). Watching that whole process I was thinking, “my god this is ridiculous!” Somebody who is so traumatized should be getting help immediately, they shouldn’t be running around from pillar to post to get help. I spoke to three of my colleagues and I said you know we really need to do something different.”

With fresh purpose, Dr Nair and her colleagues began running groups for survivors and perpetrators in their own time. Her vision was to run a one-stop centre that provided victims with a range of services, from casework and counselling to help with applying for protection orders.[2] Back in 1995, this was a bold and novel approach. Dr Nair and her team had to forge their own path, which eventually led to the founding of PAVE: 

The concept of specialization in social work at that time (1995), was not something that was talked about. We went overseas on our own funds, looked at programmes that they had, we went to [the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK)] and Australia to have an understanding of this issue, we did this from 1995 to 1999.

Eventually we became a separate programme of the agency we were part of, and in 2001 or 2002, we broke away from the FSC (Family Service Center) we were in and set up a specialist centre. At the time, it was just three of us running programmes and public education for the clients, basically it was children who sparked the idea of PAVE, that we needed a specialist centre.”

This approach has clearly borne fruit. In particular, it was Dr Nair’s forward-thinking that led to the creation of a direct video-link facility in PAVE. This allowed victims to obtain protection orders from the courts via video conferencing, greatly expediting the process, and was particularly important for victims who urgently needed protection. 


The Philosophy Behind the Organization

However, PAVE’s work does not stop at providing help for victims. Instead, Dr Nair believes in a holistic approach centered on harm reduction and empowering families. This means taking each case on its own terms, and working with perpetrators as well as victims, in order to work out the best outcome—be it divorce or family reintegration.

The philosophy of this organization is that the violence has to stop. […] The impact it has on children is tremendous and long lasting. The men’s programme is to teach them to stop violence and what they can do to replace it. The women’s programme helps women look at the trauma they’ve gone through to empower them to move on with their lives, and make decisions that would be in their best interest. For children, it’s about processing the trauma they’ve gone through and how to keep themselves safe. A lot of the families, over 80% of them, actually want to remain together. So when we talk about helping them, it’s really about looking at what the family wants. If the family wants to reintegrate, we also offer marital work—post violence, but only after they’ve gone through the programme. As far as we’re concerned, violence is violence, it’s not about marriage, it’s not about conflict, it’s not about anger management—you have a problem, and it’s about your belief system and we have to change that belief system. We also look at fathering post-violence, I say fathers because the bulk of our abusers are male. If you’re a father and an abuser, and your children are watching you, imagine the fear that your children have about what you’re capable of doing. How do you re-integrate yourself into the family and earn the trust of your children?

If a woman wants to end the marriage, […] usually she wants the divorce, and he doesn’t, so we work with both of them to come to terms with it. For him it’s to grieve, to deal with the grief and recognize that his behaviours have contributed to this, and that’s the end of the marriage and he needs to move on, and not use violence in another relationship. For her, it’s coping with being a single parent, and how to parent given the experiences they’ve been through. […] It’s really not about helping the woman alone, but helping every member of the family that comes here.


The Causes and Effects of Family Violence

Having dealt with many cases of domestic violence, we wanted to know if Dr Nair could shed light on the causes of family violence. While there are many competing theories as to what causes family violence, it is likely that sociocultural, structural and interpersonal factors all play a part. As Dr Nair explains: 

“We come from a model where we believe that violence is about power and control, and this whole notion of power and control is a socialized notion. You are socialized into thinking that it’s okay to abuse a woman, and the woman may be socialized into thinking that it’s acceptable. […] This model explains a lot, because it’s not just about men and women, it’s about who has power. […] Look at abuse of domestic helpers, it’s always the woman that’s the abuser, and the helper is a woman that has less power. […]

It depends on a lot of factors. Some research shows, yes, because if you grow up in that environment, then that’s your worldview. Some of our men […] say things like ‘I saw my father hitting my mother and I swore I would never be like him. Then one day I was holding my wife up against the wall and my four-year-old child screamed, “Daddy what are you doing” then I realized I’m just like him’. So, you model very subconsciously. Some research shows that it depends a lot on your temperament.”

Dr Nair’s observations concur with some of the existing literature on family violence—it has long been argued that children who have suffered family violence are at a higher risk of experiencing or reproducing similar dynamics in their relationships as adults.[3] Other effects include the increased possibility of developing mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, as well as behavioral issues and difficulties in forming close relationships with others.[4] Dr Nair shared with us some of her thoughts on the effects of family violence on children, as well as some protective factors that help mitigate them:

“When we did our analytics at PAVE we saw co-occurrence, where children are abused or the children are witnessing the abuse, and that made up a very high percentage [of cases], and that’s very worrying, if co-occurrence is at such a high percentage, imagine what’s happening to them in schools? They can’t concentrate, and that affects their academics. The research shows that growing up in a home where there is continuous violence cognitively affects the child’s language abilities. This is research that has been done consistently in the US. So how we reach out to children, at a very young age, is very important. […]

I’ve done some research that actually has shown that children who are very academically inclined are better able to compartmentalize their lives. These are the ones that grow up and they cope very well because school is an anchor. But they don’t know how to deal with relationships.

So, they are brilliant and they know how to do things [in] an intellectual space but emotionally, they’re crushed. If you’re a child who’s very emotionally sensitive or temperamentally more impulsive, the way you handle conflict is going to be different and what we found in my research is those who are less academically inclined didn’t have any kind of anchor, and tended to be more impulsive and get into trouble. […] One of the outcomes of my study is that CCAs (Co-Curricular Activities) are very important, so even if the child isn’t academically inclined and there’s no caring adult, school as an anchor is the saving grace.”


The Role of the Community

Given the importance of schools as external support systems for children affected by family violence, one might wonder if more could be done to engage schools and the wider community in assisting with the issue of family violence. After all, it stands to reason that having a stronger support network in the community as a whole can help improve outcomes for all. PAVE’s approach, therefore, extends beyond just focusing on individual families, but also on engaging communities and changing attitudes. Dr Nair shared with us an incident that inspired PAVE to come up with an app, Community Guardian, which engages the help of the community as a first responder, expanding PAVE’s domestic violence detection capabilities and allowing it to provide help to victims more quickly.

“For the case where this lady was stepped on twenty times, it was so difficult to apply for a PPO (Personal Protection Order) because the husband counter-applied for a PPO. She had never filed a police report despite having been through terrible physical and sexual abuse. She didn’t get a PPO. She was being housed in a shelter and this guy was going around looking for her. […] We called for a discussion with child protection, ourselves and the police, and we found out that on that particular day, seven people called the police, so now we had corroborating evidence. We were able to go to courts and get a PPO. Neighbours and friends have a major part to play. You can hear what’s going on. You don’t have to get involved if you don’t want to, but you can also contact an RC (Residents’ Committee) member or your MP (Member of Parliament) directly. That’s why we conceived the app. 

People always think of family violence as a family problem, [but] I think it’s a community and public health problem. […] I wish somebody would do a cost effectiveness study. How much it costs somebody to lose days at work to go to hospital to get treated, the impact of trauma in children, how much we spend on counselling, how much we spend on judges reviewing these cases. It’s very high. I really think the tagline should be that ‘family violence is a community responsibility’. Community Guardian is really meant for that, to help develop a caring community, that would be the first responder.”


On Engaging Other Organisations

In engaging with the community, PAVE’s work often involves collaborations with government organisations, such as the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), whom they worked with in the development of Community Guardian, schools and RCs. 

“One way is, you administer public education early, so you go into schools and you teach them how to get help, and children are wonderful, because they talk to each other and if you teach them where to go for help, they will be able to do that. For older children, we have the dating programme, and it’s targeted to 14-30 year olds, and it’s really about respectful relationships and we tell them where to go to for help. I think the public education messages need to continue, it cannot only be during international day of elimination of violence against women, we need to have it continuously in different platforms.

We collaborated with the SPF (Singapore Police Force) for this book, and it’s meant for primary schools, so the whole story is about what happens to a child and how they can get help. They take it to the schools and there are explanations, they have to make choices in the book. 

For older kids, social media is actually very important, a lot of the calls we get everyday [are] through social media, so I think for a young person like this, you probably need to tell them that there are resources in the community and find ways to do that. Getting the message to as many people as possible, like employers, the touch points are very important, like RCs, the silver generation ambassadors, the hospitals. People will come either on their own or if somebody tells them to.”


On Working With Government Organisations

PAVE’s close work with government organisations raises another set of questions—what is the nature of PAVE’s relationship with the government? How is it influenced by, and how does it influence the law and policymaking on family violence in Singapore? As Dr Nair tells it, the history of PAVE is inseparable from the history of state action on family violence in Singapore: 

“When I first started out as a social worker, a lot of the cases we were seeing were family violence. In 1995 a national networking system was introduced by the police after a question was asked in parliament on how many cases were being reported to police daily. The remarks given in parliament were not satisfactory, so the women’s groups reacted. After that, the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) went and looked at the numbers, they found that there were five cases reported in Singapore daily. So the police, and the MSF (Ministry of Social and Family Development) , set up a networking system that would direct members of the public who went to the police for help for family violence, to social services, and we were one of two agencies that were in this pilot. It was so successful, in 1997, they instituted this national family violence networking system, which is still going on today.”


On the Progress That Singapore Has Made

It is clear that Singapore has come a long way since the 1960s, when the Women’s Charter was silent on the issue of domestic violence.[5] Since then, the government has not only looked seriously into the issue and updated its legislative framework, but has also actively worked to create an integrated approach across different ministries to tackle the problem. For instance, a National Family Violence Networking System has been set up to connect hospitals, social service agencies, courts with the police and ministries, in order to provide multiple ways for victims to access help.[6] Dr Nair readily acknowledges that there is much to be happy about:

My view is that we are way ahead of many countries in terms of how we tackle domestic violence and I think looking at the changes over the years, starting with the changes in the women’s charter in 1995, the government has realized that this is an issue. They set up the national family violence networking system, they started the family violence dialogue group in 1997, which looks at what is working and not working in the system. They also set up the regional family violence networks, so every community in Singapore had a networking system. All the organizations, the police, prisons, schools and hospitals were involved in looking at the issue. Certainly, the way they did it before was not the right way, but they are looking at revising it, and they’ve done quite a bit, some campaigns. But you know with campaigns, it can’t be a one off thing, the messaging has to be continuous. So, I think they’ve done quite a bit but a lot more can be done.”

Though much progress has been made, it is clear to Dr Nair that her work is far from finished. As much as PAVE is happy to work with the system, it is important to Dr Nair that PAVE maintains a willingness to challenge the system where it is inadequate. 

“[…] I think what’s nice is that the government is open to listening. […] It’s really about how social workers on the ground really advocate for change. I mean my personal belief is when you see something wrong, you don’t just say “oh poor thing ah” and then don’t do anything about it. You really have to look at what you can do, and do something. You can’t claim to be a social worker or claim to be an advocate and then don’t do anything that is outside of your purview of work. And I think that’s what PAVE has always been (about).” 


The Importance of Advocacy and Persistence

An important part of PAVE’s advocacy, therefore, is identifying gaps in the system and working to close them, persisting even when existing structures are reluctant to budge. Dr Nair told us about a hard-won victory for PAVE that took almost 20 years to achieve:

“[U]nder [the] women’s charter, you can only get [a personal protection order] if you’re married. Anybody in a dating relationship isn’t covered. PAVE actually started a yearly dating violence campaign, together with NTU (Nanyang Technological University), in 2009 I think, because we’re also seeing a lot of these cases of dating violence. When the POHA (Protection from Harassment Act) came in, we thought “Good they can go and get help”, but it was so onerous to get that protection, because first of all you, as the victim, have to serve the summons to the perpetrator. I mean if you’re so terrified you think you’re going to serve the summons? The second thing was that you have to get a lawyer and pay anything from $5000to $20,000 for the cases, whereas for PPO you pay $1 and you get protection. So we actually started documenting the cases, and we had one case, I think the worst case Singapore has seen on intimate partner violence, and this happened in 2000, and from 2000 right up to 2018, every time you go to MSF and say you promised to change the law in 2000 and you haven’t, every time you would get reasons why it cannot be done. But we didn’t give up, we continued to collate the data and eventually we put up a paper for the select committee which they didn’t accept. But as luck would have it, Minister Shanmugam came to PAVE in Aug 2018, and we presented this to him. He listened and looked at the lapses in legislation. In five months, he changed the law. So now victims of intimate partner violence can get protection at a fraction of the cost.”

The amendments to POHA meant that victims who face a risk of violence could get an expedited protection order within 24 hours. Additionally, a Protection from Harassment court was set up to hear all POHA matters, and steeper penalties for the breach of protection orders were instituted. The Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam, lauded PAVE’s efforts, saying “As a direct result of PAVE’s advocacy, the law is going to be changed”. 

What does this tell us about the nature of social work? For Dr Nair, social work takes backbone—it takes a spirit of advocacy, and the temperament of a fighter. In her words,

“[Social work] is not the soft-hearted goody, goody two-shoes—a social worker’s job is to improve their social functioning. So, I think competence is an issue, not everybody can do this work. Do you have the stomach for this? Are you the kind who will go and argue with the systems to say this is not right, are you the kind where, if the police officer doesn’t take your report, you call up the police and question them? Or are you going to say “you know, the police officer said cannot” then just let go. Do you have the kind of gumption to say this isn’t right and I don’t accept it. […]

PAVE could have been an organization that just quietly worked with men, women, and children, but I think being a disruptor is important. To look at what you’re doing and ask, “is this enough, and could we do more.” I think it takes a lot of thought and gumption to do this. […] Do you have the wherewithal to fight the systems, to get what you want? Or are you the type to say, “Oh I give up, because the systems don’t work.”


Her Vision for the Future

It sounds like difficult and demanding work, but Dr Nair is convinced that the passion of PAVE’s staff, as well as the strong supervision and support system present within the organisation, will see them carry on doing this important work. To round off the interview, we asked Dr Nair about the future of PAVE, and what she sees the organisation doing in 10 or 20 years. 

“I would hope that my colleagues will continue to watch trends and address those trends. I think we can’t be complacent and be happy with what we’re doing now, I would want the agency and my colleagues to continually be analysing data and responding to gaps in the services. One thing I don’t want is for PAVE to be a mega organization. I think the quality of service is very important. If we’re going to do this we need to do it right and we need to make sure that the quality of our staff is there to be able to provide the service. We don’t want to be a lukewarm service. You know family violence is life or death, you come in at the wrong time and someone can die. Do you see this as a cause? and if so, your competency has to be of a certain level. So, I hope basically, to provide a good quality service to people at a time when they are most vulnerable.”

Though we only spent a short time with Dr Nair, her passion for her work touched us, and we are sure that PAVE will continue to do good work in the area of family violence. Her interview shed light not only on PAVE and the important work they do, but also yielded important insights on the nature of social work and the relationship between the state and social organisations. We wish Dr Nair and PAVE all the best in the year ahead. 










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