Following the story of a National University of Singapore (NUS) student, Monica Baey, calling out the school for not giving out a stronger punishment to the student who has filmed her in the shower, a group of 489 students released a statement of concern regarding sexual harassment at NUS on 21 April.
Addressed to the higher management including the President, Senior Deputy Presiding, Provost, Vice Provost, Dean and Assistant Dean, the letter strongly condemned the school for the light punishment that was meted out on the male student who had filmed Ms Baey in the shower without her consent. They described the punishment of a single semester suspension, 30 hour community service, and mandatory counselling and rehabilitation sessions as ‘problematic’.
The offender was also banned from entering into all on-campus housing premises (which doesn’t affect him much as he doesn’t live on campus) and was asked to write a letter of apology to Ms Baey.
Punishment is too light
The students, however, noted that the relatively light punishment signals to the NUS community that “the university does not credibly enforce its stance against sexual voyeurism as a serious offence” and that “those who commit such offences can expect a relatively light sentence”. They also emphasised that the lightness of the sentence signals to survivors of sexual violence and harassment that they will not receive adequate institutional support if they voice their concerns.
Highlighting a 2017 case when a repeat offender faced criminal charges for assault with the intent of outrage to modesty, the students illustrated that the current disciplinary framework fails to deter these incidents from recurring.
They said, “As one of the world’s top universities, we hope that NUS would take a stronger stance against sexual harassment and set a positive example for other universities around the world”
Including students in policy review
The letter went on to address the announcement by Dean OSA Assoc Prof Peter Pang of the committee that will be convened to review the current disciplinary and support frameworks. According to an internal circular to students, the committee will include two student representatives.
In their letter, the students urged NUS to shed more light on several matters surrounding this committee, namely how the student representatives will be selection, the composition of the committee, what groups the committee hopes to target, and the decision making powers of the committee, if any.
They wrote, “We urge the University to meaningfully consult students on this important issue and not dictate the terms of such consultation or police student involvement; there is no patience for gestural politics on this urgent issue.”
Proposing that the University include representatives from student organisations that have dealt with the issue of sexual harassment, the students calls for NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye to hold a town hall before the end of the current semester “to listen and dialogue” with the University community about the issue.
The student then demanded that NUS make a stronger statement against sexual harassment on campus and provide greater transparency in their investigations into Ms Baey’s case as well as the grounds for the punishment they chose to deliver.
Proposed measures to address sexual harassment on campus
In their letter, the student also proposed several measures for NUS to take which would go towards restoring and rehabilitating survivors of sexual harassment. This includes establishing a specialised office to real with matters of sexual harassment which would educate students about the issue as well as provide a reporting mechanism for victims and a 24-hour emergency hotline. They also recommended that the staff working in this office also receive mandatory sexual harassment response training.
Additional, they suggested that NUS provide specialised counselling services for survivors of sexual harassment and assault as well as readily available educational resources and avenues of recourse accessible to the NUS community.
As for pre-emptive measures, the students suggested that the University design and implement anti-sexual harassment training for both student and staff.
Finally, the letter outlined several policy amendments and recommendation that NUS could make to better address the issue. This includes publicly committing to a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment and assault as well as institutionalising and explicating tiers of penalties according to different types of sexual harassment un the University Code of Conduct.
The letter concluded, “Beyond the call for immediate redressal for Ms Baey, there is a broader need to address the various systemic issues relating to sexual offences that occur within NUS.”
The letter was signed by 489 NUS students and 194 students from other universities, junior college and polytechnics.
NUSSU Exco’s statement on sexual harassment in NUS
On the same day (21 April), the NUSSU Exco released their own statement of condemnation over the incident on their Facebook page. The statement condemned the acts done towards Ms Baey and other victims of sexual harassment in NUS.
Exco stands by NUS’s actions
However, the NUSSU Exco stood by the decision made by the Board of Discipline, saying “…rehabilitation is an extremely strong principle in how student offenders are treated in the Board of Discipline, given that NUS is an educational institution.”
The statement continued, “NUSSU Exco also notes that the Board of Discipline had acted in accordance with existing precedent and due process, and respects that the decision by the Board was arrived at in good faith”
The Exco continued that it recognises how seriously the University takes matters of sexual harassment and “appreciate” their stance and policy on the issue.
Additionally, the Exco noted that “it is not the sole responsibility of the administration” to play a role in creating a safe space for students. It also encouraged victims to report to NUS and urged students to provide social support to victims and help them seek professional support if necessary.
Recognising the need for a policy review
Even so, the Exco admitted that the incident has highlighted how NUS policy on sexual harassment could be reviewed, adding that they were in the process reconsidering their punishment policies for future sexual harassment cases.
It went on to say that it is currently conceiving an action plan to better address the issue of sexual harassment, including drafting a report on whether existing sentencing guidelines should be revised.
It said, “NUSSU Exco will continue to work closely with NUS in making the campus a safe and secure environment for all our students. NUSSU Exco also notes that NUS President is to convene a Committee to review disciplinary and support frameworks in NUS. NUSSU Exco is confident that the Committee and the administration will continuously engage with students, to create a safer environment that everyone has confidence in.”