A brave new world as students rekindle the real kampong spirit of Singapore

by Joseph Nathan

There was a time when chivalry would have saved damsels in distress but the concept of being a gentleman in Singapore has somewhat been trivialized and seen as self-discrimination, and was replaced with onerous legal recourse and prescriptive-books. Instead of socially correcting a social wrong and nipping the issue at the bud, contentious legal recourse and new community-based prescriptions are now the way forward.

Unfortunately, it is a Hard Truth that legal favours the rich and in itself, becomes an issue. As for the many prescriptive community rule-books, the moral authority and the ethicality of the issuers and their lack of transparency in mitigating highly controversial issues tend to become an issue in itself as shown by the current Monica-NUS saga. Where do we go from here?

It took the Singapore Police Force (SPF) two months of investigation to be telling Monica Baey that her perpetrator deserves only a conditional warning despite the precedent of many other similar violations that received much harsher charges. What was most perplexing was, why did the Investigating Officer tell the young girl to approach the National University of Singapore (NUS) instead if she wishes to pursue further and why no one at SPF offer her any post-trauma support?

When the news broke, alleging that the perpetrator comes from a “powerful” family, the deafening silent from Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and SPF only fuelled the anger of parents and fellow-Singaporeans. The disinformation in this case was not helpful. Finally SPF make a good judgement call by issuing a statement refuting this allegation as false.

Making judgement call has become the keyword in this saga. Monica started it when she makes the first judgement call to challenge the status quo that was detrimental to her well-being and that of her peers. It was the alternative media which helped her got the ball rolling. Soon parents and fellow-Singaporeans were outraged by it too and demanded justice, a review of NUS existing disciplinary procedure and query the SPF as to why it is being excessively lenient towards Nicholas Lim, the perpetrator but show lack of empathy towards the victim and her trauma. Collectively, they too make a judgement call.

When netizens raised the issue with Great Eastern, where Nicholas was working as an agent, they too make a judgement call swiftly as they have a zero-tolerant towards sexual misconduct. Next, Education Minister too weighed in and shared his discussion with the heads at NUS. He too made a judgement call that the disciplinary action meted out by NUS in this case was “grossly inadequate”.

Despite many accusing him for taking so long to speak up, many others were equally sympathetic towards him for speaking up. His judgement call in this case helped to reduce the trust-deficit that the public and parents have in our education institution. Soon, OnHand Agrarian makes another judgement call by issuing NUS with an ultimatum, calling NUS’s decision as “monumentally stupid”.

All these judgement calls show us an alternative way in doing what is right, and in many cases, what we ought to have done right in the first place. It is definitely much better than seeking the costly and contentious route of legal recourse. Public opinion matters. It is ingrained in our Singaporean DNA and shows that our kampong spirit can be rekindled for greater good. Hope that the proposed Fake News bill or “Prevention of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act” (POFMA) will not curtail our kampong spirit, public opinion and alternative media that have served us well.

Conflict between students and education institutions like NUS is not a new social development.

In 2005, there was another student, Jeanne-Marie Ten who was infuriated when her supervisor allegedly plagiarised her work. It was not properly managed within NUS that it preceded to the High Court. When young girls like her, without the financial means has to take the route of legal recourse to right a wrong, it becomes a case of David versus Goliath.

Understand that she had to make a public appeal to procure fund just to fight her battle in court. Where was the “leniency” advocated by NUS or our Court? Wouldn’t it have been better if the judge could make a judgement call and advise NUS to resolve the issue amicably with the student?

The current Monica-NUS saga has reignited the many concerns of parents and fellow-Singaporeans, and more importantly, has also awakened many students into action, as Singaporeans collectively weighed in on what they saw as a social injustice in our schools. It is almost a replay of the Aloysius Pang saga.

Besides the parents and the general public, the rest of the stakeholders are different. Instead of the soldiers, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the new stakeholders are the students, NUS, SPF and Ministry of Education (MOE), and as an extension of police procedure and legality issues involved, should rightly include MHA, MinLaws and the Attorney General’s Chamber (AGC). It is also not a gender neutral issue as females are being disadvantaged.

More than 44,000 signatories and counting from the two online petitions for the case to be reviewed while some 489 students have separately also wrote their “statement of concern on sexual harassment” to NUS, question is why is NUS still taking the old mitigation route in redressing the issue? It has yet to make any judgement call. Instead, it has been issuing conflicting statement despite Education Minister having weighed in to try and correct an obvious wrong.

To add salt to the wound, its NUS Student Union (NUSSU) has been issuing unwarranted statement after statement to justify itself. If the NUSSU has indeed been active in addressing this case, it would not have escalated to such a public discourse. Why aren’t they making any definitive judgment call, for better or worse instead, and start showing more concern for the victim rather than the perpetrator? Are they feeling threatened by the collective action of those 489 students who are now doing what the union ought to have done in the first place? Such justification is very troubling given the glaring epic failure, and lack of urgency in helping and supporting the victim.

Lack of concern by politicians on the issue

Sadly, out of the 89 politicians in office, only a couple have spoken. This issue affects the basic safety of our students where even taking a shower in privacy is an issue for female students at NUS. Other education institutions like Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has been firm with sexual perpetrators and has zero-tolerance against sexual harassment. The same is true of other world-renowned institutions and leading organizations. Aren’t our elected politicians even remotely concerned about the children of their constituents?

Likewise, parents and many Singaporeans are still waiting for Home and Laws Minister to comment on the action taken by the SPF. As the proponent of the proposed POFMA, he will have to avoid being a party to disinformation and as such, ought to be making his own judgement call in addressing the legality, morality and the ethicality of the issue with greater urgency so that we can all make an informed public opinion to this matter.

This case is not just a legal matter but rather questions the serious lack of moral and ethic in addressing such violation. As rightly stated by Education Minister, it is “grossly inadequate”. I remember a MP rebuking Singaporeans in parliament recently but why is she so quiet on this matter? Isn’t her derogatory “Si Gui Kia” or prodigal son label aptly applicable for Nicholas Lim in this case? Why isn’t she making her judgement call to rebuke him and other perpetrators so that they will not become wayward and be a burden our society?

Making judgement call is not new. It was how community in Singapore used to do when our Kampong Spirit was functioning well before rapid urbanization decimated it and replaced it with our current legal framework and political grassroots leaders. It was more equitable as rich or poor, the fact and social norms speaks for itself.

It has been often quoted by our politicians that it takes a village or kampong to raise our children but here, it is the children that are teaching us that it takes moral and ethic if we want to be their elders and earn their respect in building a more desirable village for all. It is time that our elders and people entrusted with public office reflect on this issue and change what is failing us in our schools, our society and as a nation. In many ways, we should be celebrating the courage of Monica, Jeanne and the other 489 students as a nation. They are our pride and hope for a better tomorrow. Time to “un-victimize” them and help them forward.

Let us also not forget about the 20 other known violation cases and see what other issues remained unresolved and let us find the courage to resolve them so that our children can all move forward in their lives. It is time for more of our political leaders to step forward and take the opportunity to right what is wrong in our public institutions. This is a more significant celebration than the current Bicentennial Celebration as we should be celebrating our very own “true-blue” Singaporean stars of tomorrow rather than a foreign power who colonized us.

Collectively as a nation, we can raise our hope of a better tomorrow as we enter a New Brave World, knowing that our children are no pushovers and have the courage to challenge questionable status quo and right any wrong that is selectively discriminating against a segment of our population or dividing us as a nation. So in an ironic way, we have much to be thanking NUS and SPF for having created these impediments in the first place that enable our students to put their knowledge and skills learnt into good use. What an irony, what a lesson and what a celebration this can be if taken in the right spirit.

I hope the leadership at NUS will remember to use the upcoming Town Hall meeting this Thursday as a catalyst for change and make their own judgement call wisely. Show our young the importance of finding the courage to right the wrongs, and earn their respect and trust. While it can be very hard to restore the faith and trust lost, the first step forward is always the right step.

As for Nicholas Lim and the other perpetrators, let this be their “Harvey Weinstein” moment of truth and know in very certain terms that such behaviours will not be tolerated. Effort should also be channelled to help other victims step forward as they need our support and help to reach a closure and not let the trauma re-victimize them and rob them of their future.

I hope we can all be comforted that our Kampong Spirit is alive and well in our children. Moving forward, let us empower them and not be shaken into curtailing them. They are our hope and pride for a better tomorrow. Their actions are worth celebrating as Singapore deserves better…

This was first published on Mr Nathan’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission

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