Following outcry from students over how the sexual misconduct case of Monica Baey was handled by the National University of Singapore (NUS), a town hall was organised by the management. In a statement, Dean of Students Assoc. Prof Peter Pang said that it would be a space where students and management could have an open dialogue about the institutions sexual harassment policy and to discuss details on the review committee that is being set up to look at the disciplinary and support framework of NUS.
One of the audience members at the town hall provided a blow-by-blow account of what happened on her Twitter feed which we’ll go through here:
Establishing better policies and holding institutions accountable for their promises
First up, Ms Baey made a speech which listed recommendations she hopes NUS would implement. These include setting up an office or hotline dedicated to dealing with cases of sexual misconduct and harassment.
After her speech, Vice Provost (Student Life) Prof Florence Lim offered an apology to Monica. Following this, Ms Celestine Chua spoke about victim care and trauma faced by victims. Ms Chua, a counsellor at NUS, also talked about the counselling support offered by NUS.
Firs to the open mic was a young woman from the NUS student union who said there were people who were unhappy with the statement put out by the union. These people even sent her threats on to her Instagram account, threatening rape.
She asks how can the community catalyse and attitudinal and cultural shift as there’s only so much institutions can do to tackle these attitudes that are so entrenched in our culture.
Prof Pang then asked the students to step up with ideas and assured students that the administration is open to incorporating those suggestions.
A Yale-NUS student then stepped up to highlight the scandal three years ago when it was revealed that NUS orientation camp games were becoming more sexualised. At the time, a review committee which investigated the matter promised that NUS would set up workshops on consent and sexual misconduct. The student pointed out that, three years on, this has yet to happen.
He then asked how the administration can be held accountable for the promises they make after each sexual assault case. The crowd applauded when he also asked if it’s going to take a national controversy for things to change.
Subsequently, he pointed out that student organisations which attempted to have open conversations about consent and sexual assault faced ‘a lot of resistance from the administration’.
To this, Prof Pang and Prof Ling assured the audience that this would never happen again.
Students share their experiences
At this point, there came a string of different students stepping up to share their own experience of sexual harassment at NUS. Next to the mic is a young man who read a statement on behalf of his friend who, Like Ms Baey, was also a victim of voyeurism in a residential college bathroom. Apparently, she reported the incident but nothing came of it. Another woman followed and said the same thing happened to her.
In the latter case, the young woman said that the Office of Campus Security merely gave her a rape whistle while the counsellor told her to not report the case so as to give her abuser the chance to be rehabilitated.
She said, “I was utterly failed by the administration.” She pointed out the systemic failure in the way NUS handles such cases and that they do not understand the trauma victims faces.
Towards the end of the session, another student detailed how she was interrogated by two male staff and one female staff when she had reported that she had been molested. There was no psychologist present and she wasn’t allowed to bring a friend in for support. She said she did not feel like she was being treated like the victim. They had accused her of being inconsistent with her story. The student added that this experience left her with PTSD.
She continued by describing how the case was dropped after a month for a lack of evidence and that the perpetrator has nothing on his record. He moved to Duke and has now graduated.
In terms of psychological help, she said it was difficult to secure and appointment with UCH for counselling. She also pointed out that AWARE charges for counselling sessions which not all students can afford.
Suggestions from students
Subsequently, a student asked why Prof Pang has used the term ‘sexual misconduct’ instead of ‘sexual assault’ in his press statement. Prof Pang responded with the term ‘sexual misconduct’, at which the audience audibly groaned. The panel then assured them again that they are taking the matter seriously.
The same student then added that the University’s responses have an ‘inherent victim blaming mentality’. She said that protective measures are inadequate and can only go so far, adding that there is a “complete void of sexual education in Singapore’s education system today.”
Another student suggested using facial recognition cameras at halls. Yet another says that the two-strikes policy is clearly not put into practice as a number of reoffenders have not been expelled.
The Vice Provost proceeded to assure students that their recommendations are being taken down while Prof Pang said they are serious about this and that the university must take a tougher stand.
At this, the student suggested a ‘no tolerance’ policy to send a clear message to everyone that NUS takes sexual assault cases seriously. She also described the term sexual ‘misconduct’ as a smokescreen which contributes to sweeping the issue under the rug.
Deferring to the review committee
Prof Pang then defers to the review committee, saying that we must wait for their response first. Even when a student asked if Nicholas Lim – the perpetrator in Ms Baey’s case – would be expelled, Prof Pang deferred again to the committee.
When students asked about the review committee, Prof Pang says that it has yet to be formed while Prof Ling said the minutes of the town hall will be submitted to them for consideration. However, Prof Ling also said that there are two things NUS can do without waiting for the review. The first is to set up a unit for victim care. Next is to strengthen the security system.
A student then says he feels NUS tries to suppress bad press and keep quiet any cases that could show the university in a bad light.
Several students then requested more student inclusion in review committees and policy-making in NUS regarding sexual misconduct and harassment.
Wrapping up, students still unhappy
After about an hour and a half, students were asked to wrap up. The union asked for the session to be extended as there were still many students in line waiting to speak. However, Prof Ling and Prof Pang said they had a meeting to go to and directed the students to email their queries and comments to the email address listed.
One student then stepped up to say that he feels the sentence handed down to Mr Lim should be left as it is. He added that he hoped the committee would remain unaffected by public sentiment. This was received with mixed replies.
After that, one of the last students to speak shared her story of being molested. The CPS counsellor has apparent asked her to share the experience in a safe space instead of bringing it up in public. She said she had kept the events quiet at first but now she wants to share it. As she begun to tell her story, the counsellor Ms Chua interrupted to offer to speak with her privately due to the traumatic nature of the experience. At this, a student shouted, “Let her speak!”
In his final remarks, Prof Pang admitted that NUS’ victim care was inadequate, something they want to fix. He also said that they will immediately strengthen security measures at hostels.
Before the Professors left, one student asked why the onus fell on students. The student pointed out that the auditorium for the town hall very small and that while they have many academic experts, they didn’t draw on those resources. Instead, they relied on students to voice out their suffering just so the university can be seen as taking them seriously.
The student went on to point out that many of their questions remain unanswered and there was still no affirmation that the perpetrator who started all of this would receive a more severe punishment.
Discontent but it’s a start
The session ended after about 90-minutes. At the end, Prof Pang said another town hall will be organised with the review committee.
Speaking to TODAY after the town hall, a fourth year political science student said there there was a “total gulf between the students’ experiences and what the university leadership is experiencing”. He added, “This, if anything, shows the need for increased consultation between the students and the university administration”.
A 25-year-old law student, Mr Daryl Yang, said: “The relationship between the students and the administration must change. They need to understand that we are here to work with them, and they need to include us in the process.”
One of the major issues some pointed out with the town hall was that none of the review committee members were present to answer any questions or receive suggestions.
CNA reported a fourth-year law undergraduate describing the town hall as ‘a bit of tokenism’ on the part of the university, adding that they failed to adequately address the root of the issue.
Ms Baey herself told Today, “I think that although there is a lot of room for improvement on how town halls are conducted, it’s a start.”