Straits Times (ST) senior correspondent Tan Ee Lyn left National University of Singapore (NUS) last year November — the same month in which her former student Monica Baey was filmed in the hostel shower — yet she could still recall the “serious and diligent” young woman whom she taught in one of her writing tutorial classes.
In an ST article published on 25 April (Thursday), Ms Tan expressed her concerns when she came across Ms Baey’s Instagram posts sharing “such a private horror story” on a public platform. She also detailed a past study her students conducted on sexual harassment at the NUS for the purpose of the commentary.
She recounted Ms Baey’s attack that happened half a year ago, the flashbacks and trauma she faced, and the punishment that was given to the offender for his “sexual misconduct”. “What she wanted was justice not only for herself but a concrete assurance that other students in this decorated institution will also be protected now and in the future,” she wrote.
Ms Tan said that Ms Baey “must have found her back to the wall, with no other way to be heard” when she turned to “social media after exhausting all other avenues – her school, the police”. Although Ms Tan had only taught at NUS for more than five years after 25 years of journalism, she asserted that she can identify with what Ms Baey is saying about the “elephant in the room” which only a few victims would be willing or not ashamed to face or discuss.
“A victim of a sex crime who is not only unafraid to face her attacker but who is strong enough to stand up and work for change,” Ms Tan described Ms Baey as she mentioned how proud she was to announce to her ST colleagues that Ms Baey was one of her students.
“For victims to stand up and fight back requires not only that they face up to their violator or aggressor, (but) they must also not be cowed by, in her case, NUS, a large organisation that like many such institutions, would have longstanding practices and appear set in its ways.”
She also pointed out NUS’ rationale as “an educational institution that believed in giving second chances” through its “two strikes and you are out” policy, which opens up “a volley of questions and gaping contradictions”.
“Why are NUS students treated like children who need to be hand-held to learn that committing sex crimes is wrong and who need to be given second chances? These are adults in an esteemed adult learning institution, whom we should expect to be sentient and responsible for their own actions,” she commented.
Ms Tan further clarified that what happened to Ms Baey was a “sex crime” and should not be classified as “sexual misconduct” as this would minimise the impact inflicted on the victims. She quoted legal experts who stated that sexual voyeurism falls under Section 509 of Singapore’s Penal Code, which criminalises words or gestures intended to “insult the modesty” of women.
She found it “perplexing” that “NUS policy for sex crimes has been perceived as manifestly adequate by the school for years”.
“From the policymaker down to the administrator, nobody saw that violating the modesty of a young woman or man through filming or molesting them warranted anything more than suspension from school for a semester or two, banning the offenders from residential colleges, making them write apologies to the victims and a nominal fine,” she remarked.
Out of the 26 other cases of sex crimes committed on campus from August 2015 to July 2018, Ms Tan noted that only 16 were reported to police and given conditional warnings or supervised probations between 12 and 24 months, whereas 13 of the cases were repeat offenders “but nobody was expelled”, and “only two offenders have been jailed”. “In short, it appears that neither the police nor NUS thought there was anything amiss with these slaps on the wrists,” she added.
Ever since Education Minister Ong Ye Kung publicly stated that the penalties were “manifestly inadequate”, all local universities including NUS have been keeping silent on their treatment towards sex offence cases while reviewing their policy on the issue. Ms Tan wondered if NUS is really serious about stopping these crimes and protecting its students by administering punishments that served the “four purposes of retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and societal protection.”
During Ms Tan’s last semester at NUS last year, she assigned a topic on sexual harassment faced by NUS students in a Communicating for Social Change module, which Ms Baey was not a part of. She explained that the six students who picked this topic conducted “three focus group discussions with a total of 13 participants” who had experienced sex crimes and harassment on campus and outside while on internships.
The victims’ reactions typically ranged from feeling scared, vulnerable, unsafe, paranoid, insecure, alone or lonely, denial, stigmatised and ridiculed. They felt that these are part of larger underlying issues that should be addressed by the school apart from tackling individual offences. They also propounded that the school “should be completely transparent and make everyone aware of what is happening.”
According to Ms Tan, the 13 focus group students suggested a raft of recommendations for NUS and the project findings were presented by the students in her course to key university personnel. In her new capacity as a journalist, she recently interviewed the student leader of the project group to summarise the views and recommendations of the 13 participants.
One of the measures that should be taken by the school to improve their treatment of sexual offences on campus included giving support to victims by making “independent, third-party counsellors (such as AWARE) more accessible” and to provide victims with a space to talk to counsellors without taking any action.
Also, “NUS must take a stronger stance and make it clear that the school protects victims and stands by its students.” This can be achieved by creating a separate, dedicated team of people to attend to victims by helping them to understand and generate better solutions for the problems they face.
Courses on respecting others, processes on how to get help and classes that teach students to recognize sexual harassment should be provided and implemented. Besides that, student dialogues on sexual harassment would help to foster understanding and broaden perspectives on the issue, as well as to remove the stigma that victims face by helping others to treat the issue more seriously.
Ms Tan commended NUS and other universities for probing into the matter but also concluded that they would need to make extra effort to “protect its students and convince their parents that their offspring are safe.”