Singapore universities recorded 56 sexual misconduct cases over 3 years, no ‘free passes’ for offenders: Parliament

A total of 56 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct among students from six Autonomous Universities (AUs) in Singapore were recorded in the past three years, as disclosed by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (6 May).

Out of the 56 cases handled by the universities, 14 were committed by students outside of campuses. 17 of them happened in academic year 2015/2016, 18 in 2016/2017, and 21 in the year 2017/2018.

According to the breakdown of figures, 25 cases were committed at the National University of Singapore (NUS) while two were from Yale-NUS which had its own separate Board of Discipline from NUS.

20 cases were from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), 6 from Singapore Management University (SMU), and the rest – Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) – had one case each.

In 37 of the cases, police reports were made; with 4 currently under investigations and 2 pending due to insufficient evidence. Of the remaining 31 cases, 16 were prosecuted in court and 10 resulted in jail terms of between ten days and eight months, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

Of the six who were not jailed, four were put on supervised probation, one received a discharge not amounting to an acquittal, and one more is awaiting sentencing. Thirteen other offenders were given a conditional warning and two were given a stern warning.

Of the 13 given conditional warnings, one re-offended. The NUS student was sentenced to eight months’ jail and fined S$2,000 for both his offences committed in 2015 and 2017, Mr Shanmugam stated.

“So these numbers show that some have been prosecuted depending on the facts, others have been given a second chance, and there are no ‘free passes’ to university students, or anyone else,” the minister said, in response to Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera’s queries about the outcomes of the police reports made to the police and the factors taken into consideration in the decisions.

Mr Shanmugam also explained how the police and Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) approach such cases, pointing out situations where there is no leniency and where there is.

“All of this – being tough, taking a no-nonsense approach – does not mean that every offender must be or will be automatically charged in court. Police and (the) AGC must look at the facts of each case and exercise discretion,” he added.

According to Mr Ong, the number of cases at each autonomous university was closely related to their student numbers.

There was “no discernable trend” in the number of sexual misconduct cases because the student population changes from year to year. The rate of such cases per 1,000 students was around 0.2 and 0.21 per year, he said.

He added that about 66 per cent of the cases – which amounts to two thirds or 37 cases – were related to voyeurism, involving Peeping Tom incidents and filming of victims in vulnerable positions.

This was the ministers’ responses to the Members of Parliament’s questions regarding the number of sexual harassment cases at local universities and the adequacy of punishments meted out for these cases, following the public outcry over the NUS case involving undergraduate Monica Baey.

Mr Ong told the Parliament that the cases which resulted in jail terms were for serious offences involving outrage of modesty or multiple instances of voyeurism, which was on the rise.

He also reiterated that these AU universities should review their frameworks for handling sexual misconduct cases.

Penalties for egregious cases cannot be too lenient because they must balance deterrence with the rehabilitation of the offender, he added.

As for the disciplinary inquiries and penalties imposed by the universities, Mr Ong said that 5 cases are pending disciplinary hearings and 4 students withdrew from the universities before the imposed sanctions.

Out of the remaining 47 cases, 34 resulted in an official reprimand, 26 resulted in suspensions of up to two academic terms, and 20 were banned from entering students’ dorms. The numbers do not add up to 47 because there was a combination of penalties for the offenders, he explained.

Of the 10 jail cases, one student was expelled but it was later reduced to an 18-month suspension after the student appealed, and his psychiatric condition was taken into account, said Mr Ong, who did not elaborate on the condition.

Subsequently, Second Minister for Finance and Education Indranee Rajah addressed concerns about campus security. She observed that NUS has started installing full-height doors and partitions in the restrooms of its hostels and sports facilities, as well as more CCTV cameras on campus.

Institutes of higher learning are also taking steps to address new “threats”, such as miniature cameras, she said, citing an example of SUSS’ collaboration with the police to train its security staff to inspect toilet cubicles or ceilings for the illegal installation of spy cameras.

Besides that, all institutes of higher learning have full-time counsellors to support victims. NUS has also set up a Victim Care Unit, while other universities have in place 24-hour helplines for incident reporting or counselling.

Ms Indranee commented that a “good support system” must create psychological safety for victims, guide them through the processes and protocols involved, provide updates on investigations and ensure that their concerns and questions are addressed throughout the journey.

Ms Indranee urged institutions and organisations to recognise and adapt to the local and global changes of expectations in responding to cases of sexual misconduct.

“The #MeToo movement is an example. As societal norms and expectations change, all organisations need to keep up with the times, send clear signals that sexual misconduct is unacceptable, and equip themselves to deal with sexual misconduct complaints appropriately, should they arise,” she said.