Can NUS regain the trust of its students and restore the counselling profession?

by James Leong

You could say National University of Singapore (NUS)’ actions to deter sex offenders post Monica Baey were as swift as a voyeur making his escape after getting caught.

In typical Singapore clockwork efficiency, the university entered damage control mode and in just six weeks unveiled the “Recommendations for Safer Campus” sanctions. The tougher sanctions are more punitive than rehabilitative in approach to ensure sex offenders think twice and keep their hands and mobiles to themselves. The university’s message is resoundingly clear—we have no tolerance for sexual offenders because our priority is the safety and support of our students.

But are sex perpetrators the only offenders in this saga? What about the university staff themselves? How safe and assured can students feel when they approach the authorities for help when they are at their most vulnerable and desperate states?

When the case first went public, I was most disturbed by a Yahoo report which revealed how vulnerable students were being turned away by the very same people who are supposed to help them. 

One counsellor told her not to speak up in public after she was interrogated by two male staff and one female staff. No psychologist was brought in and she was accused of being inconsistent. In a separate case, a woman who fell victim to voyeurism was given a rape whistle by the campus security, and counsellors attending to the incident had told her not to report the offender in order to give him a chance to be rehabilitated.

Apparently, the new recommendations now address the need for helping professionals to exercise more empathy and support to victims. Care officers will be appointed to each victim throughout the ordeal at a newly set up Victim Care Unit (VCU) and they will have relevant experience in counselling, social work, psychology or a related field.

But isn’t empathy a basic requisite of all helping professionals already? What then are these new care officers saying about its counsellors?

One of the students lamented how he believed the university’s response was a sign of a systemic failure. Does this failure have anything to do with its counsellors not doing their jobs and hurting victims more than helping them? Does this failure now require the hire of new care officers? Or does this failure have to do with a corporate culture that breeds fear when it should be exercising empathy? Empathy simply cannot exist in the same space as fear.

NUS should be given credit for taking a more punitive approach to sex offenders, and these questions are not meant to upend their efforts. Instead, it is to address the betrayal that victims feel towards professional bodies of help, in particular, the university’s counselling department and the profession as a whole.

The counselling profession remains stigmatised in Singapore, despite growing signs of depression, anxiety and suicide. Jobs are few, the training is rigorous, and the pay just doesn’t justify the staggering costs and time of getting certified. Still many choose this path because the needs, as have been proven, are very real.

In the words of Ong Ye Kung, “the Recommendations for Safer Campus will see NUS emerge stronger and better.” I have no doubt it will for the resources it enjoys, but is this enough to regain the trust of its students and will the counselling profession be restored so it can truly serve the needs of the vulnerable?

James Leong is a private counsellor at Listen without Prejudice who addresses fear and anxiety of working professionals and families.