Dear President Prof Tan Eng Chye, Senior Deputy President and Provost Prof Ho Teck Hua, Vice Provost (Student Life) Prof Florence Ling, Dean OSA Assoc Prof Peter Pang, Vice Dean OSA Assoc Prof Vivian Ng and Assistant Dean OSA Dr Chen Zhi Xiong,
We are a group of 489 students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) who are deeply concerned about the University’s approach towards sexual harassment, particularly in reference to the case where a female NUS undergraduate student, Ms Monica Baey, was filmed while showering without her consent. We understand that the offender, who is also an NUS undergraduate, had been caught on CCTV footage. We have also recently learnt from NUS Students’ Union that the NUS Board of Discipline (BOD) had ordered the following for the offender:
i) One semesters’ suspension;
ii) ban from entering into all on-campus housing premises;
iii) mandatory counselling sessions at University Health Centre;
iv) community-based sanctions of 30 hours of supervised community service;
v) mandatory rehabilitation and reconciliation sessions with a social worker;
vi) writing a mandatory letter of apology; and
vii) official letter of reprimand.
While we understand the University’s need to maintain a balanced position on the matter and to keep in line with precedence, we find the punishment meted out in this case problematic because it signals to the NUS community at large that i) our University does not credibly enforce its stance against sexual voyeurism as a serious offence; ii) those who commit such an offence can arguably expect to receive a relatively light sentence; and iii) survivors of sexual violence and harassment will not receive adequate institutional and social support even if they voice their concerns to the relevant authorities. Additionally, the leniency of these punishments may not serve as an adequate deterrent: we note a recent case in 2017 that saw a repeat offender face criminal charges for assault with the intent of outrage of modesty. It is clear that the current disciplinary framework is failing to deter these incidents from recurring within our community. As one of the world’s top universities, we hope that NUS would take a stronger stance against sexual harassment and set a positive example for other universities around the world.
While we are heartened by Dean OSA Assoc Prof Peter Pang’s announcement in his statement released on 20 April 2019 that a committee will be convened to review the current disciplinary and support frameworks, and Prof Pang’s subsequent announcement in an internal circular sent to students on 21 April 2019 that there will be two student representative on this committee, we call on NUS to shed more light on (1) how the student representatives will be selected, (2) what groups of students the committee hopes to target, (3) what the composition of the committee is, (4) what the decision making powers of the committee, if any, are. We urge the University to meaningfully consult students on this important issue and not dictate the terms of such consultation or police student involvement; there is no patience for gestural politics on this urgent issue. We propose that the committee includes representatives from student organizations that have dealt with topics and issues concerning sexual harassment. Such groups include, but are not limited to, the residential teams and other relevant student interest groups in on-campus accommodations such as the Gender Collective, The G Spot, tFreedom, and EnCAPTsulate. We emphasize the need for continuous and meaning engagement with students, and thus call on NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye to hold a town hall before the end of the semester to listen to and dialogue with our University community about this serious issue and our community’s concerns. The suggestion to hold a town hall has also received widespread support on various social media channels.
Many amongst us have stories, experiences, as well as recommendations that we hope to convey to the University leadership. As a University that “aspires to be a vital community of academics, researchers, staff, students and alumni working together in a spirit of innovation and enterprise for a better world”, we believe that it is important for us to build this culture of collaboration at home, in working together to address this serious issue that threatens the safety and well-being of our students. Below are some of the recommendations that we have consolidated from concerned members of our community since Ms Baey’s story was made public:
1. Immediate Redressal for Ms Baey
First, we suggest that NUS provide stronger immediate redressal for Ms Baey. The statement by A/Prof Pang is commendable for its apologetic tone towards Ms Baey’s plight. However, we call upon NUS to do better by making a stronger statement against sexual harassment on campus. The administration could also provide greater transparency on the investigations conducted for this case and provide the grounds for i) the punitive measures imposed on the offender detailed above and ii) whether these measures are commensurate with penalties imposed for other offences committed in the University.
2. Remedial Measures
Second, NUS should focus more efforts towards restoring and rehabilitating survivors of sexual harassment by:
2.1 Setting up an Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention, Reporting, and Response: A specialised office could be established to educate students about what constitutes sexual harassment and the respective penalties for offences, highlight the modes for recourse for survivors, and effect overall behavioural change in the University through campus-wide awareness campaigns. This Office should also develop and administer a reporting mechanism, online and/or offline, facilitating anonymity, for the NUS community to report cases of sexual harassment. This could include establishing a 24/7 emergency hotline service for survivors, which would particularly be useful for those living on campus. Cases should also be formally recorded and logged, where staff can exercise discretion in escalating severe cases to higher management for disciplinary action. We further call for a mandatory sexual harassment response training to be offered to staff who would work in this office to ensure that they are equipped with the appropriate tools to handle sexual harassment cases.
2.2. Improving rehabilitative support for survivors of sexual harassment: The University should also provide targeted counselling services for survivors of sexual harassment and assault at the University Health Centre (UHC) and/or establish a new, specialised department dedicated to cases of such nature within UHC. Educational resources and collateral detailing what constitutes sexual harassment and avenues for recourse should also be readily available and accessible for the NUS community to seek support and better respond to survivors of sexual harassment.
3. Preventive Measures
Third, NUS should pre-emptively implement measures to target the risk factors of sexual harassment to prevent the occurrence of sexual harassment by:
3.1. Designing and implementing anti-sexual harassment training programmes and/or campaigns in the University, particularly in residences: Since most of these offences seem to have occurred and could continue to occur in University residences, the University should consider implementing a compulsory anti-sexual harassment workshop for all new residents in NUS residences. These workshops should also be offered to freshmen as part of their orientation programme and sporadically throughout the academic year to non-residents from all faculties. These workshops should tackle themes such as consent, bystander intervention, and the social stigma preventing survivors from reporting instances of sexual harassment.
4. Developmental Measures
Fourth, NUS could review and appropriately amend University policy to better address cases of sexual harassment, provide redress for survivors, deter potential aggressors, and change prevailing attitudes tolerating the perpetuation of sexual harassment in NUS by:
4.1. Publicly committing to a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment: Commitment towards a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment and violence is no longer uncommon in tertiary institutions internationally. The University of Oxford has publicly declared its zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and violence. The University of Cambridge, too, has launched its Breaking the Silence campaign since October 2017. Likewise, a collaborative campaign was launched in King’s College London, with its Student’s Union galvanising their student community to come together to make a stand against sexual harassment and misconduct. We urge NUS to follow in the footsteps of these other leading institutions in publicly and explicitly committing to a zero-tolerance campaign against sexual harassment, which includes several of the recommendations in this letter.
4.2. Institutionalising and explicating tiers of penalties accorded to different types of sexual harassment offences in the University Code of Student Conduct: We applaud the recent revision of the Code of Student Conduct, which now explicates what constitutes “sexual misconduct” and “consent”, and includes offences of a voyeuristic nature, such as upskirt photography. We also note that the University has published a guidance note (restricted to circulation within NUS) on student discipline. However, since this note does not explicitly state the penalty guidelines for sexual harassment, we believe that it does not adequately deter repeat sexual harassment offenders. More could be done to clarify and provide rationales for the penalties for these offences to ensure fair and just disciplinary proceedings and judgements for all offenders. If not already established, the University should consider formulating and publicly releasing a framework, specifically delineating the considerations and factors taken into account during sentencing for sexual harassment offences. This framework could include different tiers of punishment which directly correspond to the severity of the offence. Establishing such a framework will potentially be a big step forward in terms of transparency. In turn, such a framework will also reaffirm the University’s commitment to students that perpetrators will be held accountable for their actions and will be dealt with firmly but fairly, in line with a set of formalised and transparent guidelines.
The University has a duty to provide a safe and conducive space for all students, in their holistic development, both academic and otherwise. This, too, reiterates and reaffirms the University’s commitment to considering “students’ perspectives and needs” and exercising “accountability to our stakeholders,” per the values of the NUS Office of Student Affairs.
Beyond the call for immediate redressal for Ms Baey, there is a broader need to address the various systemic issues relating to sexual offences that occur within NUS. Through the detailing of various remedial, preventive and developmental measures above, this statement hopes to provide a good ground for conversation and review to take root and grow. We end by stressing the need for opportunities to dialogue about these issues with other stakeholders through the organisation of a town hall meeting and meaningful student representation in the committee to review the disciplinary procedures.