Town Hall on Sexual Misconduct in NUS Ends On An Ambiguous Note

Photo: Marc Tey Ge Wai

On April 25, NUS conducted a Town Hall to address concerns about sexual misconduct in the university. This was in response to the growing controversy regarding Ms Monica Baey’s sexual harassment case, and the more widespread predicament that is rampant in NUS culture. From the very beginning, the university expressed their regrets that students did not feel same on campus, and claims responsibility for their shortcomings. The university also ensures students that they will be taking a more proactive stance in the future. Professor Florence Ling (Vice Provost of Student Life), Associate Professor Peter Pang (Dean of Students) and Ms Celestine Chua (University Counselling Services) were present as the spokespersons for the university.

Sparing the specifics of speakers’ anecdotes and experiences out of respect of their privacy, an overwhelming number of people voiced their concerns over how the university handles sexual misconduct. Ms Baey herself was present and spoke up about her plight, and expressed some suggestions as to how better handle such situations in the future. Numerous concerns were raised, and one of the most commonly cited failure on the part of the university is the lack of victim support. The university representatives were questioned as to why there are lapses in the meting out of action on perpetrators despite claiming that there were steps previously in place. The alarmingly tactless conduct of the people who were supposed to help the victims in the situation was also raised. One of the many important issues raised is with regards to the problem of the prevalent culture of sexual harassment on and off campus. Suggestions of educational programmes, such as teaching about consent, and training for staff.

It is heartening to hear the suggestions put forward by NUS students regarding measures to put in place to make the campus a safer place. The energy in the room was one to be reckoned with, as students lined up to voice suggestions, some more appropriate and felicitous than the rest. Surely, it is not possible for everyone’s concerns to be solved right there and then at the Town Hall and there were occasions that the university representatives could not answer satisfactorily. It is unfortunate that the witch-hunt mentality that some people had did not help in facilitating the conversation. However, it must be said that the Town Hall was unfortunately inadequate in palliating the congregation, due also in part to the university’s seeming incompetence. While the spokespersons promises that the review committee will leave “no stone unturned” and will do their job to the best of their abilities, the refrain that everyone would just have to wait for the review committee to come to a decision regarding punishment and future directions was repeated one too many times. To an extent, this response given to numerous questions raised is understandable, as the existing problems cannot be fixed immediately. However, one is left to wonder, if this is the case, why not a single member of the esteemed review committee could be in attendance. Admittedly it is impossible to provide immediate solutions, but surely the presence of a committee member would have lessened the blows that the three attending university spokespersons took, and the anger of the students who understandably felt ignored.

Furthermore, several speakers raised the concern over NUS’ lack of transparency and the tendency to instinctively silence such incidents. One speaker even pointed out the obvious opinion that why it takes a national controversy for the university to take action. Alarmingly, it appears that there is a disconnect between what is actually happening on the ground and what the university leaders know. While it seemed at times that the frustrating back and forth between the students and spokespersons were leading to nowhere because of the unforgettable mantra of “we have to wait for the review committee to come to a decision”, two promises were made to address the concerns without having to wait for the committee. Namely, NUS will be forming a victim care unit that is centralised in order to provide support for victims specifically of sexual misconduct, and implementing greater safety measures in residential colleges and halls in terms of infrastructure.

We are here today because I care for you and I want to listen to you – Professor Florence Ling

The overwhelming response from NUS students led to a shortage in time for everyone to be heard. To this, the spokespersons told those who would still like to voice concerns to email in. This, understandably, angered many. People exclaimed for the Town Hall to be extended, crying out that the medium of email does not carry the same amount of agency and may be a more passive outlet. By the end of the session, many were worked up, which is an unfortunate end to a supposedly helpful and productive dialogue. Instead of feeling that they are heard, it left a greater feeling of frustration because not only were some questions not addressed, but also because there was still lines of people who wanted to speak. The spokespersons had to leave to attend another meeting regarding the sexual misconduct controversy, so it was reasonable that they had to leave. However, given the unfortunate earlier responses and handling of the energy in the room, the Town Hall concluded rather abruptly, leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

Nevertheless, it is important that other students who want and need to be heard are not bogged down by the obscure conclusion of the Town Hall. Email into nuslistens@nus.edu.sg to voice your concerns, as frustrating as an electronic medium might be. The spokespersons indicated that there may be another Town Hall session, to address further issues.

Email Judith at theridge.opinion@nussu.org.sg

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