Do NUS students “get away” with crime?

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One of the trending memes on social media is that NUS students are getting away with crimes, especially with regard to sexual harassment and illegal voyeurism. 

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Following the high profile voyeurism case of Monica Baey back in 2017 and more recently the case of Pei Shao Bo, the public perception of tertiary education students—especially the males—has skewed. 

As mainstream media emphasizes again and again the affiliations of young people that have committed sexual crimes; searching “NUS student” on Google now yields more news of deviancy rather than merit. 

“Yet another male tertiary student has ended up in court,” an apt example of the introductions that similar articles bear

Local incidents like these are not only covered in the Singapore media but also in news outlets all over the globe—a worrying fact as such news can tarnish the reputations of the universities involved.

Terence Siow’s MRT molestation case in 2019 was one of the many incidents that brought the whole controversy into the forefront. Featured prominently on mainstream media, District Judge Jasvender Kaur’s statement, “his [Terence] academic results and other factors suggested he had strong propensity to reform,” has garnered heaps of backlash. Many netizens took to social media to air their grievances about the lenient ruling that Terence received. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam responded to netizens’ comments and agreed with the Attorney General’s plan to lodge an appeal at the High Court. After the flood of comments protesting about the ruling, it was announced in August this year that Terence’s appeal for probation was not approved and he was instead sentenced to two weeks’ jail. 

Prior to the verdict however, netizens were quick to deluge the online sphere with their own judgements. The top comments called for “Justice” even though at that point, an investigation was still ongoing—reflecting the netizens’ lack of trust in the court’s decision making process. 

It is probable that one might not have had the chance to get a clear understanding of the sentencing process partly due to mainstream media’s tendency to summarize case details into short articles. The lack of case details is also accompanied by the fact that such articles tend to garner little attention, and once they get promoted in the news outlets’ social media accounts, they often get reduced to headlines that are not sufficient enough to convey the complexities of their cases.

Furthermore, mainstream media has normalized the act of emphasizing the perpetrators’ affiliations to their respective universities, fueling outrage and causing finger-pointing. While it is inevitable that both good and bad opinions are presented when the public discusses such crimes, the overt focus on and ‘clowning’ of NUS students only makes the situation seem less serious. 

An insight into the law

Netizens should bear in mind that many aspects affect a judge’s ruling. Singapore’s criminal law is largely statutory in nature and can be traced to its exhaustive Penal Code which determines the minimum and maximum punishments for a crime. 

Judges base their judgements on four Principles:

Four main decision-making principles.

Other noteworthy considerations (that are codified into official documents) that judges have to make—including but not limited to factors pertaining to the offender—are for example, whether the transgressors are remorseful and have made voluntary restitution, and the sentences imposed in preceding, similar cases. 

Based on this insight into the ruling process, while having a “bright future” does contribute to a more lenient ruling, it is by far not the most significant factor. For example, media outlets not only often fail to cover the perpetrator’s willingness to repent but also the precedents that can heavily influence a judge’s ruling. Hence, people should allot their resentments of such rulings not to the judges involved, but to the legal system. The attention should be diverted to making structural changes at the High Court, rather than condemning the judges themselves. 

Stricter measures in NUS

Aside from dealing with the state court, in NUS, student transgressors also have to attend the Disciplinary Board hearings, which reaffirm to them the severity of their actions and focus on drafting rehabilitative plans. In recent cases the tolerance for such misconducts have gone down, and tertiary institutions are more inclined to suspend or expel the students. Following recommendations by the committee of sexual misconduct, NUS now stipulates a minimum one-year suspension for sexual misconduct cases. As a part of the rehabilitation process, the student would also have to go through mandatory counselling and be certified fit before they are allowed back in school, so as to reduce the likelihood of relapse. 

To further ensure a safer university experience, a student run interest group that advocates for a safer school environment, Students for a Safer NUS (@safenus), has also created online pages, @safe.nus on Instagram and Students for Safer NUS on Facebook, to provide platforms for victims of sexual harassment to speak up and get peer support. The pages also contribute to spreading awareness on important topics such as boundary setting and consent, a more casual approach to the Respect and Consent workshop that all students have to go through. 

Final thoughts 

In light of the barrage of university-related sex scandals, I believe that the education system has an important role in grooming students to be respectful of boundaries. Universities are moving in the right direction by holding workshops, and providing swift responses and aid to incidents of sexual harassment. We as students should follow suit and be more receptive to such initiatives so as to collectively create a safer school environment. Furthermore, in light of the trivialization of such happenings through outlets of expression such as memes, let us also recognize that supporting the rehabilitation of sexual offenders would prove to be a more productive response as compared to mockery and denigration.