National University of Singapore admits mishandling lecturer's sexual misconduct case


Singapore’s largest university on Friday admitted its failings in dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct in cases involving its students and pledged to improve how it handles such situations in the future.

The commitment to be “more open, more transparent [and] more willing to disseminate information in a timely manner” came on Friday from Tommy Koh, the rector at National University of Singapore’s residential Tembusu College, as he addressed brewing public criticism over the sacking of former lecturer Jeremy Fernando.

The policy is to be open rather than closed, to be transparent rather than opaque. 
- Tommy Koh, Tembusu College rector

Fernando, who teaches interdisciplinary modules across literature, philosophy and media, was fired from his job after NUS investigations found he had “fallen short of the standards of professionalism that the university expects of a teaching staff”.

But the institution , which has 31,257 undergraduates, did not release details of its investigations, only saying in a statement last weekend that it had received complaints by two students that Fernando had behaved “inappropriately”.

In accounts the two students gave to The Straits Times , they chided the university for a lack of communication on the issue, and for waiting until it had surfaced on social media to send clarifications to the student population.

After the university lodged a police report against Fernando on Wednesday, it then provided a timeline of how events unfolded.

But Singapore women’s group Aware questioned why the university had gone ahead with filing the police report when the alleged victims had not given their assent to the filing. Aware said that survivors of sexual assault should be allowed to “exert their own autonomy and agency in their own cases”.

It was not known why the alleged victims did not want the report filed.

Koh, a legal scholar and former diplomat who is viewed as a respected public intellectual, said that NUS was legally obliged to report the allegations, but that the delay from the time the allegations were made in late August and early September until the police report was filed on Wednesday was because of concerns over the victims’ well-being.

He said the university will delay reporting such cases to the police if its specialised victim care unit “feels that by reporting … you may cause the victim to self-harm himself or herself, or by reporting to the police, you will seriously harm the mental health of the complainant or make the recovery difficult, if not impossible”.

Koh said the university had not been more forthcoming from the start because it had a “conservative culture” and had believed that when a staff member is dismissed, the best practice is to not publicise it, in the way private-sector companies sometimes keep such cases under wraps.

But this was not applicable for a public institution, he said, where all the stakeholders should be kept informed.

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All students and faculty at Tembusu College have “a right to know, and in this respect I think NUS has fallen short,” Koh said, adding that the university should have learned about public accountability from the Singapore government’s response in dealing with 2003’s outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome and the current Covid-19 pandemic .

“The policy is to be open rather than closed, to be transparent rather than opaque, to give timely information to your stakeholders, rather than withhold such information,” Koh said.

NUS, one of Singapore’s six publicly funded universities, has faced a series of high-profile sexual misconduct incidents in recent years.

Last year, NUS student Monica Baey took to Instagram Stories to air her frustrations with how NUS handled her case when she was filmed in the shower by fellow student Nicholas Lim, who she felt got away with the offence too lightly.

It catalysed a change in how NUS deals with such cases. The victim care unit was formed, and a committee was convened to review existing school sanctions on sexual misconduct cases.

The NUS Board of Trustees accepted the committee’s recommendations, which included a minimum one-year suspension and immediate expulsion for “severe instances or aggravated forms of offences of sexual misconduct”.

While Singapore is one of the safest cities in the world, it has seen a rise in voyeurism cases, especially those involving mobile phones. Last month, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said the spate of voyeurism cases had him considering whether penalties for such crimes were enough to stop the problem.

It gave rise to his announcement that the government was embarking on a review of women’s issues with the hope of retuning people’s mindsets and ensuring that gender equality becomes a fundamental value in society.

NUS dean of students Leong Ching said Friday that the university takes such incidents seriously and would be more transparent in future instances – including in its internal communications to staff and students – because not letting students know earlier in this latest case was “a mistake”.

The university’s culture had to change, said Leong, “from one that is conservative and erring on the side of caution, to one that commits itself to timely, accurate, respectful communication”.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.