Jeremy Fernando saga: NUS considered alleged victims' mental health before making police report – Tommy Koh

Dr Jeremy Fernando (PHOTO: Facebook / Tembusu Welcome Week 2018)
Dr Jeremy Fernando (PHOTO: Facebook / Tembusu Welcome Week 2018)

SINGAPORE — The National University of Singapore (NUS) said on Friday (23 October) that it took into account the mental health of the two alleged victims at the centre of the sexual misconduct saga involving its former academic Dr Jeremy Fernando before making its police report.

The university also said that it could have handled the saga better and promised to be more open and transparent in sharing information about such cases with staff and students. It sacked Dr Fernando, a non-residential academic at Tembusu College, on 7 October, following an internal investigation.

Speaking to reporters on Friday (23 October), Professor Tommy Koh, Rector of Tembusu College, said NUS informed one student prior to making a police report and updated the other student after making the report.

“We have an obligation to report (to the police) whether the victims want to report or not. However, and this is very important, NUS has a Victim Care Unit (VCU) of trained people who look after victims of abuse”.

Prior to making a police report for any such incident, Prof Koh said NUS would take into account the mental health of victims and whether they would self-harm.

“So the university can delay when to report to the police, taking into account the special circumstances of each case. But at the end of the day, you cannot not report,” he added.

NUS has advised the two students to report the allegations of sexual misconduct to the police, in the company of NUS staff but they have decided not to do so.

In a Facebook post on Thursday, gender rights group Aware said it was disappointed by NUS’ decision to make the police report despite the two alleged victims’ reluctance to do so. “From a trauma-informed, survivor-centric perspective, it is not ideal to file a report if a sexual assault survivor is reluctant,” said the group.

The NUS media session on Friday was also attended by Assoc Prof Kelvin Pang, Master of Tembusu College, and Assoc Prof Leong Ching, NUS Dean of Students and Associate Provost (Special Projects).

NUS has ‘fallen short’

At the session, Prof Koh also acknowledged that the university had fallen short of expectations as a public institution, and could learn from the way the government conducted itself during the SARS pandemic in 2003 and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

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

“In my view, NUS has fallen short,” he added.

While it is acceptable in the private sector to have a “conservative culture” of not announcing staff dismissals as a matter of human resource policy, Prof Koh said this cannot apply to Tembusu College as a public institution.

“There was a considerable gap between the date on which the university dismissed Dr Fernando, and the date on which the university and the college issued a statement,” said Prof Koh, acknowledging a reporter’s question on why the statement was issued only two weeks later.

Staff and faculty “have a right to know” about the case, he said.

“Going forward, NUS will be more open, more transparent and more willing to disseminate information in a timely manner,” he added.

Timeline of events

In a media release on Wednesday, the university said that “given the seriousness of the allegations”, it had filed a police report against Dr Fernando.

“All allegations of misconduct are taken seriously, and the university stands firmly against all forms of inappropriate behaviour,” NUS said.

The first complaint of sexual misconduct was reported on 27 August. Internal investigations found that Dr Fernando – a non-residential teaching staff of Tembusu College – had an “intimate association” with an undergraduate, which is a serious breach of NUS’ code of conduct for staff.

On 31 August, Dr Fernando was suspended from duty and banned from contacting any student or staff, or attending his workplace. A No Contact Order was also issued to him to prohibit him from contacting the first complainant.

The student was interviewed on her complaint, while a VCU care officer explored with her the option of making a police report. However, the student decided not to lodge a police report.

On 7 September, NUS received a second complaint of sexual misconduct from a student against Dr Fernando. Despite the advice given by a VCU care officer and the Tembusu College director, the student also decided not to report the matter to the police.

Dr Fernando was issued a No Contact Order for the second complainant on 14 September. The university completed its internal investigations on the second complaint seven days later, and informed Dr Fernando of the misconduct allegation. He was given seven days to respond to the allegation.

On 30 September, Dr Fernando responded to the university, and he was dismissed on 7 October. On the same day of his dismissal, the two students were informed of the outcome, while Tembusu College’s academic staff were also notified.

All staff members and students of the college were eventually informed via email of Dr Fernando’s dismissal on 18 October.

Info could’ve been shared earlier

In its release on Wednesday, NUS said that while it could have shared information about the dismissal with Tembusu staff and students in a more timely manner, it said that it has to balance “interests of privacy and confidentiality, particularly for the victims involved”.

“Our priority is to ensure a strong level of support and care for the two students involved,” it said.

“When the incident was made known to the college, it immediately took action to protect the student community and worked with the VCU to facilitate a fair and prompt investigation that was conducted by the university.

“(VCU) has been providing care and support to the two students throughout the investigation process and will continue to do so.”

Tembusu College has also continued face-to-face engagement with students, student leaders and staff in small groups. Student leaders at the college have also started a ground-up initiative to form a community support working group to facilitate deeper dialogue within the college community.

In response to a request from its Students’ Union, NUS has published the Code of Conduct for Staff in the public domain for ease of access by staff and students. Previously, it was available only in the NUS staff intranet.

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