NUS rule book: Make it an open book

A Singapore flag flying beside the National University of Singapore flag. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

SINGAPORE — I feel sorry for Nicholas Lim, who has been outed as the peeping Tom who tried to film a female undergraduate who was taking a shower. Now everyone knows who he is: a National University of Singapore Chemical Engineering student who has been suspended for one semester. They now know he has a girlfriend, and how he quit as a financial representative of Great Eastern Life before, I am guessing here, it could take the step to show him the door.

I feel sorry for my alma mater and employer NUS, which has been in the news for the wrong reasons in recent time. It has been in crisis management mode since the weekend started, after realising that its demonstrable lack of empathy for the undergraduate who was the victim is earning itself the opprobrium of the public.

I don’t feel sorry for Monica Baey. She got what she wanted: the perpetrator has been named and shamed to such a degree that even incarceration might not be too bad an option. More importantly, she got the university to face up to the inadequacies of its penalty system which, in her case, was deemed “manifestly inadequate’’ by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.

I asked a few female undergraduates why Ms Baey, 23, a communications student, didn’t take the route that I would have taken if this happened to me 30 years ago in university: tell some seniors about the matter and have them deal with it. I did so when I was bothered by a lascivious lad who made me cry with his lewd attentions. I don’t know what the seniors did, but I got what I wanted: the boy never so much as looked me again after that.

Every undergraduate was disconcerted by the question I posed. It sounded like I was suggesting some form of street justice. What they said next floored me: everyone said that their seniors would never want to get involved, because it might get them into trouble too. I suppose the days when gentlemen would guard a maiden’s honour is dead and gone.

Instead everyone goes by the Singapore book: make a police report and complain to the right authorities. Then the agencies go by the book too, investigate and decide on the outcome – without explaining how they reached the journey’s end. If the outcome is satisfactory, at least to the victim, that would be the end of the story. But if not, the victim who lashes back at the big, bad agencies will always receive public sympathy.

The police decision to mete out a one-year conditional warning hasn’t gone down well with Ms Baey. Depending on which lawyer you speak to, you will have differing views on whether this is a rare action on the part of the authorities which have thrown the book at other first-time voyeurs in the past. Beyond the authorities, no one knows how the decision is made and whether there were extenuating circumstances which led them to give Mr Lim a slap on the wrist. The discussion so far has been one-sided, with Ms Baey giving her account on Instagram and to media, and Mr Lim staying out of sight.

The university, sticking with protocol, started its own disciplinary proceedings after the police investigation was concluded. No one knows, too, how it decides on the sanctions although it has maintained that it has its own framework to refer to. You can only surmise that the “slap on the wrist’’ played a part in the decision to suspend him for a semester (which undergraduates will say is more like taking a leave-of-absence), instead of the ultimate penalty of expulsion. Its bid to have Mr Lim write a letter of apology to Ms Baey has backfired. It looked like it was written by a very bad PR firm.

As someone who has been working with undergraduates over the past six years, I know that the university prefers to take a rehabilitative rather than a punitive approach to miscreants. My private sector instincts to “sack” or give a student a failing grade have always been met with consternation by other academics. I have been told too many times that the subjects are young people, bright people, who always deserve a second chance or even a third. Contrary to what undergraduates think, it’s harder to fail a student than to award the student a distinction.

In the field of behaviour, it seems a similar concept is applied. A suspension is deemed a heavy punishment because it delays the process of getting a full degree. Except that these days, unless students belong to households pressed for money, the suspension might well be viewed as a “gap’’ year for them to take a break from studies. I gather that this is one reason undergraduates view Mr Lim’s suspension with such misgivings.

What is more unsettling is what NUS vice-provost (Student Life) Florence Ling told The Straits Times about the university’s policy on sexual misconduct. You have to be a repeat sexual offender to be expelled.

“For first-time offenders, because we are an educational institution, we want to give the students a chance. Student offenders who appear before the Board of Discipline for the first time are given a range of punishments, but not immediate expulsion,” she said.

It makes me wonder if NUS disclosed this “two-strikes and you’re out’’ policy because it believed that this would assure the public that the university is a safe place.

But just hours later, the university said it was reviewing this two strikes policy. NUS President Tan Eng Chye said: “NUS will take a hard stand on offences that impact the safety of our students. We must make our campus safe and supportive for all members of our community.”

Even Minister Ong weighed in: “From here on, for offences that affect the safety of students on campus, we have to take a tough stand, and send a strong signal to everyone. Two strikes and you are out cannot be the standard application. NUS has to make its campus safe for all students, especially female students.”

The Vice-Provost, it seemed, mis-spoke.

In fact, my view is that the punishment must fit the crime. Undergraduates are adults who shouldn’t be treated differently from other working youths if they are guilty of misbehaviour. That this might mean extinguishing a bright future, a lost chance at a First Class Honours degree, or dashing a parent’s dream shouldn’t count as mitigating factors unless sufficient remorse is shown. If other less intellectually endowed youths in the working world have overcome setbacks, so can young people cocooned in the education institutions.

NUS did not say how long the review would take but I am sure the university will be pressured into making public its new and improved “penal code’’ for a range of misconduct. I think it is a good thing to be transparent, even though it limits the scope for discretion on the part of university authorities. There will, for example, be less debate about “favouritism’’ or “parental influence’’.

I sometimes wish for a return to the old days when the community policed itself and set its own standards of behaviour, instead of always turning to an outside agency.  It’s not so much about taking the law into your own hands, then about setting markers on acceptable conduct.

But if everyone wants to go by the book, then the book must be an open one.

Related stories:

Ong Ye Kung concerned over ‘manifestly inadequate’ penalties in NUS sexual misconduct case

NUS student leaves Great Eastern after being suspended for ‘inappropriate misconduct’

NUS to hold town hall this week to address concerns of sexual misconduct on campus

Almost 500 NUS students issue statement of concern on sexual harassment at NUS

The Monica Baey Case Reveals NUS’ Severe Incompetence in Handling Sexual Misconduct

Mother of undergrad Monica Baey filmed in campus shower speaks up: Trust in university ‘is now broken’

Group of NUS students surface past disciplinary cases: Only one student expelled in last three years for outrage of modesty