Threats, intimidation and inappropriate questions from their school—these are what female students from a top university in Singapore say they’ve had to endure after stepping forward to lodge complaints about sexual abuse, harassment and misconduct on campus.
Ava, a 20-year-old undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS), was filmed without consent having sex with a student leader at the end of last year. Outraged and hurt, Ava reported the male perpetrator to the school’s disciplinary committee and was asked to attend a closed-door hearing with members of staff.
“When I heard from a mutual friend that he had done something similar to someone else, there was no question about it,” Ava said. “I had to report it.” She requested the use of a pseudonym for fear of reprisals for speaking out as an active student at the school.
Ava said she was assured by university officials that she was in “a safe environment” to speak up about the abuse. But instead, she was surprised to be asked invasive questions about her private life and use of dating apps, which left her feeling uncomfortable, frightened and confused. “I didn’t see how dating apps and my dating life affected the case at all,” Ava said.
The male student was eventually expelled, in February, after the school investigated Ava’s claims and a separate allegation that he similarly abused another female student. But things for Ava would soon get worse.
“I was in shock when I was told that there would be an investigation into me.”
After local media outlets reported on the case, Ava found herself the subject of a “data breach investigation.” She was interrogated by a female investigator at the school about “releasing private information” to the media, a claim that she denied.
“I was in shock when I was told that there would be an investigation into me,” Ava said. “I freaked out. I started worrying. I don’t know what I had done wrong.”
Ava was grilled by the female investigator, Kalaivani Kalimuthu, a former police officer who’d earlier been convicted and jailed for forging statements to suggest that an alleged victim of molestation did not mind being touched.
Asked about the decision to hire the disgraced ex-officer recently, the university acknowledged “concerns regarding the background of a staff member” and said it had reassigned the person.
Kalimuthu has since left her job, VICE World News has learned. The university did not respond to requests for further comment. VICE World News could not reach Kalimuthu for comment.
According to Ava, she was verbally threatened and pressured by the officer and was also told “there was a chance” she would be charged with doxxing and harassment. “Kalaivani told me that she ‘already knew everything’ and said that I should come clean,” Ava said. “She also told me that my perpetrator had been going through a lot after the case came to light in the media.”
“My case was being used against me. I felt isolated and afraid.”
Often ranked among the best universities in the world, NUS is Singapore’s oldest and most prestigious higher learning institution. The school regularly tops global academic rankings for its law and medicine programs and has even partnered with top names like Duke and Yale to set up international campuses.
But a slew of high-profile sexual assault and harassment cases has damaged its reputation. According to NUS’ first sexual misconduct report, between 2016 and 2020 there were 90 recorded complaints of sexual abuses committed by male students and staff against females on campus. Reported cases peaked in 2019 at 25 complaints, almost double the number in 2018.
In recent months, school officials have repeatedly reassured students as well as the public that they would be stepping up measures against sexual abuse and harassment in light of the episodes and would be adopting “a more holistic approach” to support survivors. In an internal email made public last December, the school’s president, Tan Eng Chye, laid out the measures, which included training staff and strengthening the process of reporting cases of sexual misconduct. A “victim care unit” was then established on campus to support student survivors and provide resources to NUS staff.
Singapore police confirmed to the Straits Times newspaper that reports had been lodged with regard to Ava’s case, and that investigations into the alleged sexual abuse were underway. But Ava wasn’t alone in facing hurdles and repercussions for speaking out against the school and flaws in its handling of alleged misconduct.
Cheryl, a recent NUS graduate, told VICE World News about a similarly traumatic experience dealing with her former professor Jeremy Fernando, who was dismissed in October last year after an internal NUS investigation found that he had “an intimate association with an undergraduate.”
Cheryl said Fernando had forced a kiss and touched her inappropriately.
Like Ava, Cheryl requested the use of a pseudonym, citing fears of repercussions from the school as well as her peers. Another female undergraduate told the Straits Times that Fernando had performed oral sex on her without her consent, and made unwanted advances.
Cheryl described a bewildering process of reporting sexual assault in NUS. After emailing the school’s board of directors, she was referred to the newly established victim care unit and was asked to lodge a formal complaint on the student portal. But she found that due to a technical glitch, there was no option to report crimes via the Integrated Crime Management System (ICMS).
“I was so angry. The site was a simplified version of what it was supposed to look like in the manual [NUS] gave me,” Cheryl said. Other NUS students also said they’d experienced the same issues with the student reporting portal.
Email records from August 29 of last year between Cheryl and the school’s IT department, seen by VICE World News, confirm that at the time, the ICMS option had not been available at three faculties across campus during test logins: School of Design and Environment, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Faculty of Engineering.
These three faculties make up more than 40 percent of all enrolled students at NUS.
Cheryl was eventually able to file her complaint against Fernando, and a meeting was organized between her and staff members from campus security as well as the victim care unit, who she said met her off-campus due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Then came an 11-day wait, which felt to her like an interminable silence from the university.
When the school finally issued a statement about Fernando’s dismissal, they omitted that the dismissal was on the grounds of alleged sexual assault and misconduct. And the school caught Cheryl off guard by reporting her case to the police without telling her, she said.
“I only found out from the press conference that NUS had made a police report,” she said. “I was horrified. It felt like my autonomy was completely taken away. I’d had a bad experience with the police reporting another sexual assault that happened to me when I was 15.”
Fernando has since issued an apology. “I would like to apologise for the distress these events have caused to those caught up in this situation, and those closest to me. It was never my intention that my actions would affect them, and I am sorry for that.”
He did not respond to VICE World News’ multiple requests for comment.
Students and staff who attended the inaugural town hall in April 2019 following the high-profile case of NUS arts student Monica Baey—who was non-consensually filmed in the shower by an acquaintance—also voiced their frustration and disappointment with the way the procedures were conducted. “A lot of uncertainty remains, especially with regards to the way female students are viewed and treated. Senior leadership needs to address privilege, abuse of authority and the glaring issue of boundaries,” one lecturer said.
Cheryl also said that she was subjected to polygraph tests during the police investigation. “The polygraph examiner told me that [the test] was scientific and ‘didn’t lie,’” she said.
She said she failed the test within 15 minutes. “My breathing was sporadic when they asked me if I was human as a control question. The polygraph examiner said I ‘botched’ the test.”
NUS did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE World News. But in a recent media conference, a spokesperson said they had a “legal obligation” to report cases of sexual misconduct to the authorities, citing Section 424 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which states that anyone aware that a person has committed, or intends to commit, various specified offences should report the matter to the police “in the absence of reasonable excuse.”
The Singapore police did not respond to questions from VICE World News about legal procedures concerning campus abuse, and about the convicted former officer playing an active role in university investigations.
Singapore’s leading gender equality group, AWARE, which actively campaigns to raise awareness about the situation facing student survivors of sexual abuse at Singapore schools, has recommended abolishing lie detector tests in investigations. “Many victim-survivors are expressly concerned about the polygraph test as they fear that negative test results would fuel the police’s doubt in their credibility and weaken their cases,” the group said in a July report.
In a separate document, AWARE said, “A victim’s preference to not file a report should be considered reasonable grounds for exemption from Section 424.”
AWARE has demanded legal clarity on the practice of mandatory reporting for sexual violence cases, though it did not comment specifically on the NUS cases.
“We have asked that the government clarify what constitutes reasonable excuse. For example, it’s not clear if there is a ‘reasonable excuse’ when the victims do not want to report the case. This stems from our understanding that sexual assault survivors often experience a loss of autonomy during their assaults, and that an important part of their recovery journey is regaining a sense of control,” AWARE President Margaret Thomas said in an emailed statement to VICE World News.
NUS has repeatedly defended their handling of sexual violence cases. “NUS takes a strong stand against any form of sexual misconduct, and remains committed to building a culture of respect on our campuses,” the school said in a statement in April.
“The ‘support system’ my school offers to sexual assault victims is working against them.”
However, with the school reporting cases to the police without the survivors’ consent, and with survivors investigated for allegedly leaking information to the press, many female NUS students believe the damage is done.
Some undergraduates said they would think twice before coming forward to report allegations to the school.
“The ‘support system’ my school offers to sexual assault victims is working against them,” Lim Xin Yi, a 20-year-old business undergraduate, told VICE World News. “I would be hesitant to report a sexual assault to my school.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a passage from a report by Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) to the group’s president. The article has also been updated to reflect AWARE’s opinion on polygraphs and mandatory reporting for sexual violence cases in general. We regret the error.