Singapore Unis Stopped COVID. Students Say the Real Epidemic Is Sex Abuse.

“Our universities have shown they are willing to go all out to fight the virus. Why won’t they do the same with sexual harassment and abuse cases?”
January 22, 2021, 4:51am
Singapore college students say there's an epidemic of sex abuse.
Stock image via CANVA

Calista Primalia, a history and arts student from Jakarta, recalled her excitement when she secured a coveted spot on a three-month student exchange at a renowned Singapore university in 2018. 

Growing up in Indonesia, Primalia always heard great things about Singapore’s world-class education system. “Singapore has some of the best schools in the world and studying at a local university would not only look good on my record, I would stand to gain a lot from its richer and diverse academic environment.”

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But the 24-year-old soon saw a darker side. She received countless text messages from peers residing on campus sharing cautionary tales of indecent exposure and molestation by male students, also warning her against leaving her underwear unguarded in hostel rooms. “I was in Singapore, one of the safest countries in the world. Why was I made to feel targeted? It didn’t make any sense at all.”

“I was in Singapore, one of the safest countries in the world. Why was I being made to feel targeted? It didn’t make any sense at all.”

The NUS campus in Singapore.

The NUS campus in Singapore. PHOTO: AFP / CATHERINE LAI

Singapore’s major universities have shown that they aren’t taking any risks when it comes to the coronavirus, enforcing tough penalties and strict measures that have so far prevented any infections on campuses.

But in the eyes of students, there was an epidemic of a different kind stalking classrooms, dormitories and campuses: sexual violence, harassment and misconduct.

“There may be a pandemic going on but I can see why many students still feel that the real threat on campus is sexual harassment, not COVID-19,” said a staff member from the prestigious National University of Singapore (NUS), who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion.

The university’s COVID-19 efforts were hailed in an article by the New York Times this month. But the report touched a nerve among students who felt that schools were getting a pass on other serious issues. 

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“The real epidemic at Singaporean universities is sexual harassment not COVID,” one female student wrote in response to the article. 

“This is not a joke—multiple sexual harassment cases [have been committed] at Singaporean universities, from the students to the professors. Punishments are lenient if you have good grades,” another said. 

VICE World News spoke with students, graduates, professors and staff from NUS as well as Singapore’s other major universities, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU), as well as leading women’s rights groups and campus advocates. 

Multiple female students also came forward to share their personal experiences on campus, raising fears and concerns about their personal safety since the start of the pandemic, which has left countless women across the world feeling vulnerable against violence and exposed to new dangers. 

During her time in Singapore, Calista Primalia recalled the account of a female classmate who had confided in her after a weekly tutorial session. 

“She told me that a male classmate had brushed against her during class and later touched her thigh. She tried reporting it to her tutor but was told to handle the problem herself,” Primalia said.

“It was infuriating. It made me sick.” 

Nurul Asyikin, a final year student majoring in public policy at NTU, said she avoided living on campus because of such incidents. She has close friends who have also dealt with sexual harassment.

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“Campus should be a safe environment for all but we’ve probably seen more harassment cases than COVID-19 numbers over the past year,” the 23-year-old told VICE World News.  

Constantly hearing about these incidents being committed has left Nurul feeling “incredibly disheartened.”

“Our universities have shown that they are willing to utilize cutting edge technology to curb cases of the virus. There have also been plenty of solid measures and steps that were implemented straight away,” she said. 

“So why won’t they do the same to address issues like sexual harassment and student safety, which have been playing out for so much longer?” 

The damaging consequences of sexual abuse and harassment are wide-reaching and well-known. Experts said that the core of the problem was the abuse of power, often emboldened by an ingrained culture of toxic masculinity and impunity—which could impact anyone.

NUS, Singapore’s oldest and most prestigious higher-learning institute, is ranked among the best universities in the world and regularly tops global academic rankings for its law and medicine programs. The school has even attracted top names like Duke and Yale to set up international campuses. 

Daryl Yang, a recent NUS law graduate, said that reports of sexual harassment, assault and violence were prevalent during his years on campus. He also highlighted the alarming sense of fatigue that was felt by many students.

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“When we talk about physical illnesses like the coronavirus, no one questions the need for prevention and cure. But when it comes to issues like mental health and sex-related crimes, they just aren’t taken as seriously,” Yang said.

“These are public health issues too and universities have to realize their role in keeping students safe from all threats.” 

The school’s stellar reputation took a dive after a sharp spike in sexual misconduct and crimes in recent years. The cases, many of which occurred on campus between 2016 and 2020, often receive a large amount of media attention. But Yang noted that only a small handful of crimes get reported, with many dropped due to tedious investigation processes and reluctance by victims to go public for fear of discrimination and stigma. 

“Sexualized” freshman orientation activities, ranging from answering inappropriate personal questions to re-enacting rape scenes, made national headlines in 2016 and prompted disciplinary action from the school’s governing board. Numerous reports of sexual misconduct by male professors and campus voyeurs also emerged in recent years, several of whom were caught filming upskirt videos of female students in their dormitories. 

But it was the story of a 23-year-old arts undergraduate in 2018 that would spark a national debate around campus sex crimes and prompt months of soul-searching. 

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Singaporean Monica Baey became the first student survivor to break her silence and publicly step forward to share her traumatic encounter with a male peeping Tom, who filmed her taking a shower in her dormitory bathroom.  

Baey hunted down her perpetrator, who turned out to be a mutual acquaintance, and later approached the school authorities only to be turned away. 

The lack of communication and support on the university’s part left her with no choice but to turn to the police. She also took to social media to share her account, which resonated with thousands of other students and went viral. 

“What happened to Monica Baey was only one part of a larger, more toxic issue that has plagued NUS for years,” Daryl Yang said. 

“Her account drew strong support from the student community and was also aided by global women’s rights movements like MeToo and Time’s Up.” 

Following immense pressure from students and staff and a wave of public backlash, NUS held an emergency town hall meeting in April 2019 to address the episode concerning Baey. The school apologized, admitted they had failed Baey, and gave a strong assurance it would improve campus security and adopt tougher stands against sexual misconduct. 

It has since set up a special victims care unit and conducted its first-ever report on sexual misconduct, looking at complaints made over the past five years. The investigation found an alarming trend of cases, with a fifth involving NUS faculty members, and revealed that 25 reports were lodged in 2019, making it the highest caseload in years.  

But students and staff who attended the inaugural town hall voiced their frustration and disappointment with the way the meeting was conducted. “Their answers were woefully inadequate and as the meeting went on, it became more and more apparent that the committee wasn’t listening to our views or taking them seriously,” one student told the Straits Times

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Students, past and present, have acknowledged efforts by their universities to deter sex-related crimes and offenses, but also said that staff simply did not know what to do in such situations. “The focus has been on punishment because of the belief that it will create deterrence, but that hasn’t been effective seeing as how offenses have been allowed to accumulate over the years,” the NUS staffer said, adding that there still wasn’t adequate and proper support for victims. 

“The focus has been on punishment because of the belief that it will create deterrence - but that hasn’t been effective seeing as how offenses have been allowed to accumulate over the years.”

“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.” 

What happened to Baey, however, seemed to have little effect.

In July 2020, a 23-year-old male dentistry student from NUS drew public backlash and fury after escaping harsh punishment for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Yin Zi Qin choked the young woman and drove his fingers into her eye sockets until she reportedly lost consciousness. Despite pleading guilty in court, Yin was let off with a temporary suspension from school, followed by two weeks in prison and an official court order to complete 80 hours of community service. 

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Judge Marvin Bay, who delivered the verdict, ruled that he was “satisfied” Yin would not re-offend and noted the dentistry student’s “high academic potential.” 

NUS later addressed the uproar and said that it did not have the jurisdiction to investigate matters beyond the university, noting that the incident “occurred off-campus.” 

Many students and public observers said Yin’s sentence was too light a punishment for such a violent act committed against a young woman.

Professors and staff from other Singaporean universities said they understood the resentment felt by students.

“Things have been improving but there is still concern that recent changes addressing and handling sexual harassment cases may not be enough,” said Eugene Tan, an associate law professor from SMU.

“Our institutions have to raise their game. Clamping down on inappropriate conduct is not enough if societal attitudes towards women continue to be sexist, patriarchal and misogynistic. Mind-set changes are needed but that will take significant time and effort.” 

Singapore is known for its tough governance and strict approach to law and order. But with fewer people on campus as a result of the ongoing pandemic, many students feel that previous measures put in place to deter sexual offenses and crime, have been put on hold as lectures and classes moved online for the foreseeable future. 

Though COVID-19 and sexual abuse are considered two distinct threats, women’s rights organizations reiterated the call for personal safety and stressed the need to keep up the work on prevention even during the pandemic. 

“Campus sexual violence certainly remains a very pressing concern as new cases continue to come to light and survivors seek support,” said Shailey Hingorani, research and advocacy head at AWARE, Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group.

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“As ever, we urge our universities and the Singapore government to take sexual violence seriously.” 

VICE World News contacted NUS, SMU and NTU for comment on the issues raised in this article.

NTU and SMU did not respond as of Friday morning despite multiple requests for comment. NUS did not directly address a series of emailed questions. Instead, it defaulted to a previous public statement made by its president Tan Eng Chye on Dec. 17, 2020, who highlighted the school’s “holistic approach” in tackling the culture of sexual misconduct.

“The sad truth is that no matter how hard we try, sexual misconduct cannot be completely eradicated. Yet, we must be unrelenting in our desire and effort to tackle the issue head-on,” Tan wrote. 

“The university takes a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual misconduct. We have instituted strict policies and regulations to tackle such misconduct. Enforcement will be swift, firm and unwavering.” 

Not all on campus, however, felt the same.

Students For A Safer NUS, a group dedicated to raising awareness about issues like student distress and safety, said that “there was still much work to be done” to support survivors in times of the virus. 

“Sexual violence is an issue that requires systemic responses from institutions and society at large. While NUS has certainly made progress towards transparency and amped up security and punitive measures in the past few months, admittedly due to backlash from students and the public, we are still not seeing better and more comprehensive curriculums that address issues like consent, boundaries, and professional relationships,” it said in an emailed response to VICE World News.

“As students who have to deal with [new challenges like] online learning now, we are concerned about the increasing prevalence of digital sexual violence in a time where online platforms are more ubiquitous than ever.” 

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