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How The NUS Voyeurism Incident Brought Social Issues To Light

You would have definitely heard of the voyeurism case that happened at the National University of Singapore (NUS) by now, but here’s why this case speaks to the masses.

What happened

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In case you’ve missed it, on Friday, 19 April 2019, third-year NUS student Monica Baey revealed on her Instagram story that a fellow student – Nicholas Lim – filmed her while she was showering in the Eusoff Hall toilet last November. In the stories that followed, she explains how – despite the irrefutable evidence against her perpetrator – Nicholas got away with a 12-month conditional police warning, compulsory apology letter and a short-term suspension.

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She calls out NUS for their leniency towards a case of sexual misconduct, and how she has developed a fear for visiting the toilet alone because of the incident. Even more so as the perpetrator was someone she knew – her friend’s boyfriend. Her string of Instagram Stories has since gone viral, garnering attention from local netizens and several media outlets.

This incident has since shone light on several social issues in Singapore.

Universities’ nonchalance towards sexual misconduct

The voyeurism incident at NUS sparked heated discussions among Singaporeans, with many calling for harsher punishments for the perpetrator. The punishment given to Nicholas only serves as a weak precedent to future cases – this has proven true as Nanyang Technical University (NTU) has since dealt with three voyeurism cases.

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NTU – which claimed to have a precedent of sexual harassment cases leading to expulsion – handled these cases better than NUS did. In the voyeurism case that happened on the night of 17 April 2019, an NTU officer accompanied the victim to the police station to make her complaint the following morning. In addition, NTU’s student life team had also sent an e-newsletter to students the day after the victim made her police report, to remind them of the university’s zero-tolerance policy.

However, the effectiveness of their methods is questionable as there had already been three voyeurism cases in just three weeks. Furthermore, their most recent case was not reported to the police and was made known to the media through a WhatsApp message circulating among students.

NUS’ town hall meeting

Back at NUS, the internet frenzy over Monica’s injustice prompted the institution to hold a town hall meeting on 25 April 2019. Additionally, NUS announced that it would convene a committee to review its disciplinary and support frameworks. What students hoped was a start to changes in the university’s disciplinary framework turned out to be a failed attempt at building trust with the student body.

Representing the university at the town hall meeting were Professor Florence Ling, vice-provost for student life; Associate Professor Peter Pang, dean of students; and Ms Celestine Chua from the University Counselling Services.

At the start of the town hall meeting – which saw over 500 students attending – Professor Ling apologised to Monica for the insufficient support that had been rendered by the university and added that a unit for victim care would be established. It seemed like it was off to a good start, and many students were hopeful that the panellists would share detailed strategies or plans with regard to sexual offences in the campus.

However, as the town hall meeting went on, it became more apparent that the panel was not listening to the students’ views – some even felt that their input was not taken seriously. Furthermore, the panel deferred issues raised to the review committee – which has yet to be set up – several times during the meeting, leaving many student attendees frustrated.

An hour and a half later, the town hall meeting ended with no sign of progress. Students complained that they were not given enough time to voice their views and that the panel failed to address their concerns directly. When someone from the floor requested for a 30-minute extension, the panel rejected the notion and claimed that they had another meeting to attend right after.

Attendees of the town hall meeting took their frustrations to Twitter. One student tweeted that the panel repeatedly mentioned that they needed advice from the students. “Why is the responsibility on us when this is (their) job?”, said the Political Science student on twitter.

Another student that the panel “came completely unprepared” and it felt like they were “merely fulfilling their public relations duties”.

SPF’s incomprehensible rationale in punishing sexual offenders

On Tuesday, 23 April 2019, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) released a statement addressing some of the questions posed by the public regarding their displeasure with the punishment given to Nicholas.

SPF explained that Nicholas only received a 12-month conditional warning as he had a high chance of being rehabilitated and displayed remorse. Furthermore, Nicholas did not have other “obscene materials in any of his devices”. The SPF conceded that a prosecution – which may lead to a jail sentence – will “likely ruin his entire future, with a permanent criminal record” and hence, decided to let Nicholas off with a conditional warning. This means that if Nicholas were to commit another crime within the next 12 months, he will be criminally prosecuted for both offences.

However, netizens have rebutted that Nicholas was fully aware of his actions as there was CCTV footage of him attempting to enter different toilets prior to taking a video of Monica in the shower. Furthermore, Nicholas had also allegedly later told Monica that this was his first time carrying out such an act, and that he was tempted to film someone because of the genre of pornography he consumed – voyeurism.

This sentiment is shared with fellow NUS students as well. (Nicholas) isn’t a minor anymore so he should be able to judge what’s right or wrong,” said Mabel Chen, a first-year student at NUS. “He (shouldn’t) get leeway like those kids below 18 do.”

Here’s what Singapore’s lawyers think

In an article by Straits Times, criminal lawyers have expressed their confusion and displeasure towards the outcome of the incident, given that perpetrators in previous cases had been charged. “A first-time offender for Section 509 Penal Code offence should generally be looking at a sentence of two to four weeks in jail per charge,” said Mr Josephus Tan, founder of Invictus Law Corporation. “This NUS case seems unusual as he was let off with a conditional stern warning without going through the judicial process at the first instance. A conditional stern warning is seen as a slap on the wrist in our criminal justice system.”

However, Lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam commented that the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) are not required to provide an explanation for their decision. “Unlike other jurisdictions, (the AGC) do not publish guidelines as to how they exercise their discretion.”

The internet’s role as a double-edged sword

Thanks to netizens pushing for universities to do more, other local universities such as NTU and Singapore Management University (SMU), have stepped up their game to better protect students from sexual misconduct and harassment on campus.

For instance, NTU has implemented an online module on anti-harassment, which will be introduced to all freshmen and student organisers of orientation programmes in July when the academic year starts. Meanwhile, SMU is said to offer additional administrative support – such as re-scheduling of classes and other arrangements of the like – to ensure that affected students will be able to continue with their studies in a conducive environment.

Concerns over the increasing problem of voyeurism have also prompted law changes to the Penal Code, which were debated upon in Parliament on 6 May 2019. Under the proposed changes, the non-consensual observation or recording of someone doing a private act will become a specific offence by itself. Should the changes be passed, the maximum jail term for crimes such as voyeurism will be doubled to two years, and caning will also be introduced.

This change is also owing to recent news articles on voyeurism in Autonomous Universities (AUs) in Singapore – the six AUs in Singapore have handled a total of 56 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct by their students in the last three academic years.

Online bullying

On the flipside, netizens have been excessively harassing Nicholas, who has now made his Instagram account private, and replaced his profile picture with the words “I’m so sorry. I make mistakes. Please forgive me.”

Monica Baey spoke up once again, calling for the online harassment against her perpetrator to stop. “I genuinely hope that (Nicholas) is receiving proper support he needs to rehabilitate, and the unnecessary online harassment toward him and his loved ones will stop.”

When asked if the NUS administration should reopen the case, first-year student Mabel said that they should have delivered a harsher punishment from the start, but that it’s too late either way. “Now (Nicholas has) got it even worse… A lifetime of social humiliation and pressure is a lot worse than having a criminal record where only (his) employers would know about.”

Society’s mentality of shifting focus to the victim

Unfortunately, there are also some who accuse Monica of seeking attention. However, in Monica’s case, attention was needed; not for cultivating a herd mentality towards sexual harassment, but to bring to light a dire issue – NUS’ flaws in their system. From the start, Monica had made it clear that she only had two objectives: to reopen her case against Nicholas Lim, and for NUS to revise its measures against sexual misconduct.

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It’s upsetting that the victim blaming towards Monica – or the voyeurism cases for that matter – happens hot in the heels of the #DontTellMeHowToDress (#DTMHTD) exhibition that was held at NomadX, Plaza Singapura. The #DTMHTD exhibition, which was held from 28 March to 21 April 2019, called attention to gender-based violence. It also showcased survivors’ recounts, in the hopes of bringing an end to victim blaming. Given the recent string of events, it’s safe to say it did not quite work out as planned in Singapore.

But perhaps it’s not that we consciously do so. Our judgement is impaired by what we see or do in our daily life, resulting in us looking away from the perpetrator and focusing on the victims instead.

A great example is the molestation poster by the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC). Most of us would have definitely seen this poster before at the MRT stations and in the trains as well. It shows a man about to molest a woman, with the text “If you get molested, call the Police.” While the intention of the poster may be to urge victims to speak up, the call for action seems like a no-brainer response – if the victim was going to take action, calling the Police is the only option she has.

To make matters worse, the poster includes the subtexts “Avoid walking through secluded areas alone” and “Have someone escort you home when it’s late”. These subtexts make it seem like it becomes the victim’s fault if she does not follow those precautions – the poster is already suggesting that the victim may have part of the blame even before the crime occurs.

Yet, we see the poster one too many times during our commute and it ingrains that perception in our minds, unbeknownst to ourselves. It is subtleties like the NCPC poster that has led to making the unthinkable possible – an “exclusive interview” feature with Nicholas Lim, the perpetrator, on Straits Times.

The nonchalance and lack of concern towards needs to change – people need to start showing empathy towards victims of sexual offences. The only time a victim should be the centre of focus is to support them through their ordeal.

Photos by Soloman Soh of the DANAMIC Team. Other Visuals courtesy of Monica Baey and Firefly Photography.

Deepa d/o Chevi Vadivelu

Animal and music lover, bookworm and movie enthusiast. #blackismyhappycolour

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