Singapore’s best university accused of mismanaging sexual abuse cases

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Threats of doxxing, intimidation and inappropriate questions from their school – this is what students at a major Singapore university say they had to endure after filing complaints of sexual abuse, harassment and misconduct on campus.

Ava, a 20-year-old engineering student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), was caught on camera without consent having sex with a student leader late last year. Outraged and injured, Ava reported the male assailant to the school’s discipline committee and was asked to attend a closed-door hearing with staff members.

“When I heard from a mutual friend that he had done something similar to someone else, there was no doubt,” Ava said. “I had to report it. She requested the use of a pseudonym for fear of reprisal for speaking out as an active student at the school.

Ava said she had been assured by university officials that she was in “a safe environment” to talk about the abuse. But instead, she was surprised to be asked invasive questions about her privacy and the use of dating apps, which left her uncomfortable, scared and confused. “I couldn’t see how dating apps and my love life affected the affair at all,” Ava said.

The student was ultimately expelled, in February, after the school investigated Ava’s allegations and a separate allegation that he also abused another female student. But things for Ava would soon get worse.

“I was in shock when I was told there would be an investigation into me.”

After local media reported In the case, Ava found herself the subject of a “data breach investigation.” She was questioned by a school investigator about “disclosing private information” to the media, a claim she denied.

“I was in shock when I was told there would be an investigation into me,” Ava said. ” I panicked. I started to worry. I don’t know what I did wrong.

Ava was grilled by female investigator, Kalaivani Kalimuthu, a former police officer who had previously been convicted and jailed to falsify statements to suggest that an alleged assault victim was not afraid of being touched.

When asked about the decision to hire the disgraced ex-officer recently, the university acknowledged “concerns about a staff member’s background” and said it had reassigned the person.

Kalimuthu has since quit his 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” that she would be charged with doxxing and harassment. “Kalaivani told me that she ‘already knows everything’ and said I had to tell the truth,” Ava said. “She also told me that my attacker had been through a lot after the case came to light in the media.”

“My case was being used against me. I felt isolated and scared.

Often ranked among the best universities in the world, NUS is Singapore’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institution. The school regularly tops world university rankings for its law and medical programs and has even partnered with big names like Duke and Yale to create international campuses.

But a slew of high-profile sexual assault and sexual harassment cases have damaged his reputation. According to NUS’s first report of sexual misconduct, between 2016 and 2020, there were 90 registered complaints of sexual abuse committed by male students and the staff against women on campus. Reported cases peaked in 2019 with 25 complaints, nearly double the number in 2018.

In recent months, school officials have repeatedly reassured students and the public that they will step up measures against sexual abuse and harassment in light of the episodes and take a “more holistic approach” to supporting children. survivors. In an internal email Released last December, the school president, Tan Eng Chye, outlined the measures, which included training staff and strengthening the process for reporting sexual misconduct. A “victim care unit” was then established on campus to support surviving students and provide resources to NUS staff.

Singapore Police confirmed at Straits Times newspaper that reports had been filed regarding Ava’s case and that investigations into the allegations of sexual abuse were underway. But Ava was not the only one facing obstacles and repercussions for exposing the school and flaws in handling allegations of misconduct.

Cheryl, a recent NUS graduate, told VICE World News about an equally traumatic experience with her former teacher Jeremy Fernando, who was fired in October last year after an internal NUS investigation found that ‘he had “an intimate association with an undergraduate student”.

Cheryl said Fernando 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 undergraduate woman said to Straits Time that Fernando had given her oral sex without her consent and had made unwanted advances.

Cheryl described a baffling process of reporting sexual assault to the NUS. After emailing the school board, she was referred to the newly established victim care unit and asked to file a formal complaint on the student portal. But she found that due to a technical glitch, there was no option to report crimes through 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 encountered the same issues with the student reporting portal.

Records of emails 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 was not available in three campus faculties during test connections: School of Design and Environment, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Faculty of Engineering.

These three faculties represent more than 40 percent of all students enrolled at NUS.

Cheryl was eventually able to press charges against Fernando, and a meeting was arranged between her and members of the campus security staff 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 seemed like endless silence from the university.

When the school finally released a statement about Fernando’s dismissal, it failed to say that the dismissal was based on allegations of 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 learned at the press conference that NUS had made a police report,” she said. “I was horrified. I had the impression that my autonomy was completely taken away. I had had a bad experience with the police reporting another sexual assault that happened to me when I was 15.

Fernando has since published excuses. “I want to apologize for the distress these events have caused to those caught up in this situation and to my loved ones. I never intended for my actions to affect them, and I’m sorry for that.

He did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE World News.

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 expressed frustration and disappointment with the way the proceedings were conducted. “Many uncertainties remain, especially with regard to the way in which female students are perceived and treated. Senior management must tackle privilege, abuse of power and the glaring problem of limits, said a speaker.

Cheryl also said 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 matter of control. The polygraph examiner said I “botched” the test.

NUS did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE World News. But at a recent press conference, a spokesperson said they had a “Legal obligation” to report cases of sexual misconduct to authorities, citing article 424 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that anyone who knows that a person has committed, or intends to commit, various specified offenses must report the matter to the police “in the absence of reasonable excuse ”.

Singapore police did not respond to VICE World News’ questions about legal procedures for abuse on campus and on campus. former convicted officer play an active role in university surveys.

Singapore’s leading gender equality group, AWARE, which actively campaigns to raise awareness of the plight of student survivors of sexual abuse in Singapore schools, has condemned current NUS practices. “Many victim-survivors are expressly concerned about the polygraph test because they fear that negative test results will fuel police doubts about their credibility and weaken their cases,” AWARE President Margaret Thomas said in a statement. statement sent by email to VICE World News. “A victim’s preference not to file a report should be considered a reasonable ground for exemption from section 424”.

NUS has repeatedly defended its handling of cases of sexual violence. “The NUS takes a strong stand against all forms 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 victims of sexual assault works against them.

However, with the school reporting cases to police without survivors’ consent, and with survivors being investigated for allegedly leaking information to the press, many NUS students believe the damage is done. .

Some undergraduates said they would think twice before reporting allegations to the school.

“My school’s ‘support system’ for victims of sexual assault works against them,” Lim Xin Yi, a 20-year-old business student, told VICE World News. “I would hesitate to report a sexual assault to my school. “

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