Sexual Misconduct at the IHLs

Published Date: 06 May 2019 12:00 AM

News Parliamentary Replies

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Tin Pei Ling, MacPherson GRC

Question

To ask the Minister for Education what measures are in place to prevent sexual harassment in all school settings and what will be done to enhance student protection.


Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Foo Mee Har, West Coast GRC

Question

To ask the Minister for Education what safeguards and measures are in place at institutes of higher learning to (i) protect students from sexual harassment or misconduct and (ii) support affected victims and facilitate case reporting.


Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, Aljunied GRC

Question

To ask the Minister for Education (a) what measures were put in place to reduce sexual harassment and misconduct in autonomous universities and polytechnics after reports of sexualised harassment during orientation activities in 2016; (b) what steps were taken to review these measures subsequently; (c) what were the shortcomings; (d) what steps have been taken to improve; and (e) what further steps are planned.


Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, Aljunied GRC

Question

To ask the Minister for Education (a) what are the forms of training provided at educational institutions to address sexual harassment and assault cases, including support for victims; (b) what are the measures to support victims; (c) what are the policies pertaining to investigating allegations of sexual harassment and assault; and (d) what are the procedures in place to review the effectiveness of such measures and to propose improvements.


Response

1. Minister Ong addressed questions relating to the disciplinary frameworks in IHLs and the reviews that the IHLs, including the Autonomous Universities (AUs) are undertaking. I will now address the other questions raised in relation to sexual misconduct in educational institutions.

2. Ms Tin Pei Ling asked about the prevention of sexual harassment in school settings. Students’ safety and well-being are our priority. Schools take a firm stand against sexual harassment, and exercise judgement to ensure that disciplinary actions reflect the circumstances of each case. Depending on the facts of the case, a police report may be made.

3. Beyond disciplinary measures, students are taught to identify risks to their personal safety, and learn to seek help from trusted adults such as their parents and teachers. Teachers are trained to look out for signs of distress and provide victims first-line help. Both students and teachers are supported by school counsellors and other external agencies, where required. MOE works with schools regularly to ensure that support measures are relevant and effective.

4. The other areas of concern raised by Ms Foo Mee Har, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap and Mr Leon Perera, and which I will now address, is what support is currently available in IHLs for the victims of sexual offences, and whether it is sufficient, as well as what measures are being taken to ensure a safe environment for all students on campus.

5. In terms of support, the first and most fundamental thing to understand is that sexual misconduct can have a lasting psychological and emotional impact on victims. The sense of violation and fear that victims – female and male – experience is real and can be crippling. For many, the road to recovery can be long and painful. It takes courage for any victim to come forward and report the incident. There must be strong end-to-end support for victims, starting from the time they step forward to report an incident, to post-incident counselling and psychological support.

6. The recent case reported by NUS student Monica Baey shows that insofar as NUS is concerned, there were shortcomings in victim support and there were clearly areas which were lacking. NUS has acknowledged this and has committed to doing better. NUS is serious about improving its frameworks and processes, and has convened a high-level Review Committee to oversee the implementation of various measures by NUS management. One of the immediate steps is the establishment of a Victim Care Unit.

7. The other IHLs are similarly concerned and are in the process of reviewing their support for victims with a focus on ensuring that the support provided is holistic, timely and accessible. For example, some IHLs have in place 24-hour helplines for incident reporting or counselling services. These ensure that victims or any distressed students receive timely support, even if they come forward outside regular office hours.

8. As the IHLs do their reviews, there are three broad areas of focus.

9. First, support for victims. All the IHLs have full-time counsellors on site to support victims, as well as a larger group of staff who are trained as para-counsellors to provide additional support. Counsellors are also trained in managing such difficult situations sensitively.

10. Our IHLs will look to strengthen these provisions, taking the victim’s entire journey in mind. The support must extend beyond counselling, and begin at the point that the victim first reaches out for help. We should also ensure victims feel safe, to step forward and report cases when they occur and seek help.

11. A good support system must create psychological safety for victims, guide them through the processes and protocols involved in the management of their case, update them on investigations and ensure that their concerns and questions are addressed along the entire journey. All this must be done sensitively and with empathy.

12. We also need to recognise that individuals have different resilience and coping levels, and that some of the trauma and stress might not manifest immediately. For more severe cases, such as sexual assault, our IHLs will need to be equipped to make judgement calls about the victims’ emotional state, and quickly call for external professional help where needed. These are important details that will have to be worked out carefully.

13. Second, campus security to deter would-be offenders. Currently, CCTVs complement campus security guards to ensure security in common areas, and some institutions take the additional precautionary measure of having controlled access to female bathrooms and toilets.

14. More will be done. Over this past week, NUS started installing full- height doors and partitions in the restrooms of all its hostels and sports facilities, as well as new locks at the entrances of hostel restrooms. Additional CCTV cameras are being installed at more locations on campus. NUS will deploy more security guards at its hostels, and introduce roving security patrols across campus. These changes will further strengthen privacy and security on campus.

15. NUS expects to complete these enhancements in the coming months. As part of their overall review of campus security, the IHLs will take steps to address new forms of threats, such as the illegal installation of miniature cameras. For example, SUSS is collaborating with SPF to train its security staff to inspect toilet cubicles or ceilings for such cameras.

16. Third, ensuring a collective stand against sexual misconduct in a modern age.

17. At its core, the issue is about respect for others. There are some who mistakenly think that voyeurism and verbal harassment are not serious because there was no physical contact with the victims. This is very simply, wrong. Voyeurism and other unwanted non-physical harassment exact psychological and emotional harm on victims, and similar to other types of sexual misconduct, have no place in our society. Perpetrators are no less culpable just because they did not come into physical contact with their victims.

18. We can and therefore must do better to educate students not only on the importance of respect, but also what constitutes harm and violation. The IHLs are committed to this, and will be taking steps to strengthen such education. For instance, NUS will be introducing a course on respect and consent at the start of the new academic year, for all students, faculty and staff.

19. Technology has also amplified the potential for harm arising from sexual misconduct. Take voyeurism for example. With image capturing devices becoming ubiquitous, especially on mobile phones, such crimes are no longer contained between the victim and perpetrator, and the potential for mass dissemination is much higher. We are updating the Penal Code to deal with technology-enabled sex crimes. Institutional processes must likewise keep up with the times.

20. Institutions and organisations must also recognise that expectations of how they should respond are changing, not just in Singapore but globally. The “me too” movement is an example. As societal norms and expectations change, all organisations need to keep up with the times, send clear signals that sexual misconduct is unacceptable, and equip themselves to deal with sexual misconduct complaints appropriately, should they arise.

21. At the end of the day, the best deterrent and protection in such cases is if we respect others, both in the physical and emotional space, and conduct ourselves accordingly.

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