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Expulsion not the default, but universities must strengthen punishment for serious offences: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE -— Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has called on Singapore's universities to strengthen their penalty frameworks against serious offences committed on campus, and to recognise that voyeurism is a “growing concern” in Singapore.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that while the balance between punishment and rehabilitation is important, educational institutions should not dispense penalties that “have too soft a bite”.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that while the balance between punishment and rehabilitation is important, educational institutions should not dispense penalties that “have too soft a bite”.

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SINGAPORE -— Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has called on Singapore's universities to strengthen their penalty frameworks against serious offences committed on campus, and to recognise that voyeurism is a “growing concern” in Singapore.

The issue was debated extensively in Parliament on Monday (May 6) in the wake of a public outcry in the past fortnight over a peeping tom who filmed National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Monica Baey showering. The perpetrator Nicholas Lim was suspended for a semester, sparking widespread anger over the leniency of the penalty.

Mr Ong said in Parliament that expulsion should not be the default penalty for all forms of misconduct. But he said there has to be "a significant adjustment at the most egregious end of the spectrum of misconducts when they are serious criminal offences that undermine the safety and security of university campuses”.

“We must ensure that potential offenders know the severe consequences of their actions, including the impact on their future. There has to be a deterrent,” Mr Ong said.

He was responding to questions from several Members of Parliament (MPs) who raised concerns about the adequacy of disciplinary actions in deterring potential sexual offenders in universities.

Mr Ong reiterated the point he first made on April 22 that “two strikes and you’re out cannot be the standard application”. He said then that the NUS penalties were “manifestly inadequate”.  In responding to the outcry over Ms Baey’s case, NUS said it had a “two strikes and you’re out” approach to cases of sexual misconduct. This is now under review.

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Mr Ong said that while the balance between punishment and rehabilitation is important, educational institutions should not dispense penalties that “have too soft a bite”.

But he said: “If the offender is remorseful, accepted and served punishment, he deserves a chance to make good.”

MP Cheryl Chan (Fengshan) asked if the universities and the ministry would have taken action had the incident not been publicised online and gained traction, and sparked wider media coverage.

“Should we have done this earlier? I wish we had,” Mr Ong replied. “But this incident has taught us that there is a stronger concern and some underlying trend”, and that penalties for egregious offences must be stiffer.

VOYEURISM A GROWING CONCERN

As all the universities here review their disciplinary framework, they should look into addressing the “growing concern” of voyeurism in Singapore, Mr Ong added.

Some young Singaporeans do not view voyeurism as a serious offence, but “they cannot be more wrong”, he said.

This is as the young today are more exposed to pornographic websites, know of miniature photography and recording devices, and sometimes get a hold of such voyeuristic films on chat platforms like WhatsApp, he noted, citing a Big Read article published by TODAY.

“Over time, they might get the idea that (voyeurism) is no big deal,” he said, stressing that this mindset “cannot be more wrong”.

“As our circumstances change, the autonomous universities must likewise keep up with the times and ensure that their policies and processes remain relevant in establishing a safe and supportive environment for all students,” he added.

NUS has already begun taking immediate action to improve campus security and support systems. Its review committee on sexual misconduct has also had its first meeting on April 30 and has begun preparing its recommendations.

“I know many students are not excited by committees, but this is a necessary process to bring about a considered change to an established disciplinary framework,” Mr Ong said.

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Nominated MP Walter Theseira asked for the ministry to lead a coordinated approach across autonomous universities, saying that differences in punishment standards across universities might lead to “a sense of injustice”.

Associate Professor Theseira also raised concerns that the disciplinary committees of the universities do not have the expertise to fact find or adjudicate in the same way as the police or the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).

Mr Ong replied that he would not describe the differing actions taken by the various universities as inconsistent, as different companies also have different disciplinary actions. The disciplinary committees will also have the ability to draw on enforcement or legal advice.

“After all, it’s a university (with) lots of different talent with different expertise. I think we need to give them some time, some space, to get their work done.”

A STRONG SENSE OF JUSTICE

Mr Ong said the strong reactions to Ms Baey’s case had shown that Singaporeans have a “strong sense of justice”, and that he is “proud” of these characteristics of society.

Regardless, he called for people to “refrain from trial by media, doxxing and resorting to mob justice” and to respect the due process.

Ms Baey had said herself that she sought not to seek revenge but to ensure fairness for both the perpetrator and victim, and that people should give Mr Lim and his family the time and space to reflect on his actions, turn over a new leaf and move forward, he added.

“The most important priority now is for the autonomous universities to see how they can do better, and take concrete steps to improve campus safety and their victim support frameworks and processes.”

Responding to a suggestion by NMP Anthea Ong on whether codes and standards of behaviour could be put in place to prevent sexual harassment on campus, Second Education Minister Indranee Rajah said universities should not need to resort to written rules for a person to know that taking a video of somebody else bathing is wrong.

“It is not rocket science. It just needs certain fundamental values, which is that we must respect other people — respect their privacy, their physical space, their emotional space,” she said.

“Fundamentally, it boils down to values.”

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NO “FREE PASS” FOR UNIVERSITY STUDENTS

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam dealt with separate questions from MPs on the prosecutorial discretion of the AGC and the general approach taken by the police and the AGC in cases of sexual misconduct.

Past cases of sexual misconduct reported to the police were “prosecuted depending on the facts”, and there are no “free passes” to university students, he told Parliament.

Other offenders had been let off with conditional warnings, he said.

The police look at how similar cases have been handled in the past to ensure consistency and fairness, the minister added. They also consider other factors such as the offender’s level of remorse, whether the offender owned up voluntarily, as well as the likelihood of reform and re-offending.

The circumstances of the victim, the impact of the offence on the victim, and the need for deterrence will also be considered, he added.

If the offender shows signs of pre-meditation or trying to evade detection, is uncooperative in investigations or circulates the video that was taken illegally, “there would (generally) be no reason for police to show any leniency”, he said.

In response to Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah’s question about the efficacy of conditional warnings, Mr Shanmugam said that the warnings have been “an effective deterrent for offenders who have had good propensity to reform”.

In the case of Ms Baey, he explained that if Mr Lim re-offends within his 12-month conditional warning period, he will be charged with the offence relating to Ms Baey and the new offence.

“Mr Lim is on thin ice with his conditional warning,” he added. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY WONG PEITING

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