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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Right that NUS po mata

The National University of Singapore did the right thing to file a police report on supposed sexual offences committed against two of its female students. I don’t know what the technicalities are – whether it is being filed on their behalf or if it was simply to say that it thinks a crime has been committed. Probably not the former, since the two students are insistent on protecting their privacy, refusing to be named or to give their ages while speaking to the media. 

Let me first declare my interest as a university staff member and as someone who knows Dr Jeremy Fernando from a stint I did at Tembusu College where he worked before he got fired. I will try as best as I can to be clinical about what I have to say. 

I was shocked when I read the ST headline which said that he had been sacked because of accusations of “sexual misconduct’’. I wouldn’t have thought him capable of it. I don’t know about you, but my idea of sexual misconduct amounts to more than just “inappropriate behaviour’’ by a teacher or even sexual harassment.

TODAY’s headline was more prosaic, based on the NUS spokesman’s words: NUS Tembusu College lecturer sacked following 2 complaints of inappropriate behaviour.

I wondered if ST had “hardened” the headline since all the spokesman said was: “An internal investigation was carried out and Dr Fernando’s conduct was found to have fallen short of the standards of professionalism that the university expects of a teaching staff. Based on the findings of the internal investigation, Dr Fernando, a non-residential teaching staff, was dismissed by the university.”

You would think there was no “sex” involved, but something else. Even if “sex” was involved, from what the spokesman said, it seemed more innocuous (?) like being in close physical contact during class or trying to date a student. Or he might have written emails that are far too friendly for comfort.

These are all assumptions and speculation, because the university didn’t give details. In any case, such fraternisation is frowned upon and a misbehaving staff member who violates the university’s code of conduct can expect to be hauled up for disciplinary measures and even sacked. It is an internal matter, and I’m pretty sure many big companies have similar policies as well with regards to superior-subordinate relationships or sexual harassment allegations.

Imagine my even bigger surprise when I went on to read the students’ accounts of what happened in the ST, which was why the headline was the way it was. This wasn’t a case of a too-friendly teacher putting an arm around a student or whispering sweet nothings to her, it smacked of sexual assault. It was blatant, intentional and absolutely horrible. 

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So there’s a wide gulf between the NUS statement and what the students said happened to them. What gives? Is NUS playing it down or are the students playing it up? It’s a legitimate question especially since a man is now been accused of being a sexual predator – and not just a teacher who “forgot himself’’ when he was among female students. 

Sexual assaults demean a woman in the worst way possible. I get angry when I see misogynists asking why women would want to put themselves in a vulnerable position by getting drunk in male company. It is as bad as saying that a woman deserved to be raped because she dressed provocatively. In fact, when students are in the company of a teacher, they should expect to be taken care of, not taken advantage of. 

To hear the two students say it, the opposite happened. The two women did not want to file a police report, and we have no clue what they said to the university authorities. Did they report it in the same way that they told the media? If they did, why did  NUS pussyfoot around with weasley words like “inappropriate behaviour”? Was this to protect the two students, to protect the  teacher or to protect the reputation of the university, which hasn’t had good press lately? 

I can only surmise that the university authorities didn’t realise that the students would say so much to the media. Or maybe they thought that the two would put a lid on it, even though in these social media days, nothing can be kept private for very long. Someone knows or thinks he/she knows and the internet will be on fire. 

Then comes the second point about making a police report. Plenty of people have weighed in about whether the two girls should have done so and bring the man to justice. To many, a police report would nail down somewhat the veracity of the accusations as making a false police report is an offence. Also, given the public allegations, Dr Fernando seems to have got off quite lightly with a sacking. 

Legal types have said that no investigation can be done if no police report has been filed. There is the opposite approach: if the allegations are false, Dr Fernando can sue the women and The Straits Times. ST must be on very sure ground that he did what the women said to avoid a massive libel suit. Yet, nothing has been heard from Dr Fernando so far. Does his silence lend weight to the severity of the accusations? Maybe it does. 

Now the university has changed its mind and filed a police report. It has suddenly decided that the allegations were serious enough to warrant action. Still, it applied another weasley term “intimate association with an undergraduate’’, a notch above “inappropriate behaviour’’.

Some, like women’s group, Aware, think that NUS may have felt legally obligated to file the police report because of clause in Section 424 of the Criminal Procedure Code. 

This says that: Every person aware of the commission of or the intention of any other person to commit any arrestable offence punishable shall, in the absence of reasonable excuse, the burden of proving which shall lie upon the person so aware, immediately give information to the officer in charge of the nearest police station or to a police officer of the commission or intention. 

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Aware does not think that the university should have filed a report since the two women wouldn’t. And it thinks that the clause on mandatory reporting isn’t enforced nor consistently followed anyway. 

It also wants to know if students are told about the “NUS policy’’ of mandatory reporting.  The subtext, I suppose, is that students won’t complain to the university authorities and get help, if they realise that they have to go through the court process, for example. The trauma of re-living what happened  would be too much for them. 

I don’t think much of the way my employer has handled this case. But I do think that alleged sexual predators should get their comeuppance. Or, to put it another way, due process must be accorded to them since the matter is now in the open. 

While the university wants to protect the privacy of the students involved, it has to realise what sort of signal this would send to would-be predators who think they can get off easily because the victims wouldn’t want the publicity and the university doesn’t want to get a bad rep. 

I would add that more than just the privacy of two students are involved. there are faculty members and academic staff too who would like to know that one of their own has been justly treated and not maligned and condemned unfairly for alleged criminal trespasses.  

NUS can’t not report to the police now, given that the women spoke openly to the media. In fact, I think it should make it a policy to take the lead on crimes of a sexual nature perpetrated on its students, go to the cops, afford legal protection and act as a shield for them in some way. Stand in front of them, protect them from the glare and make it clear that no sexual predator will get away with what they’ve done. Plant a flag in the ground, even if the police aren’t able to take the case further. That, to me, is the right and honourable thing to do.

PS. Actually, I am wondering if the laws allow the police or the Attorney-General’s to open investigations even without a police report.  Surely, if the media reports that a robbery has taken place, the police wouldn’t be twiddling their thumbs waiting for someone to file a report? 

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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