Are students in Singapore adults or children?

“If we are children, let’s get educated. If we are adults, let’s take responsibility.”

Contribution by Jamin Jamieson Yale-NUS ’19 and Theophila Toh Law ‘20

As students at the National University of Singapore (NUS), we find ourselves resting on the precipice of adulthood. Beyond that description, my identity as “student” is nebulous. The collective identity of students in Singapore even more so.

Are we adults, fully responsible for the consequences of our actions – or we are we children to be slapped on the wrist and removed from the playpen?

The perspective of NUS is also nebulous. It appears they do not see us as adults – in fact, as NUS vice-provost Florence Ling at Thursday’s Town hall said: “I am so sorry that this is happening to my 38,000 children”. This article is borne out of that unnerving exclamation.

While her apology felt genuine, her reasoning seems unnerving – does the VP think of us students as her children? Her words may, rather than born of a maternal instinct, be a slip of truth regarding university life in Singapore.

This comment by VP Ling is but an anecdote of larger questions: how do our universities see students? How does the law see students? What should the consequences be for sexual misconduct by students – caught in a liminal stage between child and adult.

And most importantly: what role does the university play in educating students who tread this fine line?

We believe the unsafe sexual climate of NUS is but a microcosm of Singapore at large. However, the university can take active steps in educating a safer sexual climate that contributes to a better Singapore.

The Institution

The April 26th NUS Town Hall on Sexual Misconduct was the first of its kind in a long time.

When the Town Hall admin panel asked the students how we want to create safe environment, the focus seemed to be on keeping offenders out than creating disincentives to offend – imposing boundaries, rather than preventing future sexual misconduct.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the students to create a better sexual climate – and an opportunity for maturation for the whole community.
The suggestions levelled at the town hall were preventative measures to stop insidious perpetrators from getting in: facial recognition cameras, alert systems, etc. We have even heard of the suggestion to segregate male and female halls, a return to our past practices.

While these suggestions might make our students safer, they do little to encourage personal responsibility worthy of adults.

NUS explained its decision on the Baey/Lim case and the history of decisions regarding sexual misconduct cases.

In the cases that came before that of Nicholas Lim, NUS admitted they had not been transparent to its students or the public. In order to promote a rehabilitative approach, NUS allegedly hushed victims. Admin barriers prevented victims from telling their stories. While NUS did come down in force on many cases in recent years, many students feel let down by the university’s approach to sexual misconduct.

Some feel NUS has never had a clear stance on sexual misconduct. While Dean Pang admitted the university must do better, NUS also argues that disciplinary measures against Nicholas Lim’s case are no different from 20 other recent cases.

The Singapore public’s concern over women’s safety in our top public university drove NUS to make a clear stand on how perpetrators of sexual assault should be treated.

And took a stand they did: the two-strike policy was put in place. Understandably, this model reinforced the public outcry.

VP Ling’s comment about NUS students as her children revealed to us that the University is hesitant to punish harshly as the public demands.

The Punishment

The recent affair of Nicholas Lim and Monica Baey brought to us, in sharp focus, the precarious social position of a student in jurisprudence.
What punishment we demand should reflect the extent of accountability that should rest on the relevant stakeholders. Ideally, an adult should foresee these consequences even as or before they commit their act.

When we punish an adult, we address two things:

  1. Correcting the particular transgressing act
  2. Prevention of such future acts by the particular individual or by others

It is understood that the adult is capable of meaningful remorse and understanding why their act is socially inappropriate. Prevention of future acts concern education and rehabilitation for a widespread understanding that certain acts are socially inappropriate.

If institutions and individuals have different perceptions of a student – as adult or child – without identifying the core motivation of a student’s punishment, the discourse of “just punishment” will be one that is discordant.

We need to agree on what students are if we want to find a productive discourse on a just punishment for a student perpetrator.

The Law

The law’s perception of a student is self-contained, and not categorical as we pose.

The law, fundamentally, sees each and every individual as a “citizen”. To put it rather brusquely, the law only sees “citizen in a specific circumstance”, and it would be a struggle for us to lay a categorical perception of students as adult or child on the law’s part.

While the age of majority applicable in Singapore is 21, the definition of “child” changes in various legislations that suit the purpose of the relevant legal claim: the age of consent is 16, the age of contractual capacity is 21. In the Children and Young Persons Act, a “child” is under 14, a “juvenile” is between 7 and 16, and a “young person” is between 14 and 16.

The law is extremely specific because what is important is that any individual facing the law must be seen as a citizen before any other social connotation.

Such connotations may still exist, perhaps within prosecutorial discretion vested in the Attorney-General – but exercise of this discretion is not specifically available to the public.

It’s difficult say whether students are treated specially because they are students – the law and the AGC are concerned with the circumstances and not the category.

But it is apparent that NUS and the public are operating from these categorical confusions.

What should NUS do?

It is our view that NUS must rethink whether we should be thought of, in Prof Ling’s words as ‘children’. We are students in the liminal stage between childhood and adult life, worthy of learning from our mistakes, but also bearing their consequences.

The authors find it concerning that we eagerly demand the administration at Town Halls for preventative measures, asking the university to secure our playground from perpetrators.

It is obvious the role of the university is to educate, so we seek a stance that educates all on the importance of a respectful sexual climate. We can demand harsher punishments only if we are willing to embrace an education for the wayward who do not understand boundaries. NUS is at the precipice of an incredible learning opportunity.

There is an opportunity to use the educational and structured nature of the university to teach these students in their liminal stages how to become adults worthy of adult responsibilities like living in mixed-gendered halls with their peers.

Students must also be prepared to face adult consequences, dealt by the law and the university. We believe that the calls for further punishment characterize the university’s discipline as inadequate – but it seems the real problem is NUS’ reluctance to institute better systems for educating against sexual misconduct.

This is to say that NUS has to take an active step in realizing that sexual misconduct is an ugly part of university life. It is a problem that the university is responsible for educating against, but the actions of their students are still their own.

Dean Peter Pang and VP Ling discussed how they had in the past, considered workshops and seminars for students, to introduce them to these apparently foreign concepts of mutual respect and safe sexual climate.

Barring the obvious poor phrasing of ‘workshop’ – we sat there thinking ‘for real, man?’ This university isn’t going to solve our institution’s sexual transgressions with workshops – which they could not even confirm would be mandatory.

The university is faced with a nationwide problem: how do we rethink our entire society’s attitude towards voyeurism?

Workshops and seminars are not a means to an end, they fall short of addressing the problem. We need to redress our entire attitude towards sexual misconduct in this country.

We are not children who are victims of nefarious crimes from outside sexual deviants. These perversions are committed by our own schoolmates, our own friends. NUS came down in force on some cases while leaving others’ hanging. Let’s achieve some consistency and remove the blurred lines between adult and child: we are students responsible for our actions, while also willing to be educated.

Some say people should know better by university age than to perpetrate these acts. Apparently not. While it is apparent that voyeurism is not a NUS problem, the university has a chance to use the public’s gaze to draw attention to a revaluation of how seriously we take these issues.

The students and staff of this university must send a collective message to Singapore: ‘This is not okay, we need to do better’. Many are willing to characterize this as a NUS problem, but it’s not. This is a Singapore problem – the NUS situation is an opportunity to rehabilitate, educate and consecrate our new cognitive paradigm: we will not tolerate sexual voyeurism in this society.

If we are children, let’s get educated. If we are adults, let’s take responsibility. If we are students, we will do both. NUS has a chance to skirt the path in between. Don’t mess it up.

NUS’ current stance seems like a strive at balancing the insulated environment of university with real-world stakes at hand.

We, as a country, should be made to think about what we want our students to be, and how our institutions have a very important and sensitive task of ensuring their world-readiness. And we, as students, need to understand what we should demand of our institutions and how want to be seen.

Contribution by Jamin Jamieson Yale-NUS ’19 and Theophila Toh Law ‘20

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