SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Education (MOE) expects institutions to be “open and timely” in their communications when addressing allegations of misconduct involving teaching staff and students, said Minister of State Sun Xueling.
Ms Sun was responding to a parliamentary question from Mountbatten SMC Member of Parliament (MP) Lim Biow Chuan about whether autonomous universities can provide clear communications with their students when allegations of misconduct arise.
Mr Lim had raised the question following the dismissal of Dr Jeremy Fernando from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Dr Fernando was sacked by NUS after it was found that he had “an intimate association” with an undergraduate.
READ: Sacked NUS professor had 'intimate association' with undergrad; university makes police report
The institutes of higher learning (IHLs) handled a total of 172 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct committed by students and staff from 2015 to 2019, Ms Sun noted in response to a follow-up question from Mr Lim.
The autonomous universities handled 14 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct committed by students in 2019, down from 17 in 2018. Between 2015 and 2017, the universities saw a total of 56 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct committed by students.
“Our IHLs are key public institutions, and they're expected to uphold high academic standards, professionalism, and they also owe a duty of care to the students. And that is why we have zero tolerance when it comes to sexual misconduct instances that happened on campus,” added Ms Sun.
When allegations of serious misconduct are made, the institutes of higher learning will immediately require the accused individual to stay away from campus, and may impose a no-contact order to ensure that he or she stays away from the party making the accusations, said Ms Sun.
“A police report is typically made for allegations of serious misconduct and where the alleged offender is proven and charged in court, this will be a matter of public record,” she said, noting that the institutes also conduct their own internal investigations to determine if the individual has breached the code of conduct.
“In the course of addressing allegations, MOE expects institutions to be open and timely in their communications, while taking into consideration the facts of the case, the need to ensure the safety of their communities and safeguard the well-being and privacy of victims and other members of the community who are directly affected, and the need to ensure that police investigations are not impacted,” said Ms Sun.
READ: NUS has 'fallen short' in handling Jeremy Fernando's dismissal, says Tembusu College rector Tommy Koh
In his supplementary questions, Mr Lim noted that members of the public criticised NUS for its handling of Dr Fernando’s case because the disclosure of his dismissal was “not timely”.
“What is the timeframe when we say that MOE expects the institutions to be open and timely in their communications with the students?” he said, adding that it is “justifiable” for students to ask for prompt disclosure of such incidents.
“I think as the undergraduate, if you are approaching a lecturer, you want to know whether the lecturer is under investigation and whether the lecturer is likely to be a predator, given the unequal relationship between a student and a lecturer.”
Ms Sun responded: “We agree that communication is very important, and we will ask the IHLs to do more on this front, while bearing in mind the context and specificities of the case.”
In Dr Fernando’s case, NUS required him to stay away from campus and “swiftly” issued a no-contact order, said Ms Sun.
“This was carried out and NUS had disclosed that in their media conference.”
“Let me be very clear. We do not condone instances of sexual misconduct, as well as sexual offenses that happen on campus, and MOE will work closely with the IHLs to protect our students,” said Ms Sun.
READ: Student group calls on NUS to show 'transparency and accountability' in handling case of professor sacked for inappropriate behaviour
The Workers’ Party MP for Sengkang GRC He Ting Ru asked whether there are any plans to carry out investigations into complaints of sexual violence and sexual misconduct independent of the universities or institutions to “give students better confidence”.
In response, Ms Sun said there are “two tracks” of investigations when accusations of sexual misconduct arise in the institutes of higher learning.
“Firstly, a board of discipline is convened when there's a need to investigate the offense ... students are also included in the board of discipline to provide their perspectives on the issue. And investigations are carried out through campus security and the issue is very seriously considered by the senior management of the IHLs,” said the Minister of State.
Separately, when there are concerns of a serious offence, a police report is made and investigations are carried out by the police separate from the university, she added.
While there can be open discussions on campus about instances of sexual misconduct, Ms Sun said such discussions should have “academic rigor, it must be constructive".
Faculty members and students are "expected to uphold professional codes of conduct in their interactions,” she added.
“So when there is a breach of those codes of conduct the punishments are swift. Students can be suspended, they can be dismissed from school, and the same goes for staff.
"And we see that in this case, the teaching staff was dismissed very quickly, and NUS has shared that they will endeavor to do better when it comes to communications.”