On Dec 1, Professor Theodore G. Hopf, a professor at NUS, was dismissed for sexual misconduct. Investigations found that the professor had sexually harassed the student in physical, verbal, and written forms.
This case follows two previous high-profile cases of sexual misconduct earlier this year – one involving faculty member Jeremy Fernando from Tembusu College and the other involving former East Asia Institute (EAI) director Professor Zheng Yongnian.
Cases of sexual misconduct by teachers seems to be on the rise, especially when more cases are being reported. Mention “NUS” these days, and you’ll find a lot of articles of sexual deviance, leading many to wonder if the school has done enough to protect its female students.
Bucking the status quo
Between 2018 and 2020, at least five publicly circulated cases of sexual violence have been reported on university campuses in Singapore. We have to credit Monica Baey’s bravery and refusal to accept the then status quo for sweeping things under the rug.
However, the challenge of sexual violence on university campuses is a global problem, present from the US to the UK to India to Singapore. Last year, NUS set up a Victim Care Unit (VCU) to help students affected by sexual misconduct. But universities and IHLs aren’t the only places sexual misconduct happen – increasingly, we’re hearing about teachers committing such acts with primary and secondary school students.
Earlier in November, a 33-year old ex secondary school teacher was jailed 4 years for sexually assaulting a 15-year old and telling her to keep quiet about it. In January, a 34-year old ex secondary school teacher was sentenced to one year and five months’ jail for indecent acts and sexual coersion. In February, a 43-year old tuition teacher was sentenced to over 10 years in jail for having sexual relations with a 12-year old. Last year, a secondary school teacher was found guilty of having sexual relations with his student, resulting in a pregnancy.
To tackle cases of sexual misconduct cases, including outrage of modesty, we have to look at the problem from several possible sources:
We’re so used to the idea of “boys will be boys” – from Trump’s locker talk to the prevalence of gropers in Japan – that it’s embedded in our psyche. Sexual harassment can range from “checking out visually” to persistent offensive sexual jokes to posting offensive material to inappropriate touching and rape. And this can happen to both women and men.
Women are always the subject of sexual objectification, and their photos are commonly obtained – usually illicitly – to be spread on forums and social media groups filled with lecherous men. Then there’s a rampant culture of hostile sexism and victim blaming – that women who dress in short skirts are branded as ‘whores’ or ‘just asking for it’.
In the fight for gender equality, you still have this form of misogyny running rampant, as can be seen in the Okletsgo podcast fiasco.
Mohan J Dutta’s article “Addressing sexual violence on university campuses: Structure, culture and agency“, posits that sexual violence is a cultural problem by holding up the “Asian cultural value” of “saving face” which normalises the culture of silence. The ones in power – like heads of the household – are often shielded from their crimes (thankfully not by the law). To quote: “To speak up about experiences of violence is to go against the hegemonic cultural diktats that protect people in positions of power.”
Unless there’s significant cultural shift, it’ll be hard to take the next step.
Many believe that the university management should be held accountable for their staff’s actions. Nobody – especially university management – wants bad publicity on campus, especially if the university is rankings driven. So when a sexual assault happens, some may utilise PR teams for reputation management when crises emerge.
As such, there is an absence of communicative resources and registers for those experiencing sexual violence. To save their reputation, they may be putting their students at risk.
When it comes to secondary or primary schools, administrators need to keep a look out for potential predatory behavior. A typical predator – usually a charismatic teacher – tends to groom a student who may show interest. They can persuade the student to spend extra time outside of school with the promise of educational nurturing, and the student is often pleased to have this encouragement – only to be confused and ashamed when sexual advances are made. Professional teachers are often transparent and don’t act in secrecy.
According to MOE, sexuality education in Singapore starts from Primary Five, when students are made aware of how they can protect themselves. By secondary school, students are provided with scenarios to gain awareness in protecting themselves.
Sex ed classes currently promote abstinence before marriage – ‘just say no’. However, more important are examples of how to recognise coersion or how to say no to an authority figure. Then there’s the issue of consent. But, how do you not fall into peer pressure, or feel pressured to give consent? Many students keep quiet about such incidents due to the fear of either getting bad grades or other repercussions.
Teens need to prepare for a future that includes sexual harassment in physical, verbal, and digital forms. So it’s good that topics like voyeurism and cyber flashing will be introduced next year – some parents have reservations, but knowing what’s out there can only prepare you better.
An important component of sex ed is probably practising a bit of roleplay – students can learn how to react better if it happened in real life, whether it’s to yell for help, understand consent, resist physical assault, or report an incident.
While cases on sexual misconduct on campus have been around for a long time, it’s time we address these issues in open discussions so that they don’t happen in the future.