The talk of the town for the week past has hardly deviated from the peeping tom case at National University of Singapore (NUS).
Since Monica Baey took to Instagram on Apr 18 to express her dissatisfaction with how her sexual assault case was managed, various publications have accorded breathless coverage to the saga, including similar cases of sexual assault in the past and accusations of the perpetrator’s alleged “powerful” family background, which was later refuted.
Now that both parties involved in the case have spoken to The Straits Times, however, the national broadsheet may have brought down the curtain on any further attempts at sensationalising the case.
By offering both undergraduates the largest platform in the country, the reports published Friday (Apr 26) have perhaps flipped the script, ushering the saga into a much-needed stage of self-examination for Singapore.
Monica owes you nothing
For starters, the focus of the case has to begin pivoting from the characters and institutions involved to the wider issue of Singapore’s attitudes towards sexual assault.
While Monica’s case has single-handedly commanded that the news cycle examine the universities’ management of sexual assault cases, milking the details of this painful case further will only bring about comparisons among future cases that will be as unsavoury as they are unfruitful.
Monica is not obliged to be the face of this moment of reckoning for Singapore’s attitudes towards sexual assault, and neither should she be. Her coming forward with her experience publicly no doubt exacted a heavily personal toll that we should not come to expect from all sexual assault cases henceforth.
Monica’s bravery in speaking out about her case — and our reactions to her doing so — will shape how sexual assault victims come forward with their stories in the future.
Should Monica choose to front future awareness campaigns regarding sexual assault, then more power to her. Her case has the potential to urge victims of sexual assault, who have remained silent for various reasons, to speak out about their experiences.
It is unrealistic, however, to expect the public to consume each piece of news in a vacuum. The reader is a fickle creature, served by a judgement and curiosity moulded by its choice of news.
Monica herself acknowledged the impact of the saga on victims who have remained silent. In an Instagram post uploaded on Labour Day (May 1) and captioned “Closure”, Monica shared her thoughts in a series of three screenshots.
“This week has been incredibly tiring, yet probably the most fulfilling week of my life,” Monica began her note.
“To anyone reading this who is thinking about whether they should report their own cases of sexual assault or voyeurism — know that you can do it. A huge number of survivors have reached out to me and told me after I spoke up, they have now decided to take action and report their cases to relevant authorities,” she wrote.
“Based off the overwhelming support I received, know that Singapore recognises there is a huge issue that we are not talking about, that has been downplayed for years, and now it is the time to speak up and be bold,” concluded Monica.
Singaporeans must make a moral paradigm shift before we are desensitised to reports of sexual assault, both involving Monica and of those after her.
Singapore and its institutions
That awareness should be deeply personal. Singaporeans have cultivated a peculiar, dependent relationship with authority, opting to defer to higher or absolute authority in ambiguous situations.
Following NUS’ widely-panned town hall, calls for the university to take seriously its review of punishment for perpetrators are a valid concern. While we demand heavier punishments from institutions, however, the perpetrator’s disbelief in the powers of such institutions were what emboldened him in the first place. That, and an alleged state of inebriation.
Perhaps we place too generous an amount of trust in hall councils, administrative staff and even entire human resource departments; all various forms of institutions we negotiate with in personal and professional capacities.
For those living on campus, the two realms are rarely distinct. As Monica said to The Straits Times, “I felt like I was being silenced even though NUS didn’t tell me to keep quiet… I just wanted to get out my story to the people who knew me.”
For victims in situations similar to what Monica experienced, living in close proximity with a perpetrator and their friends may breed an environment where accusations are suppressed and victims ignored.
These dismissive attitudes are akin to what was revealed in a spate of orientation camp incidents in 2016, where female freshmen complained about inappropriate games and activities.
Before we defer to institutions yet again, perhaps it would be wise for us to examine our personal attitudes toward sexual assault. If only we push each other for change as vigorously as we are exerting that effort upwards.
While the institutions of today may appear vast and intimidating, the ranks of NUS, NTU and all the committees convened in between will one day be filled with millennials; the very peers of Monica and Nicholas.
We must reckon with dated attitudes and understand how to respond to sexual assault before our generation assumes these positions of power.
What survivors want you to know
Popspoken spoke to victims of sexual assault about how Singaporeans should rethink their attitudes and offer help when they come across such cases.
Teo Dawn, 24, stresses the lasting trauma for victims. “Though it may have been one incident, the trauma lives on in fears and even nightmares for many years to come. It is not going to ‘go away’ or for the survivor to ‘get over it’,” she said.
“I think this is one huge misunderstanding we have to clarify to better empathise and support the survivors of sexual assault,” said Teo.
Sexual assault, explains Teo, can include anything done without consent. Penetration, touching, requests and messages, as well as unwanted taking and or sharing of intimate photographs or videos are all examples of sexual assault, she added.
“You do not have to be inappropriately touched for it to be considered traumatic or as sexual assault,” said Teo. “Sexual assault is not a competition. All these acts can be traumatic and are violations that should never be tolerated. The base line is that these should never ever happen to anybody under any circumstance.”
Nicole Lim, 23, thinks that her encounter with sexual assault, which happened at a party with fellow undergraduates from her hall of residence, “was a lot milder than what a lot of other girls went through”.
“The atrocity of the situation was… everyone in the community knew about what happened that night but chose to help him instead because he expressed concern and sincerity in wanting to repent,” she said.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that an individual has the power to start societal change,” said Lim. “To me, sexual harassment is sexual harassment and no degree of it is okay. It is an extreme statement but the society in which we live in now cannot have space for nuances, because time and time again people keep getting violated.”
“I think I’d really like to see an environment where more victims can come forward with their stories, where people are kinder and more accepting and empathetic towards these victims,” said Lim. “(I also want) society to band together to agree that any form of sexual harassment is frowned upon.”
“I think there are many steps ahead of us but we can and should start here.”
With help from Teo Dawn