Editor’s Note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual misconduct. One student, Sya, requested to be referred to by her first name to protect her privacy.
Sya YNC ’20 didn’t know who she was going to live with once she returned to Yale-NUS. She reported her assault in September 2017, a year after it had happened. But now that she was returning to campus after a semester studying abroad at Yale, she realized she might have more trouble finding suitemates to live with than her perpetrator did coming back. Two separate suites told her they didn’t want her to live with them because her presence might make her rapist feel unwelcome in the suite.
During the fall semester of her first year at college, Sya went out with a group of friends, one of whom was her assailant. The next morning, she woke up undressed and in pain, unsure of where she was and how she had gotten there.
Her case was the first reported incident of sexual misconduct at Yale-NUS. The college had only been established six years prior. In accordance with university protocol, a disciplinary hearing was held. A panel, consisting of Yale-NUS staff and faculty members, ruled in Sya’s favor. Her assailant decided to appeal the decision; the appeal was rejected. The trial and appeal processes collectively lasted for five months — but finally, in January 2018, a decision was reached. Her assailant was found responsible for sexual misconduct, and was suspended from the college for two semesters.
The entire process took much longer than Sya expected, but she had anticipated administrative hiccups. What Sya could not foresee was the fraught campus community she would face in the wake of the trial. Word seemed to have traveled quickly about what had happened to her. Although the appropriate college channels found her assailant guilty, the Yale-NUS community seemed conflicted, apathetic and sometimes even openly hostile at news of the verdict. But Sya’s encounter with a conflicted campus community is not exclusive to Yale-NUS. The issue of sexual misconduct has been proliferating on university campuses all over the island, attracting attention and heated debate.
In an interview, Sya told the News that many students doubted her story. Despite hearing about what had happened to her, her suitemates would still invite her rapist over to their suite. Others, she said, spread rumors that the assault had actually been a hookup — that Sya had regretted an innocent encounter and used the case as a cover for cheating on her boyfriend. She said that one person commented on her situation by saying, “If you were my close female friend, I’d be furious [about what happened to you]. But I just don’t know you that well.”
At times, she said she felt threatened on campus. One day, she returned to her suite and found an envelope addressed to her. Every suite in her residential college had a mailbox, and students were encouraged to drop mail into each other’s boxes. “It’s supposed to be a really cute thing,” she said. But she turned the envelope over and found scrawled on the back: “It’s not our fault you’re a whore.” Inside the envelope were several razor blades: a clear threat, but also a cruel reminder. “Penetration with a razor” was one of the many violations Sya’s rapist committed against her while she was unconscious that August evening.
After word of her case came out, she felt “isolated and disbelieved.” For a while, she entertained thoughts of dropping out.
‘TO SO MANY GIRLS ALL OVER THE ISLAND’
Since Sya filed her report in 2017, the number of cases reported since remains unknown. Yale-NUS Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Joanne Roberts wrote in a statement to the News that she cannot publicly share statistics around sexual misconduct cases reported to Yale-NUS. She wrote that the college does not disclose such details to “maintain the confidentiality of reporting parties and reduce barriers to reporting.” While U.S. Title IX law mandates the disclosure of institutions’ sexual misconduct statistics, no such law compels Singaporean institutions to do so. College-sanctioned surveys, however, reveal some information on the sexual climate at Yale-NUS: Last March, 50 percent of student respondents reported hearing sexual comments or jokes that made them uncomfortable on campus, and only 37.8 percent agreed or strongly agreed that students who commit misconduct on campus are held accountable for their actions. Among respondents who reported entering the sexual misconduct disciplinary process — both reporting and responding parties — only 22.2 percent agreed that the outcome was fair.
Yale-NUS made national headlines for a case of sexual misconduct last October. Brandon Lee Bing Xiang YNC ’20, former student body president, was charged in court in Singapore for taking up-skirt videos of women and filming women showering on campus. He was given an interim indefinite suspension by Yale-NUS pending the outcome of a police investigation and disciplinary process.
The problem of sexual misconduct on college campuses has increasingly entered Singapore’s national consciousness as well. In November 2018, student Nicholas Lim Jun Kai at the National University of Singapore — a separate but affiliated institution to Yale-NUS — filmed another student, Monica Baey, without her knowledge or consent while she was using a dorm shower. Shortly after, Baey reported the misconduct to the university and to police, who only gave Lim a 12-month conditional warning — which meant he did not face charges and would not as long as he did not reoffend in those 12 months. The university suspended him for one semester, banned him from the dorms; and made him undergo counseling and write an apology letter to Baey. But Baey thought these measures were still inadequate and felt they did little to deter future offenders. In April 2019, she uploaded a series of Instagram stories detailing the harassment and criticizing NUS officials for their handling of her case. “The point of this all is I want some real change in NUS,” she wrote in a post to her Instagram story. In another, she wrote, “Not like this is the first fucking filming incident in NUS … it has happened So many fucking times to so many girls all over the fucking island … People keep fucking re-committing because they KEEP GETTING away with it.”
Baey’s story quickly gained traction online, garnering support and derision alike from the general public. In response to the influx of scrutiny, NUS officials introduced a “second strike and you’re out” policy for sexual misconduct cases: Students found guilty of a sexual misconduct charge for a second time would be expelled. And in the Singaporean Parliament, the issue sparked further debate over the manner in which Singapore’s six autonomous universities — government-funded institutions granted an elite status and administrative flexibility — handle sexual misconduct. Between 2015 and 2017, these universities adjudicated 56 cases; during a lengthy parliamentary debate on May 6, 2019, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung called for these universities to review their disciplinary frameworks, saying current penalties were “manifestly inadequate.”
POLITICS OF SMALLNESS
Yale-NUS is an autonomous college within NUS, which means that while it can utilize NUS’ facilities and resources, policies around sexual misconduct at Yale-NUS are independent of NUS’ procedures. This autonomy is crucial as Yale-NUS navigates a unique set of challenges around its sexual climate — one of which is the university’s size. The university’s relatively small student body of 1,000 students affects how survivors and perpetrators are viewed on campus. Belinda Cheng YNC ’21, who studied abroad at Yale last semester, emphasized how “everyone literally knows everyone else.” Because of this sense of familiarity, campus attitudes toward survivors can be fraught.
Cheng experienced the complexity of such a situation when the case of Brandon Lee Bing Xiang first garnered attention. She had known him — he had lived across the hall from her in her sophomore year.
“When the news came out about him, I experienced this cognitive dissonance, where I hesitated, do I even judge people correctly?” Cheng said.
“The statistics saying that sexual violence happens with people you know especially rings true with people in this community,” said Nirali Desai YNC ’20, a co-founder of Intercultural Engagement — a program at Yale-NUS that facilitates diversity and inclusion on campus as well as providing support for survivors of sexual assault. “You think, ‘Oh, it couldn’t be this person. They’re in my class, they’re so kind, so wonderful.’ There’s this silencing and disbelief, which is another form of violence in itself.”
The size of the college can also complicate protections for survivors. “Our school is so small that it results in unclear or blurred boundaries in a no-contact order given to a perpetrator,” said Desai. “What then happens is a survivor is going out of their way to make accommodations for their own safety.”
A Yale-NUS junior, A., who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the size of the campus community sometimes interferes with the college’s fact-finding process after a case has been reported.
A. had to grapple with the issue firsthand when they were serving in a leadership role of a club. When they learned that one of their club members had been accused of sexual misconduct in a case that had not been reported to the administration, A. felt conflicted. They lacked basic knowledge of what had occurred and did not even know the identity of the survivor, but did that mean the accused individual should not be expelled from the club?
“Things spread so quickly there. The problem is the moment you hear ‘sexual misconduct,’ you get an emotional response without actual evidence,” A. said. “I want to believe anyone who’s brave enough to tell me, but I also worry about the general tendency for people to emotionally respond without any evidence.”
As of now, the accused person remains in the group. “It was emotionally and morally conflicting for me,” A. said. “That kind of thing shouldn’t be handled by the students. It should be handled by the administration.”
The size of Yale-NUS also impacted the larger community’s response to Sya’s assault. She told the News that her perpetrator was well known on campus for the parties he threw. Since many students were friends with him, she felt her account was often dismissed. In an op-ed published two years after the assault, Sya described in the Yale-NUS campus paper how she felt alienated by a community that favored neutrality and their relationships with her assailant over supporting her and other survivors like her. In the article, she called upon other students to confront their entrenched biases.
“Just because you love someone, it does not make them incapable of rape,” she wrote. “I was raped because someone you love and respect chose to rape me.”
WHAT DOES JUSTICE LOOK LIKE?
Administratively, Sya believes school officials handled her case well. “Because mine was the first one, everything took a bit longer to happen, but the school was very apologetic for how long it took,” Sya said.
The current sexual misconduct policy at Yale-NUS was established in 2015 after a study involving external experts — authorities familiar with sexual misconduct in Singapore and the U.S. — was conducted. The college consulted local experts, such as the gender equality nonprofit Association of Women for Action & Research (AWARE) and law enforcement officers within the Singapore Police Force. It also conferred with counterparts at Yale, including the Office of Gender and Campus Culture, the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center, and the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct. In August 2018, the policy was updated to lower barriers to reporting and better facilitate the justice process.
Yale-NUS also has multiple mechanisms in place to support survivors. Some of these resources include a student support team, an on-campus counseling network and the AWARE Sexual Assault Care Centre. The college also supports sexual misconduct prevention by integrating mandatory sessions about sexual consent into the first-year orientation program and sponsoring a student group called the Kingfishers for Consent — peer educators devoted to education and outreach around sexual misconduct.
Desai, the Intercultural Engagement co-founder, said that current campus efforts involving survivor support and sexual misconduct awareness have been a result of “ground-up organizing.” In March 2018, around 30 students participated in a sit-in to condemn the administration’s response to a variety of issues, including sexual misconduct policies. The protest resulted in the establishment of monthly town hall meetings to foster discussion between students and university officials. The students also proposed a Survivor Solidarity Walk, an initiative where survivors are invited to share their stories, which occurred last October.
But is any of this enough? When something as traumatizing as a sexual assault occurs, what does justice even look like? What should it look like? Yale-NUS student president, Rachel Juay YNC ’20, wrote in an email to the News that the college “practices a system of restorative justice rather than retributive justice, which focuses on survivor support & holding perpetrators accountable rather than solely on punitive measures (i.e. suspensions, expulsions, etc).” She wrote that Yale-NUS can further aid the rehabilitation process for survivors by better facilitating the way survivors receive learning accommodations. Survivors who might require extra time to complete assignments should not have to assume the burden of speaking to their professors and reliving the traumas they had experienced, she stated.
Juay also wrote that she thinks Yale-NUS can “do better in rehabilitating [perpetrators] back into Yale-NUS,” which she acknowledged may be a controversial thought. “Making sure that they have fully reflected on their actions and are ready to navigate this community upon return is really important,” she wrote. “Teach them to be allies. Help perps navigate tough conversations about accountability without deflecting responsibility for their actions. Teach them to be mindful of the spaces they take up. Teach students to engage in these conversations on accountability should they want to take up the challenge.”
But in Sya’s experience, the Yale-NUS community has been more focused on guaranteeing her rapist’s comfort than ensuring hers.
Sya believes the community needs to do much more to support survivors: to shed neutrality and begin with belief rather than concerted doubt. But she does not believe in punitive justice. “Systems can’t address violence with a system that’s also built on violence,” she said. Therefore she has struggled tremendously with reconciling her moral views on how sexual misconduct should be handled with her emotional responses. She said she found it difficult seeing her rapist on campus, especially when she thinks that nobody is inherently a bad person and nobody does bad things on purpose.
This semester, Sya has returned to Yale-NUS. In some ways, circumstances have improved exponentially. She found a wonderful suite to live in. One of the girls who told her that her presence would make people uncomfortable if she lived in her suite apologized. And yet the overall current on campus remains determinedly static. Classmates may recognize that real accountability around sexual misconduct cases has not occurred yet, but they aren’t sure how to proceed from there. In conversations about sexual misconduct and justice, Sya hears the phrase “put in the work” a lot, but no one really knows how to answer when she asks: “What work?”
Sya still remembers the baggage that, for a long time, was knotted to her presence. She remembers the enduring support for her rapist, even when her rapist himself did not deny her allegations. She remembers the people who didn’t want her to live on their floor because of what she represented. She is still confused about the people who didn’t experience dissonance between their morals and a persisting disbelief in her story. All of this makes her a little less sad to graduate this spring.
Updated: March 19, 3:13
Macrina Wang | firstname.lastname@example.org