NUS to focus on greater transparency in sexual misconduct cases

Left to right: Assoc Prof Pang; Prof Koh; and Assoc Prof Leong at the media briefing


The University will focus on greater transparency in communications and speedier police reporting of sexual misconduct cases, as it improves its processes in the wake of the dismissal of Tembusu College teaching staff Dr Jeremy Fernando.

“Going forward, NUS will be more open, more transparent, more willing to disseminate information in a candid manner to the stakeholders,” said Professor Tommy Koh, Rector of Tembusu College.

The University earlier received two complaints alleging that Dr Fernando had behaved inappropriately as a teaching staff. On receiving the initial complaint, Dr Fernando was immediately placed on suspension and investigations commenced.

Dr Fernando was dismissed on 7 Oct after the University’s internal investigation established that he had an intimate association with an undergraduate, and this is a serious breach of the University’s Code of Conduct for Staff. The University on 21 Oct issued further details on the matter. This included the dates of the complaints, and the actions taken by the University such as the support provided to the student complainants and the process of its internal investigations.

Prof Koh acknowledged that communications about the dismissal – including to the Tembusu community – could have been more timely.

“NUS I think has a rather conservative culture, and felt that when you dismiss a staff, apparently HR practice is that you don’t tell the world that somebody has been sacked. This HR practice is applicable in the private sector but not applicable to a public institution,” he said.

“I have many stakeholders. I have 600 students, I have faculty – every one of them has the right to know. And in this respect, I think NUS has fallen short.”

He said that NUS can learn from the Singapore government in the way it had dealt with SARS in 2003 and COVID-19 this year. “The (government’s) policy is to be open rather than closed, to be transparent rather than opaque, to give timely information to your stakeholders rather than to withhold such information.”

Prof Koh was speaking at a media briefing on 23 Oct regarding the matter. Associate Professor Leong Ching, Associate Provost (Special Projects) and Dean of Students, as well as Tembusu College’s Master Associate Professor Kelvin Pang were also in attendance.

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Prof Koh (left); and Assoc Prof Leong (right) 

Cultural change

“Going forward, I believe we can and must move towards greater transparency,” said Assoc Prof Leong. “We will have greater transparency in sexual misconduct cases, including internal communications of such cases… without compromising the privacy and welfare of victims.”

Ultimately, she observed that a cultural change is needed, from one that is conservative and erring on the side of caution to one that commits itself to timely, accurate, respectful communication. “In so doing we must be able to tolerate greater risks and to take these risks.”

Assoc Prof Leong said that rules are far easier to change than culture. “But what’s real is the change in philosophy, a cultural change. I think that’s far harder but I feel that’s the most complete.”

Speedier police reporting

Another area of improvement is the speed of police reporting for sexual misconduct cases, while also keeping in mind the welfare of the survivors, including their mental state and whether they would harm themselves.

“(We will look at) the speed of police reporting… but also concurrently proceed with caution,” said Assoc Prof Leong.

Support for victims

NUS has taken large steps towards improving the support provided to victims, following the establishment of the Victim Care Unit (VCU) last year. In the present matter, VCU is actively supporting both complainants. Two of the College’s Directors have been providing direct additional support to one of the students, who was formerly a student at Tembusu College, and are continuing to be in touch with her.  

The University will proactively reach out to alumni to find out how best to support those who had known Dr Fernando, noted Assoc Prof Pang.

It will also seek out professional resources to help the current community deal with issues, and review and implement the recommendations from the Community Support Working Group to better care for students in such incidents, Assoc Prof Pang added.

Ultimately, there is a zero-tolerance policy for serious breaches of the NUS Code of Conduct for Staff, as shown by Dr Fernando’s dismissal. The University is deeply committed to change.

“The safety and well-being of students and staff is of great importance to us. NUS’ standards and demands of professors are high, and if you breach these standards, the discipline will be swift,” said Assoc Prof Leong.

“This is the first time that NUS has made public the reasons for staff dismissal without it being already in court proceedings. It is a commitment to holding ourselves to new standards. This is a signal of how seriously we take this.”