In October, Dr Jeremy Fernando, a literature professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Tembusu College, was dismissed for sexual misconduct, and having intimate associations with his students. The dismissal was a result of internal investigations on Dr Fernando after two students had come forward to report him for inappropriate behaviour.
NUS has “fallen short”
During a press conference held at Tembusu College on 23 October, college rector Dr Tommy Koh said that the NUS had “fallen short” in handling the situation, as Dr Fernando was dismissed on 7 October, but students and staff were only informed via email on 18 October.
Making reference to how the Singapore government had handled the SARS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic, where they were “open rather than closed… transparent rather than opaque, [and gave] timely information to [their] stakeholders rather than withhold[ing] such information” — Dr Koh said that “using these two, three criteria, in my view, NUS has fallen short”.
The following day, Dr Koh also took to his Facebook page to comment on the issue. In response to his Facebook post which assured the public that NUS would be “open, transparent and share information with its stakeholders in a timely manner”, some called for Dr Koh’s resignation, citing that he was involved in the handling of Dr Fernando’s resignation.
“Thank you for your suggestion anyway”
To the surprise of many, Dr Koh replied to the comment, saying that he would send in his resignation to NUS. However, two hours later, the diplomat retracted his statement in a reply to the same comment, stating: “I am afraid that most of the people do not agree with you. I will abide by their sentiment that I should not resign. Thank you for your suggestion anyway.”
Additionally, he also responded to a query from TODAY, stating that he was “joking” about wanting to tender his resignation.
The retraction of his statement was met with mixed reactions from the public.
Some felt that Dr Koh should not have to resign because he was not directly involved in Dr Fernando’s case:
Conversely, there were others who felt that Dr Koh should not have put his tenure on the line as a joke, due to the severity of the matter at hand.
A time and place for everything
Although we may never be sure of Dr Tommy Koh’s intentions for even offering to resign in the first place, perhaps such a comment should not have been made in the first place, considering the gravity of the issue, as well as the slew of sexual misconduct cases that have occurred within the university in recent years.
Dr Koh may have made a step in the right direction by calling NUS out on their lack of accountability towards stakeholders, but the joking about his resignation seems to be a rather unwise move — especially given his reputation in academia and as a former diplomat.
Such a move might have wider implications — not just for Dr Tommy Koh — but also for NUS, as the institution works to find a way to effectively and efficiently handle cases of sexual misconduct, by both staff and students. While there has been progress made, and steps taken to protect students (with student-run groups like Students for a Safer NUS, and the installation of more CCTVs, and covers on bathroom stall gaps), let’s also be cautious about the way in which these matters are discussed.
That being said, I’m not implying that influential individuals aren’t allowed to make jokes on public platforms. There is definitely space for light-heartedness and humour, but maybe not when it comes to dealing with something as serious as sexual misconduct.