NUS has fallen short in handling of sexual allegations against ex-Tembusu College don, pledges to be more transparent: Tommy Koh

NUS announced that it had made a police report against Dr Jeremy Fernando on Oct 21, 2020, following allegations of sexual misconduct made against him. PHOTOS: TEMBUSU.NUS.EDU.SG, JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - The National University of Singapore (NUS) has pledged to be more open in the way it provides information about sexual misconduct cases.

On Friday (Oct 23), Professor Tommy Koh also said NUS has fallen short in its handling of recent allegations made against a former college fellow, Dr Jeremy Fernando.

Prof Koh, who is rector of Tembusu College where Dr Fernando was teaching, said: "Going forward, NUS will be more open, transparent, more willing to disseminate information in a timely manner."

He acknowledged that NUS, as a public institution, had not given timely updates on the recent case involving the former college don.

The briefing was held in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct made by two female students against Dr Fernando.

NUS first received a complaint about Dr Fernando on Aug 27. It sacked him on Oct 7 and issued a statement on Oct 18.

"The university can learn from the Singapore Government in the way it had dealt with Sars in 2003 and Covid-19 in 2020," said Prof Koh, spelling out three criteria that NUS did not meet, in his view.

"The 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.

"NUS has a rather conservative culture and felt that when you dismiss a staff, the HR practice is that you don't tell the world that somebody has been sacked," he added.

But he noted that this practice is applicable in the private sector but not to a public institution like NUS.

NUS' dean of students and associate provost (special projects) Leong Ching, who was present at the briefing, said: "The culture (at NUS) must change from one that is conservative and erring on the side of caution to one that commits itself to timely, accurate, respectful communication.

"And in so doing, we must be able to tolerate greater risks and take these risks," said Associate Professor Leong.

Rector of Tembusu College Tommy Koh (centre), along with master of Tembusu College Kelvin Pang (left) and NUS dean of students and associate provost (special projects) Leong Ching, speaking at a media session on the case of Dr Jeremy Fernando, on Oct 23, 2020. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Moving forward, NUS will be more transparent in internal communications regarding sexual misconduct, without compromising the privacy and welfare of victims, she added.

It will also "look at the speed of police reporting", she said, adding the university has a legal duty to inform the police of such cases.

But the university also has to make judgment calls in "exceptional circumstances".

This means the university may be more cautious and delay reporting if there are certain mental health risks, like the possibility of self-harm on the part of the complainants, she said.

On Wednesday, NUS said it had made a police report against Dr Fernando.

It said its internal investigations found Dr Fernando "had an intimate association" with an undergraduate - a serious breach of its staff code of conduct.

This is adequate cause for summary dismissal, and separate from the students' allegations, said Prof Leong in explaining Dr Fernando's earlier sacking. "As long as you have some intimate relations (with students), you already breached the staff code of conduct."

Associate Professor Kelvin Pang, master of Tembusu College, who was also at the media briefing, reassured students that there are checks in place when hiring college fellows, and asked students to raise matters to NUS if they feel "mildly uncomfortable" in any situation.

"We are committed to doing something to protect them. I hope the way we have handled this has sent this message to students regarding their privacy, confidentiality," he said. "We also will take serious steps in handling any reporting of cases to us."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.