Let’s say you have a 100 karat diamond sitting in a glass case in a safe at home. On an otherwise uneventful night, let’s suppose there is a break-in and someone attempts to rob you off it. Luckily for you, the trespasser is caught in his attempt and the diamond is safely returned to you. But low and behold, when you bring this case up with the authorities, the trespasser is let off with a warning and an added clause that should he attempt this again, he will be punished.
In any other context, this scenario seems absurd. The fact that this hypothetical perpetrator trespassed at all is illegal, not to mention their botched robbery attempt. For those of you in the loop, you might recognize that my earlier hypothetical was just a lead up to the Monica Baey incident that has blown up over all the media outlets here in Singapore. For those who aren’t (and should be), this is about a Peeping Tom incident at one of the most prestigious tertiary institutes in Singapore, NUS where both the school Disciplinary Council and the police force failed to provide adequate protection to Ms Baey and left the perpetrator with a clearly disproportionate sentence (More specific details can be found in Ms Baey’s social media account and in some screenshots below). In this case, Ms Baey chose not to stay silent about how the institutions had fallen short and reached out to the masses via Instagram instead.
And this is where our conundrum begins. A simple poll conducted by a friend revealed that people seemed rather on the fence about how Ms Baey had taken charge of her situation with an almost equal number questioning the validity of her claims and the means she had utilized as those supporting her. Words thrown about included “mob justice” and “social battering ram”. By implicating and revealing the name of her perpetrator, some even accused Ms Baey of simply taking to the internet as a means of revenge or smear campaign of sorts. I was one of the many who shared her stories in support but it would do well to understand the reason behind her actions and why it matters so much that we clear up this rather messy virtual debate.
To begin with, it’s evident that Ms Baey had little support from either the school or the police if we were to take her for her word. While being filmed in her shower, Ms Baey had her personal space intruded upon and was taken advantage of when she was most vulnerable in what was supposed to be a safe space, the female washroom. A reprimanding issued by the school and a non-committal apology letter was then deemed by the disciplinary board as sufficient closure for Ms Baey. This is in a school that probably deals with plagiarism, even if simply attempted, more seriously including a fine or a disqualification from the course. What’s most worrying isn’t even the absurd leniency in the punishment but the fact that Ms Baey had no form of recourse to contest this judgment. When she approached the police regarding the matter, she was simply shuttled back to the school, being told that she simply had to accept the outcome. All obvious sources of support were cut off from Ms Baey in this instance, necessitating that she garner the voice of the masses as some form of leverage. For all those criticizing Ms Baey for her choice to go public on this, understand that she had done this as a form of last resort because current protocol fails to create an avenue for her to seek recourse.
We next need to look at how pinning the blame of certain outraged netizens calling for blood on this matter on Ms Baey is tantamount to victim harassment. We Singaporeans love to call out our fellow citizens on their lack of conduct, I mean just look at the popularity of Stomp. Yet we never criticize the bystander who posted the video on such platforms. By extension, Ms Baey isn’t responsible if netizens choose to blow their tops over her treatment and the problems with status quo it has elicited. None of the statements she released mentioned specifics on how she wanted her perpetrator punished. They called out the institutions instead to be more accountable and for them to reconsider how they had handled her case, highlighting how the consequences were severely disproportionate and that change was long due. The result of this isn’t a lynching of her perpetrator but pressure on the institutions to change, something she could never have achieved as a lone individual pleading her case. To add, the result of her actions was a petition with thorough elaboration on the facts of the case and well-documented public support through signatures. The fact that she had been pushed to draw attention upon her case in a manner that can be considered extreme is unfortunate but that doesn’t make it wrong.
Rather, what this highlights is precisely the type of hostile environment victims of sexual assault face when trying to seek justice. Putting her name out there in the open and being vocal about her situation requires Ms Baey to take immense risks. As much as she is a figure of courage, she has also become a figure of much hatred and anger. Most of the coverage by media outlets hardly discuss the extent of the crime committed or the perpetrator, focusing instead on Ms Baey and the statements she had made thus far. Even the letter issued by NUS to the public following much outrage on the ground openly identified Ms Baey but redacted the identity of her perpetrator. If done on the grounds of protecting the students’ identity, it’s principally inconsistent for NUS to hide the identity of the perpetrator but not the victim. The fact that she has gone public regarding the matter isn’t justification nor reason for NUS to choose to openly reference her identity. Any victim of assault would hesitate to approach an institution regarding such matters if this was the form of treatment they were to receive. Not only is the burden of proof placed upon the victim, the victim is also expected to be grateful for whatever justice they receive no matter how little it is. Questioning procedures is seen instead as stepping out of line and being hysterical without any mention or consideration as to how deeply the incident could have affected the victim. Going back to the very first parallel I had drawn, would you really question the victim of the burglary attempt for demanding more justice as being unreasonable?
Changing status quo is uncomfortable, seemingly inconvenient and time-consuming. It is much simpler to cover up a case. Consider the alternative where Ms Baey had gone to see possibly her constituency’s MP regarding the matter after being turned down by both her institution and the police. What might have happened instead is the school’s Disciplinary Committee reviewing the decision for her case alone and possibly increasing the severity of her perpetrator’s punishment (if we’re being optimistic). There would be no further pressure to truly change protocol, no one to hold the institutions fully accountable till change is achieved. That is what Ms Baey’s post has managed to do. It has managed to bring out this inequality as a problem faced not just by a handful of students but something that each and every Singaporean should be concerned about. Yes, it is not the cleanest solution to the matter. But given the disappointing lack of alternatives, perhaps no better outcome could have been reached.
I write this article not just as a fellow female student who empathizes with her. I write this as someone who has been told time and time again that gender inequality is not entrenched in our institutions, that we have reached our goal of fair treatment. I write this in the hopes that some will come to realize all the ways in which this incident has gone awry.
And I write this in hopes that these will eventually be corrected and Monica Baey gets the justice she deserves.