This past week, Singaporeans might have felt like they were experiencing a major case of déjà vu. National University of Singapore (NUS) Dentistry student Yin Zi Qin, 23, was sentenced to community-based sentences for literally strangling his ex-girlfriend. Yin’s educational background appeared to have influenced the verdict. There was a public outcry over what was deemed a light punishment. Online petitions were signed. Ministers spoke out against the sentence.
Sounds familiar? You’re not imagining things. Within the past 1.5 years, 2 other high-profile cases committed by male NUS offenders against women have gone through the same rinse-and-repeat cycle.
ICYMI: A summary of the latest controversy
Yin was found guilty of voluntarily causing hurt to his ex-girlfriend by strangling her. He also pressed his thumb against her eye until it bled.
The undergraduate was sentenced to a 12-day short-detention order, 80 hours of community service and a 5-month day-reporting order. Upon successfully completing his sentence, Yin will not have a criminal record.
When delivering the verdict, Judge Marvin Bay said he was satisfied that Yin “is not at high risk of reoffending”. He cited Yin’s “relative youth, rehabilitative prospects and lack of previous convictions” as factors that made community-based sentences a viable option, versus probation or a jail sentence.
In what has been hailed as an unprecedented move, the PAP Women’s Wing released a media statement saying, “Like many members of the public, we are dismayed that the sentence in this case appears disproportionate to the offence.”
On Tuesday, however, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) said it would not appeal the case.
Two precedents of light sentences for NUS offenders
Yin’s case seems to be a play-by-play of 2 prior NUS sexual offenders: Terence Siow in April 2020 and Nicholas Lim in April 2019.
Siow and Lim were both dealt light punishments for their respective offences. For molesting a woman, first on the train then at Serangoon MRT station, 24-year-old Terence Siow initially received a 21-month probation. Nicholas Lim, aka the 23-year-old student who filmed Monica Baey in the shower at Eusoff Hall student residence, was given a 12-month conditional warning by the police and suspended from NUS for a semester. Bizarrely, he was also made to write her an apology letter.
More disturbing was how the relevant authorities felt the need to bring up both perpetrators’ educational background and potential when discussing the verdicts.
District judge Jasvender Kaur noted Siow’s good academic results, that he had the “potential to excel in life” and an “extremely strong propensity for reform”.
After Lim’s case blew up on social media, the police released a statement to say: “In this case, the accused was assessed to have a high likelihood of rehabilitation, and was remorseful… A prosecution, with a possible jail sentence, will, likely ruin his entire future, with a permanent criminal record.”
In both cases, the language used sent out consistent, and troubling, messages. Phrases like “potential to excel in life” and “likely ruin his entire future” tell us that as long as you get good grades, you will be considered a valued member of this society. Heaven forbid that the legal system should be the one to put a spanner in the works if someone shows the slightest hint of a successful career in the future.
Is prestigious education a license to err?
One’s intelligence is not an indication that you are just as well-equipped to deal with matters beyond your studies and career. In the midst of conducting research for this article, case after case of educated professionals—from lawyers to professors and doctors—who had committed sexual assault in Singapore appeared as suggested articles.
The annals of history are lined with frightfully smart people who have done terrible things. Just because you have a successful career doesn’t mean you’re not equally capable of committing heinous crimes.
There’s also no escaping the glaring fact that, on the flip side, there are countless examples of less educated offenders who have landed much harsher punishments from our legal system for similar crimes.
Our paper-chasing society has failed to acknowledge that material success is not the be-all and end-all. In the blind pursuit of academic excellence, we continue to let down members of our society who are deemed “lesser” in other aspects.
Victims’ trauma are downplayed by the media and authorities
This includes, of course, women. The women involved in the 3 cases were all at the “losing” end of their sentences. The verdicts are the equivalent of saying, “Okay, they’ve been punished enough. Get over it and move on.”
Again, language is everything. And in this regard, both the authorities and the media have done the victims a disservice.
In Yin’s case, news reports describing the physical effects of his assault on his ex-girlfriend implied that her injuries were less than severe. This included how “she did not suffer any permanent injuries, apart from a few scars on her neck”.
Of Siow’s attack on his victim, Karmen Siew, Judge Kaur called it “just a brief touch on the thigh.” She also said, “Looking at the nature of intrusion, I would say it is minor.”
These phrases are dangerous on multiple counts. Firstly, they downplay the physical effects of the victims. Secondly, they disregard the lasting psychological harm inflicted on the victims. Emotional scars are no less significant than physical ones. Just because there is minimal or no “skin-to-skin contact” during an assault doesn’t mean the impact is lessened.
All 3 victims have spoken about the trauma they’ve endured due to their individual incidents. Yin’s ex-girlfriend has said that she now suffers from insomnia and is haunted by nightmares of him breaking into her house or assaulting her.
In her series of viral Instagram Stories exposing Lim, Baey shared how she felt the punishment was not equal to the trauma she had suffered. She wrote: “you get to live ur life like nothing ever happened. And i’m the one suffering in fear of going toilet alone”.
Growing awareness of mental health issues has taught us that psychological scars have the potential to impact studies and careers. It’s only fair that these consequences for the victims should also be taken into account when meting out a suitable punishment for the perpetrators.
How will women in Singapore make sense of this?
Beyond the victims, the sentences also have an adverse effect on Singaporean women in general. As the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) pointed out in a Facebook post about Yin’s verdict, “Such a sentence has a detrimental impact on public perceptions of violence against women: indicating to perpetrators that they can get away with a light punishment, and indicating to survivors that the often arduous process of reporting their experience will be unrewarding or even futile.”
It takes strength and courage to speak out when you have been abused, be it physically or sexually. While the 3 victims in these cases bravely rose to the occasion, there are many more who might not wish to endure being the subject of close scrutiny from the entire country, especially after going through a traumatic incident. If there was a sense of justice being served, more of them might deem the effort worth it.
Ultimately, these rulings have the effect of upholding systemic sexism in Singapore. As with the inequalities women experience in the workplace and at home, structural and institutional biases have allowed these men the privilege of getting off relatively scot-free. Women, on the other hand, are taught that this is yet another inequality they have little choice but to live with—alongside the gender pay gap, imbalance of emotional labour and paying higher CareShield Life premiums.
And what about the men?
In a period where domestic violence is on the rise as people are staying at home more due to COVID-19 safety measures, the impact of perpetrators believing “they can get away with a light punishment” after committing a violent crime cannot be underestimated. The same goes for would-be sexual offenders. When you are exposed to one example after another of men who haven’t had to suffer the consequences of their actions, what is to stop you from following in their footsteps?
Here, the media and authorities have let women down as well. In Yin’s case, news reports highlighted how he “gave her roses, begged for her forgiveness and pleaded with her not to end their relationship” as well as how he “returned to her bedroom to seek her parents’ forgiveness“. These words cast the offender in a sympathetic light. The reader is unconsciously made to feel as if the perpetrator didn’t intend to commit the crime and is remorseful about doing so.
Within the past week alone, another Telegram group sharing girls’ images reminiscent of SG Nasi Lemak has surfaced. Accusations of sexual assault have been directed at a well-educated professional. These cannot be continue to be dismissed as out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. Women in Singapore deserve more from men, the media and the legal system; and the change can’t come soon enough.
Public outcries and Parliament intervention
The sentences for these violent and sexual crimes have been equal parts insulting and disappointing. But Singaporeans, from regular folk like you and me to politicians, have not been taking them lying down.
Amidst the outrage over Siow’s lenient punishment, an online petition calling for people to “Say NO to Favorable Sentences for ‘Educated’ Sex Offenders” received over 133,000 signatures. The same thing had happened when Lim’s offence was brought to light. Two online petitions were created; one calling for stiffer punishment for Nicholas Lim, the other for the police to reopen Monica Baey’s case. To date, they have over 60,000 signatures in total.
Memes calling out the offenders and the punishments have also invoked social commentary on the issue, accompanied by comments from Singaporeans demanding for justice for the victims and a change in the legal system.
Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung called NUS’ penalty for Lim “manifestly inadequate.” He urged NUS and other universities “to take a tough stand, and send a strong signal to everyone” in a Facebook post. Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, took to Facebook to express his surprise over Siow’s initial sentencing.
AWARE’s Facebook post also asked for greater transparency regarding the factors influencing Yin’s verdict in particular and a shift in the law enforcement process as a whole. “We would like more clarity on how and why this particular decision was made, so that [the] public can understand the implications for future cases.
“We suggest a review of each stage of the law enforcement process (the police, the AGC and the Courts), to put into place measures that ensure the appropriateness and fairness of outcomes.”
A step in the right direction
With every public outcry, the institutions have had no choice but to practise accountability.
After being lambasted by Singaporeans and making headlines for the way they mishandled Monica Baey’s case, NUS was forced to start making structural changes. This included organising a Town Hall to address the incident, and setting up the NUS Victim Care Unit to offer support to students who have experienced sexual misconduct.
Siow had his probation sentence overturned and received a 2-week jail term after the prosecution launched a successful High Court appeal.
Noting the “strong feelings” over Yin’s sentence, Mr Shanmugam shared on Facebook that the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Law will be reviewing the penalty framework for violent crimes, focusing on 3 areas. Namely, the penalties for such cases, the extent to which the offender’s educational background and other factors should be relevant, as well as the relative penalties between such offences and other offences.
He also said that he will make a statement in Parliament when the review is completed.
We Need To Stop Mollycoddling Offenders Of Violent & Sexual Crimes Against Women To Progress As A Society
It’s almost ironic that all the online petitions cited above have been hosted on the change.org platform. Because evidently, little has changed since Baey and Lim’s case kickstarted a nationwide conversation about how we deal with offenders of violent and sexual crimes against women.
But each time these incidents occur, Singaporeans have made their unhappiness with the justice system heard. And while it can be disheartening to speak out about the same thing ad nauseum, we have to stay on the course and keep fighting for what’s right.
In delivering the verdict regarding the appeal on Siow’s probation sentence, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said, “The fact that he has managed as well as he has in many areas of his life should not detract from the reality of his distorted perspectives on sexuality, social boundaries and the need to treat women respectfully.”
We’ve always been told that studying hard and getting good grades is the key to success. But our refusal to bow down to this rhetoric is what will lead to actual progress for our nation.