With the infamous Monica Baey case just barely dying down, the National University of Singapore (NUS) has already seen the likes of Terence Siow joining Nicholas Lim on his one-way ticket to creep town. Over the last three years, there have been 25 cases of sexual offenders in NUS alone that were brought before the university’s Board of Discipline—half of which ended in no expulsion. It seems like the only reason why these rogues never learn is that we always let them get away with it—all on the premise of good grades, but maybe that’s just me.
Allied by an intolerance for sexual aggression, four students—Rayna Kway, Lune Loh, Luke Levy and Carissa Cheow—banded together to form Students For A Safer NUS (SafeNUS for short), a group that hopes to spread awareness and educate the masses on what makes a campus safe and comfortable for everyone, where sexual aggression is concerned. It’s sad that we even need a movement for something so seemingly basic, but at the same time it’s heartening to see individuals stepping up and channeling their leadership into a cause that holds great meaning and purpose.
SafeNUS is a student-led initiative aimed at redressing the detrimental sexual climate in NUS. This includes spreading awareness on sexual violence and its impacts, educating the community on how to support survivors, as well as enacting both social and structural change.
For Carissa, standing up against sexual aggression involves tackling the power imbalance that allows sexual violence to happen in the very first place. “When we re-configure the power dynamic, we allow more equal relationships built on mutual respect, not hierarchical authority, to emerge. Sexual violence is a function of power. Return the power to us and let us transform it into one that lifts each other and ourselves up.”
Standing up against sexual aggression involves tackling the power imbalance that allows sexual violence to happen in the very first place.
How it all began
It’s hard to forget the disaster that was the Town Hall meeting between the NUS Staff and Administration in light of the Monica Baey incident, especially since it seemed like all everyone ever talked about just a couple of months ago. At the very least, the silver lining that came out of this calamity was the fact that it drew attention to the very things we were lacking in our communities.
People started coming to a realisation that students weren’t receiving the proper sexual education that they (and frankly everyone else around them) deserved, there was a serious lack of support groups for these victims, and that Singaporeans just don’t know how to react to the pervasiveness of sexual crimes. And frankly, who could blame us? Especially when cases like these get swiftly swept under the rug much too often.
Not surprisingly, SafeNUS was birthed right after Luke made the decision to join a support group for victims of sexual violence, having been stirred to evoke positive change where administrators couldn’t. He found there to be none, so he started one. Initially known as Students Against Sexual Violence (SASV), the group underwent structural shifts due to changes in members. And soon after, Carissa, Lune and Rayna were on-boarded to establish the current iteration of what we now know as SafeNUS.
Being a survivor of sexual violence herself, Carissa’s motivation for spearheading this initiative came from a place of empathy. Knowing how it felt like to have no one she could trust during her period of distress only fuelled her to want to help other victims find their safe space, as she hopes that no one will have to undergo the same loneliness she did.
The group undividedly agreed that the two main root problems in the whole umbrella of sexual violence are education and culture. Quoting the common throwaway joke, “silence means consent”, Luke pointed out that in his twelve years of pre-university education, no one really taught him or his peers what consent really means. To him, silence is most definitely, NOT consent.
Culture-wise, the group expressed that where sex is concerned, we still have a long way to go towards reaching a healthier, more educated space. They cited dismissiveness, ignorance, underestimation, and skewness of the concept itself as problematic points in the whole sexual culture in Singapore that is laden with the “just sweep it under the rug, and it’ll go away” mindset.
We still have a long way to go towards reaching a healthier, more educated space.
“We need to recognise sexual violence for what it is,” Carissa explains, “that it is not merely a series of standalone individual acts, but an inter-connected web of practices rooted in unequal power dynamics that allow one party to make another party feel unsafe.”
They, too, agreed that calling out sexual violence has already been progressively normalised and they believe that it will continue to increase. But according to Carissa and Lune, that in itself is a wonderful thing to have, but insufficient.
“Any systemic problem cannot simply be ‘called out’ of existence,” Carissa added. “We cannot build a new society solely by condemnation”. Instead, she proposed that change lies in building structures, spaces, and practices, where alienating practices of dehumanisation and violation are not merely condemned, but made impossible.
“Any systemic problem cannot simply be ‘called out’ of existence.”
What’s been going on
Aside from getting their cause out there through a slew of interviews, a member from SafeNUS is also slated to be on a panel in the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival on the 29th of February. The group is also looking at potential collaborations and workshops with organizations such as Girl, Talk and AWARE.
After receiving 32 signups when they sent out a notification for their committee recruitment, the founders were overwhelmingly heartened to meet like-minded individuals who were just as passionate about the issue. In Rayna’s words, “to see all of these caring, compassionate individuals who wished to do their part to reduce sexual violence was gratifying and reminded us exactly of what we were striving for”.
Aside from the resounding objective to make SafeNUS a well-established, well-oiled community organization that provides safe spaces for healing and discussion, the founders hold on to the hope of achieving goals that are near and dear to their hearts as well. Luke hopes to be able to use what he’s learnt from this group to help out in other causes that contribute to the environment and foreign workers, to name a few.
“I hope to instill knowledge about theories and practices regarding sexual violence, bystander invention, etc. with my team to the rest of SafeNUS and the general NUS population,” said Lune, head of Literacy.
Other aspirations mentioned were also longevity of the group, personal growth as well as expanding to the public.
“We’re all waiting for someone to start a cause. Let that someone be you.”
As for some words of advice they’d extend to their allies or others hoping to start a cause like theirs, the group had much to encourage. They appealed to others not to fear but to instead embrace, give, and share this new-found power with the most marginalized of people, for they understand the problem better than those who have the privilege. In the wise words of Luke, “Don’t be afraid to start. We’re all waiting for someone to start a cause. Let that someone be you.”
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