Singapore's Youngest Ever Nominated Member Of Parliament On Fighting Sexual Harassment On Campus

By Chong Seow Wei

Paralympic gold medallist Yip Pin Xiu has been described as the voice of her generation. Recently, she hit headlines for calling for a national code to end sexual harassment at universities

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Sometime in the middle of 2018, Lim Teck Yin, the CEO of national sports agency Sport Singapore, approached Yip Pin Xiu with a proposal. The agency wanted to put her name forward to become a nominated member of parliament (NMP). In Singapore, the government appoints individuals to become an NMP if he or she is believed to be able to make valuable contributions to public policy and represent community views in parliament.

By this time, the para-athlete was already an inspiring figure to many in the country, having clinched two gold medals for her performance in the 50m and 100m backstroke finals, S2 class, at the 2016 Summer Paralympics. She also broke two world records in the latter category. 

While surprised by the offer, the then-26-year-old saw it as a chance to provide perspective on issues that resonate with her and her generation. Recently, a scandal at a university campus has put that perspective front and centre of a national debate on sexual harassment.

She took up the challenge, and in September 2018 she joined fellow Gen.T honouree Abbas Ali Mohamed Irshad, who founded inter-faith non-profit group Roses of Peace, as part of Singapore’s new batch of NMPs. Yip was the youngest of the nine candidates appointed that year—and is the youngest ever to be appointed to the role to date.

Diving In The Deep End

Fast forward to present day, as Yip nears the end of her two-and-a-half-year tenure as an NMP, she remembers how intimidated she was of the role when she first stepped in. “I didn’t have any experience participating in such a big political platform, and I'd never had to look at bills before. Every task I was given also had such a tight deadline—most of them two weeks at best—and each required a lot of prep work... It was a very steep learning curve.” 

Thankfully, she found her footing as well as a sense of confidence in voicing her opinions in parliament. “At the start, I thought that it would be difficult to approach the politicians because they are of a higher stature, but I soon found out that they were okay even if you approached them in the tea room to share your ideas,” she shares. "Whether you’re young or experienced in politics or not, if you’re raising an important issue, they will take you seriously."

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11 Oct - Swimming - Our TeamSG swimmer and triiple medallist Yip Pin Xiu at the Asian Para Games. Photo by Sport Singapore
Above  Yip Pin Xiu at the 2018 Asian Para Games. (Photo: Sport Singapore)
I don’t think you need to go through what others have gone through to speak up for them
Yip Pin Xiu

Advocating For A Cause Close To Her Heart

One of the biggest goals Yip set for herself when she became an NMP was to help develop a better sporting culture in Singapore. For one, she hopes that students can be exposed to different kinds of sports and find one that they enjoy. 

On the competitive sports front, she highlights the need to develop a more efficient national sports system. In particular, she feels that the resources allocated to both disabled and non-disabled national athletes can be integrated and streamlined. 

“There are benefits to bringing para-swimmers and non-disabled swimmers, for example, under one national sports association,” she reasons. “There isn’t much difference in what both groups need. In fact, with the integration, all the athletes may benefit from having better training environments and may be motivated to train harder and perform better.” 

Hence, she suggested to parliament to set up a challenge fund that will incentivise individual associations to take the first step towards integration. She received positive feedback from several of them, although she recognises that it will take some time before an official decision is made.

“I understand that people might be scared of the change because we tend to be afraid of what we don’t know. They just need to be made aware of the value of an integrated system.”

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Above  Yip Pin Xiu

Shining A Light On Taboo Topics

Recently, Yip raised her concerns in parliament about another pressing issue in Singapore: sexual harassment on campus and the measures that are currently in place to tackle the situation. 

In May 2019, Singapore’s education minister Ong Ye Kung revealed that there had been a total of 56 sexual misconduct cases reported involving the country’s local autonomous universities between 2015 and 2018—with each year seeing an increase in the number of cases.

Minister Ong’s address was likely sparked by a much-talked-about case involving two National University of Singapore (NUS) students that took place the previous month. Monica Baey, a 23-year-old undergraduate at the university, made headlines when her posts on Instagram Stories about her encounter with a peeping Tom on campus went viral. She had called out a fellow student for filming her while she was in the shower at the student residence.

During this time, the spotlight wasn’t just on the offenders and victims involved, but the disciplinary frameworks of the local universities. NUS’s “second strike and you're out” policy for sexual misconduct cases, in particular, came under fire when it was revealed to the public, with many voicing their concerns about whether first-time offenders should be allowed to remain in school. 

Addressing this in her parliamentary speech earlier this February, Yip called for a national code to be put in place to address offences involving sexual violence on campus. “This code should set out the duties of the school to ensure zero tolerance on sexual harassment, provide adequate victim care support and set out standards and principles for managing complaints.” 

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Above  Yip with Singapore's president Halimah Yacob (right)
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Above  Yip at the World Para Swimming Championships in London in 2019. She claimed the gold in the women's 100m backstroke S2. Photo: Marc Morris/SportsNewsAgency

Yip says it's not enough to depend on individual universities to develop their own disciplinary protocol, as it will result in varying treatments of such cases across the board. “People tend to have different perspectives on such issues—some may take sexual harassment lightly, while others may see it as an actual crime. So I feel that a national code is necessary to address this.”

When asked why she chose to voice out about this topic, she says: “I didn’t experience any sexual harassment during my time as a student, but in parliament, I’m the person who most recently graduated from a university. I graduated about three years ago, so the topic of sexual violence on campus felt very real to me.” 

She also shares that while the lack of personal experience might mean she won’t be able to fully understand what victims of sexual harassment go through, it doesn't stop her from being their voice.

Her stance was further validated when she started receiving emails from a number of victims who expressed their appreciation for her speech. “After receiving those emails, I was glad I brought the topic up in parliament so people can see that they are not alone, and there are people out there trying to protect them.”

In the end, Yip feels that even if she isn’t able to see a change in public policy or the perspective of the government during her tenure as an NMP, she remains optimistic of the future. “What matters is that I manage to start the conversations and get them thinking about the issues I want them to think about.”

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