NUS ceases projects with PR firm Strategic Moves after CEO's polarising apology to comedian

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has distanced itself from crisis communication firm Strategic Moves, as well as its CEO Viswa Sadasivan, following Sadasivan's recent disagreement with comedian Sharul Channa. In an internal e-mail seen by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, NUS said it will discontinue all projects with Sadasivan and Strategic Moves, adding that it was a "mutual" agreement between the two entities. NUS also added that Sadasivan has stepped down as a member of the NUS Alumni Advisory Board.

"The university does not condone any behaviour or action that is disrespectful and disparaging of individuals, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, or age," the statement added. MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has reached out to Sadasivan for a statement.  The university's distancing from Sadasivan came about two weeks after Sadasivan passed a comment on Channa's attire before an interview on his online interview series, Inconvenient Questions. This interview series was a collaboration between Sadasivan's PR firm Strategic Moves and the National University of Singapore Society, which NUS said is a separate and independent entity from the university.

NUS has recently been in the media spotlight due to multiple reports of sexual misconduct cases involving its students and staff. In fact, The Straits Times reported last month that NUS has received a total of 71 complaints of sexual misconduct involving its students in the past five years. Most recently in December 2020, the university dismissed one of its professors, Theodore G Hopf, from the department of political science in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. This came after the university received an anonymous complaint in August which alleged that Hopf sexually harassed a student. It was revealed that Hopf sexually harassed the student in physical, verbal and written forms. Another case in 2019 involved NUS students Monica Baey and Nicholas Lim, where Lim was caught filming Baey in the shower. Baey took to her Instagram account to call Lim out, and turned to NUS and the police to take action. Lim was eventually given a conditional warning by the police for his action. 

According to Channa in her original Instagram post, Sadasivan had asked her why she was wearing a rose on her top, to which she replied it was to distract viewers from the patterns on her top. In response, Sadasivan said: "It would be more distracting if you were wearing only that rose". Channa found the remark to be disrespectful and expressed her discomfort towards his remark.

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Channa said she applauds NUS for taking this step. "It is a necessary and respectable move that showed that NUS understands no harassment should be tolerated," she said. Having said that, Channa said it was not her intention to cause Sadasivan to lose any business when she first came out to speak about the incident. "I am not happy that this happened to him, but people need to learn that there are repercussions to their behaviour," she added. 

Since the incident, Sadasivan has apologised to Channa via an email, which allegedly stated that he "did not intend the statement about the rose to bear any sexual reference or innuendo" but could "see how it could have come across as such." 

Sadasivan's response

Last week, Sadasivan also spoke up about the issue with his apology. In his Facebook post, he addressed concerns from the public that his apology was not sincere or unequivocal because he said he "did not intend the statement about the rose to bear any sexual reference or innuendo". "I was not, by that statement, seeking to avoid responsibility. Far from it. In the very same sentence of the apology, I made it clear that 'I can see how it could have come across as such' to Channa and proceeded to apologise for the 'discomfort, offence or hurt' my remark had caused," he added. 

Sadasivan also said he does not accept AWARE's characterisation of his remark as sexual harassment. According to him, "in evaluating sexual harassment, while the impact on the victim is critical, that cannot be the only consideration. The situation must be fairly assessed, also taking into account factors such as intent and context."

In response, AWARE said in a recent Facebook post that "intention is immaterial in establishing whether or not certain behaviours constitute harassment". The determinant is, instead, whether the victim was offended or distressed by the statement and whether that response was reasonable, the post added. AWARE has also cited the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation, which it said has “specifically rejected the argument that intent on the part of the alleged perpetrator is required in order to establish harassment.” AWARE added that intention can come into play but as a mitigating factor in deciding a perpetrator’s punishment.

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