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Misplaced Trust

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Regina Marie Lee

Photo illustration by Pareen Chaudhari

Personal foodstuff like milk, eggs and yogurt are also regularly siphoned off when stored in the communal kitchens.
Personal foodstuff like milk, eggs and yogurt are also regularly siphoned off when stored in the communal kitchens.

Knives, baking trays, an entire bottle of extra-virgin olive oil — Adlin Zainal ’17 lost all these items when she left them in the kitchen, and she is not alone.

A recent spate of high-profile thefts has brought the stealing problem in Yale-NUS College into the spotlight. Students have had $370 worth of stationery stolen from an unlocked room, $70 worth of pre-workout supplements disappearing from the kitchen, and even a painting going missing from a locked room.

These thefts have a chilling effect on the community. Many students have expressed a heightened consciousness to safeguard their belongings, while some who have had things stolen feel a loss of trust in the community. Dean of Students Kyle Farley explained that with such a small community, theft has an echoing effect. He said, “When someone has broken that trust [by stealing], it’s not what one individual does to another. It quickly becomes collective.”

Ritika Biswas ’18, who lost a bag containing her student pass, matriculation card and cash admitted, “I am not really a trusting person, but Yale-NUS seemed like a safe place to me compared to other places I’ve been. Losing my bag made Yale-NUS a lot more realistic in a negative sense to me.”

Lee Seung Hee ’18, had a more cynical view after losing pre-workout supplements worth $70. “People steal everywhere, I acknowledge that. I learnt my lesson and I’m going to put my things in my room now.”

Yet, how much responsibility do we want to place on the individual when theft happens? Many felt that collective action as a community is needed in response as well. The issue of additional security measures, like cameras in kitchens and locking doors to RC4 at all hours, was raised. Lee said, “We have cameras in the laundry room, but not in the kitchen. What’s the logic in that?”

Without CCTV cameras, there is little avenue to investigate a theft. Biswas added, “I was told that the DOS doesn’t want to violate students’ privacy, but with a camera, even in the doorway of the kitchen, I could find out who took my bag. I will feel safer with a camera system in place.”

Some are frustrated with the DOS’ lack of a concrete response on the problem. “Right now, there seems to be no explicit stand against stealing and punishments for theft,” said Lee.

When asked how aware the DOS was of the scale of the problem, Farley said, “Here’s what I know, there’s too much stealing.” Still, he was hesitant to increase security measures before consulting the larger school community. “There are no decisions made at this time, although I know students who want to lock the doors … I would never make a decision to lock the doors without talking to students. Nothing is being done unilaterally; considerations are being made thinking about the larger community.”

Indeed, dialogue is necessary, since opinion on how to respond as a community is divided. Roughly an equal percentage of students polled were for or against having cameras in the kitchen. Jay Lusk ’18 is strongly against having more cameras. He explained, “For me, I would not feel comfortable going into the kitchens if there were cameras there. It is a privacy issue. We should figure out other ways to stop stealing before we have cameras to regulate that area.”

For Farley, “the number one [preventive measure against stealing] that is in place is community expectations”. Some hope that an honour code system can reduce thefts in the school. This would be a code of behaviour agreed upon by the student body that all students upheld.

Still, some polled were cynical that this would work. Sau Tsoi ’17 said, “I don’t see how an honour code would help…looking at the rate of theft right now. People who want to steal will steal regardless of codes set in place, as long as they can get away with it.”

The divide lies in how much one values collective action over individual responsibility, and whether to rely on community expectations or deterrence measures. Should we persist in hoping that a system of honour will deter theft, even at the risk of valuable items being stolen? Should we leave it to individual responsibility and respect privacy concerns, even if it means no one dares to leave anything in common spaces anymore?

These thefts have challenged our expectations of our community—it is up to us to redefine and uphold what we want our community to be like.

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