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Anti-harassment laws to fight ‘social scourge’

SINGAPORE — Proposed anti-harassment laws were passed yesterday with unanimous support from Members of Parliament (MPs), many of whom recounted stories of people they know getting harassed and public servants suffering abuse at work.

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam. Photo: Reuters

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam. Photo: Reuters

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SINGAPORE — Proposed anti-harassment laws were passed yesterday with unanimous support from Members of Parliament (MPs), many of whom recounted stories of people they know getting harassed and public servants suffering abuse at work.

The new laws will seek to protect the public at large against what some had described as a “social scourge”, as Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put it. Noting widespread public opinion that harassment is unacceptable and that the law must deal firmly with harassers, he said proposed criminal and civil measures laid out in the Protection from Harassment Act address the real need to better protect victims of harassment.

Standards of acceptable behaviour should be the same in the physical world and in the online sphere, he said.

Singapore’s concerns in this area mirror that of other countries, many of which have responded with strict legislation to combat harassment, he said. New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom have standalone Harassment Acts, and the UK in 2012 introduced a specific offence of stalking to strengthen its laws.

The authorities here had initially wanted to tweak existing legislation, but witnessed overwhelming consensus for a standalone omnibus legislation at a conference last year, said Mr Shanmugam.

Many MPs who spoke up in support of the new laws shared stories of distress resulting from harassment. Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Edwin Tong, for instance, had a resident harassed by a male acquaintance who sent her over 50 messages a day and appeared to also have been tracking her young daughter. Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari cited how a parking attendant was verbally abused by a motorist with his wife and son, while another parking attendant was molested while on duty. Sembawang GRC MP Ellen Lee recounted how she helped a victim whose boss had, instead, accused her of harassment after allegedly committing various sexual offences against her.

The Act covers harassment in the online sphere including online sexual harassment and cyber-bullying, and makes unlawful stalking an offence. It provides the court with a wider range of sentencing options, with some offences now attracting imprisonment terms where appropriate, instead of merely fines under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

The court may also issue community orders such as mandatory treatment orders for offenders who commit harassment due to an underlying mental condition.

Offences under the Act will also apply to acts committed outside Singapore, under certain conditions, to address harassment cases where the offender could be overseas. Harassers here of victims outside Singapore will also be liable.

On Nee Soon GRC MP Patrick Tay’s scenario of harassment taking place overseas when the victim and harasser are on a work trip, for instance, Mr Shanmugam said acts of harassment occurring entirely outside Singapore, “without any nexus whatsoever to Singapore”, should not be prosecuted as is consistent with international law principles on extraterritorial criminal jurisdiction.

Victims may also apply to the court for a protection order. This may require harassers to desist from acts stated in the order, remove harassing publications and other forms of communication, and attend counselling or mediation.

Acknowledging that victims seeking redress should not be frustrated by the process in their bid to seek redress, Mr Shanmugam said protection orders and expedited protection orders — which can be obtained within the same day — will be governed by a set of simplified court procedures and court forms.

Victims have the right to request that relevant parties publish their replies to correct falsehoods; harassment victims can do so if they do not want to escalate the matter.

The Act also addresses the challenge of anonymity and borderless nature of online publications. Where the identity of the publisher cannot be ascertained, such a person may be identified by his username or account, Internet location address, website or email address. It is not necessary for victims to discover the real name of a publisher before seeking a protection order, said Mr Shanmugam.

And if victims discover more people re-posting the relevant material after a protection order is granted, the same order will require those individuals to remove the posts.

Despite its provisions, however, the Act “is not a panacea for all the ills that people face”, said Mr Shanmugam.

“It’s not going to change behaviour overnight. I think it’ll set in place serious standards, some pretty stiff penalties. It’ll make people ... more aware but there’ll be a wide variety of cases.”

The Act will cover a large number of cases, but may not offer a complete and effective remedy to all cases, he said.

The Government will continue to work with the media and stakeholders to raise public awareness, he added.

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