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More support needed for victims of sexual crimes, say MPs

SINGAPORE — Even as Members of Parliament (MPs) welcomed the extensive updates to the Penal Code, several are calling for more to be done beyond the criminal law framework.

More support needed for victims of sexual crimes, say MPs
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SINGAPORE — Even as Members of Parliament (MPs) welcomed the extensive updates to the Penal Code, several are calling for more to be done beyond the criminal law framework.

Many wanted to see more public education to raise awareness on obtaining consent in sexual relations and the immorality of voyeuristic actions, as well as better structured support for victims of abuse or sexual crimes, and those who attempted suicide.

For more than five hours on Monday (May 6), more than 15 MPs — including Nominated MPs — debated on the Criminal Law Reform Bill in Parliament. The proposed amendments to update the Penal Code to make it more relevant for the digital age were then passed.

New forms of sexually deviant activities enabled by technology, such as the recording of a person in his or her private moments and the distribution of such voyeuristic material, have become illegal.

The immunity of marital rape has been repealed and suicide decriminalised.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

During the debate, several MPs spoke on the need to raise awareness on the whole gamut of sexual offences, ranging from voyeurism to sexual assault.

Ms Lee Bee Wah, MP for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency (GRC), said that there needs to be a campaign to educate the public that it is “immoral and illegal” to forward and watch videos taken by “peeping toms” of people in their private moments.

“Offenders should be dealt with strictly and tougher action is to be taken. We should send a strong signal that we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” she added.

Nominated MP Anthea Ong called for more education to improve the public’s understanding of consent in sexual relations, including through comprehensive sex education in schools.

Such programmes “need to explicitly discuss the meaning of consent and what it means in practice,” she added.

STRONG CULTURAL AND SOCIAL NORMS NEEDED

Another Nominated MP, Associate Professor Walter Theseira, commended the move to enhance protection against victims of sexual crimes, but said that these changes may be “meaningless” if nothing is done to change prevalent gender norms.

“We are ultimately hypocrites as a society, (if we) do nothing about the social norms that tolerate such behaviour,” he said.

The lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences cited examples in other countries where there are already strict laws against sexual offences, but women still have to fight sexual harassment in their daily lives.

“These revisions of the law are just a means to the end. The social objective must be to create the conditions for a society where the law is rarely applied, because all segments of society accept that these acts are wrongful, and there are strong cultural and social norms against such sexual offences,” he added.

To achieve that, Singapore must try to understand the social conditions that allowed the “normalisation and perpetration” of such offences here, he said.

Addressing the House, Mr Amrin Amin, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs, said he recognised that the “law has its limits” as it is only one factor that shapes social norms. Families, schools, the media and non-governmental organisations also play an important role in shaping norms.

“We agree that public education and raising awareness is vital, and we know that the amendments today need to be known beyond this House,” he added.

EASIER ACCESS TO HELP  

To better help victims of sexual offences and abuse, the authorities could help make the reporting of such offences easier, several MPs proposed.

While penalties for offenders who cause hurt have been enhanced, Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng and Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim pointed out that it is still a non-arrestable offence unless the police have obtained an arrest warrant.

Victims would still need to lodge a Magistrate’s Complaint with the court, which requires time and resources.

Ms Lim said that such a requirement “may not necessarily flag the most meritorious cases, but cases with the most determined victims”.

Mr Ang added: “If the police can initiate investigation for such assault cases without the need for the victim to lodge a Magistrate’s Complaint, it will go a long way to deter such violent acts and bring justice to the victim in a fast, decisive and appropriate manner.”

Nominated MP Irene Quay suggested having a centralised hotline and mobile application to handle cases of domestic abuse.

For now, victims have to call various hotlines to get the resources they need, she noted.

Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon GRC, advocated the use of technology to help individuals who are thinking of taking their own lives.

He cited the example of expanding the functions of the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s MyResponder app, where social workers or counsellors near a scene of attempted suicide can assist the police with negotiation efforts.

Mr Ng also called for frontline police officers to undergo psychological first-aid training to ensure that they would be aware of the sensitivities when approaching a suicidal individual.

“Beyond legislative reform, we can go further in addressing the needs of those who attempt suicide, by ensuring that the authorities have the skills and resources to respond appropriately when these cases arise,” Mr Ng said.

DEFINING CONSENT

Under the Bill, Mr Amrin said that instead of opting to have a statutory definition of consent in the law books, the Government has decided to clarify the types of misconceptions that could negate consent in the context of sexual offences.

These could relate to the sexual nature of the act, the sexual purpose of the act, and the identity of the perpetrator doing the act. For instance, if a woman gave consent to sex under the misconception that it could purge evil spirits haunting her, this could negate consent.

This prompted Ms Ong to ask for a “clear and positive definition of consent”, due to the “immense informational gap” between the legal definition of “consent” and the public’s understanding of it.

Mr Amrin said that establishing a “positive definition of consent would generate further uncertainty”.

He added that the Penal Code Review Committee — which set out the list of proposed changes after a two-year review — found that having a statutory definition, as in the experience of England and Wales, does not help in clarifying the scope of consent.

REPEALING IMMUNITY FOR MARITAL RAPE

While MPs who debated the Bill unanimously declared their support for the repeal of immunity of marital rape, some of them, such as Ms Lee and Mr Melvin Yong, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, raised concerns on how this repeal may be abused by spouses in estranged marriages.

Mr Amrin said that all cases of alleged rape, both within and outside of marriage, would be subjected to the same level of evidential rigour during investigation.

The changes also increase penalties for false reporting, he pointed out.

Related topics

crime sex victims penal code education

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