Wednesday 20 November 2013

Harassment a rising worry, new laws to be tabled

By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 19 Nov 2013

NEW laws against harassment, whether online or in everyday life, will be tabled by early next year in response to Singaporeans' concerns about this growing menace, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a conference on harassment, he cited a survey by government feedback unit REACH that showed more than eight in 10 Singapore residents polled last month were in favour of tougher measures to deal with harassment, both online and offline.

The same proportion of respondents also supported empowering courts here to order that online comments be taken down if they cause distress or alarm to others. The survey polled about 1,000 Singapore residents.

Together with China, which had the worst online bullying rates, Singapore was the only other country out of the 25 nations surveyed where bullying online was more pervasive than in the real world.

Currently, the legal remedies for harassment relate to specific cases, such as the Women's Charter in cases of domestic abuse and the Moneylenders Act for harassment of debtors.

Existing laws do not extend to cyberspace.

Yesterday's conference, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, also saw voluntary groups, academics and lawyers discussing the different forms of harassment.

The Association of Women for Action and Research, for instance, said it was concerned about harassment at the workplace and stalking.

Mr Shanmugam, however, stressed that the law should be wielded only as a last resort against egregious forms of harassment. Less serious cases should be dealt with privately.

Participants at the conference also raised a number of suggestions to tackle the problem.

Among them, they proposed the setting up of a legally empowered tribunal that could mediate in harassment and cyber bullying cases, as well as issue orders to stop the behaviour.

Circulating altered pics is 'cyberbullies' main tactic'
Study finds more than a third of students aged 13 to 14 were victims
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 19 Nov 2013

THE most common act of Singapore cyberbullies is to alter a person's picture to make it look humiliating or obscene, and then circulate the image online via social media or the WhatsApp messaging platform, according to a local study.

More than one-third of students aged 13 and 14 have been the target of such actions.

Next in line is spreading rumours about a person on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, with one-quarter of students having fallen victim to it, said cyberwellness research firm Kingmaker Consultancy.

Other ways these bullies torment include intentionally excluding a person from an online group, like an online gaming group, and trolling by hurling vicious remarks, said the Singapore-based Kingmaker. It polled about 1,800 students aged 13 and 14 between January and October on this growing phenomenon.

Yesterday, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the Government plans to put a stop to such behaviour, with new laws to be tabled next year against harassment, whether online or in everyday life.

China holds the top spot.

In explaining the main bullying tactic, counsellors blame the abundance of free picture-altering apps and the ease of Web access on smartphones.

These apps allow users to make a person look ugly, old or bald, or add facial blemishes. Some also let users superimpose someone's face on a naked body.

One big draw of these apps is that bullies can be cruel while staying anonymous, said Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society.

Another attraction is that it is easier to convince people of a hoax by using a picture, said Media Literacy Council's youth division chairman Nicholas Lim. "Humiliating pictures are also potentially more damaging for victims with low self-esteem and who lack emotional support from friends and family."

The council was set up last year by the Media Development Authority to educate people on how to use the Internet, and to advise the Government on media issues.

In addition, the awful pictures - when posted on such networking platforms as Facebook, Twitter,, Whatsapp or Instagram - pull a bigger crowd to join in the taunting, said Touch Cyber Wellness. The added teasing and cruel comments "would amplify the ill-effects", said its assistant manager Chong Ee Jay.

Touch Cyber Wellness, a Government-backed counselling agency that conducts online safety talks at schools, said cyberbullying has risen in the past four years.

A straw poll it did earlier this year at two schools - one primary and one secondary - found about 15 per cent of 200 Primary 5 pupils had been bullied online and almost three-quarters had seen others do it.

It gets worse. About 30 per cent of the 300 Sec 1 students it polled said they had been victims and nearly all had witnessed these bullies in action.

Framed, flamed and left helpless
Ministry considering updating laws after rise in reports of harassment cases online, in real world
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013

The day before her wedding on Oct 1 last year, Changi General Hospital doctor Lim Baoying was told by a friend that an impostor had used her name to leave hurtful comments online about Institute of Technical Education students.

The comments were from the Facebook profile of a "Lim Baoying" who claimed to be a doctor.

"We knew the profile was fake but the impostor had even stolen one of my pictures and posted it on the fake profile," said Dr Lim, 31.

A couple of weeks later, more hurtful comments appeared under her name, aimed once more at ITE students and Workers' Party leaders. The comments provoked outrage, insults and worse.

"I tried to make a Facebook post saying an impersonator was making the comments, not me. But it did not matter much," Dr Lim told The Sunday Times in her first interview since the ordeal.

"I felt so helpless."

Victims of harassment online and in the real world may soon get better legal protection, with Singapore considering stronger laws on the matter.

Law Minister K. Shanmugan said at a civil society conference last week that his ministry was actively considering updating harassment laws, which were "behind the curve" when compared to other developed countries like the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

A Ministry of Law spokesman told The Sunday Times the move was prompted by a growing number of media reports on cases of harassment, stalking and bullying, both locally and overseas.

"We have also engaged community and civic groups such as AWARE, the Singapore Children's Society and Touch Cyber Wellness, all of which have called for stronger protection of victims of harassment," she said.

In addition to reviewing criminal laws, civil remedies will be in focus. A recent court case caused doubts on whether a victim can sue the perpetrator for harassment, said the spokesman. "As a result, we also intend to clarify and strengthen the law in this area," she said.

The moves come at a time when voluntary groups are reporting an increase in harassment complaints. Women's group Aware, for instance, has received about 60 complaints of stalking, workplace sexual harassment and cyber harassment so far this this year, up from 45 last year.

"We are not an official channel for these complaints, yet we get them," said Aware's executive director Corinna Lim. "We welcome the move to relook our harassment laws. It's what we have been advocating for years."

Pave, an agency dealing with family violence, is also concerned about a "new and increasing trend" of online harassment, said its executive director Sudha Nair. The agency started collating online harassment cases over the past year and saw 46 in that period.

"This includes damaging Facebook posts, tracking victims through mobile phones and other gadgets, incessant phone calls to workplaces, stalking at home and at work and so forth," said Dr Nair. "Some of the women have lost their jobs or had to change jobs because of the harassment."

Harassment is the topic of discussion at a conference tomorrow organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, where academics, policymakers, lawyers and representatives of voluntary groups will discuss ground realities and ways forward.

The Sunday Times understands that changes to the law will offer better protection to victims of stalking and workplace sexual harassment. But those likely to benefit most are victims of cyber impersonation and harassment - who have so far had little or no help from the law.

Take Dr Lim, for instance. "I was painted as this hideous person with a black heart," said the eldest of three daughters of a taxi driver and a shop assistant.

Her online attackers uncovered her medical registration number, where she worked and who she was married to. "But what hurt most was that some netizens were trying to damage my reputation as a doctor - and, by extension, that of the hospital I worked for."

Shortly after she returned from her honeymoon, she was told by her employer, CGH, that it had received complaints against the online posts allegedly made by her.

She tried in vain to complain to Facebook Singapore. Her employer issued a statement saying the comments were the work of an impostor.

She also lodged a complaint with the police. But she said she was told that since there had been no damage to property, and the comments were not racist or anti-government, there was not much they could do. "I was in shock and disbelief."

She consulted lawyers and was told she would need to get the Internet Protocol address of the impostor from Facebook USA and then petition the local telecommunications company to release details of the user.

"It was a laborious process and could cost a five-figure sum at least," she said. "I gave up."

Stalked, terrified by 'confidant'
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013

It all started innocuously enough late last year. An older man whom Ms S. Selvi had known half her life began lifting photographs of her from her Facebook page and posting them on his profile.

The 34-year-old single woman, whose father died when she was a teenager, says she had considered the man a father-figure, confidant and friend. But she was shocked when he began sending messages to her male colleagues saying: "She is mine. Stay away from her."

Then, late one night in March, when she was alone at home, he appeared at her door. "I was terrified. I saw it was him and realised he must have been watching my home to know no one was in," said Ms Selvi.

Soon, the stalking worsened. He would turn up outside her office and her home.

Then there were dozens of What's App messages accusing her of having affairs with multiple men. A series of messages sent between 1am and 2am in August, after she had changed her address, included one which warned: "I know where u stay."

Ms Selvi claims her conservative family began dissociating themselves from her, thinking the harassment must be the result of an affair gone sour. But she denies that she had an affair with the man.

"My family believes there could not be smoke without fire, especially since we were friends before."

She has lodged complaints with the police and women's group Aware. The messages have subsided, but her terror is giving way to anger.

She hopes that harassment laws can protect victims like her. "Verbal and online abuse can be just as scary as physical abuse. You might never recover from the scars."

(The victim's name has been changed.)

Update laws to cover abuse by non-family members
By Andy Ho, The Straits Times, 30 Nov 2013

AT A recent Institute of Policy Studies conference, Law Minister K.Shanmugam said he would give serious consideration to standalone legislation on harassment.

The Straits Times recently reported how Ms S. Selvi (not her real name), a single woman aged 34, was harassed and stalked in real life and online by an older man.

She had known him since her teens when her father died and had regarded him as a father figure. But now he would turn up outside her office or home and send phone messages even in the wee hours of the morning.

What recourse does such a woman have when harassed or abused by someone she knows?

Ironically, if the abuser were her husband or another family member, she would have more recourse. But if harassed or abused by people who are not family - such as a boyfriend, a roommate, a colleague or just a friend - she has less protection.

The difference is that the Women's Charter, which spells out remedies for women in abusive relationships, covers only family members. These are spouses, former spouses, biological children, stepchildren and adopted children, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, relatives or incapacitated persons a court considers to be relatives.

A woman can seek a Personal Protection Order (PPO) under the Women's Charter - but again, only if the violent person is a family member.

It is not easy to justify why other non-family relationships of a personal variety in which abuse can occur should not get the enhanced protection that victims of family abuse have under the law.

After all, some of the factors that characterise abusive family relationships exist in close relationships between non-family members. These are adult dating couples, cohabiting couples, roommates or housemates, colleagues or friends.

While non-familial in nature, these relationships may nonetheless be characterised by strong emotional bonds, whether sex is involved or not.

It's time for the Women's Charter to be updated to cover abuse in non-family relationships. This is important, given the dearth of remedies for victims of abuse and harassment under Singapore law. There is no specific anti-harassment and anti-stalking law here.

Instead, the victim would have to file a "magistrate's complaint" against a quasi-family intimate who has hurt her before, whom she fears may do so again.

Once a magistrate's complaint is on file, the police may prosecute the abuser for criminal intimidation or causing hurt. Without such a complaint, the police, even if called in during an altercation, can choose not to prosecute.

A quasi-family abuser could also be charged under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, if the harassment occurred in public view.

In contrast, a victim of family abuse may get a PPO to keep the abuser at bay even if there were no public witnesses to the act or acts of abuse or violence.

The main justification for extending the same protection to quasi-family relationships is that abusive relationships of this kind often share many of the characteristics that define family violence.

Like the husband who abuses his wife, the violent boyfriend, housemate or co-worker is familiar with the victim's habits, daily routines and favourite places. He knows where and when to corner her at her most vulnerable.

Parliament could consider standalone legislation to cover those who suffer harassment, abuse and violence at the hands of intimates who are not family. Such laws should apply to all relationships regardless of age, blood ties or gender.

Boss made sexual advances
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013

The first sign that something was amiss came at lunch-time on the very first day of work for Ms Sarah Tan (not her real name) in an eye-care firm in late July.

The 39-year-old sales representative says her direct boss, a married man in his 40s, joked that married men liked to have girlfriends. When she disagreed, she says, he said: "Oh you must be a lesbian."

As the weeks rolled by, he would ask her to be his "girlfriend" - albeit in a "laughing, jokey way".

Once when she asked if she could be sponsored for a course, he replied: "Of course, all you have to do is sleep with me."

By last month, he had become more direct, claims Ms Tan. He was overseas and they were discussing work via What's App messages late one night when she was tired and said: "Let's sleep." He replied immediately: "Let's sleep together." Two days later, he sent another message: "Give me a kiss." And a crude follow-up, in Chinese.

When she rebuffed his advances repeatedly, she claims, he began finding fault with her looks as well as her work. She worked harder still, including on weekends, hoping for a turnaround.

But when he refused to give her days off in lieu and rejected her ideas for upcoming promotions, she says something snapped, and she decided to complain to her company's human resource department. It did a quick investigation and she was deemed "overly sensitive".

When she decided to resign, she was told that during her two-week notice period, she would have to continue to report to her boss. She has since lodged complaints with AWARE and even consulted the Ministry of Manpower.

She says she was told that in the United States, where the company is based, there are specific laws to protect victims of workplace harassment.

"I wish we get such laws someday soon."

Needed: Laws against cyber harassment
By K.C. Vijayan, The Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013

Legal experts see an urgent need for laws against online harassment in Singapore, calling this the most pressing gap in efforts to strengthen anti-harassment laws.

Although there are no specific laws to deal with sexual harassment, stalking, cyber bullying or bullying, offenders may be charged through laws relating to mischief, assault and harassment under the Miscellaneous Offences Act, in addition to outrage-of-modesty laws under the Penal Code.

But online harassment has gone unchecked and this should change, said several practising lawyers and academics.

"Currently, such acts are not criminalised. The Personal Data Protection Act also provides no recourse against individuals who abuse other people's personal information," said Stamford Law Corporation director Daniel Chia.

"Most online forums in Singapore also do not have strong take-down policies relating to the posting of such personal information. Disinterest by the traditional authorities - including the difficulties associated with any investigation - may also lead to an unwillingness to investigate such acts."

He said this was the most pressing gap, which should be plugged by specific legislation or by extending existing anti-harassment laws, or by widening the scope of the Computer Misuse Act or the Personal Data Protection Act.

Although there are no specific provisions against cyber harassment, certain instances of hacking or the hijacking of accounts would fall foul of the provisions in the Computer Misuse Act.

Recent cyber bullying cases here involve situations where victims' personal information was posted online either to ridicule the victims or to incite hatred against them. Victims then fear for their safety as their whereabouts, home addresses, workplaces and phone numbers would have been revealed online.

It is hard to go after perpetrators because they hide behind anonymity. The posting of personal information is, in itself, not a crime. But inciting hatred could fall foul of the Sedition Act and, similarly, those who target racial groups would draw the wrath of the law.

Singapore Management University law lecturer Jack Lee Tsen-Ta said cyber harassment is serious because the threatening, abusive or insulting content is rapidly accessible by many people and causes great embarrassment to the victim.

"Content that is uploaded to the Internet is often very difficult to eradicate because it can be forwarded by third parties or remain in caches," said Dr Lee.

He felt that the penalties for such harassment should be increased, though younger offenders should continue to be dealt with in Juvenile Court.

"Some thought should also be given to whether it should be an offence for someone to forward harassing content to other people, even though the forwarder did not originally create or upload the content," he added.

Cyber bullying on the rise among children
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013

A 15-year-old truant turned her life around with weekly counselling and her own will to change.

Early last year, after skipping school and staying away from home for days, teenager Hana (not her real name) was deemed beyond parental control. On a court order, she spent a month at the Girls' Home, a rehabilitation facility for troubled teens.

By early this year, the third of four children of a housewife and a technician was attending school every day. Her grades improved too.

The only problem: Her past continued to haunt her as classmates called her names and continued to bully her online and in school.

A cousin in the same school leaked the fact of Hana's stay at the Girls' Home, and that soon spread on Twitter and Facebook. "They would call me shameful names and post things like: 'Don't be friends with that hooligan'," she told The Sunday Times.

Months of intensive counselling helped her stand up to the bullies, and the online rants subsided. "I just ignore them," said Hana.

Her counsellor, Dr Carol Balhetchet from the Singapore Children's Society, said it was online bullying that led to some of her truant behaviour in the first place.

"She was bullied online for three years before her stint in the Girls' Home," she said. "Playing truant was her way of running away from it all."

Volunteer groups that deal with children say incidents of cyber bullying and harassment may be on the rise among young people.

Touch Cyber Wellness, which conducts talks at schools, did an informal straw poll earlier this year at a primary school and a secondary school.

Around 15 per cent of 200 Primary 5 pupils polled said they had faced cyber bullying and close to three in four said they had seen others do it.

Around 30 per cent of the 300 Secondary 1 students said they had experienced cyber bullying and nearly all said they had witnessed it.

Touch Cyber Wellness' assistant manager Chong Ee Jay said the numbers have been rising for the past four years.

"Students are more tech-savvy and have greater exposure and access to technology," he said.

"However, being teenagers, they may not be mentally or emotionally mature enough to manage and handle their conduct online."

He recalled a 13-year-old girl who broke down in tears while watching a video during a cyber wellness talk earlier this year. She had been bullied and harassed online in Primary 6 by a group of schoolmates who posted insensitive, crude and hurtful comments on her blog and social media profile.

She never reported it, fearing that the bullies would attack her even more. She even chose a secondary school far from home, just to avoid meeting her tormentors.

"She was referred to the school counsellor, and the last we heard, she was coping well in her new school," said Mr Chong.

Both Mr Chong and Dr Balhetchet said stronger laws that protect children could be an effective deterrent.

"There have been cases overseas of children committing suicide after being bullied online. We don't want that to happen here as well," said Dr Balhatchet.

Proposed harassment laws will apply even when offender is overseas
TODAY, 26 Nov 2013

The new harassment laws to be drawn up here will apply even when the offender is overseas as long as the adverse effects are felt here, said the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) in its response to suggestions raised at last week’s conference on harassment organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

Queries had been raised as to whether extra-territoriality would pose challenges to the effective enforcement of such laws, but Law Minister K Shanmugam had explained that this should not be a constraint.

The ministry yesterday released details of the discussions that took place at the conference last week, which was attended by industry professionals, legal experts, educators, social workers and civic leaders.

Participants had noted that graduated responses were needed to address the many forms of harassment and there were also strong calls for schools to adopt anti-bullying policies.

MinLaw said criminal prosecution should remain for the worst offences or most persistent offenders, while in cases of bullying of children and youths — where perpetrators are often minors themselves — measures like counselling would be more appropriate and effective.

The ministry also said that, with online harassment, third-party website owners “must be encouraged to assist victims” and that it would “seriously” consider granting immunity from claims to those who actively address harassment that occurs on their websites, as suggested by Professor Tan Cheng Han from the Media Literacy Council.

This is to protect website owners who might not be aware of the nature of a statement or lack the means to vet every statement posted on their sites.


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