Monday, 10 March 2014

Planned harassment law offers more protection

But enforcement could be an issue with regard to offences at work and online
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 9 Mar 2014

The Bill proscribing harassment is a good first step in protecting victims of harassment, whose tormentors often know they are well beyond the long arm of the law.

Over the past few years, I have interviewed and written about more than 20 harassment and stalking victims who expressed frustration at the limited legal recourse available to them.

Some were stalked by spurned suitors; some were harassed by bosses at work. Others were working professionals, framed, flamed and left helpless online. One was as young as 15.

Take, for instance, the 30-something logistics executive whose spurned suitor repeatedly turned up in the middle of the night begging her to open the door. She lives alone and moved house twice, but each time, he found out where she was staying. He even taunted her by leaving phone messages saying that the law could not touch him.

Then there was the breadwinner working for a boss who headed his own firm. His sexual jokes and innuendos morphed over time into outright indecent proposals. He knew full well that she needed her job as her husband was unemployed and the family was in debt.

Finally, there was the single mother whose former boyfriend kept turning up at her workplace to complain loudly about how she jilted him. He called her bosses relentlessly and followed her everywhere, including to her clients' offices. She lost her job.

Men, women and children in similar predicaments will soon receive more protection under the proposed law, which will be debated in Parliament this week.

There are many reasons to applaud the Bill. First, it makes stalking an offence. It also expressly proscribes cyber harassment, hitherto a grey area in the law.

Second, by increasing penalties, introducing jail terms and, indeed, by creating a standalone law, the Government has sent a strong signal to perpetrators and law enforcement agencies that harassment is a crime and must be taken seriously.

Third - and crucially for victims - the Bill offers a range of options which a victim can use to stop harassment. These include swift take-down orders and published correction notifications in the case of false and malicious online content.

Victims can also apply to the courts for protection orders requiring the harassment to stop. This mirrors existing instruments to protect victims of domestic violence and plugs a key gap in the law. So far, protection orders can be taken out only against family members.

But as with any new law, enforcement is key. While the spirit of the proposed law is noble, the devil is indeed in the details.

One potential pitfall is in the area of cyber harassment. The Bill allows for protection and take-down orders to be taken out against someone who uses an Internet pseudonym. Breaching a protection order is a criminal offence punishable with a fine of up to $5,000 and up to six months' jail.

But it remains to be seen how this will be enforced if the identity of the culprit remains unknown.

Even if the IP address is available, it will cost thousands of dollars for a victim to track down the perpetrators, said lawyer Daniel Chia from Stamford Law Corporation, who has represented victims of cyber harassment.

Hiding under the cloak of anonymity, cyber trolls and impostors could thus continue to spread lies and insults, abuse and berate victims.

A doctor I interviewed last year was flamed and harassed online after an anonymous netizen created a fake Facebook account in her name, divulged details such as where she worked and proceeded to make derogatory comments about political parties and institutions.

She made a police report and was told that it would cost a five-figure sum to track down the perpetrator.

Another area that bears closer examination is workplace sexual harassment.

Barring Singapore, all other places on Bloomberg's list of top business centres - such as Hong Kong, the United States, Britain, Australia, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and Canada - have specific laws to combat the issue, as do other East Asian economies such as South Korea, Taiwan and India.

While Singapore's new law will apply to harassment at the workplace too, it falls short of international best practices which impose legal obligations on companies to address the issue.

This is not surprising, given the concern that holding companies accountable can raise business costs.

In the US, workers can turn to a statutory commission which can help them sue companies for financial damages for failing to take action against sexual harassment.

In places such as Britain and Hong Kong, employees can also hold companies liable for sexual harassment actions unless they show they have taken reasonable steps to prevent it.

In Singapore, even if a victim is able to make the harassment stop through a protection order, it remains to be seen how many can successfully sue their bosses for damages. The current law enables victims to seek damages, but the legal process is just too expensive.

In my interviews with 10 victims of workplace harassment, all were disappointed with how their companies dealt with the matter.

In some cases, the harassers were more senior than the human resource executives handling the complaint. Eight victims had to quit and two claimed they were retrenched because of their complaint.

The new law may not change the situation unless companies take a cue from the Government that harassment must not be condoned and begin to get tough on such acts at work.

Transparency in dealing with harassment cases is paramount. In places such as Hong Kong and the US, companies put their workplace harassment policies online.

When The Sunday Times polled 25 companies here in 2012 on their policies in dealing with the issue, the majority declined comment, saying such matters were confidential.

This needs to change and it is in the interest of companies to do so.

After all, the Government has heeded calls from victims and voluntary organisations such as AWARE, PAVE and the Singapore Children's Society in coming up with the new law proscribing harassment.

If victims still do not get enough protection,the law could be tightened further to ensure that they do.

The suitor who won't take 'no' for an answer
Ex-boyfriend subjects woman and her family and friends to stalking, harassment
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 9 Mar 2014

When Rachel Sim (not her real name) decided to break up with her boyfriend of two months late last year, he refused to let go.

With every passing week, her spurned suitor found new ways of harassing her - from stalking and berating her in public to sending messages filled with love or loathing.

The accounts executive called women's group Aware shortly after the announcement that Singapore will soon have a stand-alone law to protect victims of stalking and harassment. The Protection from Harassment Bill will be debated in Parliament this week.

"I wish the law could be passed tomorrow," the soft-spoken 33-year-old woman told The Sunday Times in an interview last week.

Fresh-faced, with her hair pulled up neatly in a tight ponytail, she looks far younger than her age and says she does not want to suffer in silence any more. "I need help right now and so does he."

Innocuous beginnings

It started like many romances do in this digital age - through Facebook when Ms Sim, who is single, accepted a friend request from a man she did not know. They had a friend in common and he had a nice smile in his profile picture.

They struck up a conversation online and, within a week, were chatting on the phone, sometimes late into the night. They bonded over a shared love for Cantopop music and swopped stories about hobbies. He loved cars; she, the martial arts.

He seemed caring and cordial, so when he asked her out on a date, she agreed. Soon they began a romantic relationship.

He would pay for dates at foodcourts and for cab rides. Occasionally, they went for drinks at watering holes in the city. She met his family.

Jealous outbursts

Trouble began early. By their third date, he was talking marriage and asking her how many children she would like to have. He became jealous and overly possessive. At a bar, he chided her for "smiling at men". He complained she was not spending enough time with him.

He liked to drink and would lose his temper often. When he "scolded" her, she cried. She says that when he tried to coerce her into having sex, she decided to call it quits.

Afraid to meet him in person, she called him to break off the relationship. He asked to meet her. She hung up. He called or texted her 60 times in a single day. She ignored them and eventually switched off her phone. He continued to call on her office line for months afterwards.

Taking it public

When she did not return his frantic calls and messages, he turned up near her workplace. "I was shocked to see him loitering at the bus stop near my office when I went out to run errands."

He said he needed to talk. When she refused, he dragged her to a nearby coffee shop.

When she stood her ground about breaking off, he began berating her loudly: "I spent so much money on you and now you want to break up with me."

Then he addressed the passers-by: "See, you all see."

When she tried to call the police, he snatched her mobile phone. In order to get rid of him, she agreed to be "just friends".

On two other occasions, he turned up outside a class she attends in the evenings. He told the class that she was the first woman who ditched him after sex.

"It was insulting and I could do nothing," says Ms Sim.

Facebook stalking

Right after the break-up, he also began sending her ardent messages on Facebook. Every time she blocked him, he opened a new account to send her more messages.

"There were more than 20 new accounts," she says. "I just could not escape them."

In one, he implored her to marry him and added: "Silent (sic) means consent".

Some messages were angry, others were ardent and obsessive. In one, he warned: "I can look for you non-stop, 10, 20 years down the road. I will never stop looking for you."

Another, sent close to midnight, read: "You are the one I love most, I love you a lot" - not once or twice, but more than 12,000 times.

Family not spared

Her family was soon drawn into her private hell. Once, when Ms Sim's father picked up her phone, the man began hurling Hokkien vulgarities and challenged her father to a fight.

She made her first police report a couple of days later. Undeterred, a few weeks later, he confronted her brother outside his work-place.

She also lodged a complaint against him in the courts and has been advised to go for mediation with him or hire a lawyer to pursue a civil case.

Hired PI

A couple of weeks after the obsessive "I love you" messages, she received another shock. He sent a dozen red roses to her house and called on the florist's phone as the roses were being delivered, asking to speak to her. She had never told him where she lived.

He later said online that he had hired a private investigator to find out her address and other personal details. "That's when I began getting really, really scared," Ms Sim says.

She made more police reports and made a Magistrate's Complaint in a bid to get the harassment to stop. But it did not.

Online impersonation

Last month, he began creating fake Facebook accounts in her name and began sending friend requests to men.The fake profile listed her educational background, where she worked and what she did in her spare time. "Pretty, cute and innocent," it said, adding, "I hope to find someone decent to marry... Please call me after 10pm."

Friends dragged in

He also sent vitriolic online messages to her friends and family. He told one friend: "I know why I hate her and want to cast black magic on her because she keeps reporting to the police and I can't lay a finger on her."

He also ranted that if she "went mad" or was "haunted by anything" or if "ill luck" fell on her, he should not be blamed. "SHE ASKED FOR IT!!!"

One of her male friends lodged a police report after being harassed and insulted by her former boyfriend.

Things have been quiet of late. Yet, she lives in trepidation that he will resume his harassment. All she wants is for his "toxic behaviour" to stop.

"I used to be happy and at peace," she says, smiling sadly. "I want my old life back."


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