Saturday 15 March 2014

Protection from Harassment Bill passed in Parliament on 13th March 2014

Legal redress for harassment victims to be easy, inexpensive
New law not a panacea, but first step in tackling problem: Shanmugam
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

THE new law against harassment has been crafted specially to make it quick, easy and inexpensive for victims to seek legal redress, Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday. Victims, for instance, should not need to engage lawyers to get protection orders to make the harassment stop.

Police officers will also be trained on the application of the law, which Parliament passed yesterday. That includes how to assess and investigate cases and breaches of protection orders.

The minister was replying to MPs' concerns that the law, while strong on paper, will be difficult to enforce.

There are several key facets to the Protection from Harassment Bill, which was the subject of a four-hour debate yesterday.

It makes stalking an offence for the first time and also expressly proscribes cyber harassment, hitherto a grey area in the law. Second, it covers a wide range of antisocial behaviour, from bullying in schools to workplace harassment.

Third, it increases penalties and introduces jail terms for existing harassment offences.

Fourth - and crucially for victims - it offers a range of "self-help" options which a victim can use to try to stop the harassment. These include applying to the courts for protection orders against the perpetrators, requiring their actions to stop.

Those who are the targets of false and malicious online content can similarly get orders requiring the content to be taken down and for correction notifications to be published in their place. Victims can also sue perpetrators for civil damages.

Finally, the Bill can also extend the long arm of the law overseas as long as the victim or the perpetrator is in Singapore when the offences are committed.

Fifteen MPs rose to speak on the Bill. While all supported its spirit, many warned of the gap between principle and practice.

Lawyer Ellen Lee, for instance, wondered whether victims would need to pay prohibitive legal fees to seek redress.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair, also a lawyer, was concerned that victims who turn to the police may be asked to take civil proceedings instead, which are expensive and time-consuming. "In that event, the assurance intended by the Bill may prove illusory," he said.

The minister assured the House that the self-help measures - such as the rules for obtaining protection orders - would "avoid a long-winded and expensive process". They will be governed by a set of simplified court procedures and court forms. Expedited protection orders can be obtained in as little as a day.

Expanding on the role of the police, Mr Shanmugam said officers would not turn away cases merely on the basis that there are no suspects identified. The police are also looking into strengthening their capabilities in cyber and technology-related crimes, despite severe staff constraints.

The minister also acknowledged MPs' concerns on the limitations of the Bill in tackling perpetrators who are anonymous or overseas. However, the Bill does take "several modest and cautious first steps in addressing these challenges", he said.

For instance, it provides for rules to be made to allow victims to take out protection orders even though the harasser's real name is not known.

Bullying among children and youth was another concern.

Mr Shanmugam said the law, which prescribes fines and jail terms, also provides for the court to order counselling or probation in the case of child offenders.

With regard to workplace harassment, several MPs queried the minister on the role of companies in stopping such acts.

Employers, the minister said, can play a greater role by having clear policies on handling employee grievances, including avenues for grievances to be lodged.

The Bill, the minister added, was not a "panacea" but a first step in tackling harassment woes.

Its focus is clear: "Harassment or stalking is not acceptable, as long as it is committed on our shores, or against a victim here," Mr Shanmugam said.

"We will continue to monitor, tweak and see how we may better build on what we have."

How far does harassment Bill go?
Parliament passed the Protection from Harassment Bill yesterday, after a four-hour debate that saw 15 MPs speaking on issues ranging from stalking to workplace harassment. Here are excerpts of their questions and Law Minister K. Shanmugam's replies.
By Tham Yuen-C And Hoe Pei Shan, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014


MPs asked what constitutes harassment. Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said there was a need to differentiate between expressions of views and anti-social comments online, while Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) asked if there was a danger of unintentionally criminalising some situations.

Mr Shanmugam: Whether an act amounts to harassment and should be punished will be decided by the courts, which will consider factors such as the nature of the act, the context in which it occurred and the effect it had on the victim.

For all offences under the Bill, reasonableness can be used as a defence.

Also, harassment is already an offence in the Miscellaneous Offences Act. The provisions of the Bill, which are already part of the Act, are therefore not new.

This means the courts here would have previously heard cases dealing with similar issues, and would have established a body of case law that judges can refer to.


On unlawful stalking, the issue of definition was again raised.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) wondered if journalists staking out near wakes in hopes of interviewing people would be considered stalkers, and Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked about the exception the law has made for surveillance done on behalf of the Government for the sake of national security, for instance.

Mr Shanmugam: The types of acts that can be considered stalking have to be wide ranging, and it is not practicable to try and prescribe beforehand the specific situations it should include.

In drafting the new laws, the Ministry of Law had tried to strike a balance between "certainty", so that people would know what constitutes unlawful stalking, and flexibility, so that various forms of stalking will be caught.

The courts would have to review each case to decide if the alleged stalking in fact did happen, whether it was reasonable in the circumstances and if the alleged victim was being unreasonable.

Exceptions can be granted to those who have to conduct surveillance for national security, national defence or international relations purposes. Examples include operations to do with terrorism or serious crimes.

A certificate will be issued in these cases to exempt the conduct from the Bill, and the key consideration would be what the conduct is for.


Bullying among children and teenagers was a concern for many MPs, who asked that more be done to protect them and educate them about cyberbullying. Nominated MP Mary Liew and Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) also wanted to know how the Bill would apply if the bully was a child.

Mr Shanmugam: While the Bill applies equally to children and adults, it is also subject to existing laws governing conduct by juveniles and minors under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) and the rules of court.

So, if a child between the ages of seven to 16 is convicted under the new laws of an offence that attracts a fine or prison term, the court will be allowed to deal with him under the Children and Young Persons Act.

This allows the court to order counselling or probation where appropriate, for example.

The Ministry of Education has existing guidelines to help schools come up with disciplinary procedures for dealing with bullying among students. But it may refine these guidelines for more synergy with the Bill.

A school bullying management kit for all primary and secondary schools has also been developed by the MOE. Targeted at schools and teachers, it provides information on how to identify and respond to bullying.

Protecting children from the ills of online bullying, though, cannot be the job of schools alone. Parents, too, have a role to play.


MPs Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) and NMP Eugene Tan voiced concerns over the Bill's coverage of workplace harassment, and discussed educational efforts and the possibility of having workplace guidelines to deal with such conduct.

Mr Shanmugam: The Bill clearly prohibits harassment committed at the workplace; it is broader than that, but workplace harassment is covered. The Ministry of Manpower has been working with NTUC, the Singapore National Employers Federation as well as the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices to address issues of workplace harassment. There are also workshops to better educate employers on these aspects. Protection from harassment has to be an ongoing conversation between many different stakeholders, and it cannot end with this Bill. Other measures such as legislatively requiring employers to institute policies against workplace sexual harassment would have to be part of this conversation, and the feasibility of these will have to be considered.


MPs Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) and Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) sought clarifications about the removal of offensive content online, asking how the Bill provides for such removal.

Mr Shanmugam: If the offensive content contravenes certain clauses and a protection order can be made, as part of the protection order, the court can order that no person can publish or continue to publish an offending communication. This would include requiring the removal of the offending content and for there to be no further publication of that content. The protection order can be obtained on an expedited basis, and the expedited protection orders can even be obtained within the same day if the court agrees that it is urgent, and thereafter the publication of the offending communications would be proscribed.

Supposing the offensive content does not cross the threshold set out in the clauses for a protection order to be made or if, for some reason, the victim... wishes to proceed with a lesser remedy, in either of those situations, the victim can obtain a court order under Clause 15 of the Bill to make sure that the falsehood is set right and the true facts are brought out clearly.

MPs recount horror tales of harassment victims
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

A MALE acquaintance who stalked his victim's daughter outside her childcare centre.

A harasser who urinated outside his neighbour's flat, shouting and banging on his doors and windows for a year.

These were among the harrowing tales told yesterday by some of the 15 MPs who rose to speak in support of the Protection from Harassment Bill.

The Bill, which Parliament passed yesterday, gives victims access to a range of options, including protection orders, and will also provide for the harassers to get mandatory mental health treatment where necessary.

Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) spoke of a female resident in his ward who had been receiving up to 50 texts a day from a male acquaintance.

The stalker loitered around her workplace and home - even driving his car next to her as she walked home. One day, he sent her a message to say he had seen her "lovely daughter in school today". The stalker's intent was clearly to cause mental anguish and fear that her young daughter could be hurt, he said.

In another case related by Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), a single father and his 15-year-old daughter feared for their safety as they were at the receiving end of a drunken neighbour's attempts to enter their home "at all hours of the day".

The neighbour would bang on their door, urinate and shout repeatedly. But when the victims called the police, the man would leave the area, leaving cops unable to act.

"Now, whenever I hear noises outside my flat, I start to have very bad panic and anxiety attacks," Mr Zainal quoted the resident as saying.

Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) spoke of an umarried woman she had given legal aid to. The woman had been charged by her employer for harassment, but was in fact the victim. She was sexually abused by her boss, forced into becoming his mistress and eventually dismissed.

The woman sought legal redress and got justice, but was left drained and depressed, said Ms Lee.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the new law aims to "better reflect the seriousness of the offences... and their growing prevalence".


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