When witnesses can't help

Even if there are witnesses, a harasser may go unpunished.

Ms Jennie Lee, a senior manager in a well-known Singapore company, approached Aware last year with an unusual complaint.

She was not the victim, but four of her subordinates had complained to her about being harassed by a new employee who had arrived as her boss. He would ask the women to dress sexily, compared one woman to a Japanese porn star and gave another a neck rub.

All four were young, junior employees. After an investigation by the HR department, the four women were transferred to other departments, while the man remained.

The company did, however, install closed-circuit television in his office, even though most of the incidents the women complained about occurred outside his room.

"Rather than take action against this man, they made me feel like I was jealous of him since he had superseded me," said Ms Lee, who has worked at the company for more than 15 years.

Aware is not alone in seeking a change in the status quo.

Singapore Council of Women's Organisations president Laura Hwang says there is a need for specific anti-sexual harassment laws and mandated codes for companies to keep workplaces harassment free.

Associate Professor Ravi Chandran, who teaches employment law at the National University of Singapore Business School, is also in favour of a code for employers to expressly protect employees from sexual harassment and detail education efforts, complaints procedures and suitable disciplinary action.

"Laws can make it an offence for an employer not to have or not to follow such a code," he said. "This might deter actual cases and ensure complaints are dealt with promptly and effectively. Such an option is also unlikely to be expensive."

However, he cautioned against provisions for large amounts of compensation to be paid to victims, as there is a possibility of abuse.

Interestingly, women such as information technology consultant Mary Wong, 39, who said a client squeezed her breast twice after a work dinner, are also against big payouts to victims.

During the course of criminal proceedings earlier this year, she said the police repeatedly asked her if she wanted to compound the offence, which meant she would accept a sum of compensation from the man she accused. She refused.

The man was initially sentenced to 18 weeks in jail, but the verdict was subsequently overturned when he appealed and the higher court decided the case had not been "proven beyond reasonable doubt".

Unlike in Singapore, in places such as Hong Kong and the US, sexual harassment victims can pursue civil cases against recalcitrant employers with the help of statutory bodies set up to implement anti-discriminatory laws. These cases are decided by courts on a "balance of probability". There is no need to prove that the harassment occurred beyond reasonable doubt, which is much harder to do.

A dejected Ms Wong told The Sunday Times this should be the case in Singapore too. Civil compensation schemes should also be allowed, like in Hong Kong and the US, as long as there are ceilings on how much the victims can get, she said. "In fact, the law could even provide for fines to be given to charity," she added.

She said she wanted justice, not money. "I did not want the accused to get away. But sadly, he did."

radhab@sph.com.sg

The names of all the women in this report have been changed at their request.


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