THE new anti-harassment law could lead to a big change in the way people conduct themselves at work, in school and online.
But experts say a lot depends on how well the Protection from Harassment Bill, which will be introduced in Parliament next Monday, can be enforced.
By including Internet behaviour, and tougher fines and jail terms, the law shows "clear-cut rules on what is right and wrong", said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.
She referred to recent cases of online vigilantism, in which netizens dug up and revealed personal information of certain people, such as British expatriate Anton Casey after he denigrated public transport users, and a vet who put down a healthy puppy named Tammy last year.
"Sometimes a mob reacts when law enforcement fails but, in doing so, crosses over to the dark side," she said. "The new law sends a message to all Singaporeans that there are certain behaviours that are not acceptable."
Full-time national serviceman Gan Chin Boon, a victim of cyber bullying, believes the new law will empower more people to take action against bullies.
The 19-year-old related how some of his posts, including those on his A-level results, became the target of ridicule on a Facebook group. "I asked the group's administrators to take down the post but they refused," he said.
"I think the new law will prevent that."
But experts wonder how many of the proposed provisions can be enforced, such as the one allowing victims to apply to the courts to remove false information online.
A 34-year-old teacher at a Bukit Timah school who has dealt with bullying cases said: "What is this dedicated body that can magically remove things from the World Wide Web? Even if you could, the damage is done."
Women's rights group Aware said it welcomed the recognition of harassment and stalking as serious problems, but was disappointed the legislation did not cover employers who turn a blind eye.
In Britain and Canada, employers can be held liable if they are aware of a sexual harassment case and do not act on it.
"I don't think it's too much to ask for an employer, when it knows there's a problem, to step in," Aware chief executive Corinna Lim said.
Harassment is also currently a non-seizable offence, which means that the police cannot arrest the suspect immediately without a warrant.
To seek redress, the victim must complain to a magistrate who can then instruct the police to investigate. This can be costly, time-consuming and emotionally draining, said Ms Lim.
"The police currently act on harassment cases on a discretionary basis and, more often than not, they don't investigate," she added.
The law has its heart in the right place, but a more successful transformation will come through education, said Professor Straughan.
"Policing individual cases can be very pricey for the state. It is more fruitful for families to teach children the difference between speaking your mind and bullying, and how to stand up for themselves."
Recent cases of online vigilantism
Briton Anton Casey, who was working in Singapore, suffered online abuse after posting derisive remarks about public transport users.
Cyber vigilantes published personal details of the Casey family, including their home address and cellphone numbers online.
Mr Casey and his family fled to Perth.
The vet involved in putting down a puppy named Tammy, which was said to be aggressive, was labelled a "puppy murderer" by netizens.
Some posted her photo online, revealed her workplace and called for a boycott of the clinic. There was talk of activists going to the clinic to confront her.
Additional reporting by Vanessa Chng
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