Singapore introduces new rule to counter stalkers as part of enhanced anti-harassment law

A new rule to deal with stalkers who cause distress to their victims, and self-help remedies such as the possibility of applying to a court to order the removal of false information posted online, are among proposed enhancements to laws against harassment.

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Here is the joint statement from the Law and Home Affairs ministries:

Protection for Victims of Harassment

Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, will be introducing the Protection from Harassment Bill 2014 for First Reading on 3rd March. It will provide a range of self-help measures, civil remedies and criminal sanctions to better protect people from harassment and related anti-social behaviour.

Criminal sanctions

Harassment will be an offence. It will cover a range of behavior, including cyber harassment, bullying of children, sexual harassment within and outside the workplace and stalking. Stalking will also be an offence, if there is a course of conduct related to stalking, and which causes harassment, alarm or distress.

The existing protection for public servants will be extended to workers who deliver essential services to the general public, such as public healthcare workers and public transport workers.

The existing penalties for harassment offences will be increased to reflect their seriousness, and enhanced penalties will be provided for repeat offenders. The Court will also be empowered to make community orders in appropriate cases.

The offences will apply to acts committed outside Singapore as long as certain conditions are satisfied. For example, where an offender who is overseas commits any acts of stalking against a victim who is in Singapore, and the offender knew or ought to have known that the victim would be in Singapore at the time the acts were committed, the offence of stalking will apply.

Self-help and civil remedies

Under the Bill, there will be avenues for self-help and civil remedies for victims of harassment. For example, the victims may apply to the Court for Protection Orders requiring harassers to desist from doing anything which may cause further harm to them. An Expedited Protection Order to protect the victims may be granted in cases of urgency.

Where harassing conduct is made out, the Court may, in appropriate cases, also give a Protection Order requiring the harasser or a third party to remove the offending material which caused harassment. Breaches of Protection Orders and Expedited Protection Orders will amount to offences under the Bill.

A victim who has false facts alleged against him can also resort to self-help remedies. If the victim can prove in court that the facts are false, the court can direct suitable notification which alerts readers that the facts are false. The form of notification will be at the discretion of the Courts.

The Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Home Affairs consulted extensively with stakeholders such as AWARE, the Singapore Children's Society, the Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth, and lawyers who have represented victims of harassment. Some of these proposals were discussed at a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies in November 2013.

Here is AWARE's response to the new legislation:

Welcome recognition of harassment and stalking, but employers should be involved

The proposed anti-harassment legislation announced today reflects the government's increased awareness that sexual harassment and stalking are serious problems. AWARE regularly assists victims who experience severe harm when their lives are disrupted by such conduct. We welcome the decision to strengthen the civil legal remedies available to them, as well as the explicit recognition that stalking and harassment may include online and/or extra-territorial behaviour.

We particularly welcome the availability of protection orders and expedited protection orders granting victims immediate protection against harassment and stalking. We hope that the procedure for obtaining protection orders will be easily accessible, as victims should not have to spend large sums on legal fees or navigate complex and intimidating bureaucracy. The effectiveness of the protection order regime will also depend on the willingness of the police to take action against breaches.

AWARE is also pleased to note the availability of damages for harassment and stalking. We hope that the courts, in interpreting and applying the law, allow claims for damages for emotional injury, as this is a major component of the harm done by stalking and harassment.

However, we are disappointed by the failure to impose any obligation on employers to address workplace sexual harassment. Our 2008 survey found that workplace sexual harassment affected over 50 per cent of respondents. 79 per cent of victims were women, raising questions about gender equality in Singapore workplaces. The most equitable and effective way to handle cases is employer mediation. However, the proposed law places no obligation on employers to take sexual harassment seriously. They remain free to ignore or dismiss complaints, leaving victims with little choice but to leave their jobs or suffer in silence.

We call upon the government to expand the proposed legislation or amend the Employment Act to legally require employers to take measures to address workplace sexual harassment. The Ministry of Manpower should also mandate and enforce a detailed code of conduct specifically setting out best practice for employers on preventing workplace sexual harassment and processing harassment complaints.

Anyone seeking assistance with stalking and sexual harassment can contact our Sexual Assault Befrienders Service (6779 0282, sabs@aware.org.sg).