When friendly banter turns lewd and crude

PHOTO: The New Paper

Over four days in August last year, a 28-year-old woman was subjected to text messages containing sexual advances made by a senior officer with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

As a result of her making a police report, he lost his job and was later charged in court with one count under the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha).

"I want women to know that bad behaviour from bosses or clients is not something they need to tolerate," the woman, who cannot be identified, told The New Paper.

The offence occurred when she was working with an events company which has SCDF as its client.

She is not the only one to take action since Poha was enacted in November 2014, but her case has raised the profile of an issue that has been gaining traction.

According to the State Courts, there were 1,233 alleged Poha offences - not limited to sexual harassment - between November 2014 and July this year.

There were also 222 applications for protection orders (PO) during that period.

A PO is issued by the court to stop a harasser and is taken out after victims of harassment first make a police report.

State Courts figures do not say how many of the Poha reports relate to complaints of a sexual nature.

But the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) said that last year, 267 people reported to its Sexual Assault Care Centre of being victims of sexual harassment.

About 50 cases were of a non-physical nature but the majority complained that the harassment involved inappropriate touching.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Mr Rajan Supramaniam, managing director of Hilborne Law, said sexual harassment can be physical, visual or verbal.

And this includes suggestive remarks and unwanted sexual jokes.

It can be through letters, materials of sexual nature, text messages or e-mails.

When touching is involved, it can even lead to a more serious crime. "Outrage of modesty, which covers physical contact, comes under the Penal Code. There are elements of force and assault, and is criminal in nature," said Mr Rajan.

Sexual harassment is a more pertinent issue now because both genders share more common spaces, said Miss Yeo Miu Ean, founder and president of Women Empowered for Work and Mothering.

"For example, chat apps are pervasive these days, and sometimes in a group with a mixture of men and women, there may be lewd jokes and pictures sent, which make certain parties uncomfortable," she said.

How common is sexual harassment at the workplace?

There are no official figures and Mr Erman Tan, president of Singapore Human Resource Institute, said many cases may go unreported.

"People won't want to make a big deal of such things, so some just suffer in silence.

"They think they can just let go and forgive the harasser, and so continue to be victimised."

Mr Tan said some human resource (HR) departments do have policies clearly stating that physical contact or verbally implied meanings are disallowed, and the rules are implemented company-wide.

"This is because companies don't want to be faulted that they are condoning such acts, or that they never protect their employees."

While multinational corporations and larger companies already have these HR policies, that might not be the case with small firms, said Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises. He said SMEs may lack an official policy on harassment as their HR frameworks are less formal.

"If any such incidents arise, business owners will handle it personally. Any feedback from staff will be investigated, and if it's reportable, then relevant action will be taken."

But even if they have these policies in place, some companies might choose not to actively implement them, said Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of Aware.

"They are fearful it might make harassment an issue, when it wasn't one before. They fear that if employees are aware of what harassment entails, there might be an increase in complaints," said Ms Lim.

She said that besides a clear policy, staff also need training because it will send a message to the perpetrator to stop, and empower the victim to stop the harasser.

Mr Rajan said existing HR policies may not be comprehensive as there is still "a grey area" as to what constitutes sexual harassment.

"The definitions may not be clear. Sometimes, both parties are flirting and both are consensual.

"But then suddenly one feels offended by the other, and files a complaint. In such a case, it would be one person's words against another."

Ms Lim said most harassment cases are escalations.

"It always starts with less threatening acts like holding one's hand for longer than necessary or certain suggestions or over-friendly remarks.

"It may then proceed to more serious acts just as brushing the victim's private parts."

Mr Tan said he encourages victims of sexual harassment, in or out of workplaces, to stand up for themselves and send a message that no one is above the law.

The victim in the SCDF case did just that.

On Dec 2, the former SCDF officer was given a discharge amounting to an acquittal after the victim agreed to compound the offence with compensation of $4,000, which she later donated. An apology was also to be read out in court.

She told The New Paper: "But what I hope is for the public to know what had happened, and that he should not be able to do this again."

The law on harassment

Victims of harassment, including that of a non-sexual nature, can turn to the law for help.

The Protection from Harassment Act (Poha) provides civil and criminal recourse for victims of harassment. It was passed in Parliament on March 2014, and enacted that November.

Victims may apply directly to the courts for a protection order (PO), which is used to stop a harasser.

Breaching the PO is a criminal offence, with penalties ranging from fines not exceeding $5,000 to jailtime not exceeding 12 months, or both. For repeat offenders, the penalty increases to $10,000 or jail time not exceeding two years, or both.

"For Poha, the victim usually knows and is familiar with the harasser, and there has been repeated attempts of harassment," said Mr Rajan Supramaniam, managing director of Hilborne Law. "The PO is basically to tell the harasser to refrain from any more of such actions, and to safeguard the victim."

Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research, said victims who file a police report for harassment have two options to take the case to court.

The first is through the Magistrates' Court, which is a criminal court. The second is to take up an application for a PO in the civil court.

Unlike the Personal Protection Order (PPO) under the Women's Charter where a victim can directly file for such an order, a PO generally requires a lawyer to make the application, said Ms Lim.

"It thus may be quite expensive and the processes are more cumbersome than the PPO." Besides cost, the process is more cumbersome too. Ms Lim said the police cannot act when there is a breach of order until the victim goes to court and files a complaint.

"As a victim, you generally just want the police to step in and protect you, which is why most people would go straight for the criminal remedy and file a complaint in the Magistrates' Court."

Besides the law, a Tripartite Advisory on Workplace Harassment was issued in December last year to encourage bosses to take all nature of harassment seriously.

It was drafted by the Manpower Ministry, National Trades Union Congress, and Singapore National Employers Federation, among others.

Employers have been advised to set up a hotline for victims to report harassment safely, and provide better training for human resource personnel to deal with such cases.

Male victims may have it worse

Mr Rajan Supramaniam, managing director of Hilborne Law, said that while victims of sexual harassment are generally women, he has handled "quite a number of cases" in which the victims were men.

"For sexual harassment, I've had a couple of male victims coming to me for enquiries and consultations only. None actually pursued the matter in court. They were touched inappropriately at the workplace, or in public places such as shopping malls and dance clubs."

He has also handled cases of non-sexual harassment.

"Usually what happens is the parties break up on a bad note, and then one begins to victimise and harass the other. It's the same methods, such as sending text messages, spreading false rumours and allegations, and turning up at the workplace of the victim."

Some harassers were women, he added.

Male victims of sexual harassment are in a more difficult position than their female counterparts, although the law is gender neutral, the Association of Women for Action and Research's executive director Corinna Lim told The Sunday Times.

This is because of societal perceptions which make men feel more "shame", she added.

"The victim may feel ashamed and find it hard to talk to anyone about it because the incident may raise questions about his sexuality," said Ms Lim.

"As homosexuality is still a taboo topic, they will be wondering, 'How do I tell anyone about this?', and this adds another layer of complication as to whether to go public."

On top of this, some men may feel that people will think badly of them for not being able to stand up for themselves.

This article was first published on Dec 11, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.