Penalties for Assaulting a Person in Singapore

Last updated on November 17, 2021

woman about to throw cup at man

Every now and then, you may hear stories in the news about “assault”. These may be accompanied by a harrowing account of violent acts, usually resulting in injuries.

However, you may be surprised to learn in this article that, under Singapore law (both criminal law and civil law), assault does not actually require any injury to be inflicted. Instead, assault simply requires that one intends to cause the victim to apprehend that criminal force will be used against him/her.

If you wish to find out about the penalties for actually inflicting force on another person, then please read our article on voluntarily causing hurt instead.

Read more to find out:

What is “Assault”?

Under section 351 of the Penal Code, a person commits assault in Singapore when he/she makes a “gesture or preparation”, intending or knowing it will be likely that such action will cause another person to apprehend that the first person is about to use “criminal force” on him/her.

In other words, assault does not require that actual criminal force be used. Instead, all that is required for an assault charge is that the accused does something to scare another person into thinking that criminal force will be used against him/her.

It should also be noted that words alone do not amount to an assault. However, the words that a person uses may give his/her gestures or preparations such a meaning that make those gestures or preparations amount to an assault.

For example, saying “I’m going to beat you up” alone would not amount to an assault, and picking up an umbrella in front of someone while it is raining might not amount to an assault. But if these are done together, the gesture of picking up the umbrella, as explained by the words, might amount to an assault.

What is “Criminal Force”?

To understand the meaning of “criminal force”, we must first understand the definition of “force”.

Under section 349 of the Penal Code, one uses “force” against another person if he/she causes motion (i.e. causes to move), change of motion (i.e. causes to change direction), or stopping of motion (i.e. causes to stop moving):

  • To that person; or
  • To any substance, such that the substance comes into contact with:
    • Any part of the other person’s body,
    • Anything that the other person is wearing or carrying, or
    • Anything that is situated such that the other person feels it.

The accused must have also caused the motion, change of motion or stopping of motion either through his/her own bodily power, or through disposing any substance or inducing an animal to cause the motion, change of motion or stopping of motion.

Therefore, under section 350 of the Penal Code, a person is said to use “criminal force” against another person if he/she intentionally uses such force against that person without that person’s consent:

  • In order to cause the commission of any offence; or
  • Intending, by the use of such force, to cause or knowing it to be likely to cause injury, fear or annoyance to the other person.

As an example, if Person A punches Person B without his/her consent in order to voluntarily cause hurt (which is an offence) or to cause injury, fear or annoyance, then that would constitute criminal force.

Another example is if Person A pours boiling water into the water in which Person B is bathing. Assuming this is done without Person B’s consent, and is done with the intention to cause injury, fear or annoyance, then this constitutes use of criminal force.

This is because Person A used his bodily power to cause motion in the boiling water (a substance) that brings the boiling water into contact with Person B’s skin, or such that he/she can feel it.

How Does the Ordinary Meaning of “Assault” Differ From Its Legal Meaning?

In ordinary speech, what we normally think of as assault is a physical, possibly violent attack. However, under the law, this type of attack is more than just assault. Assault only requires that the accused does something while intending or knowing it is likely to cause the victim to believe that he/she will be attacked.

In criminal law, an actual attack would fall under the offences of “criminal force” or “voluntarily causing hurt” instead. Under civil law, assault has a similar meaning (with some differences as will be explained below), whereas the attack itself would be considered “battery”.

This section will explain the differences between assault, criminal force and voluntarily causing hurt, followed by a brief explanation of the differences between assault in criminal law and civil law.

You may also wish to read our article on the closely related offence of criminal intimidation, which involves threatening another person with injury (as opposed to criminal force) with the intent to cause alarm, or to cause that person to act in a particular way.

What is the Difference Between Assault and Criminal Force?

For criminal force, the person must actually use force against another without their consent to either commit an offence, or intending or knowing that such force would likely cause injury, fear or annoyance.

For assault, however, actual force need not be used. There only needs to be a preparation or gesture (beyond mere words) with the intention or knowledge that it is likely that the other person will think that criminal force will be used against him/her.

For example, Person A sees Person B carrying a jug on their head, and Person A throws a stone at the jug with the intention that Person B will be frightened or injured by the jug shattering. Person A’s actions would constitute criminal force as Person A caused the stone to move and come into contact with something that Person B was carrying with the intention of causing fear.

On the other hand, if instead of throwing the stone Person A holds the stone, stands in front of Person B, and then makes a big swinging motion as if he is about to throw the stone at the jug, and Person A knows that Person B will likely be scared that the stone will be thrown at his jug, then this would constitute assault. This would not constitute the use of criminal force because that offence requires that Person A actually applied force to Person B, such as by throwing the stone at the jug.

However, in spite of their differences, it is important to note that the punishments under the Penal Code for both assault and the use of criminal force are the same. Hence, even if a person meets only the requirements for assault and not those for criminal force, the punishment will not necessarily be any lighter.

What is the Difference Between Assault and Voluntarily Causing Hurt?

A person voluntarily causes hurt if he/she does an act intending to cause hurt to another person or knowing he/she is likely to cause hurt to that person.

As mentioned earlier, applying force in order to voluntarily cause hurt (which is an offence) would constitute criminal force. On the other hand, if one does a gesture or preparation that he/she intends to or knows is likely to cause another person to apprehend that the first person is about to voluntarily cause hurt to him/her, this could constitute assault.

For example, if Person A picks up a knife and gestures at Person B’s by miming the action of slitting Person B’s throat, this could constitute assault if done with the requisite intent. However, it would not constitute voluntarily causing hurt unless the person actually uses the knife to attack the other person, e.g. by making good on the threat and slashing Person B with the knife.

However, no force or hurt has to actually be applied to count as an assault, whereas this would be required for criminal force or voluntarily causing hurt.

How Does Assault Under Criminal Law Differ From Assault Under Civil Law?

While the focus of this article is assault under the criminal law, it should also be noted that assault can amount to a tort (or “civil wrong”). For context, you can sue another person in court if they commit a tort against you, whereas a crime is generally prosecuted by the state.

Under civil law, assault is an act that directly and intentionally causes a plaintiff (the person who commenced the lawsuit) to reasonably apprehend the imminent infliction of harm (“battery”). Unlike in criminal law, words alone can amount to assault in civil law. 

Under certain circumstances, even silence can amount to assault in tort law. In one case, the defendant (the person against whom the lawsuit had been filed) was convicted of assault for making repeated silent telephone calls over three months to three women, mostly at night and occasionally accompanied by heavy breathing. The court held that silence could constitute assault when it induced fear of immediate personal violence.

What is the Difference Between Assault and Sexual Assault?

It is also worth noting the differences between the offences of “assault” and “sexual assault involving penetration”, as well as how the term “sexual assault” differs in meaning at law as compared to its ordinary usage.

Although they share the word “assault” in their name, the offences of assault and “sexual assault involving penetration” are completely different.

Under section 376 of the Penal Code, “sexual assault involving penetration” refers to offences involving sexual penetration that do not amount to rape, such as when a person penetrates the anus or vagina with any part of their body except the penis, or when that person causes someone else to sexually penetrate another person’s body.

On the other hand, some people may use the term “sexual assault” to refer to various sexual offences under the Penal Code that may include the following:

  • Rape;
  • Sexual assault by penetration;
  • Sexual penetration of minor;
  • Sexual grooming of minor;
  • Sexual abuse and exploitation of child or young person;
  • Procurement of sexual activity with person with mental disability; and
  • Outrage of modesty.

However, it must be noted that under the Penal Code, strictly speaking, sexual assault refers only to the second case (sexual assault by penetration that does not amount to rape).

What are the Offences and Penalties For Assaulting a Person in Singapore?

The penalties for committing assault vary depending on the severity of the offence committed. (In addition, as mentioned earlier, these punishments are the same as those for committing criminal force.)

Assault or criminal force without grave and sudden provocation

Under section 352 of the Penal Code, if someone assaults or uses criminal force on another person when there was no grave and sudden provocation by that person, he/she will be punished with imprisonment for up to 3 months and/or a fine of up to $1,500.

However, grave and sudden provocation is not an excuse if:

  • The accused himself had sought the provocation or voluntarily provoked the other person into provoking him;
  • The provocation had been given:
    • By anything done in obedience to the law or
    • By a public servant in the lawful exercise of the powers of such a public servant (e.g. a police officer arresting the offender); or
  • The provocation had been done in the lawful exercise of the right of private defence.

Assault or criminal force on grave and sudden provocation

On the other hand, if it is found that the provocation is grave and sudden enough to mitigate the offence, the person will instead be punished with imprisonment for up to 1 month and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

The following subsections will detail the penalties for committing assault and using criminal force in more specific circumstances.

Assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his/her duty

If someone assaults or uses criminal force against a public servant on duty, that person will be punished with imprisonment for up to 4 years and/or a fine under section 353 of the Penal Code.

Assault or criminal force to a person with intent to outrage modesty

On the other hand, if a person assaults or uses criminal force against any person, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely he/she will thereby outrage the modesty of that person, he/she will be punished with imprisonment for up to 2 years, a fine, and/or caning.

The imprisonment term may be extended to 5 years if this offence is committed against a person under 14 years of age.

In particular, under section 354A of the Penal Code, if a person, voluntarily causes or attempts to kill, hurt, wrongfully restrain or put another person in fear of suffering any of these when outraging that person’s modesty, he/she will be punished with imprisonment for between 2 and 10 years and caning.

However, the minimum imprisonment sentence increases to 3 years if the offence had been committed:

  • In a lift in any building; or
  • Against any person under 14 years old.

Assault or criminal force in committing or attempting to commit theft of property carried by a person

A person who assaults or uses criminal force against another person when committing or attempting to commit theft of any property that the other person had been wearing or carrying, will be punished with between 1 to 7 years’ imprisonment, and caning.

Assault or criminal force in attempting wrongfully to confine a person

Finally, under section 357 of the Penal Code, a person who assaults or uses criminal force against another person in an attempt to wrongfully confine that person will be punished with imprisonment for up to 1 year and/or a fine of up to $3,000.

If you believe you have been a victim of assault in Singapore, you should report the incident to the police immediately. If the accused is convicted, the court might also award you with compensation for losses you have suffered as a result of the assault.

Depending on the circumstances, you may also be able to sue the accused for compensation in a civil suit for assault. However, note that “double recovery” is not allowed, i.e. you will not be able to sue for any amount of compensation that the court has already awarded you when convicting the accused of the assault offence.

On the other hand, if you have been charged with assault in Singapore, you may want to discuss your options with a criminal lawyer. He/she will be able to better advise you on how to proceed with your case, such as whether to plead guilty or to proceed with trial, as well as the defences you may be able to raise.  Your lawyer might also be able to help you argue in mitigation for a lighter punishment if you are eventually found guilty of assault.

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