Ragging and Bullying: Their Penalties and What Victims Can Do
Ragging and bullying can cause depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and low self-esteem in their victims. This can harm their social well-being, academic grades and work performance. It may even lead to suicidal thoughts.
Despite these harmful effects, bullying and ragging are not uncommon in Singapore. One 2018 study indicated that about 1 in 4 students have experienced bullying. Ragging is also an emerging problem.
Ragging (or hazing) is the practice of initiating someone into a group through a ritual of humiliation or embarrassment. Numerous incidents of ragging were reported in National Service (NS), or during student activities. Ragging may appear harmless, but it can lead to injury or death if taken too far.
You, or someone you know, may have been a victim of ragging or bullying in Singapore. If you are unsure what to do next, this article may help. It will explain:
- The difference between ragging and bullying
- The criminal offences and penalties related to ragging and bullying
- The manner offenders are sentenced
- The steps you can take if you or someone you know has been bullied or ragged
What are Ragging and Bullying?
Ragging and bullying appear similar on the surface. Both involve acts of aggression meant to cause discomfort to a victim. These acts of aggression can be verbal or mental abuse, such as insults, name-calling or cyberbullying. It can also extend to physical abuse, such as sleep deprivation or confinement.
Despite these similarities, ragging and bullying are different. Ragging is a one-time ritual to initiate new members into a social group. Those involved in ragging (also known as raggers) believe it strengthens the social bonds between members and consider it a rite of passage for new members to be truly accepted by the group. Thus, victims may perceive ragging as a necessary tradition they must endure.
In contrast, bullying excludes the victim from a social group. Bullies intend to harm their victims through repeated acts of harassment and humiliation. Bullies also often do not see their victims as peers because the bullies are older, stronger, or belong to a higher social status.
What are the Related Offences and Penalties For Ragging or Bullying?
There is no specific offence that criminalises ragging or bullying per se. The specific offence will depend on what the raggers or bullies (collectively, the aggressors) did. The table below outlines some of the common offences and their penalties.
|If the aggressor…||Offence||Penalty|
|… harassed, alarmed, or distressed the victim through words or actions.||Section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA)||Fine of up to $5,000 for a first-time offence.|
|… intentionally harassed, alarmed, or distressed the victim through words or actions.||Section 3 of the POHA||Fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment for up to 6 months or both for a first-time offence.|
|… used racial or religious slurs against the victim.||Section 298 of the Penal Code||Fine, imprisonment for up to 3 years or both.|
|… confined the victim to a certain area.||Section 340 of the Penal Code||Fine, imprisonment for up to 3 years or both.|
|… used force against the victim without the victim’s consent, causing the victim to be injured, scared or annoyed.||Section 350 of the Penal Code||Fine of up to $1,500, imprisonment for up to 3 months or both.|
|… hurt the victim.||Section 321 of the Penal Code||Fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment for up to 3 years or both.|
|… grievously hurt the victim while only intending to hurt the victim.||Section 323A of the Penal Code||Fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment for up to 5 years or both.|
|… endangered the life or personal safety of the victim through a rash or negligent act.||Section 336 of the Penal Code||Through a rash act:
Fine of up to $2,500, imprisonment for up to 6 months or both.
Through a negligent act:
Fine of up to $1,500, imprisonment for up to 3 months or both.
|… hurt the victim through a rash or negligent act.||Section 337 of the Penal Code||Through a rash act:
Fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment for up to 1 year or both.
Through a negligent act:
Fine of up to $2,500, imprisonment for up to 6 months or both.
|… grievously hurt the victim through a rash or negligent act.||Section 338 of the Penal Code||Through a rash act:
Fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment for up to 4 years or both.
Through a negligent act:
Fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment for up to 2 years or both.
Further, if the aggressor was not acting alone, the accomplices may also be charged with abetting these offences. If the offence does not state any specific penalties for its abetment, the accomplices will face the same punishment as the aggressor.
How are Offenders Who Commit Ragging or Bullying Sentenced?
The courts adopt a strong stance against ragging, particularly for ragging incidents that happened in an institutional context such as NS. This is because there is significant public interest in preventing the erosion of public confidence and ensuring safety in our institutions. In such cases, the following factors may be relevant when deciding how to sentence the aggressor:
- The extent of harm suffered by the victim
- The way the victim was hurt or died
- The relationship between the victim and the aggressor
- The aggressor’s motives
These factors were applied in the case of Corporal Kok Yuen Chin, an NSman with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) who drowned in a pump well during a ragging ritual in 2018. He was pushed into a 12-metre deep well as he was preparing to enter it, and drowned. The court initially sentenced his commanders, Kenneth Chong and Nazhan Mohamed Nazi, to 10 weeks’ imprisonment under a reduced charge of endangering the life of Corporal Kok through a negligent act.
In deciding the sentence, the court considered that death was the worst possible harm for a victim. Further, the commanders were responsible for the safety of Corporal Kok but provided tacit approval of the ragging exercise by not stopping it. However, the court held that the commanders’ negligence was not of the worst type because Corporal Kok had the choice to enter the pump well voluntarily had he not been pushed.
Although Chong had pleaded guilty to his charge, the court decided that this was not a significant enough factor to reduce his sentence as the evidence overwhelmingly supported his conviction. Further, the public interest involved in cases of ragging limits the reduction in sentencing that guilty pleas can provide.
After an appeal, however, the court convicted Chong and Nazhan of the more serious charges of causing grievous hurt through a rash act, and sentenced them to 11 and 10 months’ imprisonment respectively. The court noted that substantial sentences were required to deter ragging, especially when done in an institutional context. Further, because of the commanders’ role in ensuring discipline and safety, any past contributions to their organisations may not be considered significant mitigating factors.
Bullying cases that resulted in physical injury will likely be caught by the hurt offences under the Penal Code (as mentioned in the table above). On the other hand, bullying cases that did not result in physical injury may fall under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).
This is because typical acts of bullying, such as insults, teasing, or cyberbullying, can be considered words or actions that cause distress to a victim.
For cases involving causing harassment, alarm or distress to a victim, the following factors may affect sentencing:
- The extent and palpability of the harassment, alarm or distress caused
- The repeated nature of the harassment
- Whether the harassment was done anonymously
- Whether the offender had pleaded guilty
The suffering of depression may not be a mitigating factor unless it had played a significant contributory role in the offender committing the offences.
If the ragging or bullying happens in school or during NS, young offenders may be involved. How the court deals with young offenders depends on their age and the seriousness of the offence.
A child below the age of 10, or between 10 and 12 years old but not able to understand his or her actions and their consequences, cannot be charged with a crime. However, an older child who is under the age of 21 may be charged.
If a young offender is found guilty, the court may order him or her to perform community service, probation or reformative training. However, for more serious offences, a young offender between the ages of 16 and 21 may be sentenced to imprisonment instead.
What Can You Do If You, or Someone You Know, has been Ragged or Bullied?
Ragging and bullying can have harmful long-term effects on the victim. If you have experienced bullying or ragging, or know someone who has, you may be wondering what you can do next.
If the ragging or bullying incidents are mild, there are some steps you can take:
- Pay attention. Many victims of ragging or bullying suffer in silence. Nevertheless, there are tell-tale signs that a family member or a friend is a victim of ragging or bullying. Paying attention to behavioural changes in the victim can help uncover cases of ragging or bullying. For example, the victim may exhibit changes in their eating or sleeping habits, or become more withdrawn and avoid school and other social events. There may also be more physical signs, like a victim’s personal items becoming “lost” or destroyed, or unexplained injuries.
- Talk with the victim. If you suspect that someone you know is a victim, try talking to them about it. Having the emotional support of their family and friends can aid the victim’s healing. The victims may also eventually open up on the situation they are facing.
- Do not encourage victims to fight back. Fighting back might seem like a common-sensical response, but it may place the victim in greater danger. Further, it encourages violence and does not solve the underlying problem. Try encouraging passivity instead. Most of the time, aggressors just want a response from their victims. Not providing a response to an aggressor may be a safer option. Alternatively, you can encourage the victim to give an assertive response. This involves telling the aggressors to stop their actions, before walking away and getting help.
If the ragging or bullying incidents persist, you may consider:
- Making a formal report to the victim’s educational institution, if the victim is a student. Procedures will vary by institution. Generally, you can approach a teacher to make a report. Tertiary institutions may also have dedicated channels to make such reports. Hence, do check the institution’s website on how to report bullying and ragging incidents.
For primary and secondary schools, the teacher will investigate any report of alleged ragging or bullying. The students involved and any witnesses will be interviewed. Generally, the school will mediate between the victim and the aggressor to help both parties learn from the incident and reconcile. In more serious cases, parents may also be interviewed and involved in the mediation process.
At the same time, counselling is also provided for the victims. Whether the aggressor will receive harsh punishments, such as caning or suspension, depends on the aggressor’s age, the severity of the ragging or bullying and whether the aggressor has any previous history of ragging or bullying. Aggressors are also counselled to rehabilitate them.
Similarly, tertiary institutions require students to respect their fellow students as part of their code of conduct. Any breach of the code of conduct may be investigated and can lead to disciplinary proceedings against the aggressors. The aggressors can be reprimanded, fined, suspended or expelled if the allegations are true. For example, a range of punishments, from corrective work orders to suspensions, were meted out to a group of Ngee Ann Polytechnic students for violating the institution’s code of conduct after they were caught urinating on fellow students as part of a ragging exercise.
- Consider legal action. POHA can bring some peace of mind to victims of bullying or ragging. Besides the aggressor being charged with a criminal offence under POHA, victims may apply to the court for a Protection Order (PO) to stop the aggressor from further acts of harassment against the victim. The victim can also request the court for a Stop Publication Order (SPO) to prevent the aggressor from spreading any false statements about the victim online. As a last resort, the victim may also seek compensation from the aggressor and any accomplices.
If the ragging or bullying incidents have become more severe, or have resulted in injury or death of a loved one, you may want to take the following additional steps:
- Alert the police. If the ragging or bullying have resulted in injury or death, the police may bring appropriate charges under the Penal Code. But even if there had been no physical injury, the police can still investigate whether the aggressor and any accomplices have committed an offence under the POHA.
- Claiming compensation from the aggressor. If you, or a family member, have been injured because of ragging or bullying, you may attempt to claim compensation for any medical treatment. You may also be eligible for other compensation, such as the pain and suffering endured, and the loss of ability to work. If the victim passed away because of ragging or bullying, family members can also claim compensation for bereavement and loss of dependency. Family members can receive up to S$15,000 for their bereavement. On the other hand, claiming for loss of dependency entitles family members to compensation for monies or other benefits the victim may have provided them had he or she lived. A lawyer may advise you further on your eligibility and likelihood of success for claiming such compensation based on your particular case.
If death occurred because of a ragging incident during NS, a Committee of Inquiry (COI) will be called to investigate the incident. Unlike a police investigation, the COI aims not to determine guilt but to enhance safety during NS, such as through recommending new safety protocols and initiatives. Nevertheless, charges may separately still be brought against those responsible.
For example, the COI for Corporal Kok’s case recommended the decommissioning of pump wells to avoid a similar tragedy. The COI also recommended that the SCDF instil a “zero-tolerance” stance on ragging amongst its officers.
Consulting a lawyer may be useful for severe or prolonged cases of ragging or bullying. A lawyer can help you look at the legal options you have to stop ragging or bullying from happening to you or your family. For example, a lawyer can help you make a case for a PO or SPO and advise you on your next steps if an aggressor ignores the PO or SPO.
A lawyer can also advise you whether compensation is possible for any physical injury you or a family member have suffered as a result of ragging or bullying. If you or someone you know may have been a victim of ragging or bullying, do contact our civil litigation lawyers for advice on your situation.
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