Sexual harassment in Singapore (Workplace sexual harassment)

Last updated on September 30, 2014

Sexual harassment refers to the making of unwelcome sexual advancements. It can take many forms, including physical or verbal bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favours. A combination of general criminal legislations and civil causes of actions offers legal redress against the wrongdoer.

On 13 March 2014, the Singapore Parliament passed the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 (“Act”). The Act strengthens existing penalties for harassment and also introduces new offences such as stalking. The Act will also provide a range of self-help measures, civil remedies, and criminal sanctions relevant to sexual harassment.

The Act will come into force at a later date. The text of the Act can be accessed here. This article gives a brief overview of the state of the law after the Act is effected.

Criminal offences

The Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act 2014, prescribe the nature of certain offences and punishments applicable to sexual harassment. Because these offences are criminal in nature, a police report can be made to commence police investigations and prosecutions against the perpetrator.

Criminal non-physical offences

Where sexual harassment takes the non-physical form, such as verbal abuse or lewd remarks, the wrongdoer may be liable for the following offences.

Section 3 of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 prescribe the offence of intentionally causing harassment, alarm, or distress:

Intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress

3.—(1) No person shall, with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress to another person, by any means —

(a) use any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour; or

(b) make any threatening, abusive or insulting communication,

thereby causing that other person or any other person (each referred to for the purposes of this section as the victim) harassment, alarm or distress.

As an illustration, in the following example, X is guilty of workplace sexual harassment:

X and Y are co-workers. At the workplace, X loudly and graphically describes to other co-workers his desire for a sexual relationship with Y, knowing that Y can hear his comments.

Section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 stipulate the offence of generally causing harassment, alarm, or distress:

Harassment, alarm or distress

4.—(1) No person shall by any means —

(a) use any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour; or

(b) make any threatening, abusive or insulting communication,

which is heard, seen or otherwise perceived by any person (referred to for the purposes of this section as the victim) likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress

Section 509 of the Penal Code also criminalises words or gestures that can insult a woman’s modesty. Upskirt photo-takers can also be prosecuted under this section.

Word or gesture intended to insult the modesty of a woman

509. Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.

Criminal physical offences – molest or rape

Where the sexual harassment takes the more egregious form, such as molest or rape, the Penal Code prescribes harsh sanctions to be levied against the offender.

Section 354 of the Penal Code prescribes the offence of the outrage of modesty. It is typically applied to molest cases. For more information on this offence, click here.

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

354.—(1)  Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any person, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage the modesty of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years, or with fine, or with caning, or with any combination of such punishments.

(2)  Whoever commits an offence under subsection (1) against any person under 14 years of age shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 5 years, or with fine, or with caning, or with any combination of such punishments.

Section 375 and 376 of the Penal Code prescribes the offence of rape. Both men and women are protected by these sections respectively.

Rape

375.—(1)  Any man who penetrates the vagina of a woman with his penis —

(a) without her consent; or

(b) with or without her consent, when she is under 14 years of age,

shall be guilty of an offence.

Sexual assault by penetration

376.—(1)  Any man (A) who —

(a) penetrates, with A’s penis, the anus or mouth of another person (B); or

(b) causes another man (B) to penetrate, with B’s penis, the anus or mouth of A,

shall be guilty of an offence if B did not consent to the penetration.

Criminal offence of unlawful stalking

Unlawful stalking will be criminalised for the first time under section 7 of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014. Unlawful stalking generally comprises conduct:

  • Involving acts or omissions associated with stalking;
  • Which causes harassment, alarm or distress to the victim; and
  • The accused person —
    1. intends to cause harassment, alarm or distress to the victim; or
    2. knows or ought reasonably to know is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to the victim.

Some examples of stalking include:

  • Following the victim or a related person;
  • Making or attempting to make communication with the victim, relating to the victim or purporting to originate from the victim;
  • Entering or loitering in any place (whether public or private) outside or near the victim’s residence or place of business or any other place frequented by the victim;
  • Interfering with property in the possession of the victim;
  • Giving or sending material to the victim, or leaving it where it will be found by, given to or brought to the attention of the victim; and
  • Keeping the victim under surveillance.

As illustrations, the followings acts can constitute stalking of X by Y:

  • Y repeatedly sends emails to Y’s subordinate (X) with suggestive comments about X’s body.
  • Y sends flowers to X daily even though X has asked Y to stop doing so.
  • Y repeatedly circulates revealing photographs of a classmate (X) to other classmates.

Obtaining protection orders

A victim can apply for protection orders from the court against the perpetrator for the following offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 2014:

  • Intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress under section 3 of the Act;
  • Harassment, alarm or distress under section 4 of the Act;
  • Fear or provocation of violence under section 5 of the Act;
  • Threatening, abusing or insulting public servant or public service worker under section 6 of the Act; and
  • Unlawful stalking under section 7 of the Act.

Protection orders can take the form of prohibiting the wrongdoer from continuing his wrongful conduct or publishing particular communications. The parties involved may also be referred to counselling or mediation.

Obtaining compensation for criminal offences

The court can order a convicted offender to pay monetary compensation to the person injured, under section 359 of the Criminal Procedure Code (“CPC”). In fact, it is mandatory for the court which convicts an offender to consider whether to order the offender to compensate the victim. These orders are particularly helpful for victims who may have no financial means to commence civil proceedings for damages against the offender.

Nevertheless, compensation orders under the CPC have rarely been given for molest offences. Of the compensation orders made in 2012 and 2013, more than 70 per cent were made in relation to cases involving hurt, mischief and theft. The remaining cases involved other offences, including cheating. (Source: Ministry of Law).

As for the offences of harassment, threats, and stalking under the Protection from Harassment Act 2014, Parliament has seen fit to introduce section 11, which provides the victim with a civil cause of action for statutory torts. Please see the section below titled “Civil causes of action”.

Civil causes of action

The enactment of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 will abolish the common law tort of harassment when the Act comes into force. Nevertheless, under section 11, a victim can still seek legal redress and obtain monetary compensation against the perpetrator for the following offences under the Act:

  • Intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress under section 3 of the Act;
  • Harassment, alarm or distress under section 4 of the Act;
  • Fear or provocation of violence under section 5 of the Act; and
  • Unlawful stalking under section 7 of the Act.

To do so, the victim may need to engage a lawyer to sue the wrongdoer.