Combatting Harassment, Safeguarding Singapore - A Summary of the Institute of Policy Studies' Conference on Harassment in Singapore on 18 November 2013
25 Nov 2013 Posted in Press releases
The Institute of Policy Studies organised a conference on 18 November 2013 to discuss the problem of harassment in Singapore and how it should be addressed. The participants included key players on the issue, such as industry experts, legal professionals, educators, social workers and civic leaders. Their discussions showed that people from all walks of life suffered harassment.
In his opening speech, Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam, said that the conference provided a platform to identify the problems posed by harassment and the current gaps in our laws, and to discuss possible solutions (Key points of the Minister’s speech are available here (0.13MB).) During the panel discussions, experts in the fields spoke and interacted with participants in “question-and-answer” sessions. The Minister for Law and the Senior Minister of State for Law and Education then concluded the conference with a dialogue session.
The Consensus from the Conference: The Law must be strengthened to combat harassment
- The discussions were lively and broad ranging. There was general agreement that the current state of the harassment laws in Singapore was unsatisfactory and lagged behind legislation in other countries.
- The panellists as well as the other participants felt that it was important to enact a single piece of legislation on harassment to send a clear signal to Singaporeans that harassment is a serious wrong that would not be tolerated. Such legislation needed to cover the whole range of harassment such as sexual harassment, stalking and bullying, whether they take place in the physical world or in cyberspace. Harassment should also be defined broadly to ensure that the legislation would remain relevant despite technological advances and changes in behaviour.
- Specific discussions at the conference
- Each panel saw a good and informed exchange between the panel members and the floor. The views of the panellists and the main lines of discussion are summarised in the following sections.
Panel 1: Sexual harassment & stalking
- Panel 1 comprised:
- Mr Wendell Wong, Director, Dispute Resolution, Drew & Napier LLC (Facilitator)
- Ms Corinna Lim, Executive Director, Association of Women for Action and Research (Speaker)
- Assistant Professor Goh Yihan, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore (Speaker)
- Specific legislation against workplace sexual harassment was suggested, in particular to statutorily oblige employers to provide adequate protection against workplace sexual harassment, to create a complaint mechanism for sexual harassment cases, and to enhance civil remedies for victims.
- Concerns were raised that such legislation might lead to workers becoming overly-cautious with their actions and behaviour. To alleviate this, it was suggested that statutory defences could protect normal behaviour.
- Another suggestion was for the implementation of a graduated response involving the community that could be specific to the harm concerned, such as by providing for an apology or a clarification to be issued. Graver punishments should only be imposed where the conduct was egregious or repetitive.
Panel 2: Harassment in schools & bullying of children and youth
- Panel 2 comprised:
- Mr Yap Teong Liang, Partner, TL Yap & Associates (Facilitator)
- Ms Esther Ng, President and Founder, Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth (Speaker)
- Ms Tan Bee Joo, Co-Director, Singapore Children’s Society (Speaker)
- There were unanimous views on the negative effects of bullying in schools. There were recommendations for the Ministry of Education (MOE) to adopt a “whole-school approach” for all local schools to develop anti-bullying policies, and for the National Institute of Education to equip trainee teachers to handle bullying in schools appropriately.
- Participants called for a multi-pronged approach to recognise bullying as a problem and to put in place preventive measures. Bullies needed to be educated to realise that bullying is harmful. Laws and legislation should only be imposed for the most severe cases.
- It was recognised that, because the perpetrators are often children themselves, they should not ordinarily be put through the criminal justice system and that rehabilitative measures would be more appropriate.
Panel 3: Online harassment
- Panel 3 comprised:
- Dr Carol Soon, Research Fellow, Institute of Policy Studies (Facilitator)
- Mr Jonathan Yuen, Partner, Commercial Litigation, Rajah & Tann LLP (Speaker)
- Professor Tan Cheng Han, Chairman, Media Literacy Council (Speaker)
- It was highlighted that a wide variety of anti-social behaviour, including the perpetuation of factual inaccuracies, exists online. Anonymity in the cyberspace has emboldened perpetrators. Resistance from internet service providers and foreign email and website operators have made it harder to use self-help remedies presently available. Nonetheless, the role of the law remains in setting standards and reinforcing social norms.
- There was agreement that civil remedies, such as protection orders against stalking, may be more appropriate responses to the problem. Monetary compensation would be suitable where there is emotional distress which causes physical or mental harm to the victim’s health.
- Participants agreed that self-help remedies would be especially useful for online harassment, where damage is done quickly through posting and re-posting of offending material. Individuals should be allowed to approach website operators directly to correct inaccurate facts or take down offending material without having to go through the court process. These lesser remedies are also particularly appropriate in cases which are less serious (and may not amount to harassment) and do not warrant criminal and civil proceedings. In such cases, the victim of the inaccuracies could simply be allowed to clarify the facts, or ask for the falsehood to be corrected. There was no need for damages or criminal sanctions. It was also suggested that a “safe harbour” regime, allowing the website operator immunity from claims if it ameliorates the harm caused (perhaps by publishing the victim’s reply), could strike a sensible balance between competing objectives. This also incentivises website operators to act responsibly and to act on legitimate complaints.
- There was consensus that where self-help measures failed, a tribunal with a simpler and less costly procedure than the court process, but nevertheless of equal standing with a district court, would be more accessible for the lay person to navigate through by himself.
- Minister’s dialogue session
- There were queries if extra-territoriality would pose challenges to the effective enforcement of our laws in the cyberspace. The Minister explained that this should not be a constraint if the impact of the offending act is felt in Singapore. The key objective is to underline the seriousness of harassment by criminalising it to create a powerful norm-setting effect.
- One participant shared that she had researched into addressing cyber-bullying through enlisting the agreement of websites and asked if the Minister would view these third party sites as partners. The Minister said that he was aware of such measures and invited the participant to share her research.
- A participant suggested adopting the family violence framework to deal with harassment, i.e., to allow individuals to apply for a restraining order and to have the police investigate any breaches of the order. The Minister explained that while the decision as to whether the police should enforce such orders lie within the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs, he agreed that protection orders could be one type of civil remedy.
- One participant commented that anonymity on the Internet made it especially difficult for victims to deal with harassment or defamation online. The Minister acknowledged the challenge.
- Addressing harassment in Singapore
- The Conference brought together various stakeholders and informed commentators. The rigorous exchange of views and suggestions will be carefully considered by the Government in developing a response to harassment. Several significant points raised, and which will be developed by the Ministry of Law, include:
- the clear preference for a single Act;
- creating a calibrated and graduated response to harassing conduct;
- providing realistic and appropriate remedies for victims; and
- ensuring that the Act will be enforceable and effective.
Reform through a comprehensive Harassment Act
- The Ministry initially favoured an incremental approach to reform Singapore’s law on harassment, i.e., by tweaking existing legislation. However, having heard the general and overwhelming consensus for a standalone harassment bill, the Ministry will take this preference into serious consideration.
- The participants felt that a single comprehensive Act sends an unambiguous signal that harassment in all its forms will not be tolerated. It should span all types, situations and places where harassment takes place such as those highlighted in the conference: bullying of children within and outside schools; stalking; sexual harassment in the workplace; harassment, whether in the real world or in cyberspace. It would also be more efficient to update a single Act.
Continuum of Responses to Harassment
- As harassment can take many forms, and involve different offender profiles and different victim needs, the Ministry accepts the general view that graduated responses best serve the needs of society. Criminal prosecution alone would not address the needs of those victims who are primarily concerned with stopping the harassment or getting compensation; instead, it should remain for the worst offences or the most persistent offenders. A/P Goh recommended that the civil remedy be put in place by statute to overcome the uncertainty of current case law. In cases of bullying of children and youths, where very often the perpetrators are themselves minors, rehabilitative measures like counselling and working with the parents of the children would be more appropriate and effective. Conversely, where the perpetrators are adults, the full weight of criminal prosecution can be brought to bear. There were also strong calls for schools to adopt anti-bullying policies.
- There was agreement that civil remedies should be made available to victims. These could range from protection orders to monetary compensation.
- There were also suggestions and agreement that self-help remedies, especially where harassment takes place online, would be useful.
- The Ministry has noted the need to ensure that remedies are effective and accessible to avoid prolonging the suffering of victims. Wherever possible, victims should be able to take steps to first have the harassment stopped. With online harassment, third party website-owners must be encouraged to assist victims. Professor Tan Cheng Han’s suggestion for a safe harbour for third parties who actively address harassment occurring on their sites will be seriously considered. This provides some measure of protection to websites who may not be aware of the nature of the statement or who do not have the means to vet every statement that is posted on their websites.
- These self-help measures could include a right of clarification of factually inaccurate or scurrilous remarks, or removing harassing, hurtful or untrue material. The full range of remedies may be out of reach to victims who do not know the identity of the perpetrator, but these measures may reduce the harm sufficiently for the victim to return to normalcy and be of some consolation. Where these measures can be put in place, as noted by the Minister, there is no need for the law to be deeply involved.
- Where self-help measures are insufficient or impractical, the process to obtain justice should be simple and effective: tribunals with expedited procedures could hear such complaints and provide swift justice by ordering take-downs, injunctions or compensation without involving the police and lawyers. This was underlined by Ms Corinna Lim in the context of sexual harassment. Without this, victims may be frustrated in their effort to seek redress.
- Ms Corrinna Lim suggested in the context of workplace harassment that employers should be made liable in some situations as they are best placed to protect employees in this regard. This creates a very specific form of liability, the impact of which would need to be studied by the Ministry of Manpower as part of its overall policy for the workplace.
Enforcement & Extraterritoriality
- There was agreement that despite challenges in enforcing laws of harassment across the board online, there is still utility to have them as they set standards and reinforce social norms. Our laws should also apply even where the offender is overseas as long as the adverse effects are felt in Singapore.
- Combatting the scourge of harassment together
34.The Ministry will continue its work in preparing the needed law, which it will introduce in Parliament in early 2014. It hopes to continue to receive the assistance and support of all Singaporeans in this task
- Key points of the Minister Shanmugam’s speech at the conference (0.13MB)
- Full speech by Minister Shanmugam
Last updated on 25 Nov 2013