In the first nationwide survey on workplace sexual harassment in Singapore, conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research’s (AWARE) and IPSOS in 2020; two in five respondents said they had encountered workplace sexual harassment in the last five years. What is worth noting is that almost half of the survivors were male – which goes to show that sexual harassment does not affect females alone.
1. What is considered as sexual harassment in Singapore and is there a law in place to deal with it?
Singapore does not have a specific definition for sexual harassment. However, under the Protection from Harassment Act (“POHA”) (passed in 2014), it is unlawful to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior; or publishing any identity information of another person such that it causes harassment, alarm, or distress. Any person who commits the above conduct, whether that conduct is of a sexual nature or not, is breaking the law.
In comparison, the Indian Law dealing with Sexual Harassment, namely Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”) provides an exhaustive definition of sexual Harassment. As per the POSH Act, ‘Sexual harassment’ includes unwelcome sexually tinted behavior, whether directly or by implication, such as
- physical contact and advances,
- demand or request for sexual favors,
- making sexually colored remarks,
- showing pornography, or
- any other unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature
The POSH Act also considers the following circumstances as amounting to sexual harassment:
- Implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in employment.
- Implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in employment.
- Implied or explicit threat about present or future employment status.
- Interference with work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment; or
- Humiliating treatment likely to affect the lady employee’s health or safety.
2. What is Considered as Harassment in Singapore?
The POHA Act protects against various types of harassment, including the use of any threatening, abusive, or insulting behavior, making similar communication as well as so-called doxing, which is publishing identity information of another person.
In Singapore, the following types of actions will be considered as harassment:
- Intentionally causing harassment, alarm, or distress through threatening, abusive, or insulting behavior, communication. For example, if X was fired from their job and writes and sends a threatening letter to their ex-manager Y, causing Y to feel alarmed and afraid, X is guilty of harassment.
- Engaging in behavior or communication which are likely to cause harassment, alarm, or distress when perceived by any person. Examples include cases of shouting threats that make people around alarmed, although the threats were not explicitly directed at anyone.
- Causing fear, making provocations, or facilitating violence. These include any direct threatening, abusive or insulting communication or taking similar actions to cause a survivor to believe that unlawful violence will be used against him or her, or to provoke the use of violence by the survivor against anyone. For instance, X posts threatening and abusive remarks on a publicly accessible website, and later threatens to beat up Y. X has committed an offence for making the threat of physical violence.
- Offences in relation to public officials or public service workers through indecent, abusive, threatening, or insulting behavior or communication. The maximum punishment for harassment against public officials or public service workers, is up to $5,000 in fines, imprisonment of up to 12 months, or both. For example, two men were charged with harassment in 2020 for their use of verbally abusive or insulting language against public officials (a police officer and a Singapore Food Agency officer) during their work.
- Unlawful stalking, such as surveillance, following the survivor, making, or attempting to make any communications, interfering with the property, loitering near the residence, or similar behavior, which is intended to harass, alarm, or cause distress.
- Doxxing was added under POHA on January 1, 2020. Merriam Webster defines Doxxing as – to publicly identify or publish private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge. Sections 3 and 4 of the POHA act, mentions that the publication of any identity-related information of another person or relations of another person is considered harassment. For publication of personal information with the intention to harass (non-physical harm), the maximum penalties are a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment of up to 6 months, or both. If the publication was done with the intention to cause or facilitate violence (physical harm), the maximum penalties are a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment of up to 12 months, or both.
3. Remedies under the POHA Act
The POHA Act provides several types of remedies against offenders. The list of those include:
- Protection Order (PO) – The courts have a broad authority to include any directions to the PO, which the Court deems necessary to stop the harassment. Typically, such requirements include a prohibition of any abusive acts towards the survivor, discontinuing similar communication, and removal of harassing publications. The court may also refer to the offender and/or the survivor to attend counseling or mediation.
- The Expedited Protection Order (EPO) – While getting a Protection Order in Singapore might take from several weeks to more than a month, some situations call for immediate protection. In such cases, a survivor may apply for an EPO separately or parallel with an application for a standard PO. At the same time, it must be remembered that unlike in the case with the Protection Order, the decision of the Court on EPO cannot be appealed.
- Civil claim – In addition to other remedies under the POHA Act, the survivors of the harassment can bring civil claims against the offenders. The court has wide discretion over the award, and if the court is satisfied with the plaintiff’s allegations, the court award such damages, which are in its opinion are just and equitable.
- Order for Non-Publication – The survivors of harassment may file an application to the Court to seek an Order for Non-Publication, which would forbid the publication of harassing statements. In addition, the Court may demand issuance of the notice, which would deflate falsehood and bring attention to the true facts.
4. Remedies for survivors of falsehoods
POHA Act was amended in 2019, namely Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Act 2019 came into force on June 3, 2019. The new amendments in the POHA act provide better recourse to survivors of falsehoods and have expanded the scope of orders, so that the court is empowered to make a range of orders against an individual or entity alleged to have spread falsehoods:
- Stop publication order. This requires the offender to stop publishing the false statement by a specified time.
- General and targeted correction order. This requires the offender to publish a correction notice within a specified time, in a specified form.
- Disabling order. This is an order which requires an internet intermediary to disable access by users to content that allegedly false statements.
5. Punishments under POHA Act
Harassment, abusive behavior, and stalking are viewed as a serious offence in Singapore and are punishable by both imprisonment and fines. Thus, any person who is considered guilty of violating the POHA Act by committing anything of the above is subject to imprisonment for up to 6 months and/or a monetary fine up to $5,000.
Moreover, any subsequent harassment is considered as even more serious offense, punished by imprisonment up to 12 or even 24 months and/or by a fine of up to $10,000.
Amendment to POHA act made it clear that both individuals and entities can be held liable for harassment-related offences.
6. Special provisions for vulnerable persons and intimate relationships
The POHA Act provides additional protection for vulnerable persons as well as to persons who are or were in an intimate relationship with the offender.
The list of vulnerable persons includes individuals with mental or physical infirmity or disability who are substantially unable to protect themselves. The maximum penalties for offences against vulnerable persons, regardless of age, is doubled.
Enhanced penalties also apply where the survivor is in an intimate relationship with the offender. Where the offender knew or ought reasonably to have known that the survivor was in an intimate relationship with him/her, the maximum penalties are doubled. The survivor and offender need not be married to be in an intimate relationship. Rather, the court will determine whether both parties are in an intimate relationship based on the facts and circumstances. Factors the court will consider include:
- Whether or not both parties are living in the same household
- Whether they share the tasks and duties of their daily lives
7. Establishment of ‘Protection from Harassment’ Courts
The Protection from Harassment Courts (PHC) have been established to provide a “one-stop solution” for harassment survivors. The PHC will oversee all civil and criminal matters under POHA and aims to provide survivors with all-rounded effective relief. To increase the effectiveness of POHA, the PHC implemented simplified procedures which have shorter timelines for certain types of applications.
The PHC aim to hear applications for POs and EPOs within 4 weeks and 48-72 hours respectively, and within 24 hours for more urgent cases involving an element of violence. Additionally, the PHC will not be bound by the rules of evidence in the conduct of civil proceedings. This is to ensure that such applications can be processed more easily and quickly.
The anti-harassment laws in Singapore provide strong protection to survivors of harassment, defending against the most known types of such offences in private and public life. The Protection Orders, along with high fines and penalty of long-term imprisonment, are intended to deter off the offenders and return the peace of mind for the survivors. The amendments to POHA have widened the safeguards offered to both survivors of harassment and survivors of falsehoods, including private entities and persons related to the survivors.
– Vaishali Jain, Advocate & Associate – POSH at Work