Protection Against Harassment

Parliamentary Speech: 7 May 2019

Introduction

Mr Speaker, I would like to express my support for this amendment. It reflects a deeper commitment to the protection and support for the vulnerable amongst us. We are also debating this Bill at a time when a case of sexual voyeurism on university grounds has raised important and pressing questions about legal protection and institutional support for survivors.

We must use the current focus on harassment to have a meaningful national conversation on how we can create a society that does not tolerate any form of harassment — one where bystanders feel equipped to intervene, and survivors feel empowered to seek justice. Otherwise, these amendments will not fulfill their mission.

Streamlining Process

One major change introduced is streamlining the process for applying and obtaining POHA orders in Section 17 of the Bill. Currently, applicants need a lawyer to assist in the preparation and submission of documents and subsequent proceedings, and this can be financially prohibitive. It typically costs between S$5,000 and 8,000 leading up to mediation and significantly higher if mediation fails and the matter goes to court.

I commend this amendment to make the process expeditious as well as more economical and accessible which helps to make the ordeal less alienating and intimidating for the applicant. Lina* is a survivor who did not submit her case to court because the process is currently complicated and costly. In her words, I quote, “I’m still struggling to rebuild my life…. [there was] so much paperwork, and I [would] need to take leave and go down to the court so many times… It was too much for me.” These changes will help individuals like Lina seek justice against their perpetrators.

Though not provided for in the primary legislation, the Minister has assured us in his statements to the media that the subsidiary legislation will stipulate that an Expedited Protection Order application under Poha could be granted within 48 to 72 hours. If there is actual violence (or risk of violence), an Expedited Protection Order could be granted within 24 hours. I think a $200 fee has been cited too. I seek the Minister’s clarifications on this.

Mr Speaker, at this juncture, I would like to highlight another obstacle that remains which may impede a survivor’s access to help: young adults under the age of 21 cannot seek protection orders under POHA unless a guardian makes applications on their behalf. This can be a deterrent from seeking legal redress for intimate partner violence and sexual harassment, even if social service agencies or law firms are involved.

Tina* was 20 when she approached AWARE about a blackmail case. The perpetrator was threatening to leak explicit photos and videos of her if she did not continue to send him more. Despite the mental and emotional distress she was going through, she insisted on not involving her parents because she believed they would react “badly”. In fact, she preferred waiting a whole year to turn 21 so that she could go to the court alone. Tina’s concerns are echoed by many, and they reflect a gap in the current system.

Tina’s story is not the only one I know. The 18 year old student I was mentoring a few years back was sexually harassed by her best friend’s brother and did not seek protection either because she didn’t want her parents to know, they still don’t till today. I hope that barriers for 16–21-year-olds can be removed. If need be, we could appoint social workers or court counsellors to support applications in the place of the survivor’s parents or guardian. We need to be cognisant of the social pressures that survivors might face, and understand that some may not be ready to involve their family.

Enhanced Punishments

The other significant change introduced in Section 8 of the Bill is close to my heart — namely enhanced penalties for perpetrators for crimes against vulnerable persons. The Bill defines these vulnerable persons as those with mental, physical disabilities and victims in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator. These changes recognise that these persons are especially vulnerable to being targeted for harassment, potentially face greater psychological/physical damage from such harassment, and are less able to defend themselves or prevent such harassment. I have heard many bullying and harassment stories from just my Deaf friends and persons with mental health conditions whom I work with.

This extra consideration and attention is definitely a progressive yet necessary step forward. But I cannot emphasise enough that the protection of the differently-abled must not only come from the law. The continued harassment of these individuals originates from a deeper prejudice within our society. We must continue our whole-of-society efforts to tackle the root of this stigma and establish a widespread agreement to care and support the differently-abled.

Mr Speaker, I must at the same time urge caution when pursuing the strategy of enhanced punishments. There are valid concerns to be raised on the effectiveness of enhanced punishments in administering two key areas of justice, namely deterrence and retribution.

Extensive studies reflect that enhanced punishments do not necessarily create a greater deterrent effect, and may in fact be counter-productive. Research done by Centre for Criminal Justice Studies in Canada has shown that longer sentences and harsher punishments do not reduce the rates of sexual crimes. Instead, the reverse may be observed, where longer sentences increased recidivism due to a lack of repentance for the initial crime, as reported by the National Research Council in the United States.

Moreover, enhanced punishments may even counter-productively discourage the victim from reporting instances of harassment. In eight out of ten cases that AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre sees, survivors know or are close to their perpetrators. In some cases, especially when the perpetrator is a family member, enhanced punishments may heighten the fears of destroying the perpetrator’s life deterring survivors from reporting. Jenny, for example, shared that even if the perpetrator, her father, was jailed for the maximum period of time, he would never feel the fear, shame, terror and disgust that she has had to deal with throughout her childhood and into adulthood. She also shared that her mother would not be able bear the guilt and it would devastate her, I quote, “so punishing him even for the longest time would only bring more pain”, unquote.

Harsh punishments are not necessarily an effective deterrent nor do they serve survivors better. Instead, increasing victim support and making reporting and prosecution processes trauma-informed and more victim-friendly would go a long way in ensuring that survivors will come forward and sustain their involvement all the way to conviction. Improving the chances of securing convictions will do more to promote deterrence than imposing harsh penalties.

In 2017, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women Committee or CEDAW made a similar recommendation. CEDAW suggested that Singapore prioritises gender sensitisation training in the criminal justice system, not increasing punishments, as a way to strengthen protection for women against gender-based violence. I also urge the Government to consider and look into the deterrent effects of other measures like community service and restorative justice measures as restitutionary agreements.

Expansion beyond natural persons

Mr. Speaker, I applaud the Government for extending the recourse available under POHA to entities that are victims of harassment in Section 11. However, I would like to clarify if the protection that is now available to entities also creates an equal responsibility for them to exercise reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behaviour, failing which they would be held liable for their employees’ actions.

The sexual voyeurism case I mentioned at the start of my speech raises questions about organisational investigation processes, support offered to complainants, and helpful prevention programmes. Although not legally enforceable, the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment provides important guidance on these issues but it’s unclear if the Advisory covers institutes of high learning. If they are not covered, I strongly urge the Government to consider establishing a mandatory code on sexual and other forms of harassment that can hold institutes of higher learning accountable when they do not handle student complaints promptly and fairly.

Conclusion

The changes made in this Bill are driven by key principles that should be celebrated, especially in the clear commitment towards protecting and supporting the most vulnerable amongst us.

Yet, Mr Speaker, we must remember that legislative changes cannot be the end of the process of change. I hope that the Ministry spares no effort in education and awareness efforts with schools, institutes of higher learning, workplaces and communities so that every member of our society knows not just what their rights are but also how to activate these rights in the face of bullying and harassment. Social support must be enhanced to ensure victims have an accessible and holistic process of recovery from these traumas. And more importantly, we must continue to spare no effort at every level to build a society with values of respect and inclusivity that will discourage these crimes against the vulnerable in the first place.

Because a society that has more justice and compassion needs less charity. And our great hope in such a society is in individual character.

Notwithstanding the above clarifications, I support this Bill.

*Names changed to protect individuals

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).