Singapore will soon have its own standalone anti-harassment legislation. The Protection from Harassment Bill 2014 (the Bill) had its Second Reading in Parliament on 13 March 2014 and is expected to become law later this year.
Prior to this legislation, Singapore did not have a specific antiharassment statute so that aggrieved persons will only have found limited statutory protection in piecemeal legislation containing ad hoc provisions relating to harassment in specific contexts. For example, the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (MOA) criminalises certain threatening, abusive words and behaviour. Under the Penal Code, it is an offence to threaten to injure someone physically, or their property or reputation. Using words or gestures to intrude upon the privacy of a woman is also a Penal Code offence. The Women’s Charter gives protection orders to prevent violence within the context of a family. The Moneylenders Act makes it an offence to carry out harassing acts to procure repayment of loans in the context of unlicensed moneylenders.
This piecemeal collection of different laws is unsatisfactory as it does not adequately address the wide variety of ways antisocial behaviour and bullying could take place, particularly in the virtual world. The borderless and virtually “unpolice-able” nature of cyberspace has made the traditional legal protections from harassment ineffective.
The Protection from Harassment Bill is therefore a welcome move to offer a consistent statutory protection against harassment in all contexts.
In brief, the Bill has introduced the following key changes to the law on harassment in Singapore:
- The abolishment of the common law tort of harassment
- Expansion of the law of harassment to cover ‘cyberbullying’
- Introduction of a new offence of unlawful stalking
- More sentencing options and remedies, including imprisonment
The abolishment of the common law tort of harassment
The High Court decision in the case Malcolmson Nicholas Hugh Bertram v Naresh Kumar Mehta  SGHC 308 recognised the existence of a common law tort of intentional harassment. In that case, an ex-employee, demanding to be reinstated after his resignation, engaged in a series of harassing acts against the CEO, including sending him a vicious greeting card of a baby rattle near the anniversary of the death of the CEO’s infant son. The Court granted the CEO his application for a permanent injunction and damages.
However, since 2013, the existence of the common law of tort was cast into doubt with the High Court case of AXA Insurance Singapore Pte Ltd v Chandran s/o Natesan  SGHC 158. In that case, the Court felt that since Parliament had criminalised harassment under the MOA, it was up to Parliament to decide whether to expand the law to allow for civil remedies.
The Bill clarifies this uncertainty by explicitly abolishing the common law tort of harassment so that all actions for unlawful harassment are covered under the new legislation.
Expansion of the law of harassment to cover “cyber bullying”
Currently, it is unclear under the MOA whether the existing law extends to harassment in cyberspace and harassment outside Singapore. The Bill acknowledges that harassment can take place not just in the every-day physical environment but also cyberspace. The internet makes harassment easier, and in some ways, more damaging, because it is “anonymous, borderless, viral and permanent”.
To address the need for protection from harassment via the internet, the definition of harassment has been expanded to “any threatening, abusive or insulting communication” “with the intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress to another person by any means”. Virtual harassment in cyberspace is now subject to the same standards as bullying in the physical world. The Bill illustrates this with various examples, such as, if X posts a vulgar tirade against Y on a website accessible to their classmates and Y was distressed after being shown the message by one of the classmates, X will be guilty of an offence. Additionally, the Bill gives Singapore anti-harassment law an extra-territorial reach to cover any acts of harassment committed by the perpetrator outside Singapore.
Introduction of a new offence of unlawful stalking
The new offence of unlawful stalking is drawn from the UK’s Protection from Harassment Act 1997, as amended by its Protection from Freedoms Act 2012. The new legislation criminalises a “course of conduct” related to stalking, which has the effect of causing harassment, alarm or distress. The ‘course of conduct’ referred to will cover acts which may in themselves be innocuous, but which when done repeatedly, and especially where unwanted, may cause victims harassment, alarm and distress.
Acts such as following the victim or repeatedly sending unwanted gifts and letters can fall within the new offence of “stalking”. Parliament has, however, expressly stated that the offence of unlawful stalking is not intended to apply to inconsiderate behaviour in the context of neighbour disputes, for example.
More sentencing options and remedies, including imprisonment
(a) Criminal sanctions
The penalties have been increased quite substantially. For example, some offences such as “intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress” will now attract an imprisonment term where appropriate, instead of merely a fine under the MOA.
Maximum fines are set at SGD 5,000 (up from SGD 2,000) and the maximum imprisonment term is 12 months.
(b) Enhanced penalties
There are further enhanced penalties for repeat offenders while the Court may make Community Orders where appropriate. These sanctions are not available under the MOA.
(c) Civil remedies
Victims can apply to the Court for a Protection Order to compel offenders to desist from the harassing acts, to remove harassing publications and other forms of communication, and/or to require the harasser to attend counselling or mediation. Separately, the victim can also seek civil remedies for damages against the harasser under the Bill. However, damages suffered in the victim’s capacity as a public servant or public service worker will not be recoverable.
Practical impact on the workplace
Employers must realise that harassment can take place within the workplace and such conduct can be prosecuted.
In fact, a few workplace scenarios are used in the Bill as illustrations of harassing conduct. For example, repeatedly emailing a subordinate with suggestive comments about her body is considered stalking, and making sexually-loaded comments about a colleague within her earshot in a workplace can be harassment.
Employers, in particular those with a mix of employees from diverse nationalities or cultural backgrounds, should be conscious of differing cultural norms when drawing up their internal code of conduct. A friendly hug, a pat on the shoulder or even a joke at a colleague’s dressing style may be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as sexual harassment.
It is advisable for employers to be mindful of any workplace sub-culture that may condone or permit conduct tantamount to harassment and bullying, such as verbal abuse and personal attacks on subordinates, unfair or disproportionate allocation of duties or other similar acts.
In practical terms, organisations and businesses should review their code of conduct, anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies and internal disciplinary procedures to ensure that they are in line with the new law, and to ensure that employees are clear on what constitutes unacceptable workplace conduct both online and offline.