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:

  1. The abolishment of the common law tort of harassment
  2. Expansion of the law of harassment to cover ‘cyberbullying’
  3. Introduction of a new offence of unlawful stalking
  4. 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 [2001] 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 [2013] 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.