On 13 March 2014 the Protection from Harassment Bill 2014 (“Bill”) was passed by the Singapore Parliament. The Bill seeks to provide protection from harassment and anti-social behaviour through a range of criminal sanctions, civil remedies and self-help measures. However, the Bill falls short of creating a workplace harassment offence.
The Tort of Harassment
Harassment, including that which occurs within an employment context, is not a new problem in Singapore. In 2001, the High Court heard the case of Malcomson Nicholas Hugh Bertram v Naresh Kumar Mehta  SGHC 308, a particularly unpleasant matter in which a supervisor was stalked by an ex-employee; his actions included sending a baby greeting card to the supervisor on the death anniversary of his son. An injunction was granted by the High Court, relying on a breach of the common law tort of harassment.The existence of such a tort was, however, challenged in the case of AXA Insurance Singapore Pte Ltd v Chandaran  SGHC 158. In that case, employees of the Plaintiff insurance company found themselves on the receiving end of persistent emails and telephone calls from the Defendant, an insured party. The language used was often abusive and vulgar, and despite several requests to cease, the Defendant continued to send aggressive emails to a number of the Plaintiff‟s employees. Despite accepting the unpleasantness of the conduct, the Plaintiff‟s application for an injunction failed, with Choo Han Teck J noting that: “I am of the view that a law of harassment must be delineated and legislated by Parliament… the law presently makes „arassment‟an offence under ss13A and 13B of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, Cap 184, Rev Ed 1997. Having made reference to acts of harassment through legislation, it is up to the legislature to determine whether the law should be used to govern annoyance caused by means of letters, emails and telephone messages, and whether the present public order law ought to be expanded to allow a claim for civil remedies. And it is for Parliament to determine what the nature and extent of such remedies should be.”
In addition to the now uncertain tort, there has always been some statutory protection against harassment in Singapore, but its scope and application is limited. The current laws against harassment are spread over a number of separate statutes, the most significant of which are the
Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, the Penal Code and the Women’s Charter, all of which criminalise harassment within their specific contexts.This piecemeal approach to protection is far from perfect. For example, a victim protected by the
Women’s Charter has the option to seek a protection order, but there is no such power under Miscellaneous Offences Act. This means that the same conduct can attract very different outcomes depending upon the context in which it is committed.The Bill seeks to rectify these difficulties, and the uncertainty created by the
AXA Insurance case, by introducing a single piece of legislation aimed at recognising the importance of protecting individuals against harassment and providing a single point for recourse. At the same time, the common law tort of harassment will be abolished.
The Bill will bolster the existing harassment laws and provide greater protection against anti-social behaviour by making it an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” or make any threatening, abusive or insulting communication‟with the intention to cause “harassment, alarm or distress” to another person “by any means”. These broad parameters will bring a wide range of actions under their scope, including harassment which occurs in the workplace. As noted by the Law Minister K Shanmugam, “our people, men and women alike, should be free from intimidating, hostile, abusive environments, be it at home or in the workplace”. Key elements of the new Bill are summarised below
Intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress online is an offence; virtual conduct is subject to the same standards as those in the real world.
The Bill creates a new offence of unlawful stalking. This will cover actions which of themselves appear benign, but when repeated cause harassment, alarm or distress.
Victims of statements which are “false in any particular” will be able to apply to the District Court for a order that “no person shall publish or continue to publish the statement complained of” unless that person publishes such notification as the District Court thinks necessary to bring attention to the falsehood and the true facts.
Victims of harassment will be entitled to pursue the offender for damages in addition to criminal sanctions. This will not apply to public service workers in their official capacities.
Although not entitled to pursue offenders for damages, public servants are specifically protected from harassment while performing their official duties. In addition to protection against “threatening, abusive or insulting” communication, public servants are also given additional protection against communication that is “insulting”.
Penalties & Reach
The Bill provides a wide range of sentencing options including fines, community orders, protection orders and imprisonment. The Bill also has extra territorial reach and covers certain acts of harassment committed outside of Singapore.
Although the Bill falls short of creating a specific workplace harassment offence, there are a number of examples within the Bill that use workplace illustrations. For example, intentional harassment, alarm or distress is illustrated by way of a sexual harassment scenario between co-workers; stalking is illustrated by way of workplace scenario between supervisor and subordinate.
Employers should therefore be alive to the fact that the wide reach of the Bill will cover acts committed in the workplace. In particular, employers may wish to review their disciplinary, conduct and internet policies to ensure that employees are clear that harassment or bullying will not be tolerated and will be dealt with as disciplinary offences.
The Bill will need to be gazetted before it formally becomes law; we will continue to monitor its progress and provide an update on enactment once it is available.