The Singapore Parliament passed the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 (the "Act") on 13 March 2014. The Act criminalizes, among other things, harassment, cyber bullying and unlawful stalking.

Importance of the Act

Previously, there was no Singapore legislation dealing directly with harassment and therefore, harassment was not illegal in itself. Victims of certain types of harassment had to seek recourse under other various areas of law. Such legal recourse could include defamation or assault and battery at common law, or the pressing of charges under the Singapore Penal Code if the harassment was serious enough. However, with the Act, all forms of harassment can now be dealt with under a single statute.

Impact of the Act

The Act provides greater clarity that employees will be statutorily protected from workplace harassment, and can accordingly bring legal action against the perpetrators of such harassment. Any organization with employees, whether based in Singapore or overseas, is likely to be significantly affected by the passing of the Act.

The key points of the Act are as follows:

  • the Act brings offenses in the MOA (defined below) under a consolidated legislation;
  • workplace harassment is now clearly covered under the Act;
  • the Act criminalizes actions carried out in Singapore towards a victim who is overseas, as well as actions carried out from overseas towards a victim in Singapore; and
  • the Act provides various forms of statutory recourse for victims.

Summary of key points

The Act brings offenses in the Miscellaneous Offenses (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (Cap. 184) ("MOA") under a consolidated legislation.

The offenses under the Act re-enacts Sections 13A to 13D of the MOA and introduces the new offense of unlawful stalking.

The act of intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress to another person, whether by way of threatening, abusive or insulting words, behavior or communications ("Offensive Acts") is an offense. Any person guilty of doing so may be punished with a fine of up to SGD 5,000 and/or imprisonment up to six months. However, the accused can claim a defense if he can prove that his conduct was reasonable.

In addition, it is also an offense for any person to cause harassment, alarm or distress by way of Offensive Acts which are heard, seen or otherwise perceived by the victim. While this section does not require intention on the part of the accused, the punishment only entails a fine not exceeding SGD 5,000. For this offense, the defense of reasonable conduct applies as well. There is also an additional defense if the accused can prove that he had no reason to believe that the Offensive Acts would be heard, seen or otherwise perceived by the victim.

The Act also introduces the new offense of unlawful stalking, which is defined to mean a "course of conduct involving acts or omissions with stalking that causes harassment, alarm or distress to the victim." Under this offense, the accused must either have the intention or knowledge or ought reasonably to have the knowledge, that his conduct was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to the victim.

The Act sets out examples of behavior which can amount to stalking and provides illustrations. For example, repeatedly sending emails to a subordinate with suggestive comments about the subordinate's body can constitute an offense of unlawful stalking.

Workplace harassment is now clearly covered under the Act.

The Ministry of Law has stated that the Act will cover a variety of behavior, which includes "cyber bullying, bullying of children and sexual harassment within and outside the workplace". The illustrations given in the Act clearly indicate that workplace harassment is covered under the law. For example, while at a workplace, loudly and graphically describing to other co-workers another colleague's desire for a sexual relationship in an insulting manner with an intention to cause the colleague distress can amount to an offense.

The Act criminalizes actions carried out in Singapore towards a victim who is overseas, as well as actions carried out from overseas towards a victim in Singapore.

The Act provides that the Singapore courts will have jurisdiction to hear a case where the victim was outside Singapore when the accused committed the Offensive Acts in Singapore. Vice versa, notwithstanding the fact that the accused was outside Singapore when he/she committed Offensive Acts against a victim in Singapore, if the accused knows/had reason to believe that the victim would be in Singapore at the time the Offensive Acts were committed, the Singapore courts will have jurisdiction to hear the case as well. This also applies to an accused outside Singapore who has been told to comply with an order but fails to do so, and knows/had reason to believe that the victim would be in Singapore at the time of failure to comply with the order.

For example, in December 2013, a Singaporean cyber-stalker was sentenced to three years' jail and a fine for the offense of criminal intimidation after he sent threatening emails to a US-based singer over a period of six years. We take the view that such actions would now be covered under the ambit of the Act. Likewise, if a perpetrator outside Singapore were to send threatening emails to a victim in Singapore, such behavior will also constitute an offense under the Act.

The Act provides various forms of statutory recourse for victims.

The Act allows victims to bring civil proceedings in court against the perpetrators of the harassment. In such proceedings, if the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the respondent has contravened that section as alleged by the victim, the court may award such damages in respect of the contravention as the court may, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, think just and equitable. Also, the Act abolishes the common law tort of harassment and therefore civil proceedings for the tort of harassment can only be brought under the Act.

In addition, the Act allows victims to seek a protection order against the perpetrator and the Singapore courts are empowered to give any direction as is necessary for and incidental to the proper carrying into effect of the protection order.

Conclusion

The Act was passed to plug a key gap in Singapore law. Organizations that normally address workplace sexual harassment issues in the form of organization-issued handbooks or codes of conduct have now been given statutory direction in the form of the Act. Organizations should consider the impact of the Act on their existing employment policies to ensure that they are in compliance with the requirements of the Act. If not, they run the risk of being accused of aiding and abetting such offenses.