The Story In 60 Seconds
- There’s no specific law in Singapore that directly addresses sexual harassment in the workplace. However, the Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) provide measures that cover both physical and non-physical forms of sexual harassment.
- While no official statistics on the number of sexual harassment cases exist, the local feminist advocacy group, the Association of Women for Action & Research (AWARE), reported in 2008 that at least 54.4 per cent of 500 respondents reported experiencing some form of workplace sexual harassment – indicating that workplace sexual harassment is fairly prevalent in Singapore.
When taken together, the Penal Code and the POHA can be used to protect victims against two common forms of sexual harassment:
- Non-physical (e.g. taking of ‘upskirt’ photos/videos, verbal and visual forms of sexual harassment, among others)
- Physical (e.g. stalking, molestation, sexual assault, and rape)
If you have suffered from sexual harassment, you may pursue one or more of the following actions:
- Criminal Sanctions Against the Offender
- Seeking a Protection Order
- Civil Lawsuit
How is sexual harassment defined?
Singapore does not have a specific definition for sexual harassment, or workplace sexual harassment. However, under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) (passed in 2014), it is unlawful to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour; or make any threatening, abusive or insulting communication to another person such that it causes harassment, alarm or distress.
Any person who commits the above conduct, whether or not that conduct is of a sexual nature, is breaking the law.
Under the United Nations’ Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – of which Singapore is a signatory – sexual harassment may be defined as “such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions.”
Using the CEDAW definition, the local feminist advocacy group, AWARE, has outlined some common forms of sexual harassment:
|S/N||Forms of Sexual Harassment||Examples|
|1||The promising of rewards in exchange for romantic or sexual favours, or a “quid pro quo harassment”.||• The promise of a raise, or promotion in exchange for a romantic date, or sexual favours; or
• Threats that you would be fired, or your promotion withheld if you do not agree to a romantic date, or sexual favours.
|2||Sexual assault or rape||• Any penetration without consent (e.g. vaginal, oral or anal), using any part of the body (penis, fingers) or object.
• Any unwanted sexual touching, stroking, kissing, groping, etc.
• Unwanted sexual requests, messages or gestures, including electronically, in the workplace or elsewhere.
• Being made to view pornography against your will.
• Unwanted taking and/or sharing of nude or intimate photographs or videos, e.g. upskirting.
|3||Verbal sexual harassment||• Being addressed by unwelcome and offensive terms such as ‘bitch’, ‘dick’, ‘darling’, ‘bimbo’, ‘ah kua’, etc;
• Receiving unwelcome comments or being asked intrusive questions about appearance, body parts, sex life, menstruation etc;
• Being made to repeatedly and intentionally listen to dirty jokes, crude stories that are unwelcome and discomforting;
• Receiving unwelcome sexual suggestions or invitations; or
• Being repeatedly subjected to sexually suggestive, obscene or insulting sounds, which are unwelcome and offensive.
|4||Visual sexual harassment||• Repeatedly receiving emails, instant messages, SMSes, which contain unwelcome language of a sexually-explicit nature.|
|5||Physical sexual harassment||• Being brushed against or touched in any way that was unwelcome and discomforting;
• Being physically cornered, or having your personal space intruded in a way that was unwelcome and discomforting; or
• Being forcibly kissed or hugged, or being forcibly made to touch someone.
How prevalent is workplace sexual harassment in Singapore?
Yet even when one is armed with such a comprehensive definition for sexual harassment, victims might feel hesitant reporting or confronting such behaviour – whether out of fear that the perpetrator(s) may attempt to ‘punish’ whistle-blowers, or out of fear that their concerns might be dismissed by others. Another common fear of victims is that they will not be believed.
Unfortunately, no official statistics on workplace sexual harassment in Singapore currently exist at this time. However, based on statistics published by AWARE in 2008, slightly more than half, or 54.4 per cent, of 500 respondents reported experiencing some form of workplace sexual harassment.
The 2008 study also revealed that of the 500 respondents, 25 per cent knew of other people who had experienced some form of sexual harassment; 30 per cent of those who had been harassed indicated that they had been harassed several times; and 12 per cent of those who had been harassed had received threats of termination if they did not comply with the requests of the harassers.
- In 1993, AWARE also attempted a similar survey to 1,600 women working in Japanese companies in Singapore, but only received 389 responses. However, out of those 389 respondents, 49.6 per cent of them reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work. 47.3 per cent said they had experienced one or more forms of verbal and/or visual harassment, and 27.8 per cent said they had experienced physical harassment.
In more recent years, AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre has also been tracking complaints about workplace sexual harassment, with at least 62 complaints about such issues in 2015 – an increase from the 61 cases reported in 2014. These statistics indicate that sexual harassment in Singapore continues to be a persistent problem. It may also be a sign that people are becoming better educated about avenues to report such incidents.
What are the laws in Singapore that will protect me?
Depending on the nature of the offence committed against you, the perpetrator may be charged under the Penal Code or the POHA. At the same time, you may also pursue a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator.
Broadly speaking, the law classifies two main types of criminal offences when it comes to sexual harassment: Physical and non-physical.
|Type of Criminal Offense||Nature of Criminal Offence||Relevant Laws Addressing the Offence||Examples|
|Non-Physical||Intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress
(i.e. Causing the victim to feel harassed, alarmed, or distressed after being intentionally subjected to threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviour, or any other form of communication.)
|Protection from Harassment Act (Chapter 256A) – Section 3||(a) X and Y are co‑workers. At the workplace, X loudly and graphically describes to the other co‑workers X’s desire for a sexual relationship with Y in an insulting manner. X knows that Y is within earshot and intends to cause Y distress. Y is distressed. X is guilty of an offence under this section.
(b) X writes a letter containing threatening words towards Y intending to send the letter to Y to cause him alarm. X decides not to send the letter and throws it away. Y finds the letter and is alarmed. X is not guilty of an offence under this section as he had no reason to believe that the letter would be seen by Y.
|Harassment, alarm or distress
(i.e. Using threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviour, or any other form of communication, such that it is likely to cause feelings of harassment, alarm, or distress by the victim.)
|Protection from Harassment Act (Chapter 256A) – Section 4||X and Y are classmates. X posts a vulgar tirade against Y on a website accessible to all of their classmates. One of Y’s classmates shows the message on the website to Y, and Y is distressed. X is guilty of an offence under this section.|
|Word or gesture intended to insult the modesty of a woman
(i.e. Making any word, sound, gesture or exhibiting an object that could violate the privacy, or insult the modesty of a woman.)
|Penal Code (Chapter 224) – Section 509||(a) Intrusion on a woman’s privacy which can include the taking of nude or ‘upskirt’ videos without the woman’s consent;
(b) Flashing one’s private parts to a woman;
(c) Making sexually derogatory remarks towards a woman.
(i.e. Knowingly, or intentionally engaging in conduct, surveillance, and/or communication that causes the victim to experience feelings of harassment, alarm, or distress.)
|Protection from Harassment Act (Chapter 256A) – Section 7||In this scenario, Person X is stalking Person Y:
(a) X repeatedly sends emails to Y with sexually suggestive comments.
(b) X sends flowers to Y daily even though Y has asked X to stop doing so.
(c) X repeatedly circulates revealing photographs of a classmate (Y) to other classmates.
(d) X secretly plants a hidden camera in Y’s apartment. Unknown to Y, the camera continuously transmits live videos of Y to X.
|Assault or use of criminal force to a person with intent to outrage modesty
(i.e. Knowingly and deliberately committing an action that involves molestation, or inappropriate physical contact.)
|Penal Code (Chapter 224) – Section 354||(a) Groping a person inappropriately and without consent;
(b) Hugging and kissing a person without their consent;
(c) Slapping of a person’s buttocks;
(d) Grabbing or fondling of anypart of the victim’s body without consent.
|Rape/ Sexual Assault by penetration
(Applicable to both men and women)
|Penal Code (Chapter 224) – Sections 375 & 376||Any penetration without consent (e.g. vaginal, oral or anal), using any part of the body (penis, fingers) or object.|
How will I be protected?
Generally, under the Penal Code and the POHA, someone who has experienced sexual harassment at work may choose to pursue one or more of the following actions:
- To pursue criminal sanctions against the offender by lodging a police report;
- Apply to the Court for a Protection Order; or
- Sue the offender in court for monetary damages as part of a civil lawsuit.
|S/N||Possible Actions||Procedures & Resulting Effects|
|1||Criminal Sanctions Against the Offender||After lodging a police report against the accused perpetrator, the police will commence investigations and file charges (if applicable) against the person.
Under the POHA, if the offender is found guilty of committing a crime, the convicted person may face penalties ranging from being fined up to SGD$5,000 to imprisonment for a maximum of 12 months, or both. Repeat offenders can either be fined up to SGD$10,000, imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both.
|2||Seeking a Protection Order||You may apply for one of three court orders:|
|(A) Protection Order (PO)||A Protection Order (PO) is a court order made under Section 12 of the POHA against a perpetrator to stop harassing/stalking the victim and/or remove any publication that is the cause of harassment.|
|(B) Expedited Protection Order (EPO)||An Expedited Protection Order (EPO) is like a Protection Order, but is granted when the circumstances require an urgent intervention, and only when certain conditions have been met. In addition, the EPO is a temporary order that will automatically expire after 28 days or on the first day of the hearing for a Protection Order, whichever is earlier.|
|(C) Non-Publication Order (NPO)||An NPO is meant to order a harasser not to publish or to stop publishing the offending statement unless a notification on the falsehood of the offending statement is also published.|
|3||Civil Lawsuit||While a convicted offender may be ordered by the Court to pay financial compensation to someone who has suffered from the actions of the offender under section 359 of the Criminal Procedure Code (“CPC”), such compensation orders are seldom given for cases involving molestation.
With POHA, victims of sexual harassment may seek to obtain financial compensation against the perpetrator by enlisting the services of a lawyer to file a civil lawsuit. Refer to Figure 2 below for more information on how this may be done!
Alternatively, if your harasser has spread damaging and untrue statements about you to others, whether in person or online, you may be able to seek compensation for defamation.
Under POHA, harassment in all forms is considered an offence – regardless if it was committed in the physical world, or online.
In the case of cyberbullying or cyberstalking, you may even be able to obtain a PO if you are unsure of the perpetrator’s identity, for example where they are using a fake profile to target you.
Moreover, the Act will also apply to offences committed outside Singapore as long as certain conditions are satisfied. For example, if a perpetrator who is based overseas stalks a victim who is in Singapore, and if the perpetrator had knowledge that the victim would be in Singapore when doing so, that person may be found guilty of stalking.
If you have suffered, or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace, you may feel intimidated, ashamed, angry or humiliated.
Based on Ministry of Manpower (MOM) guidelines, if you have experienced workplace harassment, you may practice the following measures as a start:
- Keep a distance from people who exhibit unacceptable social behaviour, where reasonably possible;
- Adopt a buddy system in situations where personal safety may be compromised;
- Get help using pre-arranged distress signal or other appropriate means such as the personal duress system, in situations where personal safety may be compromised.
MOM also urges employees to familiarise themselves with their organisation’s workplace harassment-related procedures; and to report the harassment encounter to your supervisor, manager, Human Resources Department, or delegated neutral party for the organisation to intervene and take appropriate action. Your company has an obligation to take steps to protect you from workplace harassment.
If you need to, speak with the AWARE helpline at 1800-774-5935, and consider lodging a report with the Police.
However, if you are considering launching a civil lawsuit against your harasser, do consider seeking legal advice first in order to bolster your case!
- Workplace sexual harassment is a major concern, and while it can be daunting for victims of such harassment to confront the perpetrators, there are avenues for you to seek redress, as well as support networks to help you.
- Sexual harassment can take both physical and non-physical forms – which is why the Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) can be used to protect victims in such cases.
- You can choose to not only pursue criminal sanctions against the offender, but also apply to the Court for a Protection Order. In addition, you may also file a civil lawsuit against the offender if you wish to seek financial compensation.
- But given the complexities of a civil lawsuit, it is advisable that you consult a lawyer first to strengthen your case before filing for one!
Have a question about workplace sexual harassment?
If you have a legal question about workplace sexual harassment, you can request a quote with Kennedy Chen from Eversheds Harry Elias. You can also get a Quick Consult with other lawyers. With Quick Consult, you can check out in minutes and for a transparent, flat fee, the lawyers will call you back on the phone within 1-2 days to answer your questions and give you legal advice.
This article is written by Kennedy Chen from Eversheds Harry Elias and edited by Tang Chee Seng.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.