POHA
Ministry of Law, Singapore

A. Problem Analysis

 1. What was the problem before the implementation of the initiative?
Harassment can take place anywhere, and in any form. Some common forms of harassment include sexual harassment, cyber-harassment and school bullying. In recent times, we have noted more incidences of harassment coming to the fore and these were becoming increasingly egregious in nature. This is a worldwide trend, and in other countries, particularly harrowing cases of harassment have resulted in death or serious injury. With the proliferation of social media, harassing conduct has started to move online. Cyber space makes harassment easier, and in some ways, more egregious, because it is anonymous, borderless, and viral. Children were particularly vulnerable. In a Microsoft Study surveying the issue of bullying of youth aged 8 to 17, Singapore was found to have the second highest rate of online bullying of youths (58%), behind only China (70%). Despite the growing nature of the problem, civil remedies that could protect people from harassment (save for violence taking place in a domestic situation) were limited. A recent High Court decision cast doubt as to whether or not there could be civil action for remedies against harassment, such as damages or injunctions. Existing criminal sanctions were also inadequate as it was not clear that they would cover online conduct. Stalking was also not a criminal offence. Few countries in the world have legislation specifically targeting harassment in a holistic manner, particularly online harassment. Any solution would require setting aside preconceived notions and established practices, and looking at the problem with a fresh perspective.

B. Strategic Approach

 2. What was the solution?
The Ministry of Law had been monitoring these worldwide developments for a few years, as well as studying how other countries have attempted to address these problems. The Ministry of Law also reached out to various stakeholders, ranging from non-governmental organisations working with vulnerable people groups (such as the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth (CABCY) and the Children’s Society), academics, legal professionals and harassment victims to get a closer understanding of the problem as well as to seek their input how best to address this. The clear call from stakeholders was to enact stronger laws to protect people from harassment in the form of an omnibus harassment Act, which would signify the gravity of the problem as well as highlight the legal repercussions that would follow for harassing conduct, as well as to highlight to victims the remedies that could be available to them. In response, the Ministry of Law, working closely with the Ministry of Home Affairs, introduced the Protection from Harassment Act, an omnibus legislation with a range of criminal and civil responses to various types of harassment. This covers workplace harassment, sexual harassment, cyber-harassment and school bullying. Key aspects of the omnibus Act are: (1) Clarifying that harassment and related anti-social behaviour are offences, whether committed in the physical world or online. The primary offences have been made medium-neutral, so that their effectiveness will not be dependent on developments in technology. (2) Introducing a new offence of unlawful stalking. (3) Introducing illustrations to signal that the Act covers a wide range of anti-social behaviour wherever and however it occurs, such as cyber-bullying, bullying of children, sexual harassment and workplace harassment. (4) Introducing of a wider range of sentencing options to ensure that the sentence meted out in each case better takes into account the culpability of the offender and the harm caused to the victim. Penalties have been increased to better reflect the gravity of the offences. Enhanced penalties have also been introduced for repeat offenders. The court is also empowered to make community orders, such as to make a mandatory treatment order for offenders who may require medical attention. (5) Introduce new self-help civil remedies such as Protection Orders. (6) Extending existing protection for public servants to workers who deliver services that are essential for the well-being of the general public but who are not regarded as “public servants” under existing laws. These would include public healthcare workers and public transport workers. With the new Act, victims now have a wide range of options available to deal with harassment. We spoke to victims who had expressed their frustration with having to rely on the existing criminal process to stop their harassers. Such persons will now be empowered to act on their own, using the new civil remedies. The Act received widespread support, with unanimous approval from all Members of Parliament. The passage of the Act also triggered a renewed focus by government agencies on the issue, leading to co-ordinated efforts to comprehensively tackle the problem across schools, the workplace, and other aspects of Singapore society.

 3. How did the initiative solve the problem and improve people’s lives?
Traditionally, harassment has been dealt with as a matter of public order, and legal frameworks have focused on criminal responses. The Act recognises that, apart from updating and strengthening the criminal law, it is crucial to provide an avenue by which the victim can get the harassing act to stop. The approach is fundamentally different in the following ways: (i) Instead of waiting for the police to take action, the victim can himself take civil action to obtain a Protection Order to get the harassing act to stop. (ii) While pending the hearing of the application for the Protection Order, the victim can get an interim Expedited Protection Order on an emergency basis. (iii) Protection Orders are specially designed to tackle the viral spread of harassing communications. Apart from stopping the harassers themselves, re-publishers of harassing communications can be stopped from further spreading the harassment. (iv) The Act recognises that online harassment has become an increasingly serious issue, and provides various innovative solutions to circumvent some traditional difficulties in civil processes. For example, specialised procedural rules will allow persons to be identified by their unique identifiers, such as a username or email address, instead of their real names.

C. Execution and Implementation

 4. In which ways is the initiative creative and innovative?
Two key important aspects of implementing the strategy were: (i) introducing a “Protection from Harassment Act”; and (ii) ensuring that relevant sectors of society would be aware of the remedies that would be available under the Act. Introducing a “Protection from Harassment Act” The Ministry of Law reached out to various stakeholders, ranging from non-governmental organisations working with vulnerable people groups, such as the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth (CABCY) and the Children’s Society, academics, legal professionals and harassment victims. Their input was vital for the Ministry of Law to understand what they perceived the main gaps in the law’s response to harassment were, and how best to plug these gaps. One key forum where substantial feedback was collected was a conference on harassment organised by the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies on 18 November 2013. The Ministry of Law collated the feedback that these associations and individuals had provided, and worked closely with the Ministry of Home Affairs to formulate policies to update and strengthen laws dealing with harassment. More consultations were also conducted with non-government stakeholders. The result of this was the introduction of the Protection from Harassment Act, which was passed by the Singapore Parliament on 13 March 2014. Ensuring that relevant sectors of society know how to use the remedies under the Act The Ministry of Law therefore worked with news media outlets to ensure wide coverage of the new Act, and also developed our own materials and infographics to update members of the public on the legislative developments. The Ministry of Law is continuing to work with various agencies, such as the Ministry of Home Affairs and the State Courts of Singapore, to develop materials to spread the message at various points of contact for the public, such as neighbourhood police stations. Discussions with other agencies are also on-going to develop policies on harassment in specific contexts. For example, the Ministry of Law is actively engaging the Ministry of Education to ensure that schools have the necessary information and protocols. These are complex matters, as the protocols may differ depending on whether the potential victim is a student, teacher, or some other school employee. One innovation being implemented is a tiered mediation/counselling system for children and young persons. While harassment involving minors can be very serious, there can be cases where pursuing legal options in the courts is not the best way to resolve the problem. For example, it may not be healthy to encourage two schoolmates to take out Protection Orders against each other. The Ministry of Law has worked with both the Ministry of Education and the State Courts to institute a system whereby such cases can be diverted from the legal process at an early stage, and channelled to trained mediators and counsellors. The Ministry of Law is also part of a Tripartite Workgroup for the prevention of workplace harassment, involving the Ministry of Manpower, employee and employer unions, and health agencies. This workgroup is studying how the Protection from Harassment Act will affect the workplace, and among other things, is considering whether codes of conduct and best practices guides can be promulgated to help employers understand their obligations, and employees their rights under the Act.

 5. Who implemented the initiative and what is the size of the population affected by this initiative?
Key non-government stakeholders that we engaged include non-governmental organisations working with vulnerable people groups, such as the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth (CABCY) and the Children’s Society. We consulted leading academics specialising in law and mass communications from the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University. Given that the Act encompassed a wide range of disciplines, these experts provided valuable insights into the impact of the Act in various technical spheres. Legal professionals were consulted, particularly for their views on how cases of harassment were currently being handled, and how the procedural aspects of the new law could be simplified and improved. Special effort was made to hear directly from victims of harassment. For example, one victim was a local journalist who was harassed by a self-proclaimed lover. Another victim was an American singer who was internationally stalked by a Singaporean fan. These accounts proved extremely helpful in contextualising the Act and revealing the human faces behind the issues raised. The Asian Internet Coalition, representing Google, Facebook, Ebay and other internet giants, were also consulted. Engagement with these major businesses was essential, as the Act also covered online conduct. Key government agencies involved in the initiative include the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Manpower, and the State Courts of Singapore. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ involvement is from the perspective of law enforcement of the harassment offences. The Ministry of Education and Ministry of Manpower are involved in school bullying and workplace harassment initiatives respectively. The State Courts will be hearing the bulk of harassment related criminal and civil actions, and works closely with the Ministry of Law to ensure that court processes are simple and easily accessible to victims.
 6. How was the strategy implemented and what resources were mobilized?
The project required minimal resourcing as it leveraged on existing resources and institutions. The main resource required was the human resource that went into formulating policies and engaging stakeholders. Some resources were also incurred in creating the infographics that were disseminated to the public.

 7. Who were the stakeholders involved in the design of the initiative and in its implementation?
1. The Protection from Harassment Act. This piece of legislation was passed by the Singapore Parliament on 13 March 2014. The Act strengthened laws against harassment and provided a range of civil and criminal responses to harassing conduct, including new civil remedies and clarifying that victims of harassment can seek damages for harassment. 2. Positive feedback and strong support from stakeholders. The Ministry of Law has received very positive feedback from stakeholders on how the Act will protect and empower victims of harassment to stand up against harassers. Media coverage of harassment issues in the run up to the passage of the Act contributed to a sense of urgency in dealing with the problem.

 8. What were the most successful outputs and why was the initiative effective?
The Ministry of Law is working with the State Courts to develop a system for monitoring civil applications for harassment related remedies. The Ministry of Home Affairs will also monitor criminal complaints for harassment-related offences. The Ministry of Law will also continue working closely with NGOs such as women’s groups in order to obtain feedback from victims. Application forms for Protection Orders require applicants to provide key information about themselves, the nature of harassment faced and the alleged harassers. Properly anonymised and aggregated, this information can provide a rich source of data on the profile of victims and harassers, and can be used in the future to improve education and outreach programmes as well as enforcement and intervention initiatives. The efficacy of the Act will be the subject of continual evaluation by the Ministry of Law, in tandem with efforts by relevant agencies. Certain areas, such as court procedure, have already been identified as possible candidates for future review. In the longer term, the Ministry of Law has also plans to delve into more complex legal issues such as group harassment.

 9. What were the main obstacles encountered and how were they overcome?
Any legislation which deals with the internet, regardless of its intent or impact, runs a risk of being misunderstood as an attempt to control freedom of expression online. When the Ministry of Law first announced its intention to increase protection from harassment, a member of Parliament had commented publicly that he was “extremely sceptical” about such efforts. It was thus important that the public understood the seriousness of harassment, and the necessity for the proposed measures. The Ministry of Law worked with an independent think-tank, the Institute of Policy Studies, to organise a conference to gather feedback on the views of experts and neutral parties on necessity for firm action to be taken against harassment. An online public poll was also conducted, asking questions such as whether respondents felt that the laws which applied to physical harassment ought to be extended to online harassment. The results of the poll revealed that there was overwhelming support for our proposals. The Ministry of Law also conducted extensive consultations with stakeholders, explaining the policy rationale and addressing their concerns. Public communications highlighted that harassment affected vulnerable groups such women, children and minorities. The increasing influence of the online world meant that harassment was becoming more prevalent, and that concerted and determined action was necessary to deal with the problem. The Ministry of Law produced a video which highlighted the results of the public poll, as well as interviews with victims. The video was shared on social media sites as well as through government portals and partner websites. The video was also used by NGOs as well as current affairs and news websites. The end result of such efforts was overwhelming positive. The legislation was passed in Parliament with the full support from all members, including the member who had earlier expressed some concern.

D. Impact and Sustainability

 10. What were the key benefits resulting from this initiative?
The Act strengthened laws against harassment and provide victims of harassment with civil remedies to be protected from harassment. Five key benefits of the omnibus Act are: (1) Clarifying that harassment and related anti-social behaviour are offences, whether committed in the physical world or online. The primary offences have been made medium-neutral, so that their effectiveness will not be dependent on developments in technology. This is particularly crucial since Singapore has a very high rate of internet penetration, and this will only increase with time. Additionally, children are entering the online world at younger ages, and it is important that such vulnerable persons can do so in a safe environment. (2) Introducing illustrations to reiterate and signal that the omnibus Act covers a wide range of anti-social behaviour wherever and however it occurs, such as cyber-bullying, sexual harassment and workplace harassment. The law has an important signalling effect, showing that society has reached a consensus on what is and is not acceptable behaviour in certain contexts where harassment often occurs. The law can also form the basis on which further public education efforts targeting specific forms of harassment can take place. (3) Introducing of a wider range of sentencing options to ensure that the sentence meted out in each case better takes into account the culpability of the offender and the harm caused to the victim. Penalties have been increased to better reflect the gravity of the offences. Enhanced penalties have also been introduced for repeat offenders. The court is also empowered to make community orders, such as to make a mandatory treatment order for offenders who may require medical attention. (4) Introducing a new offence of unlawful stalking. Previously, individually innocuous acts which cumulatively had very negative effects on victims would not have been criminal behaviour, leaving victims without any recourse. For example, the repeated sending of letters and flowers to a former girlfriend, despite her wishes, could now be stopped. (5) The introduction of new self-help civil remedies such as Protection Orders empowers victims to act for themselves. Instead of waiting for the police to take action, the victim can himself take civil action to obtain a Protection Order to get the harassing act to stop. Protection Orders also are specially designed to tackle the viral spread of harassing communications. Apart from stopping the harassers themselves, re-publishers of harassing communications can be stopped from further spreading the harassment. (6) Extending existing protection for public servants to workers who deliver services that are essential for the well-being of the general public but who are not regarded as “public servants” under existing laws. These would include healthcare workers and public transport workers. This was because there are many employees who perform what are essentially public services, but because of outsourcing and other contractual or legal arrangements, are not classified as “public servants”. Nevertheless, as frontline staff, such employees are often subject to harassment and abuse by demanding members of the public. The Act will ensure that the right of all such employees to work in a safe environment is protected.

 11. Did the initiative improve integrity and/or accountability in public service? (If applicable)
The remedies provided by the Act leverages on existing resources, and recurring costs are minimal. When the Act comes into force, it will apply on a national level, and all victims of harassment in Singapore will have the protection provided under this Act. The framework for protection against harassment set out in the Act is not only readily sustainable, but also forms the backdrop for further public education efforts to combat harassment in our society in all its forms. Its introduction has already done much to raise awareness of this issue in our society, spurring debate on diverse issues such as school bullying, and what can constitute harassment in the workplace. This is a catalyst for cultural changes to what could be deep rooted beliefs about the treatment of women and minorities and other vulnerable groups in society. Lessons learnt from the conceptualisation and implementation, particularly the successful public communications efforts, are being disseminated through Government. For example, we have conducted briefings for the Ministry of Communications and Information on our experiences. More fundamentally, the successful engagement of civil society has built bridges between the public and private spheres, allowing for frank but respectful dialogues between the two. Establishing a strong foundation of mutual trust and respect will reap benefits far beyond this initiative, and will lead to more fruitful collaborations in the future. We anticipate that many future government initiatives, particular those involving the internet, will adopt key lessons derived from this project. The Act serves as a first but important step in ensuring that the online sphere is a safe and civil forum for discourse. Future efforts to strike a balance between the rights and responsibilities of netizens can leverage on the innovative aspects of the Act, especially in areas such as online anonymity, hate speech and other aspects of the online world. The novel aspects of the Act, particularly the Protection Order, can serve as a model for other jurisdictions looking at how to combat harassment online. For example, the Act contains various innovative solutions to circumvent some traditional difficulties in civil processes such as specialised procedural rules will allow persons to be identified by usernames or email addresses, instead of their real names, and to be served with court documents through the purely electronic means.

 12. Were special measures put in place to ensure that the initiative benefits women and girls and improves the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable? (If applicable)
The Ministry of Law has found the experience of conceptualising, crafting and implementing the Protection from Harassment Act extremely positive. The Act has clearly addressed a pressing need in our society for means to combat harassment in all its forms. Beyond that, the project has proven to be the source of many important lessons which can be implemented for future intiatives. One key learning point is the importance of early and extensive engagement of key stakeholders. The Ministry of Law took pains to carefully identify important interest groups, both inside and outside Government. We also made efforts to ensure that public feedback had an important place in our decision-making process. The input received from many rounds of formal and informal consultations were critical in ensuring two things: first, that the problem to be addressed was clearly defined and articulated; second, that policy solutions were specially tailored to the problem and took into consideration the sensitivities of the public and key players; and third, stakeholders were kept apprised of the thought processes of policy-makers as well as on-going policy developments. Another key aspect which contributed to the success of the project was to the clear and sustained communication of the need for reform. In order to assuage legitimate concerns over freedom of speech in the online world, it was important that the public understood the impact of harassment on victims. The personal accounts of harassment victims, publicised through publicly available videos as well as news reports, proved invaluable in demonstrating that harassment was a serious problem requiring immediate attention. Putting a human face to policy problems was thus crucial in garnering widespread support for the initiative. All these efforts required discipline in the public communications strategy, with all involved parties staying on message. The initiative would not have been successful without close coordination with the multiple government agencies involved. As harassment was a subject that spanned law and enforcement, education, labour, telecommunications regulation and many other areas, agencies had to be on board with all key policy objectives. The crafting of crucial policy aspects such as the Protection Order required agencies to think outside of their traditional portfolios, to adopt a whole-of-government paradigm, focussed on what was in the best interests of the public. Finally, the long term success of the initiative can only be sustained through constant efforts to educate the public, review feedback and data, and to be open to new ideas. Even as the initial implementation phases of the Act are winding down, the Ministry of Law is already looking ahead to how we can build on our successes and the new areas for improvement. For example, we will be looking into whether laws of group harassment can be introduced, and whether the existing civil remedies can better take into account the treatment of mentally ill harassers.

Contact Information

Institution Name:   Ministry of Law, Singapore
Institution Type:   Government Agency  
Contact Person:   Jian Yi Lim
Title:   Deputy Director  
Telephone/ Fax:   (65)-63328965
Institution's / Project's Website:  
E-mail:   lim_jian_yi@mlaw.gov.sg  
Address:   The Treasury, 100 High Street, #08-02
Postal Code:   Singapore 179434
City:   Singapore
State/Province:  
Country:  

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