The offence of harassment is punishable in Singapore under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). It covers offences that happen in Singapore, and also crimes committed by foreigners against Singapore nationals. Attacks carried out online using the internet are also covered.
The law has had to expand and adapt in recent years to cover new technologies and new types of offences. It now covers all areas of modern life, including work, school, public places and also cyberspace. The POHA can be used to prosecute online crimes like stalking, sexual harassment, doxxing (publicly revealing sensitive documents or information about someone), and other kinds of abusive, threatening or insulting activity. Communications in both real and virtual settings are also covered.
Remedies include Non-Publication Orders (NPOs), Protection Orders (POs), Expedited Protection Orders (EPOs) and civil proceedings against the perpetrator.
It is wise to ask for the help of a lawyer in these cases, due to the number of possible remedies, and the range of other legal statutes that may apply – such as the Women Charter and the Penal Code. They can advise on the most suitable remedy according to your individual circumstances, and guide you through the procedure for obtaining the remedy as quickly as possible.
What constitutes harassment in Singapore?
As we have seen, POHA covers a wide range of harassment offences – threats, abuse, insults, doxxing and more. The following actions are classed as harassment in Singapore:
- Deliberately causing distress, alarm or harassment, by using threats, abuse or insults, and by disclosing some of the victim’s personal data. For instance, if an employee makes claims about the alleged promiscuity or a co-worker within their earshot, then those claims constitute the offence of harassment.
- Acting or communicating in a way that is likely to cause distress, alarm or harassment when perceived by another individual. For example, shouting threats which alarm bystanders are classed as harassment, even though no specific person was the target of the threats.
- Unlawful stalking, for example following someone, surveilling them, interfering with their property, loitering near their home or any similar activities which are intentionally alarming, harassing or distressing .
- Offences relating to public servants or officials, through abusive, indecent, insulting or threatening acts or communications.
- Causing fear, facilitating violence or making provocations. This will include threatening, insulting or abusive communications, or making someone believe that violence will be used against them. This sort of behaviour may often be seen in a school setting.
Remedies under POHA
There are several remedies provided by the Protection from Harassment Act:
- Protection order (PO): The court can order any sort of directions it deems necessary to stop the harassment. Usually they prohibit the acts of abuse that the victim has been suffering, or order someone to stop the harmful communications, or remove harmful publications. The perpetrator and/or victim can also be referred to counselling or mediation by the court.
- Expedited Protection Order (EPO): Some situations require the victim to have protection immediately, rather than wait weeks or months for a Protection Order (PO) to be granted. In such as case, an Expedited Protection Order can be used, separately or in parallel with their application for the standard Protection Order. But the court’s decision on an EPO cannot be appealed, which is the not the case with a standard PO.
- Civil claim: a victim can claim in the civil court against the offender as well as seeking a remedy under the POHA. If the court is satisfied with the plaintiff’s allegations, it has wide discretion to award damages it sees as just and equitable.
- Non-Publication Orders: Harassment victims can apply to the Court to seek an order for Non-Publication. This forbids the publication of statements deemed to be harassing in nature. The court may also order a statement to be published which sets the record straight and highlights the true facts of the case.
Punishments under POHA
A person who is found guilty of crimes under the POHA is subject to a prison term of up to 6 months, and/or a fine up to $5,000, such is the seriousness of crimes of harassment in Singapore.
Any further harassment that occurs again is treated more severely, and sentences will range from a prison term of 1 to 2 years, and/or fines of up to $10,000.
Vulnerable people receive further protection under POHA, as do victims who were in an intimate relationship with the offender. Vulnerable people include victims with physical or mental health issues, disabilities or those who can’t protect themselves. The victim does not need to have been living with the perpetrator or have had sexual relations with them, for the relationship to be classed as intimate. They may simply be taking joint care of someone under the age of 21, or sharing the duties of their everyday lives with each other.
Aggravated offences, committed under POHA against vulnerable people, in intimate relations with the offender, will be punished more severely than less serious, non-aggravated crimes.
Applying for a Protection Order in Singapore
Having the help of a lawyer can speed up the process of obtaining a PO and reduce the need for you to visit the Service Bureau to file the case. A lawyer can do this, although you can do the process on your own if you prefer. The whole process is as follows:
The first step to getting protection from harassment in Singapore is a pre-filing assessment. An assessor from the Harassment Cases Registry at State Court will explain the remedies and may advise others in addition to judicial ones.
The choices of remedy under POHA at this stage include a Non-Publication Order (NPO), Protection Order (PO), Expedited Protection Order (EPO), and/or monetary compensation. You have the option of pursuing a remedy in criminal law too, such as filing a report to police or a Magistrate Complaint.
Civil remedies under POHA
The procedure for choosing a civil track and filing for a PO, EPO or NPO under POHA begins at the Service Bureau. You must file a pack of documents including:
- Ex Parte Originating Summons,
- Supporting Affidavit, which will also incorporate supporting evidence for the Court.
A Supporting Affidavit should be affirmed at the State Court’s central Registry, in the presence of a Commissioner for Oaths.
Serving Summons on the Respondent
It may be helpful to have a lawyer’s help for this step. Either a lawyer or a court official (the ‘Court Process Server’) can serve the Summons. If the court official does it, the claimant must accompany them in person. Often, it’s not possible or desirable for the victim to serve the Summons on the actual offender – it is preferable to use a lawyer in this situation.
Attending a Pre-Trial Conference
A Pre-trial Conference (PTC) happens in court, before the hearing itself. In it, the judge determines if mediation could help to resolve the matter – if not, the judge will order the case to be heard at trial. They will confirm the procedure and name the trial date at the PTC, and may give instructions for discovery (researching and obtaining evidence) or other matters.
Preparing the Evidence
The requirements of the Singaporean State Courts should be followed when preparing evidence. There should be 3 sets in total – one each for the judge, respondent and your own use. Ensure they are made or translated into English, and are bound and paginated. Make any images, publication copies or recordings available in CD-R or DVD-R format. For any recordings, transcribe the most important sections in the Affidavit.
At the hearing, the evidence of both the plaintiff and respondent is reviewed by the judge, who listens to arguments on both sides. Whether a Protection Order or other remedy is granted will depend on this evidence. The respondent’s account is also heard, to assess whether the alleged offender intended to cause the victim alarm, and whether their behaviour was reasonable, in light of all the other facts of the case.
Serving the Protection Order
If the PO is granted, the plaintiff serves it on the respondent. Court regulations also recommend filing an Affidavit of Service, which confirms that the respondent has actually received the PO. Note that the PO only comes into effect after it has been served.
In our modern, increasingly connected world, it is more important than ever to protect people from harassment on the web, or from harm originating outside of Singapore. POHA provides this protection for people in Singapore, regardless of where the offender is located when they published the threatening material or behaved in such a manner. POHA also protects victims who are abroad at the time, but the offender is in Singapore.
Remember that the Protection from Harassment Act is not the only law to protect against these offences in Singapore. Our learning centre provides more information about other remedies available, for example the Woman Charter and Magistrate Complaints.
Thanks to measures like Protection Orders, high fines, and lengthy prison sentences, the laws against harassment in Singapore give strong protection and peace of mind to victims of harassment – in both their public and private life.
Clear procedures on how to apply for remedies are set out in the POHA legislation, including PO, EPO, NPO, civil claims and Magistrate Complaints. However, it may not be possible or desirable for a victim to make the application themselves, especially if they are still suffering the effects of the attack. In such cases it is advisable to obtain help from a lawyer, who can help with procedural steps, evidence preparation and submission, and the application for remedies such as a Protection Order.