A couple of years ago, my direct supervisor at a previous workplace confessed her feelings for me through a series of lengthy emails. I was young and a greenhorn in the industry. She was some 20 years older and several levels above in seniority. I rejected her advances and, reluctant to risk derailing my new career, chose not to report the matter to HR.

However, the rug was still pulled from under me: it seemed like I was not only passed over for opportunities, but also often put in situations of distress. I eventually quit.

I wasn’t sure if what happened was enough to count as harassment, sexual or otherwise. Plus, I wasn’t explicitly harassed—I wasn’t touched inappropriately or made an audience to lewd comments. But my career progression was seemingly curtailed and life in the office became painful because of the feelings she imposed on me.

And even if I knew exactly how to categorise the experience, I might not have handled the matter any differently because I didn’t know if there were measures in place to protect me. I didn’t know enough and wasn’t about to dive headfirst into a losing battle.

But I now know better. And if you’re going through a similar experience and, for whatever reason, don’t want to approach HR, you need to know that there are laws in place here to protect victims of harassment and sexual harassment—whether or not happening at the workplace.

For one, AWARE recently launched a Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory (WHDA) service to provide practical and emotional support to individuals facing harassment and discrimination at work, so should you encounter any sort of harassment in the office in this day and age, there are several resources you can turn to for help.

First things first: what counts as harassment under the eyes of the law?

It’s important to know what counts as harassment in Singapore.

There is legislation here that specifically governs certain acts of harassment, namely the Penal Code and Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). While POHA covers non-sexual harassment, the acts which the Penal Code legislates against are specifically sexual in nature. There is also no overlap between Penal Code harassment and POHA harassment

“Under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), harassment includes stalking, which isn’t necessarily sexual in nature but can be; and using threatening, abusive, insulting words, behaviour or other forms of communication to cause feelings of harassment, alarm or distress to the victim,” says Cheryl Ng, Litigation Director at Intelleigen Legal LLC.

“And under the Penal Code, harassment includes unwanted touching, which legislates against unwanted touching of a person; and insulting the modesty of a woman, which legislates against filming upskirt videos, saying, making a gesture or exhibiting something which insults the modesty of a woman.” 

So, what counts as workplace sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment isn’t defined in any laws in Singapore. But that’s not to say workplace sexual harassment can’t be narrowed down.

“It’s unwelcome, unwarranted and uninvited conduct or behaviour of a sexual nature by an individual at work. It can happen at a place of work or outside the office at work-related activities such as company functions, corporate events, team-building exercises or out-of-town business trips,” says Shailey Hingorani, Head of Research and Advocacy at AWARE.

She points out that harassers can be managers, work colleagues, clients, suppliers, volunteers or industry peers, and that sexual harassment can be a single event or take place repeatedly over a period of time. She also notes that harassment in general can be verbal, visual, or physical.

Verbal harassment includes making lewd remarks, asking inappropriate questions, or repeatedly asking a coworker to go out on a date; visual harassment includes flashing or sending explicit images and videos in messages or emails; and physical workplace sexual harassment includes molest, assault or rape.

Unsurprisingly, sexual harassment at the workplace, like all forms of sexual violence, is under-reported. Shailey shares that seven in 10 clients at AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre do not report their experiences to authorities.

Some reasons as to why include the fear of not being believed, especially if the perpetrator is in a position of power or authority; a lack of evidence; the fear of professional or personal backlash; and because they have a preexisting relationship to the perpetrator.

Non-physical sexual harassment isn’t less offensive than physical sexual harassment

We all know what physical sexual harassment is: unwanted touching that isn’t necessarily limited to to a person’s private parts.

We also know what non-physical sexual harassment is: it includes flashing, lewd remarks or gestures, upskirt video recordings, dick pics and even an obscene song.

And no, non-physical sexual harassment isn’t necessarily less offensive than physical sexual harassment.

“The offensiveness to a person would depend on the degree of intrusion of the person’s privacy and there is no objective scale. What could be very offensive to one woman, like if someone were to sing her an obscene song, may not necessarily offend a different woman,” says Cheryl.

“The law has therefore never depended solely on how hurt or offended the victim is to convict a person—it looks at the intention of the offender and the act that was committed. But after the offender is convicted, the severity of the offence would play a part in the sentencing.”

She adds that for sexual offences, the degree of intrusion would be especially relevant. As such, a person who touches, say, a woman’s thighs, would get a lighter sentence than a person who touches a woman’s breasts even though both of these acts are classified as outrage of modesty.

Non-physical sexual harassment can be as distressing

There’s no denying that someone who was non-physically harassed can be as affected as someone who was physically harassed.

“There’s a misconception that the impact of sexual harassment is tied only to the degree of physical injury one suffers. However, non-physical forms of harassment can also have very real psychological or emotional effects,” says Shailey.

These effects can be short-term or long-term and can result in fear of others, depression, anger, flashbacks, nightmares, numbness and denial. Trust, sexual attraction or consensual sex later in life can also become difficult if the impact of sexual harassment is not adequately addressed.

What to do if you’ve been sexually harassed

If you’re being harassed and wish to take the matter beyond HR, you can go to the police.

“A complainant of any crime should make a police report. On more immediate grounds, a complainant is entitled to act in self-defence, but only to the extent of what is necessary,” says Cheryl. Under the eyes of the law, a complainant is only a victim if the offender is convicted.

She shares that there are also two types of legal action you can take:

Criminal action

If the police have decided that they will take no further action, you can file a Magistrate’s Complaint to commence private prosecution. If you’ve been given the fiat to prosecute the alleged offender and the offender is convicted, they can be sentenced to jail by the judge. 

If the police have investigated and believe that an offence has been committed, the offender will be charged in court. When the offender is convicted, the judge may make an order for compensation. It should be noted that the law has been amended recently to expand the scope of the court’s powers in ordering compensation.

Civil action

You have the option of suing the offender either under the tort of battery, assault, or the civil remedies under POHA, which include protection orders. What you should do would depend on what you’re seeking, like if it’s damages (eg. compensation).

If you want an order for the respondent to stay away from you or to take something down from the Internet, POHA is the easier option. It’s also a great option because the processes have been simplified, so you can file the complaint without a lawyer. Plus, it’s less costly and you can apply for a protection order, expedited protection order, or a non-publication order.

It should be noted that it’s easier to win a civil suit than a criminal suit because the threshold is lower. However, because it is a private cause of action, you’d have to conduct the civil proceedings on your own or hire a lawyer, and this would be costly. Furthermore, if you lose the case, you can be liable for the other party’s legal costs.

Don’t have evidence of the harassment? It’s OK

You’re not fighting a losing battle even if you don’t have proof of the harassment.

“A lot of sexual offences occur in private, enclosed spaces with no CCTV. However, many offenders get convicted. Don’t let the lack of evidence hinder you from making a police report,” advises Cheryl.

She shares that some factors that determine whether the prosecution can succeed at trial is the credibility and demeanour of the complainant, and whether or not the complainant could have an ulterior motive.

“A complainant’s credibility can be tested via her consistency. For example, is she consistent with what she said earlier in court? Is she consistent with her police statements? Is her testimony consistent with other witnesses who saw her before and after the incident? Is what she said consistent with the messages she sent?,” she says.

As such, your case may not be as much of an uphill battle as you might think it is.

“Our court system and procedures have been designed to be fair. Our judges are especially careful in ensuring that the complainant of a sexual offence is treated respectfully in court and is not put through unnecessary cross-examination. In certain cases, the complainant also gives the testimony behind closed doors, meaning it is not open to the public, and/or via video camera,” she adds.

“Given the seriousness of certain allegations, like outrage of modesty or rape, it’s also appropriate that the court finds no reasonable doubt before it orders a person behind bars and/or caned.”

Where else to turn to for support

AWARE’s new WHDA service not only helps with harassment like workplace bullying and workplace sexual harassment, but also discrimination in gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, age, nationality, family responsibilities and maternity.

“Up until now, there has not been any other similar service in Singapore. While other agencies only see clients after they’ve been dismissed, WHDA sees individuals at any stage of their employment, from job interview to dismissal,” says Shailey.

She adds that they also see both union and non-union members. And that while WHDA caters primarily to women, men are welcomed to use the service if they experience gender-based harassment and discrimination.

Should you seek help from WHDA, you’ll receive emotional and practical support that are tailored to your circumstances and desired outcome. This includes preparation for Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP)/Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management(TADM) meetings, help dealing with HR, consultation with AWARE’s free legal clinic and counselling.

Don’t want to report the harassment to the police? That’s OK too

It’s probably little wonder why there isn’t much concrete data on the professional consequences faced by women who speak out about workplace sexual harassment. After all, there are often negative consequences to speaking out about sexual violence.

“The unfortunate reality is that many survivors who speak out face retaliation, public shaming and negative attention,” says Shailey.

“This is part of the reason why AWARE doesn’t prescribe reporting to every survivor. We believe that every individual should weigh the pros and cons of speaking publicly or filing a police report and make a decision based on her unique situation.”

I ask Cheryl if what happened to me with my ex-supervisor was sexual harassment.

“It wasn’t quite sexual harassment. But sexual harassment doesn’t have a set definition and isn’t defined in employment law or criminal law,” she reiterates. “It’s up to you how you want to define it.”

Which makes sense, particularly since the offensiveness of the harassment depends on the degree of intrusion of the person’s privacy and there is no objective scale.

So know this: As long as a situation is making you uncomfortable or causing you distress, you are allowed to talk about it, confide in people, and take steps to protect yourself.

Sexually harassed? You can get in touch with AWARE’s WHDA service by calling 6950 9191. For more information on help, visit this page