BLOG: Stalkers never go away, but anti-harassment law can make them stay away

Former journalist Joanne Lee, 39, was afraid to take calls, stopped going out during the weekends, and eventually quit her job - to avoid a woman who stalked her for three years. She recounts her nightmare in a web exclusive for The Straits Times.&nb
Former journalist Joanne Lee, 39, was afraid to take calls, stopped going out during the weekends, and eventually quit her job - to avoid a woman who stalked her for three years. She recounts her nightmare in a web exclusive for The Straits Times. -- ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

Former journalist Joanne Lee, 39, was afraid to take calls, stopped going out during the weekends, and eventually quit her job - to avoid a woman who stalked her for three years. Recounting the nightmare in a web exclusive for The Straits Times, she said she is glad there will be more support for stalking victims with the new anti-harassment law tabled in Parliament on Monday.

There are no words to express how pleased I am that the Government is finally taking action against stalkers in a new piece of legislation tabled in Parliament on Monday. The proposed "Protection From Harassment Bill 2014" is set to tackle online harassment, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment in the workplace - and stalking.

Three months ago, when Law Minister K. Shanmugam announced that the Government was to look into hiving off harassment from its current cursory inclusion in the Miscellaneous Offences Act into a separate piece of legislation, I wasn't so sure stalking would be taken seriously. For the last few years, with more people getting comfortable in their cloaks of Internet anonymity, online harassment and cyber-bullying have understandably received much attention. Similarly, women's rights group Aware has been lobbying the Government for a few years now to strengthen laws governing sexual harassment at the workplace.

But stalking? Who represents these silent sufferers in society? The answer is no one. Largely because victims of stalkers have no idea how to deal with their situations so there are few cases that make it to court. Many a time, victims can't get the help or advice they need from the relevant authorities. And most importantly, victims of prolonged stalking are often so traumatised by their ordeal, they retreat rather than face their tormentors head-on.

I know because I was once a victim.

"Honey, remember we got married and had a child?"

About 10 years ago, when I was a news anchor on Channel NewsAsia, I drew the attention of who I then thought was just a confused fan. I thought her confused because she talked nonsense in her letters so I really didn't think much of her back then.

Fast forward to March 2008: I had spent the last 2 1/2 years out of the media limelight in pursuit of a Master of Business Administration degree and re-joined The Straits Times as a senior correspondent and Online Editor.

Right from my first article, published on page one with my byline photo, the stalker started sending letters by snail mail about how she admired my articles. These seemingly coherent letters very quickly descended into nonsense such as: "I remember calling you up and not getting any answers. Even if I have the pretty fit of sample Dior glass slipper you forgot that fell off the pages of your fairytale book that you mentioned was the recycled antique you bought from eBay? That's really why I'm writing to you. My nephew has need of the limited edition book that I promised to get him! And you have it!"

It was easy to connect her to the nonsense-writing fan when I was on telly. Something about these letters unsettled me and something inside me prompted me to keep them all.

The letters quickly became e-mails. Daily e-mails snowballed into eight messages a day. The admiration rapidly turned into an obsession about whom I was having an affair with. You see, according to her clearly fractured mind, she had gotten to know me through the airwaves, we had gotten married and even had a child.

Some of the gifts and letters from Amy Chua to Ms Joanne Lee. Ms Lee, a former Straits Times journalist, was stalked throughout her four-year career with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) by Chua, a freelance interior designer suffering from schizophrenia. Ms Lee received hundreds of letters, emails and phone calls from Chua during that period. -- ST FILE PHOTO: JOYCE LIM

The tipping point for me was when she said: "Honey, I have thought of getting a private investigator to check on your details, then plan and execute going to turn up at your doorstep, pretending to peddar (sic) some wares." She also mentioned "whisking me away on holiday" which by then sounded like abduction to my traumatised mind.

By this time, I had consulted a psychiatrist and shown him her letters and e-mails. His instant diagnosis was schizophrenia and erotomania (which according to Wikipedia is "a type of delusion in which the affected person believes that another person, usually a stranger, high-status or famous person, is in love with him or her"). That was when I filed my first police report in June 2009.

"I was afraid to answer my own phone"

When she was cautioned by the police not to contact me by e-mail, she then switched to calling me on my office phone. As a member of the newsroom, any stranger can call the reception and ask to be patched through. She took advantage of this standard procedure to leave me hours and hours worth of voice messages - one voice mail even lasted a good 50 minutes or so. By this time, I was so paranoid of accidentally picking up a call from her that I no longer answered my own phone and got my kind colleagues to screen my calls.

These voice mails were either long, slurred declarations of love, or loud, obscene accusations of my supposed infidelity. The tipping point this time was when she said she had been turning up at the office lobby to wait for me all day.

I filed my second police report in September 2009 and, this time, the police sent her to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for observation. They released her three weeks later in October 2009 with the diagnosis: schizophrenia. Surprise, surprise.

To cut a long story short, she kept silent for a while but jumped back into action for my birthday in August 2010. I received flowers, bears, poetry, drawings of two women holding hands, and those eerie pages of nonsensical love declarations. I filed my third police report a month later.

All this time, my own mental health deteriorated as my natural insomnia tendencies went into hyper drive and my constant state of anxiety led to panic attacks. Remember the story of the Tiger Mum who wrote The Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother? It so happened that her name was Amy Chua - my stalker's name - and just seeing that name on my personal laptop on a Sunday night plunged me into a full-scale meltdown, into hyperventilation and terrified tears. It was as if the stalker had finally invaded my personal space. 

Over the years, I retreated into my shell and my naturally extroverted self became extremely introverted. I spent my weekends in bed reading to escape from the anxieties that plagued my waking moments.

Many people asked me why I even bothered to read the letters, listen to the lengthy voice messages and even record them. Firstly, I needed them as evidence. Secondly, I needed to know the decline in her mental health and what she was doing to get to meet me. For instance, I wouldn't have known she was coming to my workplace lobby to wait for me had I not listened to that particular voice message.

Stalkers never go away

The reason I am detailing everything that happened and everything that I had done is to show you, dear reader, that by the time I had filed my third report in September 2010, the police had hundreds and hundreds of letters and e-mails, hours of voice messages, as well as paintings, drawings and gifts to plough through. It was this voluminous amount of evidence that finally got the Attorney-General's Chambers to charge her in December 2010 with eight counts of harassment over three years under the only piece of law that was pertinent at the time - the Miscellaneous Offences Act.

So far, so good. I did as advised by my consulting psychiatrist and my inner voice of common sense. I saved every bit of evidence I had, I never once engaged her by e-mail or phone, I never went out to lunch, I always waited for the building to be closed to the public before leaving for home, and I even learnt some martial arts moves from my cousin who feared for my safety. I had done above and beyond what any uninformed stalking victim would have done.

I thought that would be the end of my nightmare. But I couldn't be more wrong. 

First, the case was transferred from the Subordinate Courts to the Family Court - a decision that left me baffled beyond belief. She was then charged with four counts of harassment instead of eight due to duplication. 

In the end, she was fined the minimum amount of $1,000 for each count of harassment under the clause that allowed a maximum fine of $5,000 per charge. The judge even asked her whether she would like to be put on probation. Naturally, she said no. 

Her punishment for stalking me for three years and causing untold distress to a complete stranger - $4,000, and nothing more.

Building designer Amy Chua Kwan Ming. -- ST FILE PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Everybody around me by then had heard about the case and their collective response was: "There you go. It's all over now. You can stop acting like a traumatised kitten."

But the advice from my psychiatrist and the police was the exact opposite: "You have to be extra vigilant now. You've taken action against her and her love for you might turn to hate. If she comes after you, she could be violent. Stalkers never go away."

So I had to go. A few months more of living in terror of being accosted by a large, angry woman and I had to leave the media altogether before she found out my personal details. The exposure was too alarming - especially now that I wasn't hearing from her and didn't have any clues as to how she felt or what she was doing to meet me. Leaving the media was like a yoke being lifted off my shoulders. I was free from my tormentor and I slowly returned to my old, worry-free self again.

That was 2011. 

It's time to take stalking seriously

Three years after her sentencing, I read that the Government was thinking of passing an omnibus Bill to protect harassment victims. I knew action against cyber-bullying and sexual harassment would definitely be lobbied for by the relevant associations. And I also knew there was no one to represent stalking victims and I didn't want the issue to fall through the cracks. So I e-mailed Mr Shanmugam and, to my surprise and delight, his legal policy staff got in touch to find out more about my case and stalking in general.

Now, we are just a few hurdles away from getting the proposed Bill enacted as a standalone piece of legislation that will give the police more teeth to deal with harassers.

But if you've read my story fully, you'll see that that is not enough. 

More awareness needs to be raised so that stalking victims know what to do - collect anything and everything to build a body of evidence for the police to be able to make a case. But more importantly, the judiciary needs to be educated on the very nature of stalking. The new legislation will give them the power to send a far stronger deterrent to offenders, and judges need to take stalking seriously.

Unlike cyber-bullies and sexual harassers, being charged in court is not enough to shame stalkers into not repeating their offences. Most stalkers suffer from mental illnesses and are obsessed with their victims. The law enforcers and members of the judiciary need to recognise that and sentence them to probation to curtail their movements - or a jail term in more serious cases.

It's time stalking is seen as a crime in Singapore so those who are being terrorised know exactly what to do and are empowered to go after their tormentors.

As I was once warned: "Stalkers never go away." It's now up to the law enforcers to either incentivise them to stay away - or put them away.