'Insulting modesty' law does not apply to men, rules court

Law here protects only women, judge says in rejecting arguments for more jail time for man

The value of a man's modesty versus a woman's has come under the spotlight after the Public Prosecutor appealed against a 10-week jail term given to a man who covertly took obscene videos and photographs of 33 men in public toilets.

The prosecution had urged the court to punish 27-year-old Teo Han Jern with a six-month jail term, arguing that this would have been the benchmark if the Malaysian's victims had been women.

But District Judge Kenneth Yap, in explaining last week why he rejected the prosecution's arguments, pointed out that Singapore's law on insult to modesty protects only women - and this could be down to the different way society regards the two sexes.

"The fact that male urinals and changing rooms are typically more 'open concept' than their female equivalents would, to some, speak volumes of a differentiated approach to modesty," suggested the judge.

Using his mobile phone, sales executive Teo had secretly captured videos and photos of men - some of them engaging in sexual acts and others defecating. He committed almost all of his offences at the Paragon and Cathay shopping malls.

He was caught on Sept 9 last year, when he went to a toilet on the ground floor of Paragon at around 6pm and tried to film a man who was inside a cubicle by placing his phone over the partition. The victim spotted the device, snatched it away and reported Teo to the mall's concierge. The police were alerted.

Teo pleaded guilty to five counts of making obscene films, for which he was jailed for four weeks each, four counts of being a public nuisance for the pictures he took ($1,000 fine each) and one count of having an obscene film in his possession (two weeks in jail).

Three of the jail terms for making obscene films were to run concurrently, which meant he would have to serve 10 weeks. Thirty other charges were taken into consideration during sentencing on Dec 6.

In Singapore's penal code, there are two laws that deal with crimes against a person's modesty.

The more serious outrage of modesty, which involves the use of criminal force, applies to "all persons". But the other law states that whoever intends to insult the modesty of a "woman", whether through words, gestures or by intruding on the privacy of the woman, is guilty of an offence.

So, Teo could not be charged with insulting the men's modesty. The most serious charges he faced were for making obscene films under the Films Act - for which the precedent was one to three weeks in jail.

But for each charge of making an obscene film, the prosecution recommended 10 weeks in jail. This was based on previous insult of modesty cases, in which women were filmed while in the toilet.

Given that Parliament has taken the view that a man's modesty is incapable of being offended when he is merely insulted and where his physical integrity has not been violated, said the judge, the prosecution had taken the practical view that charges, such as under the Films Act, could be used to plug the gap.

"It would seem most unfair, in the eyes of the prosecution, to consider men to be impervious to such violations of their privacy, especially when such violation is made with sexual intent," he wrote, especially in a digital era when there is even greater need for protection of male victims.

While he did not "disagree with such sentiments", the judge did not think it appropriate to increase penalties under the Films Act to fill this gap.

The fundamental question is whether a man is capable of having his modesty insulted in the same way as that of a woman - and Singapore's laws make a deliberate difference between the sexes when it come to the outrage and insult of modesty. While some may argue that everyone's privacy, regardless of gender, should be equally protected, this debate is for Parliament, not the courts, he added.

The Films Act was also "never intended to deal with voyeurism, or the intrusion of privacy and trespass to virtue", the judge explained.

Instead, it was meant to protect society at large from the corrupting influence of obscene films.

Another problem with the prosecution's submission was that in taking on considerations of modesty under the Films Act, there is a disparity that would result depending on whether videos or photos were taken of the victim.

"While there is a marked difference between what is revealed between a moving and a still image, the difference cannot be so great as to merit as much as a 10-week imprisonment term in the former... and only a maximum fine of $1,000 in the latter."

Teo, defended by lawyer Chua Eng Hui, declined to post bail and began his jail term on Dec 13 ahead of the prosecution's appeal hearing next year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Insulting modesty' law does not apply to men, rules court. Subscribe