Changes afoot for harassment victims to apply for protection orders more easily: Shanmugam

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam with Aware executive director Corinna Lim at an event by Aware to launch its two-year campaign to end sexual assault, Aim For Zero, on Nov 25, 2018.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam with Aware executive director Corinna Lim at an event by Aware to launch its two-year campaign to end sexual assault, Aim For Zero, on Nov 25, 2018.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam with Aware executive director Corinna Lim at an event by Aware to launch its two-year campaign to end sexual assault, Aim For Zero, on Nov 25, 2018.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam with Aware executive director Corinna Lim at an event by Aware to launch its two-year campaign to end sexual assault, Aim For Zero, on Nov 25, 2018.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - Unmarried individuals in intimate relationships may soon find it easier to apply for protection orders to stop their partners from abusing or harassing them, with proposed changes to the Protection of Harassment Act (POHA).

Breaches of orders under the Act are also set to become arrestable offences, which could mean harassers can be dealt with quicker for breaching them.

These possible changes to the POHA, which would benefit all victims of harassment, were revealed by Home Affair and Law Minister K. Shanmugam at an event yesterday (nov26) by women's rights group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) to launch their two-year campaign to end sexual assault, Aim For Zero.

The campaign was started in line with the global #Me Too movement which saw sexual assault survivors coming forth to share their stories.

Besides introducing a new programme to get parents to teach their children about consent and sex education, the Aware campaign will also carry out a survey on the prevalence of workplace harassment and sexual violence.

In his speech, Mr Shanmugam said enhanced punishments are also on the cards for those who abuse or use violence against their intimate partners, which include married and non-married couples.

On the possible changes that the Ministry of Law is working on now, Mr Shanmugam said there appears to be an increase in violence between unmarried couples in intimate partner relationships.

"We have come across a number of relationships where one has suffered significantly, serious physical abuse, unspeakable cruelty...of course they're protected under penal code... but I think we can also give them the protection available to married couples that would enhance their position," he added.

Currently, a person can apply for a personal protection order (PPO) under the Women's Charter but only against a family member, such as a spouse, parent or sibling.

Unmarried individuals can already seek protection orders under the POHA, which was passed in 2014 and covers a gamut of areas from cyber bullying and stalking, to bullying and sexual harassment outside of an intimate relationship.

But some say the process in seeking protection orders under POHA is more drawn out than that under the Women's Charter.

For example, those seeking an order under the POHA generally would require a lawyer to make the application, while those seeking a PPO under the Women's Charter can file it on their own, said Aware executive director Corinna Lim, a former lawyer.

"If you get the POHA order - which is already so hard to get - and you go to the police to say it's been breached, unlike under the Women's Charter where the police immediately step in, the police would say 'sorry it's not arrestable', you'd have to go back to court," she added.

Acknowledging the feedback on the POHA process, Mr Shanmugam said: "I've asked my team to look at it further and to work with the courts to see how we can streamline it, make it even faster and make it less costly."

Separately, he also said the government maintains a zero-tolerance, no-nonsense approach against violence towards others, stressing that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community would get the same protection as others.

He said it came to his attention that some LGBT people may have been blackmailed with threats to expose their sexual orientation to stop them from reporting acts of violence, as he stressed action would be taken against the aggressors.

"Sexual orientation doesn't matter, who you are doesn't matter... if you are violently attacked... you can be sure that action has been taken," said Mr Shanmugam.