Parliament

MPs welcome higher penalties for sex offences, but raise some concerns

MPs yesterday welcomed new laws to raise penalties for various sexual offences, but also sought more protection for those who are wrongly accused of such crimes.

They also raised concerns over several changes outlined in the Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill passed yesterday. These included expanding the scope of offences such as giving false information to a public servant and obstructing a public servant's duties.

Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas called for a study on whether or not the identities of those accused of sexual crimes should be published before they are convicted and have exhausted all avenues of appeal.

He cited the case of Dr Yeo Sow Nam, who was given a discharge amounting to an acquittal on four counts of outraging a woman's modesty after his accuser admitted she had lied in court.

Mr Sharael Taha (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) acknowledged the courage needed for victims of sexual assault to make a report, but urged that steps be taken to ensure the justice system is not abused by the "very few" who lodge false reports out of spite or mischief.

Responding, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said the current approach of having open court proceedings for cases of sexual assault will remain, but added that this is "not set in stone".

He noted that it is already an offence to make false allegations in court or lodge false police reports, and those convicted of doing so could face severe penalties.

Section 182 of the Penal Code sets out a maximum jail term of two years and a fine for any individual who knowingly provides false information to public servants to mislead them into using their powers for certain acts, such as to injure or annoy another person.

The Bill amends this section to cover cases where a person gives false information to cause a public servant to use lawful powers ineffectively or inefficiently.

It also makes clear that giving false information can constitute obstruction of a public servant's duties under Section 186 of the Penal Code and raises the maximum jail term for such offences from three months to six months.

  • KEY CHANGES

    MAXIMUM JAIL TERMS FOR SOME SEXUAL OFFENCES RAISED

    • Outrage of modesty: Three years' jail, up from two

    • Engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a minor, or causing a minor to view a sexual image: Two years' jail, up from one

    SCOPE OF SEVERAL OFFENCES EXPANDED

    • Making clear that providing false information can constitute obstructing a public servant's duties

    • Maximum jail term for obstructing a public servant's duties raised to six months, up from three

    • Making it an offence to induce a victim to consent to being touched sexually by a third person through deception

    • Offence of sexual penetration of a corpse made gender-neutral

    • Offence of sexual depiction of minors to include cases where their genitals are covered by clothing

    MODERNISING OF LEGAL TERMS

    • Replacing archaic terms like "maliciously" with modern language like "with intent to cause injury to any person"

Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said these changes will result in a blurring of the distinction between these offences and the more general offence of giving false information to a public servant under Section 177, which also carries a maximum jail term of six months.

She noted that some of the scenarios illustrated in the Bill are already caught by Section 177, and said it is unclear why the changes are necessary or desirable.

Mr Shanmugam said the changes will better cover different types of criminal conduct.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) said male offenders over the age of 50 should be eligible for caning as long as they are judged medically fit. The age limit was introduced in 1900 when the average life expectancy for men was about 47, he noted.

The minister said that while Mr Pillai had a "cogent" case, there is no need to raise the age limit as the number of men over 50 who are arrested for serious offences that have caning as a penalty is "significantly lower" than those under 50.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) highlighted the need to ensure sexual offenders receive appropriate counselling and treatment.

In reply, Mr Shanmugam outlined the support and rehabilitation programmes available to inmates in prison and after release.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'MPs welcome higher penalties for sex offences, but raise some concerns'. Subscribe