SINGAPORE - MPs on Monday (Sept 13) welcomed new laws to increase penalties for various sexual offences, but also sought more protection for those who are wrongly accused of such crimes.
They also raised concerns on a number of changes outlined in the Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill that Parliament passed on Monday. 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 cases of Dr Yeo Sow Nam, who was given a discharge last month amounting to an acquittal for four counts of outraging a woman's modesty after his accuser admitted she had lied in court, as well as Mr Ong Mingwee, who was initially convicted of rape before being acquitted on appeal in 2012.
Mr Sharael Taha (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) acknowledged that it takes courage for victims of sexual assault to make a report, but he similarly 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".
"While you can cite individual cases, overall, the question is what helps in advancing and maintaining rule of law and the justice system," he said.
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.
Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said these changes will result in a blurring of the distinction between these offences and that of 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 there is some overlap, but the essence of the offences covered by each section is distinct. The amended sections will better cover different types of criminal conduct, he added.
While Section 177 covers those who are legally obliged to give information to a public servant, Section 186 will now cover those who are not required to by the law, but whose actions interfere with a public servant's duties, such as a person who lies to paramedics and delays them from providing help.
Raising the penalty for offences under Section 186 to match that of Section 177 will allow the law to cover different actions of similar blameworthiness, Mr Shanmugam said.
Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked if even harsher penalties could be imposed on those who obstruct the duties of public servants if there are aggravating factors.
Mr Shanmugam said there is no need to increase the maximum sentence further as more egregious cases likely mean a more serious offence, such as using criminal force to deter public servants from doing their duty.
Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) argued that male offenders over the age of 50 should be eligible for caning as long as they are judged medically fit. The age limit was first 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.
"Is there scope to consider mandating post-release treatment for such offenders, where medical and psychiatric professionals deem it necessary?" he asked.
In response, Mr Shanmugam outlined the support and rehabilitation programmes available to inmates during incarceration and after release.
"Inmates who have committed sexual offences may be referred to community partners before their release if they are assessed to require longer-term support for their successful rehab and reintegration into the community," he said.
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"