Parliament passes Bill to toughen punishment for 3 sex crimes, those who obstruct public officers in their duty
SINGAPORE: Legislation to increase the punishment for certain sexual offences, such as molestation and engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a minor aged between 14 and 16, was passed in Parliament on Monday (Sep 13).
The new legislation will also provide for harsher sentences for individuals who obstruct public officers in their line of duty.
The Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill will see the following amendments to the Penal Code: Increase the penalties for three sexual offences, expand and clarify the scope of certain offences and defences, and modernise the language of certain provisions.
Members of Parliament (MPs) who debated the Bill on Monday brought up issues related to the harsher penalties for sexual offences, as well as some concerns surrounding the amendments addressing the act of obstructing a public officer in their line of duty.
INCREASED PENALTIES FOR SEXUAL OFFENCES
Under the current penalties for outrage of modesty, the offence is punishable with a maximum jail term of two years, a fine or caning, or a combination of these.
The Bill will increase the maximum jail term for such cases from two years to three years.
Harsher punishments will also be meted out for those who engage in sexual activity in the presence of a minor, aged between 14 and 16, or cause them to view a sexual image – and for similar activities done against minors aged between 16 and 18, where the offender is in an exploitative relationship with the minor.
The maximum jail terms for these will be raised from one to two years.
In response to the harsher penalties for sexual offences, Member of Parliament (MP) Murali Pillai (PAP-Bukit Batok) asked the minister to consider if caning should be determined by medical fitness and not age.
Under the current law, a repeat offender over 50 years old “may potentially get a less deterrent sentence even after taking into account that he may get an additional term of imprisonment of up to 12 months in lieu of caning,” said Mr Pillai.
“I don’t see why Parliament should presume in favour of a repeat sex offender that he is not fit to be caned when he is clearly fit enough to commit such heinous acts.
“I also think it is not a coincidence that such middle-aged offenders tend to target younger victims. We need to ensure that such like minded offenders will be strongly deterred from harming them.”
In response to Mr Pillai, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that “there was no reason to raise the age limit” in his closing remarks.
“The proportion or number of men over the age of 50 arrested for serious offences that attract caning are significantly lower compared to men under the age of 50 … (Mr Pillai) raised the concern of offenders who are near the age of 50 delaying the proceedings to escape caning. Raising the age limit by itself may not stop the problem because when you shift the line, the problem may also shift,” he added.
Other concerns related to sexual offences were also raised in Parliament during the second reading.
Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas proposed the Government “commence a study of whether the identities of persons accused of sexual crimes should be published until they have been convicted and exhausted all avenues of appeal”.
“The recent case of Dr Yeo Sow Nam who obtained a discharge amounting to acquittal illustrates how an innocent person can have his name sullied, and suffer public and long-term stigma which affects not only his professional life, but also his personal life,” he said.
“This category of crimes leave a particular stain on how a person is viewed by the public, even if that person is ultimately found not guilty or discharged.”
MP Sharael Taha (PAP - Pasir Ris-Punggol) added that “while we support harsher sentences, we must also protect the wrongly accused”.
“The nature of sexual offences is such that it takes a lot of courage for a victim to proceed in making a report … It is because of this mental anguish, on top of any physical harm and abuse that has already occurred, that perpetrators must be brought to justice. However, it should not be abused by the very few who out of spite or mischief decide to lodge such reports,” he said.
In response to the Mr Thomas and Mr Sharael, Mr Shanmugam said that the Government's current approach is open court proceedings.
"It's not set in stone, and we will keep the position under review. But as of today, as of now, the current position is open court proceedings ... Overall, the question is what helps in advancing, in maintaining rule of law and the justice system," he said.
"Mr Sharael commented that the criminal justice system should not be abused by persons who lodge false reports out of spite or mischief. We agree. And it's an offence to make false allegations in court or lodge false police reports. Persons who are convicted of making false reports could face severe penalties."
GIVING FALSE INFORMATION TO A PUBLIC SERVANT
In addition, the Bill will expand and clarify the scope of certain offences and defences.
One such offence involves giving false information to a public servant with the intent of causing, or knowing that it will likely cause, that person to improperly use, or not to use, his lawful powers.
Under the Bill, the amendment “makes clear that the act of giving of false information to a public servant can amount to obstruction, even if there was no physical obstruction or use of threats”, said Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan on Monday.
The Bill will increase the maximum imprisonment term for such an act to six months from the current three months.
In response to the amendments, MP Sylvia Lim (WP - Aljunied) was concerned that there was an overlap between Section 177 and Section 186 of the Penal Code, which might result in a misunderstanding by the public about the scope of the sections.
“There now appears to be yet another overlap between offences, in that giving false information could come within Section 177, and also within Section 186. How will the police decide which section to charge a person under?” said Ms Lim.
However, she noted that Section 177 states that the offender must have been under a legal duty to give information, unlike in Section 186.
“Giving false information to a public servant when one is under a legal duty to give information is arguably more serious than when one is not under such a duty. This raises the additional question of why the maximum jail term under Section 186 is now being brought to the same level as Section 177 … from three to six months, when there is a difference in culpability,” she said.
In reply to Ms Lim’s concerns, Mr Shanmugam explained that under Section 177, when an individual is under a legal duty to give information to a public servant, the provision of the false information is “the central element of the offence”.
In contrast, Section 186 “deals with obstruction of public servants in the discharge of public functions. It can be through the provision of false information but it can also be through other means”, he said.
“One can imagine, easily, very egregious circumstances, deliberate physical obstruction or public servants, when they are doing something extremely important and urgent, for example in the saving of lives. … The crux of the offence under Section 186 therefore, is in some way, interfering, obstructing the performance of public servants’ duties.”
To illustrate how the amendments to Section 186 would come into play, Mr Shanmugam highlighted a scenario where someone gives false information to the paramedics as part of a prank, with the intention to cause a delay.
“Even though the person may not be legally bound to provide information, his act of giving false information, intentionally wasting SCDF’s time and resources in the midst of an emergency, could lead to very serious, possibly even fatal consequences,” he said.
However, “the proposed amendments clarify that Section 186 is not limited to physical acts of obstruction. They could also include the provision of false information depending on the facts of each case”, he added.
Responding to the six-month maximum jail term for individuals who obstruct public servants in their line of duty proposed under the amendments, MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (PAP - Chua Chu Kang) asked whether the Government would consider meting out even harsher sentences when “aggravating factors” are present.
“For example, if the said obstruction has caused damage to public property or loss of life, compromised the safety of the officers, or even jeopardised the operational effectiveness of the mission (or) exercise,” he said.
In response, Mr Shanmugam said the Government “did not see a need to increase the maximum sentence based on the cases that have arisen”.
“Some of the more egregious instances raised by the member will likely be caught by more serious offences, such as Section 353 on using criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging his duty,” he said.
CLARIFYING OTHER SEXUAL OFFENCES
It is currently an offence for someone to get sexual consent by deceiving the victim about the use of any sexually protective measure, or about whether the person engaging in sexual activity with the victim has a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
The Bill will broaden the scope of the offence in a few ways, such as covering deception about the risk of the victim getting an STD. This includes, for instance, if an offender lies to the victim that the offender’s STD is not transmissible via sexual activity.
In addition, the Bill will clarify terms relating to “child abuse material” and “abusive material”. These are currently defined to include “material depicting minors’ breasts, or their genital or anal regions, in circumstances which reasonable persons would consider offensive”.
Under the amendments, these body parts may be either “exposed or covered”.
“This will enhance protections for minors, by ensuring that the relevant offences apply to sexual images of scantily-clad children, or close-up images of the child’s genitals, buttocks, or breasts – even if covered by clothing – in circumstances which reasonable persons would regard as offensive,” said Mr Tan.
Another clarification is that these depictions must be sexual in nature.
The Bill will also clarify the offence of sexually penetrating a corpse. Currently, the law only prohibits a man from penetrating a corpse’s vagina, anus or mouth with his penis; or anyone from causing a man to do this without his consent.
“The proposed amendments will criminalise other forms of sexual penetration involving corpses; and make the offence gender-neutral,” said Mr Tan.
Finally, the Bill will replace certain “archaic terms” - such as “wantonly”, “malignantly” - with ones that are more easily understood (“rashly”, “intentionally”), added Mr Tan.
The potential changes were first announced by Mr Shanmugam in March, after a review of penalties for hurt and sexual offences was completed in February.
The review had been conducted following widespread public debate over the sentencing of multiple university students for sex-related crimes, with some calls for tougher sentences.
The Bill was first tabled in Parliament on Aug 2.