Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Whilst no specific law in Singapore deals with sexual harassment in the workplace; victims are protected under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) 2014.

The POHA deals with all forms of intentional harassment and defines harassment as any threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour. It includes any threatening, abusive or insulting communication or publishing any identifying information of a person causing harassment, alarm, or distress to the victim.

Although not explicitly included, sexual harassment is covered by the broader definition of harassment.

The Singapore Government also indicated its commitment against sexual harassment by signing the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The convention defines sexual harassment as “such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions”.

In simple terms, sexual harassment can be defined as making unwelcome physical or non-physical sexual advancements. It can be verbal, physical, or visual. It should be noted that workplace harassment can also be committed outside the workplace, e.g., on business trips and at other work-related functions.

Different forms of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can be physical or non-physical (verbal or visual.)

Non-physical harassment includes:

  • Verbal abuse.
  • Lewd comments or gestures, e.g., X describes loudly and in graphic detail to some of his co-workers his desire to have a sexual relationship with Y. X knows that Y can hear him and wants to cause Y distress. If Y is distressed, X is guilty of an offence under section 3 of the POHA.
  • Suggesting that sexual favours may advance someone’s career.
  • Sexual jokes or showing sexually offensive images.
  • Inappropriate questions or invitations, e.g., a superior keeps asking his subordinate about her sexual relationships.
  • Online harassment on social media platforms.
  • Voyeurism or up-skirt photos.

Physical harassment includes:

  • Touching, deliberately brushing up against a person.
  • Molestation, or outrage of modesty.
  • Stalking.

Stalking is defined as “acts or omissions associated with stalking, causing harassment, alarm or distress to the victim”.

Examples of such acts or omissions include:

  • Following the victim.
  • Communicating or attempting to communicate with the victim, e.g., repeatedly sending emails with suggestive comments.
  • Entering or loitering outside or near the victim’s home or workplace or a place frequented by the victim.
  • Sending or giving material to the victim or leaving it somewhere where it will come to the victim’s attention.
  • Keeping the victim under surveillance.

Remedies available to victims of sexual harassment

In Singapore, victims of sexual abuse in the workplace have criminal and civil remedies available to them.

Criminal remedies

The Penal Code and the POHA provide criminal remedies. Any victim of sexual harassment in the workplace can file a police report against the perpetrator to commence a criminal investigation and prosecution.

Non-physical harassment offences include:

  • Section 3 of the POHA states that any person who intentionally causes harassment, alarm, or distress by means of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or makes any threatening, abusive or insulting communication, or publishes any identifying information of the target person, is guilty of an offence. On conviction, the person can be sentenced to imprisonment for a maximum of 6 months, or a fine not exceeding S$5,000, or both.
  • Section 4 relates to behaviour or communication that is likely to cause the victim harassment, alarm, or distress. For example, X posts a photo of Y and Y’s contact details on the work’s social media platform. The post implies that Y is sexually promiscuous. X’s action is likely to cause Y harassment, alarm, or distress. If convicted, X faces a fine of up to S$5,000.
  • Section 7 of the POHA criminalises unlawful stalking. Anyone convicted of unlawful stalking can be punished with a fine not exceeding S$5,000, a maximum of 12 months’ imprisonment, or both.
  • In cases such as voyeurism, section 377BB of the Penal Code provides that a person found guilty of Voyeurism can be punished with imprisonment of up to 2 years, a fine, caning, or any combination of the three.

Physical harassment offences include:

When sexual harassment takes a physical form, the perpetrator can be punished under section 3 of the POHA or under the Penal Code, which prescribes penalties for certain offences. For example:

  • Outrage of modesty offences.

Section 354 of the Penal Code deals with penalties for assault or use of force intending to outrage the modesty of a person. The perpetrator can be punished with imprisonment for up to 3 years, a fine, caning, or any combination of the three.

  • Rape

If the harassment extends to rape, secs 375 and 376 of the Penal Code provide for sentences up to 20 years in prison, a fine, and caning.

Monetary compensation for criminal sexual harassment in the workplace

Although not very common in sexual harassment cases, section 359 of the Criminal Procedure Code allows the court to order the convicted perpetrator to pay monetary compensation to the victim.

The court could order monetary compensation where:

  • The compensation amount is readily determinable, e.g., the victim needed counselling or medication for the stress caused by the sexual harassment.
  • Suing the offender is not a more appropriate remedy, e.g., the cost of suing outweighs the amount of damages that could be claimed.
  • The compensation order would not cause undue hardship on the offender.

Civil remedies

Section 11 of the POHA allows victims of certain acts of harassment to bring civil actions against the perpetrator and claim monetary compensation.

These acts are:

  • Section 3 – intentionally causing harassment, alarm, or distress.
  • Section 4 – behaviour that is likely to cause the victim harassment, alarm, or distress.
  • Section 5 – Behaviour intended to cause the victim to believe that they will be the subject of violence.
  • Section 7 – Unlawful stalking.

If the court is satisfied on a balance of probabilities that the perpetrator contravened the relevant section of the POHA, the court may award damages that the court thinks “just and equitable”.

Filing a civil lawsuit can be complex. The victim may need to consult with a lawyer to do so.

Protection Orders

Section 12 of the POHA allows victims of sexual harassment in the workplace to apply for Protection Orders against a perpetrator who commits a relevant offence under the POHA.

Offences for which a victim can apply for a Protection Order under the POHA include:

  • Section 3 – behaviour intended to cause harassment, alarm, or distress.
  • Section 4 – behaviour that is likely to cause the victim harassment, alarm, or distress.
  • Section 5 – Behaviour intended to cause the victim to believe that they will be the subject of violence.
  • Section 6 – Any indecent, threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour, words or communications directed to a public servant or worker.
  • Section 7 – stalking.

The Protection Order can:

  • Prohibit any harassing acts from the perpetrator.
  • Stop any harassing communication.
  • Refer the victim and/or the perpetrator to mediation or counselling.

For the court to grant a Protection Order, the victim must show that:

  • The perpetrator committed any of the offences mentioned above under the POHA.
  • The perpetrator is likely to commit future acts of harassment; and
  • It is “just and equitable in all the circumstances” to grant the Protection Order.

One type of sexual harassment in the workplace can thus lead to both civil and criminal remedies.

For example:

B repeatedly sends A emails with suggestive comments about A’s body. The emails caused A alarm and distress.

  • A can file a police report to have B convicted of stalking under section 7 of the POHA.
  • Upon conviction, the court may order B to pay monetary compensation to A.
  • A can also decide to file a civil claim against B for monetary compensation.
  • A can also approach the court for a Protection Order against B.

Reporting your case to the TAFEP

In cases where the harassment might not meet the legal requirements for criminal sanctions under the POHA or civil remedies, the employee can approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices. The TAFEP will work with the employee and the employer to manage such cases and prevent further occurrences. The TAFEP can also advise employees on the appropriate action to take.

The employer’s role

Although the POHA does not impose a direct responsibility on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace or take action against employees who may have committed an offence under the Act, employers are legally obligated to keep the workplace safe for employees.
Under the Ministry of Manpower guidelines, companies are obligated to take steps to protect their employees against workplace harassment.
Employers are encouraged to develop policies and implement measures to manage sexual harassment and maintain a safe work environment. The Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment provides practical guidance for employers to prevent and manage harassment at the workplace. Guidelines include:

  • Establish a harassment reporting line.
  • Set up robust investigation procedures.
  • Investigate complaints promptly
  • Resolve complaints and/or assist the victim in filing a police report or magistrates reports.

The government announced that it intends to enshrine these guidelines into law. For now, however, it is up to employers to develop and implement their own policies.

If you find yourself accused of sexual harassment in the workplace, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.

Singapore courts and the government have a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment in the workplace. Penalties, if convicted under the POHA, are severe. Facing a civil suit can be lengthy and costly.

If you feel that you are the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, an experienced lawyer can help you to understand your rights and possible remedies. A good lawyer can explain the difference between seeking criminal or civil remedies and advise on the best way forward.

Should you require legal representation, kindly contact PKWA Law for a free first consultation with one of our lawyers.

Call us

+65 6854 5336

Whatsapp us

+65 9090 3158


Sabrina Chau

Family Law and Criminal Law

View Profile

Contact us

v4 1

Call us

Whatsapp us

Main line

Email us

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.