On Voyeurism, the Law & Internet Vigilantism

On that very day I touched down in Singapore after a gruelling 3-weeks away from home, the internet gets a little happening. All of a sudden, screenshots of what seems to be written in a fit of rage by a young lady on her Instagram Story were circulating around, taking up a considerable percentage of my Facebook feed. Never have I felt so overwhelmed by online lashing and long commentary posts since GE2017. Fatigued by the long hours of flight, I admit I did not spend a single second looking through any of the screenshots nor the long memo written by my ‘friends’ on Facebook.

As if the power of social media never meet its end, once the fire spreads, it spreads far and wild. Within the next 24 hours, it became a huge saga. Everyone was talking about it. There is no need for me to provide a back story or, even, give an introduction of Ms. Monica Baey to whoever who is reading this right now. In the midst of all the rage and allegations, whether towards individuals or organisations, let me try to make things a bit more rational.

The Prevalence of Voyeurism

The reason why everyone was furious is simple: the punishment dishes out against a perpetrator of a sexual-related crime is inadequate and seems unconventional to many. Filmed someone bathing, wrote a letter, suspended for a semester and wrap up the incident as it never happened before. This is not kindergarten or primary school where you can get away with almost everything just by expressing your apologies. As grown-ups, we are accountable for our actions. We should know that with every action, comes along its consequences. Moreover, an apology is not adequate for a crime that could possibly leave a deep emotional scar on a young person that she might have to live with it for the rest of her life. What could be a moment of satisfaction to your libidinal impulses might distress the other party forever. As an NUS undergraduate, Nicholas Lim should have known better.

It is not the first time NUS has faced public scrutiny. Three years ago, the university’s orientation programme was rightfully accused for being risqué. This is not an argument whether we remained a conservative country despite claiming otherwise, nor it is an allegation directed at any specific group of people, but the issue of morality. What is the university’s stand on morality? If the ‘second strike and you are out‘ policy is regarded as the standard of discipline even under such context, I think the outrages are justifiable. I am not saying that people do not require a second chance but the severity of the crime dictates the severity of the punishment. If a crime deemed emotionally destructive to the victim, then I guess the punishment needs to be served on par. A suitable punishment is not a tit-for-tat reaction but should trigger an action that will serve as a reminder and deterrence to others.

The lack of proper channels for redressing might be a factor in the prevalence of voyeuristic act in NUS over the past 3 academic years. In a series of reports on the Board of Discipline cases, there were at least 20 reported cases on insult/outrages of modesty since 2015. The following includes selected screenshots from the said documents:

As you can see, filming of others showering seemed to take up the majority of such incidents on campus. The punishment was relatively consistent in almost all cases: a suspension, a Letter of Apology to the victim, counselling and an official reprimand. All the cases, up till the one involving Ms. Baey, seems to be swept under the carpet after the punishment has been dished out. There was basically no mention of these incidents via any medium, as far as I know, over these years.

The surfacing of this saga brought out this very critical issue that hunts the university, and perhaps, the society, for years. What could be the reason(s) which cultivates such an act of indecency? The upbringing of the perpetrators, where they are not given a proper lesson to respect anyone of their mother’s gender? The over-consumption of lewd materials which led to the loss of self-control over their lascivious thoughts that they got confused between the fictitious storyline and reality? The masculinist environment they were so comfortable with, where disrespectful catcalls and remarks towards women were made, thinking that it was alright?

There are endless probabilities. Whether or not who takes the blame is not of the fundamental concern, the society as a whole ought to play a role in bringing down and discourage such acts from happening time and again. Actions from the authorities need to be substantial enough to pay justice to the damage done, yet finding the balance not to go all out and destroy the future of the perpetrator. It is the same how we treat murderers (who were spared the noose) – give them the second life once they have repaid for their crime.

The Law

The government has already put in place plans to criminalise voyeurism. Following a Penal Code Review Committee proposal last August, the first reading of the Criminal Law Reform Bill conducted in February this year stated that ‘the production, possession and distribution of voyeuristic recordings, regardless of the victim’s gender’, will be criminalised. In a joint press statement released by the Ministries of Law and Home Affairs, it stated that this was a move to ‘better address cases of upskirt photography and the circulation of such images’. The second reading of the Bill is expected to happen sometime next month.

Before we start to question why did it take so long for the government to finally take actions on such insidious act, there is currently a section on the Penal Code which briefly provided the recommended punishment for perpetrators. Section 509 of the Penal Code states that ‘Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both‘.

Furthermore, by entering the premises of the female toilet, he could be charged with criminal trespass, which could mean a punishment with maximum 3 months imprisonment, or with fine up to $1,500, or with both (Section 447 of the PC). In other words, had Ms. Baey been given the proper advice, she could have gone on to pursue the matter immediately last November. Even under the current law in place, Nicholas Lim would not have served such a lenient sentence.

This afternoon, the Singapore Police Force released their statement with regards to the matter:

I would like to applaud the SPF for clarifying the issue, especially with the criminal procedure that precedes over it and the very-much-sought-after identity of Nicholas Lim’s parents (I will touch on this separately later). Yet, using the level of remorse as a basis to decide the severity of punishment will undoubtedly give the wrong impression to others that sexual harassment and anti-moral crimes like this warrant nothing but a weak condemnation. Will this, therefore, act as a motivation to would-be perpetrators? Will this, therefore, instil fear towards hall life, something which was supposed to be a convenience to many students, knowing that they might end up becoming one of the victims one day? We are living in a presumably first-world country – a progressed society – where such a feeling of insecurity over one’s modesty and dignity should not even arise in the first place. Surely, none of us wishes to regress to such a state.

Therefore, I would like to humbly and briefly propose a set of countermeasures in the light of this saga, hoping that such incidents would be better handled and managed in the future. (If it has already been implemented, or if you have better suggestions, please let me know.)

1. Commission an official Sex Offence Unit

I derived this idea from the Specialist Sex Offences Unit, under the Office of Public Persecution of Victoria, Australia. The closest we have currently is the Sexual Assault Care Centre by AWARE, but it focuses more on sexual assault and rape. The Sex Offences Unit could be a joint-agency initiative by the Ministry of Social & Family Development, the Ministry of Law and the Attorney-General Chamber.

The main purpose of such a unit is to provide a mean of support for any sexual offence victims, be it of voyeurism, sexual assault or rape. Specialists will provide legal advice, legal aids and psychological counselling to these victims. This is to ensure that they will receive holistic support during a tough time. This will also help make sure that perpetrators will be brought to task eventually.

2. To set up a reporting centre/hotline for sexual crimes in universities and colleges

While many expect school counsellors to do the job, it is not widely publicised. Students should be aware that they should seek help immediately after realising that they had become the victim of sexual crime. Facilities like the in-campus University Counselling Services (UCS) should offer services to attend to these victims on first hand either through a reporting centre or a reporting hotline. Such a service will offer both psychological and legal support to the victim, relatively similar to the proposed Sex Offence Unit above.

Furthermore, students should be encouraged to report any sexual crimes that they know of, including voyueristic crime, to the authorities via the reporting centre or hotline. An investigation will then have to be conducted based and the results will be published under the Board of Discipline cases – as what has already been practiced.

On Internet Vigilantism

The following comments are not of direct relation to the saga but I still find the need to address it nevertheless.

It is common for people, nowadays, to take their issue to the social media in order to redress their injustice. However, things got out of hand when identity and personal information of whoever was apparently at fault or was tagged by the online community as guilty were dug out and got circulated around. Take the Caltex incident in April last year for example, the moment the post was released, people – or internet vigilantes – who sympathised with the elderly started taking things to their own hands. The personal information of the BMW driver was leaked and he was unduly harassed. In the Bike v. Lorry saga in December last year, the cyclist was not spared from the act of doxxing.

As much as I welcome the decision for Ms. Baey to come out to seek redress and cast spotlight on the loopholes of the law, the decision to publish the details of Nicholas Lim is uncalled for. The result of him being suspended by his company and led to him tendering his resignation does not translate to justice being done under such context. There is no way costing the person his career does the victim any justice.

While I believe that the guilty must be punished but only with the accordance of the law. Even if the loopholes of the law denied the appropriate punishment the guilty should be served, digging out the person’s personal information and harassment seemed like a low-blow. We can fight to seek clarity of such cases, we can fight to change the law – consultation, feedback, petition, you name it. Digging out the guilty and shame them publicly is uncalled for. What’s worst right now is that the so-called vigilante went abroad by naming and shaming the immediate family members and closed ones. To me, mob justice like that does not help with establishing justice. It feels disgusting.

Online vigilantism is not new. It could probably be traced back to 2014 when online group SMRT Ltd (Feedback) launched ‘Operation Air Kangkang’ on Sim Lim Square’s Jover Chew. The same was done against a certain Anton Casey, Amy Cheong and Quek Zhen Hao. Although I agreed to some extend that they asked for it, but it is not for the internet community to take matters on their own hand. The harassment has outdone the initial harm they have committed. Not that I sympathise with these people but which of these act to get back at them are well within limits? Yes, we could just identify the person, gather his/her crimes and let the authorities do the rest. Going all out to destroy a person and harassing their closed ones makes you no less than a devil.

The government has proposed to criminalise doxxing – a decision I very much welcome. As part of a review to the Protection of Harassment Act (POHA), the act of publishing identifiable information about a person to harass, cause violence or fear of violence to the person will be chargeable. Other offences can be view below:

Doxxing is not the only thing that came out of online vigilante. Attacking people online for having a different viewpoint are becoming more prevalent. Comments like ‘I hope you’ll say the same thing if it happens to your daughter’, ‘Why are you defending NUS’ and ‘Spoken like someone who had the privilege of not having suffered the indignity of this crime’ makes you rethink the attitude and open-mindedness of some of our countrymen. People tend to bare the ‘If you are not with us, you are against us’ mentality. They are triggered by comments that do not go by what they have perceived themselves to accept. Even by saying this, I ain’t no saint, I do make the same mistake as well. I had quarrels with friends before on issues where we stood on a different side. It came with a price – the friendship. Yet, I feel that our society can perform much more mature than that. When can we be more rational about things? And instead of making criticism, when can we start making suggestions and be the catalyst of change? Substantial actions are still better than online arguments.