CW: Sexual Assault
Trigger warning: Rape, sexual assault, sexual offences, victim-blaming
In 2016, the Brock Turner case in California was one of the first instances that made me reflect on how the criminal justice system fails victims in cases of violence against women. In that case, the perpetrator who had sexually assaulted an unconscious woman, was a 19-year-old first-time offender and Stanford University swimmer. He was only sentenced to 6 months of prison but only ended up serving 3 due to good behaviour. This happened before I entered law school. The outcome of the case felt wrong but I had no understanding of the law at the time and I figured such an outcome would not arise in Singapore.
Between 2019-2020, Singapore saw a spate of cases where the public perceived the sentences meted out to young male offenders to be too light. In a case where a perpetrator filmed a student showering in the NUS hostel, he was only given a 12-month police conditional warning and suspended from school for one semester. In another case, a second-year dental student, who had climbed into his ex-girlfriend’s home and strangled her, was sentenced to a short detention order for 12 days, a day reporting order for five months with counselling, and an order to complete 80 hours of community service over a year. The judge noted that while probation was not appropriate in this case, the perpetrator received community-based sentences due to his “relative youth, his rehabilitative prospects and his lack of (previous convictions)”. Meanwhile, victim care in both cases were said to be inadequate. In the latter case, the victim suffered severe psychological trauma.
These cases illustrate how the justice system is more preoccupied with the rehabilitative prospects and future lives of perpetrators, rather than the rehabilitation and care of victims. This is only one of many ways the system has failed.
By this time, I had a better understanding of the law, the balancing exercises that judges had to undertake, and precedent cases which set out outcomes for certain types of cases. But, this did not make me feel any less indignant about the outcome for victims.
While our courts are fair and the judges deliver justice based on our laws, there is a systemic problem in place. Our laws and the approach on victim care needed to be reviewed and improved upon. This was done when Minister K. Shanmugam announced stricter penalties for certain sexual offences, and less weight to be placed on accused persons’ ‘academic potential’. In response to a question about trauma literacy within the criminal justice system by MP Nadia Samdin, Minister Shanmugam mentioned that the Ministry of Law is considering allowing the use of video interviews in lieu of examination in chief, to avoid victims having to go through the trauma of recounting their ordeal.
However, what we must understand is trauma is not just felt when recounting one’s ordeal at trial. Victims often experience retraumatisation during medical examinations, when being questioned by the police, and while giving evidence in court. While some victims choose to report and try to put the perpetrator behind bars, other victims choose to put the incident behind them and heal because of how difficult the criminal justice process is.
To add insult to injury, society often disbelieves victims, gaslights, and victim-blames. This victim-blaming arises partly due to the way victims are treated by the criminal justice system, and the criminal justice system continues to treat victims in a certain manner due to society’s culture of victim-blaming. It is a cycle of retraumatisation by society and the systems designed to ‘protect’ victims.
Between 2017-2019, there were 6,988 reports of sexual assault, including rape, sexual assault by penetration, outrage of modesty, and sexual offences involving children and vulnerable victims. Of all the reports made, 1,368 cases resulted in prosecutions, with 931 convictions to date. According to AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC), only three in 10 clients who reached out for help in 2016 made police reports.
Apart from seeing light sentences being meted out to perpetrators while victims are left to deal with their trauma throughout the process, such low numbers of prosecution and convictions also make victims think twice about whether it would be “worth it” to come forward and report. Victims often feel shame as they ponder how they could have prevented this; they feel fear as they consider how reporting may affect their lives; and they feel worry for the perpetrator’s family if he is caught (especially in cases where the victim knows the perpetrator).
The number of prosecutions of sexual offences is less than 20% and this is often due to the lack of evidence in cases of sexual offences or violent crimes against women. In cases of sexual assault, the police have said that most victims who report, only do so after 72 hours. Since victims can only go to the hospital to get a medical examination after lodging a police report, most DNA evidence would have been compromised or lost by then. Moreover, sexual offence cases are often “he said-she said” cases as they take place when victims are alone and there are no witnesses present. These factors also explain why conviction rates are even lower.
In Singapore, in cases where the only evidence available is the victim’s testimony, the standard of proof that has to be met is “unusually convincing testimony”1. When assessing in totality whether the Prosecution has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the court will evaluate the internal strength of the Prosecution’s case AND its comparative strength to the Defence’s case. This means the court will have to determine whether a witness’s or complainant’s testimony is to be preferred over the accused’s evidence.
While it is understood that such a high standard is a deterrent against false reporting and to ensure justice for falsely accused persons, it is no surprise that this has led to difficulty in prosecuting some cases and getting convictions. Victims are put in a position where they have to recollect every single detail they can to bolster their case, have their credibility called into question, and prove their word is somehow worth more than their perpetrators’.
During police questioning and cross-examination by the defence in court, victims are often asked questions that are aimed at poking holes in their story or to discredit them in some way. This is part of ensuring that the accused is not being falsely accused and that the victim is able to prove her version of events beyond a reasonable doubt. However, when police officers and defence lawyers ask about the clothes victims were wearing during the incident, their sobriety, their past sexual history and other supposedly “mitigating” factors that may ‘explain’ the accused’s behaviour, this is victim-blaming. Having to go through such a difficult process of having their behaviour called into question, while recounting their traumatic ordeal, often discourages victims from reporting. Anecdotal evidence of such incidents of police questioning has been shared on social media by various survivors and such instances of cross-examination can be found in reported cases.
In a decision where the judge placed some weight on the behaviour of the victim to reach its decision to acquit, AWARE pointed out that there was a lack of understanding in terms of the behaviour of complainants in cases of sexual assault. While it is not doubted that the court had done its job and considered various factors to come to its decision, its assessment of the victim’s behaviour was flawed. In the context of behaviour exhibited by sexual assault survivors, generally some victims do freeze, are unable to give consistent testimony due to the trauma they have faced, and may decide to delay reporting the incident due to a multitude of reasons.
Having said all of that, in 2017, our lawmakers did propose changes to the Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act to better protect victims. For instance, the sexual history of victims can only be raised with permission by the court. Investigators will also be given the power to take statements through video recording so victims do not have to repeat themselves multiple times. The same can be done for testimony in court.
Nonetheless, on top of such protections, we also need to train our police officers, lawyers, and judges, to ask the right questions in the right manner, and to better understand trauma and behavior of survivors in cases of sexual offences.
People do not understand that an acquittal or refusal to prosecute or charge, due to lack of evidence, does not necessarily mean the perpetrator did not commit the act. People do not understand that the questions asked during cross-examination in an effort to discredit the victim, does not make the victim a liar. People do not understand that while our Singapore courts and judges are fair and competent in serving justice based on the laws of the land, it is still possible for us to cause injustice to victims.
There is still much to be done through our justice system and as a society. The way forward would be to find ways to support victims through the criminal justice system and to provide better care for victims post-trial. Most importantly, on a societal level, we must learn to believe victims, encourage victims to make their own choices to heal, and understand the complexities of the justice system and how it affects victims.
Nur is the co-founder of Lepak Conversations
Illustration by Elisa Tanaka
1Public Prosecutor v GCK  SGCA 2 at -