Minister Shanmugam’s speech at SABS launch
The following is the speech given by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, Mr K Shanmugam, at the official launch of AWARE’s Sexual Assault Befrienders Service.
Ms Nicole Tan, President of AWARE,
Ms Corinna Lim, Executive Director of AWARE,
Members of AWARE,
Ladies and gentlemen,
The 25th of November is a significant date for activists working to protect the safety, welfare and rights of women around the world, not just Singapore.
It is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Today also marks AWARE’s 26th anniversary.
AWARE’s Sexual Assault Befrienders Service
I am glad that AWARE is officially launching its Sexual Assault Befrienders Service today.
AWARE’s Service will provide a very useful avenue for sexual assault victims to receive help and counsel.
The Befrienders will also assist them in getting medical attention and in reporting such cases to the police.
I, quite frankly, have not been aware of the issues relating to this field. I first became aware of them when I read an article by Andrew Loh. It talked about the process that the woman has to go through to file a report in rape cases. And quite frankly, I was a little taken aback and surprised at the process and procedures. So, in the meantime, civic group, No To Rape, mass emailed a number of MPs and Ministers and again, I decided to meet them to understand the issues better. I talked to them and AWARE. I have to say these gave me a much better understanding, as a result of which I offered to put AWARE in touch with the Police on the processes.
I do not think there is a government-society or government-women divide in these things. I think it is really a question of understanding, trying to make sure that the processes work for everyone, and having really an equality of understanding and knowledge. I think we are all on the same side on these issues. It cannot be on different sides. And I think the police have agreed to meet with AWARE. My colleagues and I will be quite happy to assist in the process as it goes along. I can understand the Police’s perspective – they have a framework to work with, and there are limitations to what they can do. But I think within that framework, I am sure they will try and help.
I am happy to support the Sexual Assault Befrienders Service by AWARE, which is part of AWARE’s long-running efforts to eliminate violence against Women in Singapore, including:
a) the launch of the AWARE helpline in 1991;
b) the commencement of regular dialogues on sexual assault cases with the Singapore Police Force in 1993, and
c) the White Ribbon Campaign in 2004 to end violence against women.
History of Section 157(d), Evidence Act
The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) regularly conducts reviews of our laws to ensure that they remain relevant and progressive. For example, in 2009 to 2010, we conducted a fairly extensive feedback process to amend the Criminal Procedure Code, and we consulted lawyers, practitioners, people from the Bar, people from the Criminal Bar and the academia. We put all of them together in the same room, and worked it out over a period of nine to 10 months. The final result did not necessarily take into account every feedback we received, but it can honestly be described as a work that most people signed off on, and accepted as one that fitted within the framework that we have. That has always been my approach at MinLaw, and the public consultation for the Evidence Act has taken the same approach. We have seriously consulted, with the view that any feedback that is direct and relevant, we will look into it seriously, and where we can implement it, we will do so.
During the consultation exercise, AWARE made a submission to repeal section 157(d) of the Evidence Act.
Section 157(d) provides that “when a man is prosecuted for rape…, it may be shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character” in order to impeach the credibility of an alleged rape victim.
There is a history to this section. Singapore’s Evidence Act is based on the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, which in turn was based on the English common law of that time.
The term “generally immoral character” in Section 157(d) was assumed to be a proxy for sexual promiscuity.
Underlying Section 157(d) was an assumption – old common law.
These assumptions are:-
a) a woman who is sexually experienced is less credible as a witness; and
b) a woman who is sexually experienced is more likely to have consented to sexual activity.
In like vein, Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, written in 1753, stated that the testimony of a rape victim of “evil fame” was presumed to be false or feigned.
One has got to only state these propositions to see how antediluvian and repugnant they are. The Canadian Supreme Court has called them the twin myths.
Proposed Repeal of Section 157(d)
I thank AWARE for raising it. And I really do not think that these assumptions, myths and repugnant views should find any expression in our laws.
As part of the upcoming round of amendments to the Evidence Act, MinLaw intends to repeal Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act. It is certainly my view that this section should not exist. The approach we should take to this, whether it is a man or a woman – matters relating sexual history, just like a man who has been previously accused, whether that should or should not be taken into account – sexual history of either party can only be taken into account if it is relevant for that particular case. So, we really ought to leave it to the courts. Neither should we say it is completely irrelevant. It really depends on the facts, and it cannot just be the woman. That must be the right approach.
Like all other evidence, matters relating to a victim’s sexual history must satisfy the threshold of relevance before they can be introduced, rather than as dictated by Section 157(d).
Let me conclude by commending AWARE and its volunteers for setting up the Sexual Assault Befrienders Service, and wish it every success in fulfilling its mission.
Read the speech here.