Travelling Safe: Outrage Onboard Public Transportation

In recent times, there has been a noticeable rise in reported “outrage of modesty” and “insult of modesty” cases[1]. This has been identified as a key concern for the authorities, who have been noted to state that they will be working closely with “stakeholders and the community to prevent and deter” such cases.

While such incidents might take place in a variety of situations/locations and involve different behaviours or actions, there has been a considerable number of alleged incidents arising on-board public transport (i.e. buses, trains and even on-board taxis/’Grab’ journeys) and that is a major concern for those of us who rely on public transport on a daily basis.

Incidents of alleged molest affect both potential victims and accused

Although most reported cases are dominated by the narrative and perspective of a victim, we need to bear in mind that an allegation of molest affects both victims as well as the person who has been accused of doing something.

This has particular significance as our criminal justice system is grounded on the fundamental principle that one is “presumed innocent until proven guilty”. In other words, an accused person (even if charged by the Police), remains innocent of the crime until the Court makes a firm determination over his/her guilt. As members of the public, we should therefore be wary of pre-judging a situation before all the facts and different perspectives are canvassed before the Court.

As much as there is interest in ensuring that each commuter is protected, and can travel without worrying about his/her bodily integrity infringed while on-board the bus or train, it is an equally important interest that a commuter should not have to live in the fear of being accused of molest.

One might wonder why a person would have such a worry or fear if they do not intend to do anything insidious and “minds their own business” while travelling on public transport. For those of us who take public transport daily, however, we would appreciate the stark reality of being cramped on-board a tight space for an extended time – especially during peak hours.

On-board the train for instance, commuters who are rushing for work often try their best to squeeze onto the carriage even when it shows signs of being packed to the brim. The movement of individuals boarding and leaving the carriages adds a further dynamic to this as various people end up bump into one another inadvertently, and (some) bodily contact is unavoidable. Factor in other unpredictable circumstances such as sudden stopping or jerking by the bus or train, people tripping over or falling asleep – and the dynamics of commuting with each other on the public transport becomes even more complex and unexplainable.

While some commuters may be opportunistic and wrongfully exploit this by committing crimes of outrage and insult of modesty against fellow commuters, others may find themselves at risk of being accused of an offence of this nature because of some kind of innocent or unavoidable contact while travelling.

What happens if a possible incident of molest on-board public transport arises?

As a criminal litigator, I’ve encountered a number of situations where an accused person presents before me precisely with such a scenario, where the contact complained of may possibly be so innocent or negligible that the accused might not even recall that it took place (for instance, a brush of the hand against another while trying to exit the train). The recollection of events is not even enough to explain how it could have been a misunderstanding or accident.

This presents a major hurdle if an accusation is made and the accused cannot recall sufficient details to give a proper or complete response, other than to deny the accusation or simply state that he/she “cannot remember”. On some occasions, it might even involve a situation of mistaken identity, as many fellow commuters on the morning traffic might be dressed or identified in a similar manner (for instance, shirt and pants/office attire with a sling bag).

There may at times be some evidential imbalance in this, as a potential victim would remember most details, while the accused person might not. This results in what we often term a “he said / she said” situation where the case turns on one’s word against the other.

Furthermore, if the accusation leads to investigations by the authorities, it could possibly take several months for statements to be taken, evidence gathered, and a decision made on whether a charge should be brought. Needless to say, where a charge is levied, an accused would have to incur significant time and costs to attend Court. At times, this could take place even while investigations are ongoing which could possibly lead to a protracted resolution to the entire matter for both potential victims and accused persons.

While we can be confident that any Court will carefully sift through the evidence produced to make a proper determination, we should also be reminded that in such situations (i.e. contact while commuting on public transport), allegations can be easily made or articulate but disproportionately difficult to rebut or give a defence to. As so aptly articulate by the Court of Appeal in one particular case involving sexual offences[2]:

…. case law abound cautioning judges to scrutinise the evidence before them with a fine-tooth comb, given both the ease with which allegations of sexual assault may be fabricated and the concomitant difficulty of rebutting such allegations…”

Perhaps, this means that we should be careful to think through what exactly had taken place before concluding that an offence of outrage/molest may possibly have been committed, and whether it could possibly be inadvertent or misunderstood.

It might even be fair to say that if one is uncertain as to whether anything malicious had taken place, it would be better to give benefit of doubt to a fellow commuter, than to suggest that it might possible, and cast the burden onto an accused to ‘disprove’ the allegation (which is almost practically impossible).

The reality is that by doing raising an allegation (however uncertain one might be), we could be triggering a series of events that may make it incredibly difficult for the accused person to overcome or give a proper answer to and could take a considerable time to resolve. Although the situation can be frustrating for many, the simple rule of trying to put ourselves in the other person’s position might help us to gain some clarity to the situation and perspective on whether an offence has really been committed.

It might also help us to be aware of the implications of being charged and what it means. An offence of outrage of modesty is found under Section 354(1) of the Penal Code, and “shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years, or with fine, or with caning, or with any combination of such punishments”. An offence of insulting the modesty of a woman is found under Section 509 of the Penal Code, and “shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

What can I do if I have been accused of something of this nature?

If you should find yourself accused of such an offence or involved in investigations of such nature, contact a lawyer immediately as he/she would be able to provide immediate advice.

Some other practical steps you could immediately take include that of trying to recall as much as details surrounding your journey as possible (such as the time you started travelling, where you stood, where you might have moved, where you were heading, what you were wearing), and then to write it all down.

If you have had your statement taken by a person of authority, request for a copy of it. If this is not possible, try to find a quiet corner to jot down whatever you recall saying or expressing in response to the accusation brought against you. Unless you recall the incident/situation clearly, it would be wise not to assume that there was any physical contact even if it might have been accidental.

These steps help to chart the events that had taken place, and to avoid minor details being forgotten or wrongly recalled if it should have to be brought up in the course of investigations.

What else can we do practically as we travel about daily to help “prevent and deter” such incidents?

An easy and prudent step for many of us to take, is simply not to enter or squeeze onto a train if it seems to crowded. By doing so, you could be placing yourself in a difficult position and opening yourself to unwanted physical contact, whether as a potential victim or accused.

Where possible, try to remain conscious of keeping a healthy and respectful distance between yourself and other commuters. On occasion, it would help to keep ones hands on the safety bars/handles as sudden movements on the trains could lead to uncontrolled physical contact.

Finally, as most commuters are often on their smartphones while travelling, we can help make our commuting safer (in every sense) by being more aware of our surroundings, and where we standing / moving in relation to other commuters. Oftentimes, physical contact is avoidable if we are simply less distracted by our devices – even when (or especially when) we are on-board public transport.

[1] In this article, we will refer to such cases as either “molest” or ‘upskirt’ cases for easy reference, although it is acknowledged that a wide range of offending behaviour may be covered.
[2] PP v Mohammed Liton Mohammed Syeed Mallik [2007] SGCA 48.