[Photo: Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash]
By Loraine Lee
UPDATE: On Sep 1, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) issued a statement that the accuser would be charged in court as the prosecution had withdrawn the case because it would not have been “unusually convincing” to secure a conviction. While the AGC said that she was not “untruthful about the alleged outrage of modesty”, Dr Yeo’s law firm rebutted and gave examples of the woman admitting to lying in court. (https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/doctor-acquitted-molestation-agc-will-not-take-action-against-woman-who-accused-him)
S$600,000. This was the amount 52-year-old anaesthetist Dr Yeo Sow Nam had to fork out in legal fees over a four-year legal process to clear his name against molestation accusations.
The accuser, a 33-year-old female who cannot be named, had claimed Dr Yeo molested her four times in his clinic on Oct 9, 2017. She would later admit to lying about “the material aspects of the allegations” on Aug 16, TODAY reported.
Yet, while Dr Yeo may walk away from the investigations and trial acquitted — an experience he describes as “painful” in an interview with TODAY after his acquittal — he has lost a lot more than just more than half a million dollars.
His family faced negative attention and harsh comments, he lost his position as a visiting consultant in a public hospital, and some of his patients had stopped visiting his private clinic after the charges.
Dr Yeo told TODAY: “It was humiliating; a lot of ignominy, public shame, a feeling of persecution by the country I love when I haven’t even done anything wrong.”
Yet, for all the pain, suffering and negative impacts on his reputation, a gag order allows the “victim” to hide behind a veil of anonymity. This gag order lasts indefinitely , unless there is an explicit expiry date, or it has been lifted by the court.
And the criminal charges she may face? A jail term of up to one year and a fine of up to S$5,000 for giving false information to a public servant, and up to 7 years imprisonment and a fine for perjury.
Why should the accuser be afforded a gag order even after the trial has ended, and she has admitted to lying about a crime? After all, she is no longer a victim, but rather a perpetrator who has smothered a man’s reputation and uprooted his life through her veil of lies.
Putting aside the S$600,000 Dr Yeo spent, there is also the time, manpower and resources shelled out by the court and prosecution.
And what’s worse? The fact that this case could cast further doubt on other victims of sexual assault that come forward.
Victims who come forward are often questioned about their intentions of making these claims. This fear of not being believed is often a prominent reason for victims to not report sexual assault, said AWARE head of research and advocacy Shailey Hingorani.
So for all this, the most she will be criminally charged with is a six-month staycation in prison, and a small fine of S$5,000. This, for the harm she has caused on Dr Yeo, his family and friends, and on real victims of sexual assault who will face an uphill battle to have their case believed — and this is only if the prosecution charges her.
In response to a 2019 parliamentary question by then NMP Anthea Ong, the Ministry for Home Affairs said that of 130 reported cases of serious sexual crimes — namely rape and sexual assault by penetration — that were found to be not an offense, only 10 cases were warned or charged with false infomation.
No statistics could be found on the number of people charged with making false reports in relation to molestation cases.
Dr Yeo may also sue her for defamation for his damaged reputation by these false allegations. However, the onus then falls on the “accused” to see if they would like to fight another battle in court after an extended, stressful trial — and if they can even afford to.
But for others who are falsely accused, they may not be able to afford the legal fees to fight the battle to be acquitted, let alone fight a second suit for defamation.
It’s hard to afford pity for those accused of sexual assault until they are acquitted, considering the nature of such crimes. But for the wrongly accused, they face an uphill battle of isolation, court visits, and the constant stress of being accused of a crime they didn’t commit.
Yet, we also should not doubt victims of sexual assault right from the get-go in fear of wrongly accusing someone. This ensures that we provide reason for them to be confident enough to step up and report sexual assault crimes without repercussions.
So, how can we find a balance between supporting real victims and ensuring that no one is wrongly accused?
With the potential repercussions on both real victims of sexual assault and those falsely accused of said crimes, the penal code could use another look to deter people from making false accusations by increasing penalties, and gag orders, if granted, should be removed if they are found to be lying.
Singapore has been on the right track towards ensuring that all are protected from sexual assault and crimes in the eyes of the law — in 2019, the Criminal Law Reform Bill was passed to expand definitions of rape and sexual assault to be more gender-neutral and men can now recognised as victims of rape in the eyes of the law.
And on March 5, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam announced that penalties for three sex crimes would be increased — one of which is outrage of modesty.
These moves that have been shaped up in light of Singaporean’s increasing concern about a spike in sex crimes and percieved laxed punishments, one that has to be applauded. But all these changes and efforts would be useless if those that falsely claim sexual assault are able to get away seemingly scott free.
Perhaps the next time amendments to the penal code are proposed, harsher punishments for lying under oath — which can obstruct justice — should be imposed.
More importantly, these laws should be enforced and used as a form of determent against making false claims. Liars ought to have their pants on fire.