NST Leader: Sexual menace

As long ago as 2016, the Federal Court had this to say about sexual harassment: "It is a very serious misconduct and in whatever form it takes, cannot be tolerated by anyone."

Unlike the Federal Court in Mohd Ridzwan bin Abdul Razak v Asmah binti Hj Mohd Nor, which was quick to introduce the tort of sexual harassment into the Malaysian legal system, we appear not to be as serious about sexual harassment.

What is worse, some workplaces and education institutions tolerate it. Be warned. The courts will not take such lethargy of those in charge lightly.

The apex court reminds the reluctant many of the reason why they must act with haste: "Sexual harassment lowers the dignity and respect of the person who is harassed, let alone affecting his or her mental and emotional well-being."

Others consider sexual harassment serious, but are slow to punish. True, one can't rush to punish without conducting investigations according to the legal process laid down by the code of conduct at workplaces or elsewhere.

An employer must establish just cause before terminating the alleged employee. Otherwise, the employer will face an unfair dismissal suit. Perhaps this is why Universiti Teknologi Mara took a year to dismiss the lecturer accused of sexually harassing a former student.

The Federal Court is right. "Perpetrators who go unpunished, will continue intimidating, humiliating and traumatising, thus resulting, at least, in an unhealthy working environment." Universities must take serious note of this warning. Try telling that to some of our politicians and employers. They are just enveloped by some oppressive inaction.

Start with politicians. Politicians, the foul-is-fair variety — not one or two, but powerful some — have with the regularity of their errant behaviours been accused of sexual harassment, but punishment of these, somehow, keeps slip-sliding away.

Intimidation continues, just as the apex court warned. Even our august parliament has witnessed such profanities. Thus we breed audacity.

Now for the employers. When the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill was being readied to make the parliamentary journey a year ago, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) was the epitome of reluctance. Don't bulldoze through the legislation, it warned the government. MEF isn't entirely off-kilter. Laws are plenty, it half-rightly argued, quoting the Federal Court's decision in 2016, the Penal Code. Employment Act 1955, Industrial Relations Act 1967, the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1994 and workplace codes. True, Malaysia's case is almost always not the lack of laws, but absence of enforcement. If there is enforcement, it is at a very slow pace. We can't just blame the police, though they can do better. Punishment must start at the workplace. MEF must ask itself: Of the many sexual harassment cases reported, how many have the employers acted upon? Then there is the iceberg problem. What is reported is only the tip of a hidden problem. Employers must not only rush to act after a report is lodged, but must also be proactive to prevent such incidents from happening in the first place. Political parties must take similar heed. Foul-is-fair politicians not only taint the party, but also the nation.

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