When marketing executive Carol Tan, 33, asked for a "quick meeting" with her boss, the managing director of a foreign firm, he responded with a loud chuckle: "You want a quickie."

The jokes and innuendos soon grew more crude. Before long, he was reaching over to stroke her cheek and hold her hand.

The married mother of two was a new employee at the small Singapore office of an oil and gas company with its headquarters in Europe. She asked her older women colleagues if such behaviour was common with the boss. "I was told it was," she told The Sunday Times.

By the time he proceeded to give her a shoulder rub - in full view of a male colleague - she began looking for another job.

She also approached her company's human resource department to lodge a complaint of sexual harassment. She said she had witnesses, but was told little could be done since her boss was the "top guy in Singapore".

She then complained to the police. After three months, she was told that her boss had been "administered a warning in lieu of prosecution". He also sent her a phone message saying sorry.

"What I was really looking for was that the company would get better policies on reporting harassment. A warning and an SMS apology were just not enough," said Ms Tan. "It could happen again."

Employees who claim sexual harassment at work and lodge complaints have ended up deeply dissatisfied with the outcomes, said those who spoke to The Sunday Times.

The issue of workplace sexual harassment is being raised by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) which is releasing a 70-page report and launching a public campaign today outlining shortcomings in Singapore's current laws and workplace policies with regard to preventing harassment and protecting victims.

Tip of the iceberg?

Aware has received around 80 workplace sexual harassment complaints over the past three years, with 30 lodged this year alone. Aware executive director Corinna Lim said: "The numbers might seem small, but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg."

In a survey it did in 2008, more than half of 500 respondents said they had experienced workplace sexual harassment.

"Aware is not an official channel to receive such complaints, yet we get the same number of complaints on sexual harassment as we do on domestic violence," she said. "This is despite the fact that a lot of women don't even realise this is something they can report even though they felt very uncomfortable."

At least eight women who claimed they were sexually harassed at work over the past two years told The Sunday Times that in the absence of clear company codes and procedures to prevent harassment, investigate complaints and protect victims, complainants are often given short shrift.

Those who fall victim to physical harassment can file complaints with the police about outrage of modesty, but should cases go to court, the charges are difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt.

Taking civil action is not an option for all as complainants may have to hire a lawyer and the process can prove costly.

For about a year, Ms Margaret Phua, an administrative executive at an electrical firm, worked from a client's office at an educational institution. Around six months into her stint, the man in charge of the project for the client began goading her to wear tight and revealing clothes and would tell sexual jokes. He would refuse to discuss work with her if she wore trousers.

She eventually spoke to her own company as well as her client's boss. "All I wanted was a personal apology and for the harassment to stop," she said.

The man's boss then told her he had been admonished, and her own company asked her to move on. But within days, she was shocked to be handed a retrenchment letter - she was the only employee asked to go.

The police could not help much since verbal harassment is not an arrestable offence. She then went to the subordinate courts to lodge a complaint, but she soon gave up. "The process seemed lengthy and complicated, and there was a chance I would need a lawyer, which I could not afford," she said.

Ministry: Have proper channels

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) told The Sunday Times it encouraged firms to consider implementing measures such as proper grievance handling or incident reporting systems for such encounters.

"This provides workers with a proper channel to escalate such incidents so that the relevant authority within the company is aware and appropriate actions can be taken," a ministry spokesman said.

He added that victims are free to complain to their HR departments, supervisors or their unions.

If an appropriate complaint channel within the company is not available, they can contact the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep). Cases may also be referred to the police.

But as of December last year, fewer than a fifth of companies here were unionised. There are limits to what Tafep can do. And in the absence of concrete policies, HR departments are not duty bound to act, counters Aware.

Ms Tan, for example, complained to the police as well as the ministry. The ministry referred her to Tafep, which told her it had "engaged" her former employer and the company would be setting up "grievance handling procedures".

A spokesman said Tafep received only three sexual harassment complaints in the past three years and all three employers, when approached, had followed its advice to set up grievance handling processes. It has also received feedback on 15 other cases though these did not result in formal complaints.

Most of the victims The Sunday Times spoke to either had not heard of Tafep or had no idea they could complain to it. "There is nothing on their website directing victims to complain, unlike the Aware site," pointed out Ms Phua.

A 2006 United Nations study on violence against women stated that in countries where there is no specific legislation to address sexual harassment, there are virtually no records on its extent.

In Singapore, aside from going to Aware, some victims complain to the police, but statistics on the issue are not tracked.

Like Ms Tan's former boss, Ms Rosmah Majid's harasser also got off with a police warning. The 39-year-old mother of two, who worked as an administrative assistant, said she was assaulted by her boss, the managing director of a company that owned a restaurant.

She claimed the married man kept asking her to have sex with him when his wife was pregnant. For months, she ignored him without complaint, even as she desperately looked for another job.

She said that one evening, when she was alone in the office with him, he grabbed her from behind, tried to forcibly kiss her, stripped and ejaculated. She said she ran off.

On the advice of a friend, she lodged a police complaint and approached Aware. The police investigated and told her the man had been warned. "They told me I would have a hard time proving the case if it went to court, as there were no witnesses," said Ms Rosmah, who now works as a receptionist in a shipping company.

When witnesses can't help

Even if there are witnesses, a harasser may go unpunished.

Ms Jennie Lee, a senior manager in a well-known Singapore company, approached Aware last year with an unusual complaint.

She was not the victim, but four of her subordinates had complained to her about being harassed by a new employee who had arrived as her boss. He would ask the women to dress sexily, compared one woman to a Japanese porn star and gave another a neck rub.

All four were young, junior employees. After an investigation by the HR department, the four women were transferred to other departments, while the man remained.

The company did, however, install closed-circuit television in his office, even though most of the incidents the women complained about occurred outside his room.

"Rather than take action against this man, they made me feel like I was jealous of him since he had superseded me," said Ms Lee, who has worked at the company for more than 15 years.

Aware is not alone in seeking a change in the status quo.

Singapore Council of Women's Organisations president Laura Hwang says there is a need for specific anti-sexual harassment laws and mandated codes for companies to keep workplaces harassment free.

Associate Professor Ravi Chandran, who teaches employment law at the National University of Singapore Business School, is also in favour of a code for employers to expressly protect employees from sexual harassment and detail education efforts, complaints procedures and suitable disciplinary action.

"Laws can make it an offence for an employer not to have or not to follow such a code," he said. "This might deter actual cases and ensure complaints are dealt with promptly and effectively. Such an option is also unlikely to be expensive."

However, he cautioned against provisions for large amounts of compensation to be paid to victims, as there is a possibility of abuse.

Interestingly, women such as information technology consultant Mary Wong, 39, who said a client squeezed her breast twice after a work dinner, are also against big payouts to victims.

During the course of criminal proceedings earlier this year, she said the police repeatedly asked her if she wanted to compound the offence, which meant she would accept a sum of compensation from the man she accused. She refused.

The man was initially sentenced to 18 weeks in jail, but the verdict was subsequently overturned when he appealed and the higher court decided the case had not been "proven beyond reasonable doubt".

Unlike in Singapore, in places such as Hong Kong and the US, sexual harassment victims can pursue civil cases against recalcitrant employers with the help of statutory bodies set up to implement anti-discriminatory laws. These cases are decided by courts on a "balance of probability". There is no need to prove that the harassment occurred beyond reasonable doubt, which is much harder to do.

A dejected Ms Wong told The Sunday Times this should be the case in Singapore too. Civil compensation schemes should also be allowed, like in Hong Kong and the US, as long as there are ceilings on how much the victims can get, she said. "In fact, the law could even provide for fines to be given to charity," she added.

She said she wanted justice, not money. "I did not want the accused to get away. But sadly, he did."

The names of all the women in this report have been changed at their request.