Parliamentary Speeches

Supplementary Questions on KTV Outlets - Response by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 26 July 2021

1.   Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to address some of the questions that have been raised in relation to enforcement against KTV outlets specifically.

2.   In this House and outside, there have been a number of questions related to KTVs: 

  1. Why were KTVs and nightclubs allowed to operate as F&B outlets,

  2. The enforcement regime in respect of these outlets,

  3. Why were hostesses allowed, in those places; and

  4. The immigration status of those providing hostessing services at these places.

3.   For example, I can refer to a Facebook Post by Mr. Alan John, former Editor of The Straits Times, raising some of these questions in a very succinct way and making a number of fair points based on his understanding of the facts.

4.   I will address these questions.

I. Why KTVs Were Allowed to Change into F&B Operations

5.   During the Circuit Breaker last year, nightlife outlets were shut, from 27 March 2020, together with many other businesses.

6.   From Phase 2, June 2020, many businesses were allowed to reopen, including dine-in at F&B outlets. Massage Establishments were also allowed to open with conditions.

7.   But KTVs were not allowed re-open. We took a stricter approach with KTVs, because singing was considered a high-risk activity in an indoor setting, and a higher risk of transmission.

8.   In August 2020, the Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) and the Singapore Entertainment Affiliation (SEA) and other associations, as well as individual businesses, appealed for KTVs to reopen.

9.   They had been closed by then for several months.

10.   The jobs, livelihoods of those in the KTV industry, the workers, their jobs, were at risk, badly affected, even with financial support from the Government.

11.   Our assessment is that they probably employed about 10,000 local workers as of end-2019.

12.   Some of us met directly with the KTV businesses in August 2020, listened to them. There were several Town Hall sessions.

13.   They asked to have singing, dancing, to resume. They proposed a pilot with a maximum of five persons in a room, masks would be worn when not singing, and disposable microphone covers would be used. They referred to other countries, including South Korea, where this had been allowed.

14.   Others proposed changing their business models to F&B outlets. They needed help to get the new permits, change their use for F&B, and so on.

15.   For many, the situation was desperate. We considered their suggestions, weighed the risks.

16.   At one time, we considered possibly allowing a pilot project for KTVs, with very strict conditions.

17.   But eventually, we didn’t proceed.

18.   So, the first point to note, is from March 2020 until now, KTV operations remain forbidden. It is Illegal to have any kind of KTV operations. We didn’t allow those.

19.   Then, the group who had asked to move over to F&B on a temporary basis, we said ok to that, again, with several conditions.

20.   Why? Because basically anyone can offer and open an F&B outlet. And the Government can’t specifically say no to KTV outlets which want to become F&B outlets, provided they have the space to be an F&B, the premises allow F&B outlets, and can get approval from SFA, Land Use Permissions and so on.

21.   Conditions were imposed. The pivoted businesses would need to have a food preparation area to prepare and serve food, adequate indoor dining area for customers to be seated to have their meals, with safe distancing in place.

22.   Once converted to F&B, they were subject to the same Safe Management Measures (or SMMs) imposed on F&B outlets. Meaning no intermingling among patrons and staff, no ‘live’ music, no performances, various other conditions.

23.   So, in summary, from March 2020 until now, (i) KTVs were not allowed to operate; and (ii) some KTVs were allowed to become F&B outlets, as well as some pubs and bars, they were also allowed to pivot to F&B outlets.

24.   As of March this year, after several months of operations of these massage establishments, former pubs, bars, KTVs, businesses pivoting to being F&B outlets and so on, the situation was stable. The numbers of cases, infections, were generally low.

25.   So, that is the context and the background to why pubs, bars, KTV outlets were allowed to pivot and provide F&B.

II. Should We Have Assumed That All KTVs Will All Engage in Illegal Activities

26.   It has been suggested that we should have assumed or known that KTV operators will cheat, allow themselves to become semi-brothels, even though they were only allowed to provide F&B.

27.   And, there have been suggestions ranging from: (i) we were in effect in cahoots with the KTVs, which is the suggestion in a recent, quite unbalanced, Nikkei article, or alternatively, (ii) we were very naive, not to realise what happens in KTVs.

28.   The truth is, we were neither in cahoots with the KTV operators, nor are we as naive as some suggest. Let me explain.

29.   I think most people will accept it will be wrong to treat all the 430 odd businesses, KTV operators, pubs, bars, who wanted to change to provide F&B, automatically as crooks. Several are genuine operators. They wanted to pivot over to provide F&B. That was the only way they can survive.

30.   If you ask SNBA, SEA, there are KTVs which cater to families, there are many which do legitimate business, and they were crying out for help.

31.   So, more than 400 such businesses converted, and about a hundred exited the nightlife industry.

32.   At the same time, as we were considering this, yes, MTF, Government does know that there are some KTV operations, pubs, bars with dodgy reputations.

33.   Should we have said to them: No, you cannot convert to F&B?

34.   And for some if you look at the premises, darkened rooms, not the most optimal for dining, and people might well say – why would I want to go here for dinning? It appears commonsensical to say this is dodgy and doubtful.

35.   But in law, not so straight forward. If the person comes to you and says: Yes, I want to convert, and I will keep to the rules, this is how my business was perfectly legal in the past, and now I will continue to be legal. Then, the agencies will have to look him in the eye and say: You can’t get a license to become a food place, because we don’t think you are going to keep to the law; we think you are going to break the law even though you have committed no offence; and even though you confirm that you will follow the rules. I will come back to this later.

36.   So, in addition to seeing if we can say no to those with dodgy reputations, part of the answer has got to be enforcement. And I will also say, realistically, the people who are going to cheat, going to do illegal things, will do them anyway. They will use lounges, flats, warehouses, various places. It has gone on, and I am sure it goes on, regardless of whether we allow the change to F&B.

37.   And there have been several illegal operations in different places, outside of KTV outlets, or ex-KTV outlets, which have been busted.

38.   So as of November 2020, it was a risk assessed approach, and in general it was working if you look at it as of March this year, with a relatively low number of cases.

39.   We then had the Delta variant, completely different transmissibility. That variant came into the KTVs, created a cluster.

40.   There is some public confusion, Minister of Health, my colleague, has spoken about it a number of times to clarify. The confusion that the KTV cluster was somehow the reason for the recent Phase 2 (HA) tightened restrictions imposed on 22 July. But, that is not so. He has clarified it. It is not so. If we had only the KTV cluster, then we would not have had to move to the Phase 2 (HA) or the tightened restrictions.

41.   In fact, the MTF as he pointed out, considered the KTV cluster, and decided we can manage it without having to impose any additional restrictions.

42.   And, as he said in a speech, the KTV cluster has been brought under control fairly quickly, [through] tracing, testing and ringfencing the cases.

43.   So, we have about 5 new cases linked to the KTV cluster each day for the past few days. He gave you the figures. I have the figures as of 24 July – there were 232 cases, 49 in hospital, none have been or are in ICU.

44.   So, let me summarise by making three points:

  1. About 430 businesses pivoted to F&B, for several months. Cases, infections overall in Singapore, were low.
  2. The new Delta variant caused a KTV cluster, and that has been brought under control.
  3. And three, if we were facing only the KTV cluster, there would have been no need for any tightened measures.

45.   The tightening of measures is due to the cluster at the Jurong Fishery Port (JFP). The spread from the ports to the markets, hawkers, into the wider community. My colleagues have explained how this happened. Some are under the misimpression that the virus went from the KTVs to the fishery port. The evidence we have doesn’t suggest that. The virus seems to have come from the region, to our port, JFP.

III. Reopening of the Outlets

46.   With this background, there is a ‘live’ issue, which I will share with the Members.

47.   The SNBA has sent an open letter, appealed for the industry, to work more closely with Government to report illegal activities, among other things.

48.   And, they have also pointed out that pivoting has helped many legitimate businesses to survive. So, should we allow them to reopen and continue as F&B operations?

49.   This brings me to the earlier question I posed. Some of them, when you look at the premises, you do question if they can really be F&B, but it requires us to say flat out to the operators, regardless of what you say, I am not going to believe you, and I am not going to allow you to operate as an F&B.

50.   Agencies are working on the conditions that can be imposed like CCTVs, various other conditions, over and above what is applied to F&B outlets. They will also have to consult with the AGC. Can we say no to an operator, if we think it might be dodgy, even if the operators undertake to comply with the conditions. It is not so straightforward. Once these issues are assessed, MTF has to decide on whether the opening or reopening can be allowed

IV. Enforcement Actions

51.   I will now deal with questions which have been raised on enforcement.

52.   In the period October 2020 to 10 July 2021, the Police conducted 202 operations against pivoted outlets, as well as other outlets which were operating illegally.

53.   So, this is what I said earlier – assume we had said no to all pivoting of F&B operations, there would still be places which offer sex and meet up opportunities. That was always going to happen.

54.   So, we had one Police operation every single day, on average, since October 2020.

55.   This, I think, should put to rest any questions enforcement actions by the Police. One operation, every day. And that has resulted in the detection of 58 Public Entertainment Act and Liquor Control Act infringements, 595 SMM breaches. 142 arrests for offences under various laws, including the Public Entertainments Act, Liquor Control Act, Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, and Immigration Act. Not all at pivoted places, but also in completely illegal operations.

56.   To share a few examples – in October 2020, Police raided units along Ubi Road and Kallang Pudding Road. 57 persons were investigated for breach of SMMs. In November, at Genting Lane, 24 persons were investigated for breach of SMMs, 10 women were arrested for work pass-related offences. In February 2021, at Emerald Hill Road and again at Genting Lane, 88 persons investigated for breach of SMMs. One man arrested for working without a valid Work Permit. In April, at Kitchener Road and Verdun Road, 45 persons investigated for breach of SMMs, seven men and one woman arrested.

57.   In all the cases, items such as karaoke equipment, liquor were seized. Operators are being investigated.

58.   Enforcement operations were also conducted over 20 weekends, and at every, single festive occasion since Oct 2020.

59.   About 400 F&B outlets, including pivoted outlets, were inspected in each operation.

60.   To date, agencies have imposed around 100 closure orders on F&B outlets, including on about 40 Pivoted Outlets. As I said to the House just now, there were about 437 pivoted outlets, so roughly 10 per cent have been acting illegally, and 60 other F&B outlets also were in breach.

61.   SFA has permanently revoked the food licence of seven pivoted outlets as of 23 July.

V. Hostessing

62.   Let me now move to this business of hostesses.

63.   Since the onset of COVID-19, the rules are that hostessing is not allowed in any setting.

64.   The women who were caught, were likely in breach of their visit or work pass conditions and they were operating illegally.

65.   And the first woman, much attention has been centred on her, linked to the KTV cluster, had come into Singapore in February 2021 through the “boyfriend/girlfriend” category, under what we call the Familial Ties Lane (will refer to it as “FTL”), sponsored by a Singapore Citizen who applied for her on the basis that he was her boyfriend. Let me explain this boyfriend/girlfriend category.

66.   At the start of COVID-19 last year, we banned short-term visitors from entering Singapore.

67.   As of September last year, the ban on short term visitors continued. Basically, only Singaporean residents can come back, some of their relatives, and some business travellers.

68.   In October last year, we introduced flexibility to allow boyfriends and girlfriends to come into Singapore.

69.   And why? We had an almost complete ban on short term visitors, so boyfriends, girlfriends could not come in, there were many appeals.

70.   And for background reference, in the 20 years between 2000 to 2019, there were about 120,000 Singapore Citizens who married non-residents. About one in four citizen marriages were between Singaporeans and non-resident partners.

71.   So, it is quite common for Singaporeans to have relationships with non-Singaporeans.

72.   This boyfriend/girlfriend category was specifically introduced in the context of the ban on short-term visitors, to allow Singaporeans who were in relationships with foreign partners to be reunited because they had been separated for a long time due to border restrictions.

73.   And this was after numerous appeals on this were received.

74.   Meanwhile, there was a parallel development. Around September/October 2020, we announced the Unilateral Opening (or “UO”) to specific countries/regions which were of lower COVID risk, including Vietnam, Brunei, New Zealand, Australia (except Victoria State). Our assessment was the risk of importation of the virus was assessed to be low.

75.   Vietnam, specifically, had a comprehensive public health surveillance system, had displayed successful control over COVID at that time. In the last four weeks of September 2020, it had zero local COVID cases.

76.   Under the UO, travellers could seek entry into Singapore by applying for an Air Travel Pass, and this means short term travellers from these countries were allowed to come in.

77.   In February 2021, due to the worsening COVID situation in Vietnam, we suspended the UO between Singapore and Vietnam, which meant that short term travellers from Vietnam could not come in, from February 2021, under the UO.

78.   ICA then began to receive many applications for Vietnamese to come into Singapore under the “boyfriend/girlfriend” category. People are quite, I wasn’t going to say sceptical, I was going to say, inventive.

79.   So to emphasise, once we suspended the Unilateral Opening with Vietnam in February 2021, there were many applications under the boyfriend/girlfriend category.

80.   We looked at it, scratched our heads, the applications raised concerns. I’ll just give several examples. There will be one Vietnamese applicant and multiple sponsors claiming to be the lady’s boyfriend. There will be Singaporean sponsors, many who applied for multiple girlfriends. It’s possible, but you know. Sponsors who were already married to someone else, applying. Many men claiming to be a single lady’s boyfriend, I mentioned it earlier. Sponsors who were unable to substantiate when you ask questions. What relationship you really have with this person who is proposed to be sponsored?

81.   But as Members of Parliament will know, residents will come to the Members of Parliament and say: “I am a Singapore Citizen, I have done National Service, why are you not allowing my girlfriend to come in? We also received such appeals, ICA receives.

82.   But when we looked at these applications for girlfriends, and they are all primarily girlfriends, to come in. We decided this won’t do, we have to stop this.

83.   In March 2021, this girlfriend/boyfriend category was removed. You can no longer appeal for a boyfriend or girlfriend to come in.

84.   So, ICA moved quite fast. In February, the UO with Vietnam was suspended. The next month, in March, the boyfriend/girlfriend category was scrapped, because we took the view that this was being abused.

85.   We created this category, boyfriend/girlfriend, during a pandemic last year, October, because we wanted to be compassionate. Now, if you were to rank the organisations in terms of compassion, I don’t think this most people will put ICA at number one on the list, and MHA will not usually be accused of being the most compassionate either. But we did want to try and be compassionate and help, because of the number of appeals. People want their loved ones to come in, and we want to try and help.

86.   But, if the system is abused, then we have stop it. If it is mutated, then we have to stop it.

87.   But unfortunately, what that is meant is that many legitimate applications are now being refused.

88.   ICA has also taken action against, in respect of dodgy applications, by rescinding the approvals, barring the travellers from entry into Singapore, and suspending the sponsors and travellers from future applications.

89.   Apart from the FTL category, we have other avenues for foreigners to enter Singapore during this pandemic, but very limited. They include MOM’s Work Pass Holder Lane and MOE’s Student’s Pass Holder lane. Applicants are required to submit their application to MOM and MOE respectively for entry approval and are subject to screening, obviously.

90.   There are also short-term visitors who were already in Singapore before the border controls were imposed in March 2020. For these persons, ICA assesses their application for extension of their Short-Term Visit Pass on a case-by-case basis. It takes into consideration factors including restrictions on international travel, flight availability, and whether the applicants have family ties in Singapore.

91.   Tying that back to Police’s recent operations against nightlife outlets, recent operations – 29 women, aged between 20 and 47, of various nationalities, have been arrested for offences under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and other laws.

92.   The 29 include Permanent Residents, Work Pass holders, S Pass holders, Short Term Pass holders; one who came in under the Unilateral Opening, three who had come in under the "girlfriend" category; Long Term Visit Pass holders, other passes, Student Pass, Dependant’s Pass.

93.   Permanent Residents, unlikely to have committed any offence except for maybe safe distancing measures. Others on Work passes, would be in breach of their work pass conditions, if they were performing services as hostess. Those on visit passes would be in breach as well by working without a Work Permit.

94.   If they say they weren’t working, then we have to show they were in breach. It’s often cat and mouse. As Members will know, we can’t use Trace Together data for this.

95.   So far, 16 women have had their passes cancelled. They have been or will be deported. Investigations are ongoing in respect of the other women. Of course, the operators’ operations. Some of them are pivoted outlets, several of them are not, other places in warehouses and so on. We continuously have to look for them, rely on tip-offs, as well as our own intelligence, and keep trying to keep it under control.

VI. Conclusion

96.   Sir, I think I have dealt with many of the questions that have been raised.

97.   Thank you.