Published: 11 July 2023
His Excellency, Ambassador Jonathan Kaplan,
Ladies and gentlemen,
1. A very good morning to everyone.
2. It is very timely that we have come together to organise this inaugural joint training programme between the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and the US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). I would also like to recognise the representatives from 10 countries that we have with us today because it is a joint training programme for everyone, and we do want to level up capabilities across ASEAN, with the help of our counterparts in the US, to level up capabilities in dealing with child exploitation, child sexual abuse materials online.
3. This Forum is an important platform for us to connect, share experiences and expertise, and strengthen cooperation in protecting children against crime.
Global Realities of Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
4. The theme of this Forum is “Crimes against Children”. I think this is something that we can all collectively agree on, that crimes against children is something that we abhor, and we should do our very utmost to eradicate and bring perpetrators to justice. This issue is of concern not just in Singapore, but in many other countries too.
5. According to a UNICEF Report in 2020, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys are sexually exploited or abused before reaching the age of 18, worldwide. This is extremely alarming. Child sexual abuse materials have increased drastically, with the Internet and technology facilitating the production and sharing of child sexual abuse materials globally. This is something that all countries need to pay attention to, because perpetrators may be operating within domestic boundaries, but circulating these materials at high speeds, with great outreach, perpetrating these crimes internationally.
6. Singapore takes a serious view of child sexual exploitation and abuse, and we spare no effort to protect our children from such harm. We adopt a comprehensive approach comprising legislation, enforcement and rehabilitation, to deal with the threat of child sexual exploitation and abuse.
7. I would first like to talk about the importance of strengthening legislation. Children’s rights and protections are enshrined in various legislations such as the Children and Young Persons Act, the Penal Code, Women’s Charter, and the Online Criminal Harms Act. And we regularly review and update our laws to ensure that they remain effective against new challenges that have arisen.
8. We amended the Children and Young Persons Act in 2019 to extend protection to abused or neglected children below 18 years of age – up from 16 years of age, previously. The penalties for the ill-treatment or sexual exploitation of a child or young persons were also increased.
9. We amended the Penal Code in 2020 to strengthen the protection of children against sexual exploitation and abuse.
(a) We introduced new offences to criminalise the production, distribution, and possession of child abuse materials.
(b) To enhance protection for children under the age of 16, we criminalised activities such as engaging in sexual communication with a child, engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child, and causing a child to look at sexual images.
(c) As youths below 18 may still be vulnerable to exploitation, we have extended protection for youths aged 16 to 18 where the perpetrator was in an exploitative relationship with the minor. These include the offences of sexual penetration of minors, sexual grooming, and the new offences I mentioned earlier.
(d) These laws are important. I have touched on the relationship between the perpetrator and the child, because it is not only an exploitative one – that of an adult and a minor.
(e) What we have seen from the very disturbing content sometimes involves a family member or relative of the young person who is sexually exploiting the child. This is extremely distressing.
(f) These legislations in Singapore allow us to prosecute Singapore citizens and permanent residents who commit such acts abroad.
10. Just last week, we passed the Family Violence (Amendment) Bill in Parliament to strengthen protection for survivors of family violence.
11. You may be thinking – what has family violence got to do with sexual abuse and sexual assault?
12. But the definition of family violence does include sexual abuse. And if you just think back about what I said earlier, that some of the disturbing content that we see online is of exploitative sexual relationships between an adult in a familial relationship with the child, then you see the nexus between the different laws that we have passed.
13. We have updated the definition of family violence in the Women’s Charter to make it clear that family violence includes sexual abuse, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.
14. And, new sections in the Family Violence (Amendment) Act also allow younger survivors to apply for a Personal Protection Order (PPO) on their own. Unmarried persons aged 18 to below 21 years old will no longer need to rely on guardians, relatives, persons responsible for their care to apply for a PPO on their behalf
15. To address the threat that technology poses to traditional crime, we also passed the Online Criminal Harms Act in July 2023 – very recently, just last week. The Act protects persons in Singapore, including women and children, from online activities that are criminal in nature.
16. The Act empowers law enforcement agencies to issue disabling, account restriction, access blocking, and app removal directions, to online services, other entities or individuals, when specified criminal offences are committed. These include sexual offences such as the distribution of child sexual abuse material, and the distribution of voyeuristic and intimate images without consent.
17. I would like to also talk about the importance of increasing channels for reporting. This is especially important when we talk about child sexual abuse victims. They have to have means to report crimes that are committed against them, and we have to make it easy for them. These channels have to be readily available to them.
(a) The Singapore Government recently refreshed our Break the Silence public education campaign in 2021 to increase the awareness of different types of abuse.
(b) As part of the refreshed campaign, we introduced the use of the “Signal for Help”, which is a hand sign that survivors can use to discreetly call for help. This is a very simple sign, and it is a sign that we want to educate our children to be able to show and express, so that bystanders around them understand they are communicating a distress signal. As part of the outreach, we are also working with educators because what is important is that when a child signals for help, that the people around the child, understand and recognise that it is a distress signal.
(c) Bystanders around them, whether a person in the community, a neighbour, educator, a pre-school educator- these bystanders will be able to recognise that this is a child reaching out for help, and these members of the public will be able to contact the relevant law enforcement agencies to get help for this young child.
(d) We have also increased our outreach by training more than 5,000 people across the people, public, and private sectors, so that they understand the signs of distress exhibited by young children.
18. And to make it easier for survivors and the community to report violence and get immediate help, we also now have an online channel as an additional mode of reporting to the 24-hour National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline.
19. Apart from the strong legislative levers and increasing channels for reporting, we also need to be effective in bringing perpetrators to justice. Since the introduction of the new offences in 2020, the SPF has arrested more than 120 offenders for these new offences. Our Police work closely together with the Attorney General’s Chambers to ensure that stiff punishments are imposed to send a strong deterrent message that we do not condone such deeds.
20. We also invest heavily in rehabilitating offenders. For example, at the end of police investigations, offenders of child sexual abuse material are referred to the Home Team Community Assistance and Referral Scheme (HT CARES) where trained social workers will assess the offenders for referral to an appropriate social service agency for counselling. Pre-sentencing rehabilitation of offenders of child sexual abuse materials is not common internationally, but we believe it is necessary and helpful to put the offender on a rehabilitation journey earlier.
21. A very important aspect of bringing in trained social workers is also because we want to understand the thinking, the mindsets, the tendencies behind these perpetrators.
22. It will help us better reach out to potential high-risk offenders to prevent them from committing crimes against children.
23. From what we understand in our discussions with the social workers, some perpetrators of child sexual abuse materials suffer from mental wellbeing issues or they have had disturbing encounters in their growing up years, which has led them to become more vulnerable to perpetrating such crimes.
24. They can suffer from issues such as low self-esteem; this can include certain social anxiety disorders, which can lead them to turn to children rather to adults. Obviously, there is no good excuse for why an adult should become a perpetrator of such crimes. But still, we should try to understand the minds of the perpetrators so that we can prevent others from committing the same crimes.
25. We also want to look at effective care and counselling for survivors and victims.
(a) We have to support survivors and victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
(b) In Singapore, we have the Victim Care Cadre Programme, which has been offered to those below 18 years of age, to provide them with greater support during Police investigations.
(c) We also have, as I mentioned, the Home Team Community Assistance and Referral Scheme (HT CARES), which was piloted in the Bedok Land Division in 2019, and which has been expanded to all Police Land Divisions since September 2021.
26. The Police have also set up the Sexual Crime and Family Violence Command in April this year, for better oversight of the management of sexual crime and family violence cases.
27. I would now like to talk about the importance of international cooperation and that I think, is the crux of why we are gathered here today. The earlier part of my remarks talks about how we are strengthening the various levers we have domestically here in Singapore. And the reason why I have shared that, is because this platform is one where different counterparts from different countries share your experiences, what has worked in your domestic jurisdictions, and where we can learn from one another. The next step is to see how we can collaborate internationally so that we can build up our capabilities collectively, in order to combat such crime. As I mentioned earlier, criminals who engaged in online child sexual exploitation activities respect no national borders. And the proliferation of the Internet and social media has facilitated the commitment of such crimes.
28. Singapore actively contributes to INTERPOL’s International Child Sexual Exploitation Database, which leverages image and video analytics to support law enforcement in identifying victims and locating perpetrators.
29. In 2019, Singapore adopted the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of Children from all Forms of Online Exploitation and Abuse. This demonstrates our commitment to strengthen international cooperation to enhance the protection of our children and youth against child sexual exploitation and abuse.
30. In 2022, Singapore joined the WeProtect Global Alliance, an international coalition of governments, companies, civil society organisations and international organisations established to tackle online-facilitated child sexual exploitation and abuse. Joining this alliance also signals our commitment to contribute to international efforts in protecting children from sexual exploitation.
Responsibility of Online Platforms
31. We know that the Government’s efforts alone are not enough. The online platforms have an important role in helping children stay safe online and protecting them from the harm of sexual exploitation and abuse. It is also important that they establish robust mechanisms to protect children against harmful online content, and to swiftly remove any child sexual exploitation and abuse material to prevent their further dissemination.
32. Just last week, I joined the launch of the Safer with Google initiative to work with community partners to report harmful online content so that such materials can be swiftly removed.
33. In conclusion, I am extremely glad and heartened that we have organised this Forum. It is extremely timely and it allows our law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and relevant professionals from the US and Southeast Asia region to come together to learn from one another, share best practices, and explore ideas to enhance our capability and capacity in protecting children.
34. I must add that later this afternoon you will be hearing more, learning more, about what are the tools we can use when it comes to investigations; you will also learn more about how you can better support investigating officers; and also how you can better support victims and survivors of such crime. There are many important lessons that I believe that we can learn together, and when it comes to such crimes against children, it is only when we strengthen partnerships beyond our governments, and with the collective efforts of the government, international organisations, private sector, civil society and the community, that we can achieve success in protecting our children from exploitation and abuse.
35. Thank you very much and I wish you all a very successful Forum.