04 Nov 2019

Second Reading of the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill 2019 – Speech by Ms Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development

1.         Mr Speaker, Sir, on behalf of the Minister for Home Affairs, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a second time.”

 

2.         The Bill before us amends the provisions of the Women’s Charter dealing with offences against women and girls. These amendments strengthen our levers against syndicates that organise and facilitate prostitution, or ‘vice syndicates’.

 

3.         Vice syndicates have exploited technology to transform the way they operate, with apps and websites making it easier and more discreet than ever to:

i.       advertise sexual services,

ii.       communicate with one another and with prospective clients, and

iii.        arrange payment.

 

4.         What this means is that:  

i.       syndicates can now remotely control their operations from anywhere in the world,

ii.       they can introduce layers in their operations to evade detection, but retain command and control by using these e-communication and e-payment platforms, and

iii.        they can easily move from one residential unit to another, by renting these units to be used as “pop-up brothels”.

 

5.         This has brought about disamenities in the neighbourhoods, and has made it more challenging for law enforcement. Let me share two examples.

 

6.         My first example is a typical experience faced by neighbours of units used for vice.

 

7.         “Mdm Jane” and her neighbours observed many unfamiliar male visitors going in and out of one of their neighbours’ unit.

 

8.         Imagine what “Mdm Jane” must have felt to see these men loitering near her home, and the impact on her sense of safety for her teenage daughter.

 

9.         “Mdm Jane” made a Police report, and Police enforcement uncovered two females providing sexual services within the unit.

 

10.      My second example highlights some of the challenges faced by law enforcement because of changes in syndicates’ modus operandi.

 

11.      Last year, the Singapore Police Force and China’s Ministry of Public Security conducted simultaneous raids across multiple locations in Singapore and China. They arrested 36 syndicate members, including the key masterminds and agents based in China. This led to the disruption of a major vice website targeting clients in Singapore.

 

12.      While the Police could previously focus their resources to dismantle vice syndicates operating within certain areas of Singapore, now, these syndicates are all over the world. It is increasingly difficult and complicated to dismantle these syndicates, and requires significant collaboration with foreign agencies.

 

13.      We need to do more to address the rise in online vice.

 

14.      To give a sense of how much online vice has grown in recent years:

 

i.       In 2015, the proportion of females arrested for online vice, compared to all other types of platforms, was 16%.

ii.       In 2018, this proportion had increased to 55%.

 

15.      Another startling statistic: between 2015 and 2018, seven in 10 foreign females arrested for online vice, were providing sexual services in residential estates.

 

16.      So, it is necessary to strengthen our levers against vice syndicates and individuals, especially those operating through online means.

 

17.      This will also ensure better protection for our neighbourhoods against vice activities.

 

18.      I will now go through the key amendments of the Bill.

 

Extra-territorial application for section 146A (offence of using remote communication services to offer or facilitate provision of sexual services in Singapore)

 

19.      The first amendment targets syndicates that attempt to evade enforcement by moving parts of their operations overseas.

 

20.      Currently, it is an offence under section 146A if a person in Singapore, operates or maintains in Singapore, a remote communication service to offer or facilitate the provision of sexual services in Singapore.

 

21.      But a webmaster in Singapore who relies on an overseas server to host his website to deliver sexual services in Singapore, would not run afoul of this section today.

 

22.      Clause 10 amends section 146A so that it has extra-territorial application.

 

23.      The offence will be extended extra-territorially in two ways.

 

i.       First, it will apply to persons based outside Singapore, and

ii.       Second, it will apply to persons who use platforms based overseas. For example, a person in Singapore using a website server based overseas.

 

24.      In order for the extended offence to be made out, two conditions must be met:

 

i.       First, the remote communication service has to be used to offer or facilitate the provision, by a woman or girl, of sexual services in Singapore.

 

ii.       Second, the remote communication service has to have a Singapore-link; namely, that a person physically present in Singapore is capable of having access to matters communicated using that service.

 

25.      This extra-territorial application for section 146A will allow the Police to more effectively target trans-national vice syndicates.

 

Enhance penalties

 

26.      Second, the Bill increases penalties for vice offences in Part XI (eleven) of the Women’s Charter so as to more appropriately reflect the seriousness of these offences, and to better deter vice activities.

 

27.      There are three parts to this amendment.

 

28.      First, higher maximum fines to match the profits derived from vice crimes.

 

29.      Today, a syndicate member can easily earn $100,000 in a year, and this far exceeds the current maximum fine of $10,000.

 

30.      The Bill therefore raises the maximum fines, to take into account the potential earnings of syndicates, and also inflation over the years.

 

31.      Second, longer maximum jail terms to raise the sentencing benchmarks for vice offences.

 

32.      Third, heavier penalties for second and subsequent conviction, for all vice-related offences in Part XI (eleven) of the Women’s Charter.

 

33.      Currently, only some offences carry heavier penalties for re-offending. But given the severity of vice offences, we need to take a stronger stand to better deter repeat offenders, regardless of their role in the conduct or delivery of the vice activities.

 

34.      The revised penalty framework is as follows:

 

35.      For the less serious offences, such as an offence committed by an owner whose place was used as a brothel under section 148:

 

i.       On first conviction, a maximum jail term of five years, or maximum fine of $100,000, or both. This is up from the current maximum jail term of three years, or maximum fine of $3,000, or both.

 

ii.       On second or subsequent conviction, a maximum jail term of seven years, or maximum fine of $150,000, or both. This is up from the current maximum jail term of 5 years, or maximum fine of $10,000, or both.

 

36.      For the more serious offences, such as living off the earnings of prostitution under section 146:

 
i.       On first conviction, a mandatory jail term of up to seven years, and a discretionary maximum fine of $100,000. This is up from the current mandatory maximum jail term of five years, and a discretionary maximum fine of $10,000.

 

 ii.     On second or subsequent conviction, a mandatory jail term of up to ten years, and a discretionary maximum fine of $150,000. This is up from the current discretionary maximum fine of $10,000; there is no change to the current maximum jail term.

 

Responsible lease of premises

 

37.      The third amendment relates to promoting the responsible lease of premises, to deter “pop-up brothels”.

 

38.      “Pop-up brothels” are on the rise, especially in residential estates. The Police frequently receive complaints from the neighbours of such residential units.

 

39.      No one wants vice activities in their blocks or even on their streets.

 

40.      Clause 12 makes it clearer in law, the responsibilities of owners, tenants and other parties involved in the lease of any premises.

 

41.      This is necessary because syndicates commonly exploit the lack of checks at the point of leasing by misusing identity documents, in order to secure premises for vice activities.

 

42.      For example, there have been cases of syndicates using false identities, and even a deceased person’s identity documents to rent a property.

 

43.      Such misuse is problematic also because it makes it harder for Police to track down the offenders. 

 

44.      We want to deprive vice syndicates of operating space, and safeguard the tranquillity and safety of our neighbourhoods. To do so, we need the vigilance of three key stakeholders:

 

i.       Owners who rent out their properties;

 ii.       Tenants who rent from the landlords and sub-let the premises to someone else; and

iii.        Property agents who facilitate these lease and sub-lease transactions.

 

45.      For property owners and tenants:

 

46.      Clause 12 amends section 148 subsections (3) and (4) such that: an owner who rents out, or a tenant who sub-lets, a place which is used as a brothel,

 

i.       will be criminally liable unless he or she can show that,

ii.       at the time of entering into the letting of that place,

iii.        he or she had no knowledge and could not, with reasonable diligence,

iv.       have ascertained that the place was to be used as a brothel.

 

47.      A similar amendment is made to subsection (2), for tenants, lessees, occupiers or persons in charge of a place.

 

48.      Property owners and tenants should also start asking the right questions when they rent out their properties:

 

i.       For example, who are the people they are letting the place to?

ii.       Will these people be staying there, or will they be allowing other parties to use the place?

 

49.      Responsible property owners and tenants would already be asking these questions today, when leasing out their premises. These amendments simply provide more clarity to all owners and tenants on what they should do.

 

50.      To help property owners and tenants understand what constitutes ‘reasonable diligence’, we have included two illustrations:

 

i.       First, owners and tenants should conduct identity checks of a prospective tenant or sub-tenant and the purpose of the tenancy or sub-tenancy, through face-to-face interviews, before leasing the place.

 

This can help ensure that the person they are transacting with is indeed who he or she claims to be and is not misusing another person’s identity document;

 

ii.       Second, if the owner is overseas, he should engage an agent or trusted person to conduct these face-to-face interviews on his behalf. The owner should verify that the agent or trusted person has indeed carried out these checks.

 

51.      These illustrations serve as guides to property owners and tenants. However, whether “reasonable diligence” was exercised would eventually depend on the specific facts of the case.

 

52.      For example, if a property owner had already been warned by the Police that his flat could have been used as a brothel, the owner might be expected to do more to ensure that no brothel is operating at that flat.

 

53.      We have consulted stakeholders extensively in developing this proposal,

i.       so that property owners and tenants are not overly burdened,

ii.       while still ensuring that they exercise responsibility over their premises, and

iii.        that they play their part in deterring syndicates from using their premises for vice.

 

54.      Such checks are actually not new.

 

55.      There is already a statutory requirement under the Immigration Act, for property owners to conduct identity checks of foreign tenants to ensure that there is no harbouring of immigration offenders.

 

56.      This has been in place since 1993 and property owners have largely complied.  

 

57.      These amendments are intended to get property owners to extend the identity checks to Singapore Citizen and Permanent Resident tenants and sub-tenants as well, so as to guard against premises being misused for vice activities.

 

58.      The large majority of property owners and tenants who are law-abiding and acting in good faith will not have to worry.

 

59.      In each case, the Police will conduct investigations to establish the facts, and take enforcement actions only where warranted.

 

60.      Property agents also have a critical role in keeping our neighbourhoods safe.

 

61.      They should discharge their professional duties responsibly, and these are aligned to the reasonable diligence that we expect of property owners who lease out their premises and tenants who sub-let.

 

62.      Property agents should guide property owners and tenants on what should be done in exercising reasonable diligence.

 

63.      And, if property agents detect any suspicious transactions themselves, they should proactively document and report the matter to the Police.

 

64.      We are working with the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) to provide guidelines to the industry. Last month, I met with representatives from the industry to have a dialogue on these upcoming changes, and they gave many useful suggestions on how we can partner the industry to keep vice out of neighbourhoods.

 

65.      Where agents are found to have been negligent in carrying out their professional duties, they may be liable for regulatory action by CEA under the Estate Agents Act.

 

66.      For instance, if the property agent does not comply with his or her professional duties which will include conducting identity checks on the parties involved in the lease transactions, the property agent may be penalised monetarily, or have his or her registration suspended or revoked by CEA.

 

67.      More critically, errant property agents who intentionally facilitate any lease transaction with the knowledge that it would lead to vice activities at the premises, are likely to face prosecution for abetting the commission of an offence under the Women’s Charter, or other relevant laws.

 

Other amendments

 

68.      Lastly, we are making some miscellaneous amendments to ensure that Police enforcement remains effective against the changing modus operandi of vice syndicates.

 

69.      First, Clause 2 broadens the definition of “brothel” to include any place that has been advertised or represented as being used for the purpose of prostitution, and is likely to be used for the purpose of prostitution. 

 

70.      Currently, a brothel is defined as a place that is used by at least two women or girls, whether at the same time or at different times, for the purposes of prostitution.

 

71.      Syndicates have transformed the way they conduct their business, so that they circumvent the current definition of brothel, and avoid getting caught for vice offences.

 

i.       Earlier, I mentioned that syndicates would rent various residential units, and shift from one to another to evade detection, effectively functioning as a “pop-up”.

 

ii.       Each of these sex workers may also present herself as a lone operator.

 

iii.        These new modus operandi make it harder to prove that the premises are being used as brothels as currently defined, even though it is clear from advertisements online that they are being used for prostitution.

 

72.      We are therefore amending the definition of a “brothel”, to enable the Police to take effective and decisive enforcement action.

 

73.      Clause 2 also simplifies the onus of proof on the part of the prosecution seeking to prove that a place is being used as a brothel.

 

74.      The clause makes clear an existing practice on the use of indirect evidence, to prove that a place is being used as a brothel.

 

75.      For example, chat logs of appointments being made for prostitution services to be provided at the place, would be allowed to be submitted as evidence that a place is being used as a brothel.

 

76.      Second, Clause 3 amends section 140 subsection (1)(d) to make it clear that it is an offence for a person to bring into Singapore, receive or harbour any woman or girl for prostitution.

 

77.      Currently, only agents who bring into Singapore, receive or harbour a woman or girl who has been procured are liable for the offence.

 

78.      The amendment will allow the Police to arrest a pimp or agent, even if the woman or girl is a free-lance sex worker and therefore cannot be said to have been ‘procured’ by anyone.

 

79.      Third, Clause 10 amends section 146A to change the element of “operating or maintaining a remote communication service” for the provision of sexual service, to that of “using” a remote communication service for that purpose.

 

80.      This is to make clear that our intent is to also target syndicates that use such a service, for example, vice agents who rely on messaging platforms provided by an internet intermediary, and not the company operating and maintaining the service, such as telcos and Internet Service Providers.

 

81.      Lastly, Clause 15 amends section 174 subsection (1) to extend the powers of arrest to the offence of using a remote communication service under section 146A.

 

82.      This will enable the Police to also exercise powers of arrest with respect to syndicate members who use a remote communication services for the provision of sexual services. Currently, this offence is not arrestable.

 

Conclusion

 

83.      To conclude, this Bill is part of our larger vice management strategy, which includes working with our partners on upstream education and deterrence.

 

84.      Mr Speaker, I would like to conclude in Mandarin.

 

           i.         这些修订条款对于加强取缔卖淫集团活动是有必要的,尤其是日益猖獗的网络卖淫活动。这些非法卖淫活动入侵住宅区,已经对居民造成了极大的干扰。

 

          ii.         政府的有关部门正在主动开展调查,尽力预防、阻止卖淫活动在邻里住宅区滋生。除此之外,我们每一个人也需要负起各自的责任。

 

         iii.         就屋主来说,在出租房屋之前就要提高警惕,而不是等房子租出去后才发现有问题,或是对可疑活动视而不见。出租房子时,屋主应该清楚租户的身份。有些人冒用他人身份租房来进行非法活动,因此需要屋主仔细核对,确保租户的真实身份。

 

        iv.         房屋经纪也需要持续秉持专业的精神,做好分内工作,协调房屋出租时,仔细查核潜在租户的真实身份。房屋经纪一旦发现有任何可疑之处,应当立刻向屋主通报,然后报警。

 

          v.         作为社区的一分子,我们也可以尽一份力,阻止卖淫活动在社区蔓延;如果发现邻里小区内有任何可疑活动,别犹豫,请立刻向警方举报。

 

        vi.         如果我们能集体提高警惕,从小处着手,担负起各自的责任,我们就能够确保我们居住的邻里社区安全,制止卖淫活动入侵、蔓延。

 

85.      Thank you.

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