04 Nov 2019

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

1. Mr Speaker, I thank Members for their support for the Bill.

 

2. I shall first address the broader questions on the Government’s policy on managing vice, before going into questions relating to specific amendments in the Bill.

 

3. First, regarding the Government’s policy on vice, and our vice management strategy.

 

4. Mr Louis Ng asked if these amendments will only drive vice elsewhere, further underground. Mr Alex Yam gave a passionate argument for the abolition of prostitution altogether in Singapore.

 

5. There are no easy answers to this. Mr Alex Yam shared that we should eradicate the exploitation of women instead of management. He proposed abolishing prostitution. However, as NMP Anthea Ong pointed out, the economic and social factors such as poverty and a lack of realistic career options that pushes women into prostitution will not go away by criminalising prostitution. She pointed out that sex workers and empowering these women can instead be part of the solution.

 

6. We studied the approaches adopted by various countries – some ban the purchase and selling of sex, others focus on criminalising demand, and yet others have chosen to decriminalise or legalise the sex industry. The experiences of these countries are mixed, but what Mr Wong Kan Seng said 20 years ago, and which Mr Louis Ng quoted, still holds true: no country has successfully eradicated prostitution.

 

7. In Singapore, we take a pragmatic approach towards vice. We prioritise our efforts by ensuring organised crime groups and syndicates do not gain a foothold through vice activities; and addressing public nuisance caused by vice-related activities such as soliciting in public, and vice in heartlands.

8. I acknowledge Mr Ng’s concerns about syndicates which will continue to evolve alongside changes to our laws and our enforcement efforts. But we cannot do nothing either. Where that line is crossed, the Government must intervene to safeguard our neighbourhoods.

 

9. This intervention is part of our larger vice management strategy, which Prof Fatimah Lateef, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Mr Alex Yam and Er Dr Lee Bee Wah asked about.

 

10. Upstream, we target platforms which may be used to facilitate vice activities, by taking down and blocking vice websites as and when they are detected; establishing a regulatory regime for public entertainment and massage establishment outlets, which may be fronts for vice activities; and detecting and deterring foreigners seeking to enter Singapore for sex work.

 

11. We also remind residents to be vigilant against vice activities by: working with partners such as the Housing & Development Board (HDB) and the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) to promote awareness among residents and property agents; and raising deterrence against vice activities by publicising Police’s enforcement efforts.

 

12. Downstream, the ICA and Police conduct raids on premises suspected of harbouring immigration offenders and vice activities; and the Police also conduct joint operations with their overseas counterparts, to target the upper echelons of these syndicates. I gave an example of such a joint operation with our counterparts in China, in my earlier speech.

 

13. Members also had questions about these downstream enforcement practices.

 

14. I appreciate the concerns faced by the resident in the example shared by Prof Fatimah Lateef. The Police do indeed hope to work with eyes and ears on the ground, be it vigilant property owners, tenants or property agents, to aid ongoing investigations or uncover unreported crime.

 

15. The Police may not appear to respond immediately to all information received, but this is also because they will have to verify this information before conducting any enforcement action. But I assure Members that the Police value every piece of information provided by members of the public. The amendments today also demonstrate our commitment to weed out vice syndicates from residential areas. There are many channels available to provide such information, including lodging a Police report or using iWitness.

 

16. The same goes for sex workers who are victims of crime. Ms Anthea Ong, through her examples, also made a broader point about a perception that syndicates are getting away scot-free, in spite of sex workers coming forward to assist with Police investigations.

 

17. The Police will follow up on information provided by sex workers, but as explained in my earlier speech, syndicates are finding ways to evade detection. This means that in some cases, the Police may find it challenging to identify the agents, or to establish the culpability of persons involved. And this is why we need these amendments in the Bill.

 

18. The Police have updated their enforcement strategies to remain effective. For example, they also conduct “precision” operations, to quote Ms Ong, targeted at the upper echelons of the syndicates. There is a broad spectrum of enforcement operations conducted by the Police: regular, sustained enforcement raids targeting vices in the heartlands, and precise strikes to disrupt the syndicates.

 

19. MPs Mr Melvin Yong and Prof Fatimah Lateef asked about the vice situation at areas such as Orchard Towers and Geylang.

 

20. The Police have adopted a targeted enforcement strategy at these locations. Broadly, they keep a high enforcement and operations tempo at these locations. Depending on the ground issues, the Police also work with other enforcement agencies and community stakeholders to detect and deter illegal activities.

 

21. I mentioned that we have in-place a regulatory regime for massage establishments and public entertainment outlets, as part of our vice management strategy. It is outside of the scope of the amendments, but I will briefly talk about the principles.

 

22. The Police take into consideration URA’s planning intent, the law and order situation of an area, and the operators’ background, before issuing licences to these operators. The operators have to comply with the licensing conditions, which include ensuring no immoral activity is carried out in the premises, and the Police conduct regular enforcement checks on the outlets. Errant operators may face regulatory sanctions, or even criminal penalties under the relevant legislation.

 

23. Ms Anthea Ong, Mr Alex Yam and Er Dr Lee Bee Wah also asked for some vice-related statistics. Between 2016 and 2018, about 8,800 foreign females were arrested for vice and immigration offences. In the same period, 328 vice abettors were arrested.

 

24. The number of pop-up brothels in operation is difficult to estimate with certainty, but suffice to say, it is on an upward trend.  

 

25. We do not collect data on persons who purchase sexual services, as this is not an offence.

 

26. So far, I have set out our law enforcement strategies. I now turn to the issue of protection and support for sex workers, which Ms Anthea Ong, Mr Louis Ng, Mr Melvin Yong and Mr Darryl David spoke about.

 

27. We have tough laws against trafficking-in-persons, under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA).

 

28. There are safe reporting channels available to victims – persons can report to the Police or Ministry of Manpower via their hotlines and websites, or call 999 if immediate Police assistance is required.

 

29. We also have in place a victim care framework, which includes providing assistance with temporary accommodation, food, counselling services, medical care and temporary employment.

 

30. Sex workers should not keep silent if they have been abused or exploited. Any sex worker who is a victim of crime should come forward and get Police’s assistance. The Police will look into all allegations of criminal offences. Support is available for prosecution witnesses, such as assistance with housing and employment.

 

31. Mr Melvin Yong cited the report by the US State Department, regarding trafficking-in-persons. The report misrepresents the ground realities of the trafficking situation here. The MHA issued a clarification, published in the Straits Times, in July this year. Of the 16 alleged trafficking cases, 10 were alleged to be sex trafficking. Subsequent investigations by the Police ascertained that none of the 10 alleged sex trafficking cases were substantiated as trafficking under the PHTA. MHA has also clarified this with the US directly.

 

32. Ms Anthea Ong also asked about criminal compensation for sex workers who have been victims of crime. As Ms Ong has highlighted, there is already an existing legal framework under the Criminal Procedure Code.

 

33. Under the law, compensation is a matter for the Courts to consider. Where appropriate, cases are brought to the attention of the Police by the victim, the Police will highlight to Attorney-General Chambers to consider making such a case on behalf of the victim.

 

34. Regarding conditional immunity for prosecution witnesses suggested by Ms Anthea Ong and Mr Louis Ng, this is an issue that needs further deliberation. We will have to take into account holistically, the circumstance and actions of the sex worker, and prevailing laws and policies.

 

35. The Women’s Charter is meant to protect women in general, including sex workers from being exploited by pimps. The police have not prosecuted any sex workers for sex work, as prostitution is not an offence. However, foreigners who work as sex workers in Singapore have also violated the conditions of their entry into Singapore, and are considered prohibited immigrants under our law. We will thus have to carefully consider the impact of granting immunity to such individuals on public safety and our criminal justice system as a whole.

 

36. Mr Louis Ng also shared about helping women transit out of sex work. Community partners do play an important role in helping Singaporean sex workers, be it in helping them transit out of sex work, or providing social support to them. The Government will support such efforts where possible. But we must also recognise that most sex workers are foreigners, and foreigners who are prostitutes in Singapore would have flouted our immigration laws. Again, we have to carefully consider the impact of our policies on public safety and law and order.

37. I will next address Members’ queries on specific clauses in the Bill.

 

38. Mr Darryl David and Mr Melvin Yong asked how the extra-territorial application of section 146A would be used in practice to target offenders based overseas. Er Dr Lee Bee Wah said the anonymity offered by some of these platforms could hinder investigations.

 

39. With the amendments to section 146A, we will be able to arrest offenders when they enter Singapore, even if they were overseas at the point of commission of the offence.

 

40. If they are in a country with which Singapore has a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) or extradition treaty, it may be possible to seek their assistance for investigation or send an extradition request to the country, if this is practical or expedient.

 

41. Even if there are no formal reciprocal agreements, the Police will work with our foreign counterparts to share information and conduct joint enforcement and investigation.

 

42. While we acknowledge that extra-territorial laws have their limitations, the amendments to section 146A will still be an improvement over what we have today. I explained the need for these amendments in my earlier speech.

 

43. To ascertain the identity of these offenders, the Police can rely on section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code to order the production of any document or thing necessary for investigations. The Police also work with their overseas counterparts to share relevant information.

 

44. I have just set out how the Police will rely on the amended section 146A, to go after syndicate members overseas. The other amendment to section 146A is to allow the Police to go after syndicate members in Singapore, even if they use a remote communication service based overseas. The amended section 146A is thus not only applicable to syndicates members overseas.

 

45. Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Mr Melvin Yong and Er Dr Lee Bee Wah asked about the use of social media and social messaging platforms to advertise the provision of sexual services in Singapore.

 

46. Most syndicates rely on dedicated websites, such as SGWolves, which was taken down last year.  Many social media platforms have community standards and processes for users to report such posts to the company for take-down.

 

47. We thank Mr Gan for his suggestion to require internet intermediaries, such as social media providers, to do more to combat vice on their platforms proactively. The MHA is also working with other government agencies to study the issue. In doing so, we are seeking to find the right balance between our public safety outcomes, without imposing requirements that are unreasonably onerous on companies.

 

48. In any case, such platforms are considered “remote communication services” under section 146A. With these amendments to section 146A, syndicates which use these social media and social messaging platforms to advertise or facilitate the provision of sexual services in Singapore, will be liable for an offence, even if the server is overseas, or even if the person posting the advertisement is overseas.

 

49. Ms Anthea Ong and Mr Alex Yam asked if the higher maximum fines would be enough to deter the offenders.

 

50. The higher maximum fines are part of a broader suite of amendments to better deter vice syndicates. The Bill also raises the maximum jail terms, and penalties for re-offending. Taken as a whole, this sends a strong signal to vice syndicates regarding the seriousness of the offence.

 

54. In determining the appropriate maximum penalties, we took into account the penalties in other relevant legislations, such as the PHTA, which also carries a maximum fine of $100,000, imprisonment of up to 10 years, and caning, even for first time offenders.  Additionally, the prosecution can also apply to confiscate vice earnings under the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act, or CDSA, as we have done in the past.

 

55. Several Members asked whether the identity checks, as a form of reasonable diligence, would be effective in deterring syndicates from renting premises for vice activities. Some said identity checks, by themselves, may not be helpful in determining the tenant’s motives, and asked if it would be fair to hold landlords responsible for tenants’ subsequent actions.

 

56. At the point of signing the lease agreement or releasing the premises for occupation to a tenant, if the property owner or master tenant had done what was reasonably possible to ascertain that the premises is not going to be used as a brothel, the owner or master tenant will not be liable for an offence even if the unit is subsequently used as a brothel.

 

57. But, the tenant or occupier could be prosecuted for an offence of keeping, managing or assisting in the management of a brothel; the Bill does not amend or abolish this offence in section 148 subsection (1). And where the tenant is not directly managing or keeping the brothel, the tenant cannot escape criminal liability unless: he or she can show that he or she had no knowledge, and could not with reasonable diligence have ascertained, that the premises are used as a brothel. The latter is an amendment in clause 12(b) in the Bill, which will make it harder for a tenant or occupant to turn a blind eye.

 

58. This is a balanced approach. We had considered imposing post-transaction requirements, such as spot-checks on the unit, installing CCTVs, or checking with the neighbours.

 

59. We consulted a wide range of stakeholders on this, and the general consensus was that it would be too onerous to impose legal obligations on property owners to implement post-transaction checks at this juncture. Stakeholders said property owners or master tenants faced practical limitations.

 

60. For example, as leases or sub-leases usually require them to respect the tenant’s or sub-tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment, it would be challenging to conduct surprise checks if the tenant or sub-tenant was not around to allow the inspection. The owner or master tenant might arrange the inspection in-advance, but this would defeat the purpose of the checks since syndicates could remove any evidence of illegal activity. And, as Mr Louis Ng highlighted, the owner or master tenant may not be able to determine whether the place is used as a brothel.

 

61. There were also concerns about potential risks to the personal safety of the person conducting the checks, if crime syndicates are involved in the running of brothels out of these rented premises.

 

62. As Mr Darryl David and Er Dr Lee Bee Wah said, those who have done their reasonable diligence should not be unjustly punished. The Members are correct in this regard. The proposed approach in the Bill for owners and master tenants to exercise reasonable diligence at the point of entering into tenancy agreements, is not too onerous, and is something that many are already doing today.

 

63. As I said in my earlier speech, this amendment is also intended to get property owners and tenants started in asking the right questions. These will help deter syndicates attempting to misuse another person’s identity documents, in order to rent a place to be used as a brothel.

 

64. Mr Yee Chia Hsing asked if property owners can rely fully on property agents’ advice and to carry out the checks for them.

 

65. Property agents play an important role in helping home owners and tenants comply with the law. We are therefore working with CEA to ensure that property agents are aware of these legislative changes, and to introduce professional guidelines to ensure that property agents help owners and tenants meet these reasonable diligence requirements.

 

66. In my earlier speech, I also talked about the disciplinary action that property agents could be liable for, if they were found to have behaved negligently.

 

67. Property agents are allowed to conduct checks on behalf of property owners who are unable to meet the prospective tenants in-person - for example, landlords who are overseas, or elderly landlords who may not be ambulant. Apart from property agents, trusted parties such as a family member can also conduct these checks on their behalf.

 

68. However, an owner is ultimately responsible for the lease of his own property. Owners who rely on third-parties should verify that the checks have been completed satisfactorily, before entering into the lease agreement or allowing the prospective tenant to occupy the property. 

 

69. While property agents have a professional duty to advise their clients to the best of their ability, and indeed most of them do so, the property owner should also be asking the right questions and satisfy himself or herself that the unit is being rented out in a responsible manner.

 

70. To Mr Melvin Yong’s question on the use of short-term rental platforms, the owner and tenant of the property-in-use are still responsible for the reasonable diligence requirements under section 148 of the Women’s Charter. In addition, there are rules in place regarding the illegal or unauthorised use of premises for short term accommodation. Property owners may also be liable for an offence under the Planning Act.

 

71. Just as Prof Fatimah Lateef,Er Dr Lee Bee Wah and Mr Alex Yam said, property owners, tenants and property agents are our “eyes and ears” on the ground. These amendments are part of our efforts to promote better collaboration with the community to remain vigilant against vice activities.

 

72. Neighbours, managing agents and security guards are also part of this larger community. We encourage the community to keep vigilant and report suspicious activities to the Police.

 

73. One final point, to Ms Anthea Ong’s comment on the use of the term “mentally defective”, I acknowledge her point and we will look into this in subsequent reviews of the Women’s Charter.

 

74. Mr Speaker, I hope I have addressed Members’ concerns. The Bill is needed to enhance our ability to deal effectively against vice activities of syndicates and individuals, especially those operating online, and to ensure better protection for our  neighbourhoods from vice activities.

 

75. Sir, I beg to move.

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