07 Oct 2019

First Reading of Women's Charter (Amendment) Bill

1. The Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill 2019 (“the Bill”) was introduced for First Reading in Parliament today. The Bill seeks to strengthen the laws against online vice, and to enhance the Police’s levers against vice syndicates. These amendments will help, in particular, to stem an increasing trend of vice in the heartlands.


Background


2. The Women’s Charter (WC) protects women and girls from exploitation and harm, setting out offences relating to the organisation and facilitation of prostitution in Singapore. These legislative levers form part of the Police’s larger vice management strategy, which includes (i) enhancing international cooperation to target cross-border syndicates; (ii) raising public awareness to encourage vigilance and reporting by members of the public; and (iii) maintaining a strong enforcement tempo, in particular against heartland vice, with extensive publicity for deterrence. These measures have enabled us to keep the vice situation under control in Singapore.


3. However, vice activities perpetuated through online platforms, or online vice, are a serious concern. Vice syndicates have leveraged technology to facilitate their operations and extend their reach, with increasing sophistication in their modus operandi, by running their businesses remotely, often from overseas.


4. The WC was last amended in 2016 to strengthen the Police’s levers against online vice. To ensure that we continue to stay ahead of online vice, we propose to update the WC as follows:

a. Introduce extra-territorial jurisdiction to Section 146A of the WC;[1]

b. Enhance penalties for prostitution-related offences under the WC;

c. Target the irresponsible lease of premises, to prevent them from being used for vice activities; and

d. Other amendments to address the changing modus operandi of syndicates.


Introduce extra-territorial jurisdiction


5. The Bill will introduce extra-territorial jurisdiction to Section 146A of the WC, to deal with the cross-jurisdiction operations of vice syndicates. This enables the Police to take more decisive action against any person using remote communication services to offer or facilitate the provision of sexual services in Singapore, even if the websites used to provide such services are hosted overseas.

 

Enhance penalties

6. The Bill will enhance penalties to achieve greater deterrence and to disgorge profits from vice syndicates who exploit and profit off women and girls.

 

7. The amendments are as follows:


a. Maximum imprisonment terms will be raised from three years to five years, and for more severe offences, from five years to seven years, for a first conviction. This is to raise sentencing benchmarks across the board. The maximum imprisonment term for repeat offenders will be increased accordingly, to seven years, and for more severe offences, to 10 years.


b. Maximum fines will be raised to $100,000 for a first conviction, and $150,000 for repeat offenders. The current maximum fines range from $2,000 to $10,000 for a first conviction, and $10,000 to $15,000 for repeat offenders. This is to ensure that the penalties are sufficiently deterrent, and also commensurate with earnings derived from the vice trade.


c. The higher imprisonment terms and fines for repeat offenders will be applied to all prostitution-related offences under the WC. This is to deter re-offending across the board, as heavier penalties for repeat offenders currently only apply to selected offences, and do not apply to some roles in the vice syndicates.


Irresponsible lease of premises


8. MHA’s intent is to deprive vice syndicates of operating space, especially in the heartlands. As syndicates evolve and use online platforms to advertise and solicit for clients, they have also moved their vice operations from traditional red light districts into residential areas. This has caused significant disamenities for residents, with the presence of unsavoury characters in our neighbourhoods, and affecting the residents’ sense of safety and security. This has to be dealt with.

 

9. The Bill strengthens the ability to deal with homeowners and tenants who let out their premises for vice activities. If vice activities are detected at their premises, they will have to show that they had no knowledge of and could not, with “reasonable diligence”, have known that the place would be used for vice activities. One way of satisfying themselves is to conduct identity checks at the point of signing their lease agreements, as part of due diligence when renting out or sub-letting their premises. This practice is similar to what is currently required under the Immigration Act, which requires home owners to conduct identity checks to ensure that persons staying in their premises are not immigration offenders.

 

10. We are also partnering the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA), property agencies and agents, to assist and advise home owners and tenants to conduct due diligence checks. Property agents who knowingly assist in renting property for vice could also be liable for criminal prosecution. This will of course not affect the vast majority of agents. Only those who assist in knowingly renting for vice will be affected.

 

Other amendments

11. The Bill proposes other amendments to ensure that we remain effective against the changing modus operandi of vice syndicates, such as amending Section 140(1)(d) to remove the condition for a woman or girl to have been ‘procured’ for prostitution before an offence is made out. This will allow the Police to take action against any person who brings a woman or girl into Singapore for prostitution, even if she is a freelance sex worker.


[1] Section 146A of the WC deals with remote communication services operated or maintained for the offering of or facilitating provision of sexual services, etc.

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