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Parliament passes law to stamp out ‘pop-up brothels’ in rented flats, some run by foreign syndicates

SINGAPORE — A law designed to crack down on "pop-up brothels" appearing in rented flats in the Singapore heartlands, some of them run by foreign vice syndicates using websites and apps, was passed by Parliament on Monday (Nov 4).

An anti-vice raid conducted in Woodlands in October 2019. Between 2015 and 2018, seven in 10 foreign females who were arrested for hawking their sexual services online were found to be providing their services in residential estates.

An anti-vice raid conducted in Woodlands in October 2019. Between 2015 and 2018, seven in 10 foreign females who were arrested for hawking their sexual services online were found to be providing their services in residential estates.

SINGAPORE — A law designed to crack down on "pop-up brothels" appearing in rented flats in the Singapore heartlands, some of them run by foreign vice syndicates using websites and apps, was passed by Parliament on Monday (Nov 4).

Three key changes were made in the amendments to the Women’s Charter, which protects and advances the rights of women and girls in Singapore. They will:

  1. Place the onus on homeowners and tenants who let or sublet their properties to conduct identity checks, such as face-to-face interviews, on potential tenants or sub-tenants to ensure they know the type of people who are moving in.

  2. Allow the police to take criminal action against those who run vice activities in Singapore while based overseas, or those who use websites hosted overseas to provide sexual services in Singapore.

  3. Impose tougher penalties on vice activities, and even harsher penalties for repeat offences. For example, an owner whose place is used as a brothel will be jailed for up to five years, or fined up to S$100,000, or both — up from a maximum three-year jail term or S$3,000 fine, or both. For a second and subsequent offence, the maximum jail term is seven years, up from five years, and the maximum fine is S$150,000, up from S$10,000.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Ms Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs, cited numbers to show growing trends in prostitution services provided in residential areas.

  • Between 2015 and 2018, seven in 10 foreign females who were arrested for hawking their sexual services online were found to be providing their services in residential estates.

  • In 2015, only 16 per cent of women arrested for vice used an online platform, but that figure had shot up to 55 per cent last year, she said.

A total of eight Members of Parliament (MPs) and one Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) spoke in favour of the amendments.

However, some raised concerns on the feasibility of conducting checks on tenants or sub-tenants, while others asked if safe reporting channels could be provided for sex workers here to ensure that they can report on vice syndicates without fear of prosecution.

Here are some of the main issues they raised.

CONDUCTING CHECKS ON TENANTS

Several MPs questioned the feasibility of expecting homeowners and tenants to conduct identity checks on those to whom they are leasing or subletting their premises.

Under the new laws, homeowners and tenants may be jailed for up to five years, or fined up to S$100,000, or both, for a first-time offence if they cannot prove that they performed “reasonable diligence” in screening tenants or subtenants who are eventually found to be engaged in vice offences. Conducting “reasonable diligence” includes face-to-face interviews and checking the identity card, passport or work permit of potential tenants. For repeat offenders, the punishment would be up to seven years’ jail, or a fine of up to S$150,000, or both.

Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency (GRC), asked how homeowners or tenants could determine if a tenant or subtenant is engaging in vice activity, while MP Lee Bee Wah, from the same GRC, asked if it is fair to hold landlords responsible for tenants’ actions if they were based overseas and unable to conduct identity checks themselves.

Mr Yee Chia Hsing, MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, also asked if older residents, who may be less educated or immobile, could rely on property agents to conduct checks on their behalf instead.

In response, Ms Sun stressed that homeowners and tenants will not be liable for an offence even if their unit is later used as a brothel, so long as they did what was “reasonably possible” to ascertain that the premise was not going to be used as one.

However, the tenant or occupier could be prosecuted for an offence of keeping, managing or assisting in the management of a brothel, she said.

She added that even when a tenant is not directly managing or keeping the brothel, they “cannot escape criminal liability” unless they can show that they had no knowledge that their premises was being used as a brothel, and that they could not, with reasonable diligence, have ascertained that their premises was being used as one.

Describing the new laws as “a balanced approach”, Ms Sun said that they would make it harder for tenants or occupants to “turn a blind eye” to vice activities on their premises.

On whether homeowners such as the elderly could rely on property agents to conduct identity checks on their behalf, Ms Sun said that they could do so. However property owners are ultimately responsible for the leasing of their property and should ensure that the checks are satisfactory before entering into a lease agreement, she said.

CATCHING THOSE WHO RUN VICE ACTIVITIES FROM OVERSEAS

While acknowledging the benefits of allowing the authorities here to take action against vice syndicates operating from overseas, Mr Darryl David, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, and Mr Melvin Yong, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, asked how the authorities here intended do so.

Ms Sun said that with the amendments, the police will be able to arrest offenders when they enter Singapore, even if they were overseas at the time of offence.

She added that the authorities here could also seek the assistance of their foreign counterparts if the perpetrators are based in a country with which Singapore has a mutual extradition treaty.

Even if Singapore does not have a formal reciprocal agreement with other countries, Ms Sun said that the Singapore Police Force could conduct joint enforcement operations with their foreign counterparts or work with them to share relevant information.

SAFE REPORTING CHANNELS FOR SEX WORKERS

Several MPs suggested setting up channels for sex workers here to report on prostitution syndicates without fear of prosecution. They also called on the authorities to provide more support to help sex workers leave the trade.

NMP Anthea Ong asked if the Ministry of Home Affairs could provide sex workers, who were abused by their pimps, with conditional immunity from charges such as soliciting and conditional protection from blacklisting.

“This will not just increase the number of whistleblowers but also reinforce the Bill’s intent to protect vulnerable women and bring the offenders to justice,” Ms Ong said.

Recounting his conversations with sex workers who joined the trade because they had no other option to earn money, Mr Ng asked if the Ministry of Home Affairs could provide support for programmes which help Singaporean sex workers here leave the industry. He also asked if the ministry would consider having direct discussions with sex workers to understand their concerns.

Ms Sun replied that the Government has various policies in place to help sex workers find different employment and would "actively” look into helping such workers.

On holding a dialogue with sex workers here, Ms Sun said that the police already interact with them, but said that the ministry would be happy to work with Mr Ng on ways to work more closely with voluntary welfare organisations that help sex workers here.

ABOLISHING PROSTITUTION

Responding to calls from Mr Alex Yam, MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, to abolish prostitution, Ms Sun said that experiences of other countries had been mixed, and that there was no consensus on whether laws to criminalise paid sex reduced the demand for sex.

She added: “We do have grave concerns that by criminalising sex, we drive clients and sex workers underground and make it harder for sex workers to protect themselves, or for social workers to reach them.”

Related topics

Parliament Women's Charter Bill vice sex workers brothels public housing

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