Prostitution in Singapore

Estimated reading time: 7 min

Is prostitution legal in Singapore?

The answer is yes, to a certain extent. There are in Singapore, government-regulated red-light districts, in which police regularly patrol and foreign and local women legally solicit and offer sexual services to customers in brothels, karaoke lounges and massage parlous. These women are required to carry health cards and to undergo periodic medical checks.

On the other hand, there are several prostitution-related activities that are illegal in Singapore. This includes public solicitation, living on the earnings of a prostitute and maintaining a brothel. It is widely acknowledged that prostitution was legalized to allow for closer government control – for economic, moral and tax reasons.

Even with strict regulations and licensing, ostensibly to protect the trade from minors and to ward off criminal involvement, the growth of social media and the internet makes it hard for the government to control the proliferation of illegal prostitution in Singapore. In response, lawmakers added Section 146A to the Women’s Charter to outlaw the practice of illegal prostitution.

Undeterred, sex workers used websites hosted outside of Singapore to circumvent it. In this article, we review the regulations and point at issues surrounding the sex trade in Singapore.

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Clients paying for sex with minors

2012 saw one of the most infamous headlines in Singapore newspaper history, in which 48 men were charged in an online underage prostitution scandal, The scandal involved high-profile executives and civil servants such as Swiss expatriate Juerg Buergin, 40, a former executive director of operations at UBS AG, Howard Shaw, 41, high-society figure and grandson of Runme Shaw, co-founder of cinema and property empire Shaw Organisation.

A former government teaching scholar at River Valley High School and Jurong Junior College, and a police superintendent were among some of the other men charged at the Subordinate Court for paid sex with an underage prostitute. In Singapore, it is an offence to have sex with a girl under 16 years of age or to have commercial sex with a girl under 18 years of age. This means that it is a punishable offence to have sex (whether vaginal, oral or anal) with persons below 16 years old, as stated in section 376A of the Singapore Penal Code.

If you pay for sex with a minor, not knowing that he or she is a minor, can you plead mistake or ignorance as a defense?

Section 377D of the Penal Code states that offenders above 21 years old cannot claim that they mistakenly believed the person was not underage as a defense. In 2015, 52-year-old Lim Yew Hock was sentenced to nine weeks in jail for obtaining the sexual services of an under aged prostitute under the impression that she was 19 years old. In contrast, offenders below 21 years old may claim that they mistakenly believed the person was not underage as a defense. However, this is only if that person is of the opposite sex, and if the offender has not committed any similar sexual offences before.

Commercial sex, and in other words, paying for sex – with persons under 18 years old is a punishable offence under section 376B of the Penal Code. Under section 376C of the Penal Code, Singapore Citizens or Permanent Residents who engage in commercial sex with persons under 18 will still be liable even if the acts were done outside of Singapore.

Pimps, Living On The Earnings Of A Prostitute and Managing A Brothel

The Malaysian mother in the above mentioned case, who cannot be named to protect the children, was not represented by counsel and was charged in Malaysia under Section 31(1)(b) of the Child Act 2001, read together with Section 16(1) of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017.

What if such a crime was committed in Singapore?

In 2016, 38 year old Chew Tiong Wei, the former owner of a now-defunct social escort agency, was jailed for seven years and one month and fined $130,000 for 25 criminal charges, which included living off the immoral earnings of prostitutes, having sex with a minor, having commercial sex with underage prostitutes and making obscene films. In passing sentence, District Judge Lim Keng Yeow pointed out that Chew’s offences had involved underage girls, some as young as 15.

Living on the earnings of the prostitution of another person, commonly known as pimping, is one of the many illegal acts related to prostitution in Singapore. These illegal acts along with others such as managing a brothel are documented in Part XI of the Women’s Charter.

In the massive online vice ring case of 2012 that made headlines, 39-year-old pimp Tang Boon Thiew had recruited 19 escorts, 17 of whom provided sexual services and earned about $371,450 for Tang. The only minor was a 17-year-old student whom Tang represented on the website as 18. Tang had asserted that he did not know her actual age and had assumed she was already 18 since she had used her elder sister’s identity card to lie about her age. He claimed he came to know her true age a week after she had begun working for him in September 2010. For the next few months he continued to live off her substantial earnings from prostitution by perpetuating the fiction that she was already 18, said Senior District Judge See Kee Oon. Tang was sentenced to 58 months jail and a $90,000 fine.

Pimps may be punished under Section 372 of the Penal Code, for selling minors for the purposes of prostitution. ‘Minors’ under this section are defined as persons under the age of 21 years.

Engaging the Services of Prostitutes under the age of 21 years old

Despite not engaging in intercourse with minors under 21 years of age for the purposes of prostitution it is also illegal under S373A the sentences for both offences is ten years and possible liability for fine. S376D criminalizes those who seek to profit from sex tourism by making the organizing of ‘any travel arrangements for or on behalf of any other person with the intention of the commission of (commercial sex with minors under 18) by that other person’.

Additionally, S373A makes illegal the importing of a woman for purposes of prostitution, no matter what age she is. This means that no matter how con-sensually the women agreed to be ‘imported’, even in a non-trafficking scenario, the middlemen will be prosecuted.

Sex Workers; Regulations and licenses within Brothels

The Straits Times reported in October 2017 that prostitution, brothels and prostitutes have invaded the heartlands of Singapore. A rented HDB unit five minutes away from Pioneer MRT station was used to house a number of foreign women, and operated as a brothel despite raids in the area, and the women were no doubt attracted by low rents and the unlikelihood of being detected. On a visit from The Straits Times, one of the women, identified only by her online moniker ‘Leaf’, told the reporter that she and her housemates were from China. They were here on social visit passes or tourist visas. Such brothels have also been detected in Serangoon, Yishun, Ang Mo Kio and Sembawang, and were raided in anti-vice operations this year.

What are the regulations and licences that are relevant to these vices, then? Persistent soliciting by prostitutes is prohibited under section 19 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, which states that “Every person who in any public road or public place persistently loiters or solicits for the purpose of prostitution or for any other immoral purpose shall be guilty of an offence”. A first offence results in a maximum fine of $1,000, and a second or subsequent conviction results in a maximum fine of $2,000 and/or the maximum jail term of 6 months.

Additionally, they may be prosecuted for plying their trade publicly, even in a red-light district, under Section 294(a) of the Penal Code for doing ‘any obscene act in any public place’ by imprisonment of a maximum of 3 months, and/or a fine.

Unlicensed brothel operators can be given a maximum fine of $10,000 and/or up to five years’ imprisonment. Any person who knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of the prostitution of another person can be jailed for up to five years and fined up to $10,000.

Prostitution Online

But what about soliciting and promoting a brothel online? The Singapore parliament passed the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill on 29 February 2016. Under the recent amendments to the Women’s Charter under new section 146A, it is an offence for a person in Singapore to operate or maintain in Singapore, in the course of business, a remote communication service (such as a website) that offers or facilitates the provision by a woman or girl to another person of sexual services in return for payment or reward, or that organises, manages or supervises the provision of such sexual services. Any person regardless of his or her occupation, who sets up a website in contravention of section 146A will be liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment or both.

The online proliferation of vices in Singapore has seen website soliciting sexual services online introducing an app that allows clients to browse its website discreetly. The app is in addition to the advertisements for sexual services that can be found on forums, Internet marketplaces and specialised websites. “The rise of online media has allowed vice syndicates to take their business online to widen their reach to clients while hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet,” said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin.

“The proposed amendments will enhance the Police’s levers to address online vice. They will make it an offence for persons in Singapore to operate or maintain in Singapore any website or other remote communication services that offers or facilitates the provision of sexual services in return for payment. They will also enable the Police to take action against a person who aids or will aid the prostitution of another person by providing any service, such as setting up a website to advertise such services, and who receives any gratification, whether cash or in kind, for providing that service.”.

Additionally, a new subsection of section 146 should be noted: “(1A) Any person who knowingly solicits, receives or agrees to receive any gratification as an inducement or reward for providing any service, and who by providing that service does or will aid the prostitution of another person (being a woman or girl), shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years and shall also be liable to a fine not exceeding $10,000.”

Gratification is defined as:

  • money or any gift, loan, fee, reward, commission, valuable security or other property or interest in property of any description, whether movable or immovable;
  • any office, employment or contract;
  • any payment, release, discharge or liquidation of any loan, obligation or other liability whatsoever, whether in whole or in part; and
  • any other service, favor or advantage of any description whatsoever.” In the case of heartland brothels, a police spokesman said that the Police would spare no effort in clamping down on online vice activities, and advised homeowners to ensure that tenants do not carry out vice activities in their units.

What Is truly legal In Singapore’s prostitution trade then?

Unrestricted legal status is given to sex workers operating within licensed brothels; these are licenses that are issued by the Anti-Vice Squad of the Singapore Police Force. Such sex workers are required to undergo periodic health checks and must carry a health card. Workers who are not licensed may be subjected to raids and be prosecuted for the above offences of soliciting. Also, male and transgender sex workers may face additional charges such as the Public obscenity (Penal Code, Section 294) and the Gross indecency or homosexual sex (Penal Code, Section 377A).

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