From The Gallery

Pragmatic approach to vices a welcome one

Over the past two days, two vices have come up for debate in Parliament. And there were remarkably strong parallels between how the two issues were framed and approached.

First, prostitution was tackled via the Massage Establishments Act, passed on Monday. The new law represented a considerably tougher stance against unlicensed massage parlours. Measures include increased penalties as well as action not just against operators but landlords too.

The Government did not have a problem with massage parlours per se, but with unlicensed establishments, which, as Second Home Affairs Minister Josephine Teo pointed out, were often used as fronts for illicit vice activities.

They are "the proverbial 'wolf in sheep's clothing', or what in Chinese we refer to as 'gua yang tou mai gou rou' ", she said, using the phrase that means "putting up a goat's head but selling dog meat".

A second vice - smoking - was dealt with through an amendment to the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act that was passed yesterday.

The law raises the minimum age for smoking in phases from 18 to 21, by 2021. It also imposes a complete ban on e-cigarettes - currently, only their importation, sale and distribution are banned.

Said Parliamentary Secretary for Health Amrin Amin: "Our goal is to denormalise the use of tobacco products over time."

The first important similarity between the two debates: Both laws attempt to nip in the bud a creeping expansion of the vices via newly emerging means.

Unlicensed massage establishments are becoming a backdoor to prostitution, and there were concerns expressed on Monday that prostitution may be spreading from legal brothels in areas like Geylang into heartland communities.

Mrs Teo reported a 40 per cent rise in unlicensed massage establishments from 2013 to 2016, many of which practised vice - or what Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun termed a massage with a "happy ending".

For smoking, surveys show that the age at which Singaporeans pick up the habit is getting lower-from 17 in 2001, to 16 in 2013. The World Health Organisation says that those who do not start smoking before 21 are unlikely to ever begin - hence the move to raise the minimum age.

As for e-cigarettes, the Health Ministry argues they are a gateway for young people to begin smoking.

The second interesting parallel between the two debates was that the majority of backbencher MPs who spoke not only welcomed the changes, but also called on the Government to take more severe action to reduce the vices.

In the debate on massage parlours, there were calls to restrict advertising, to reduce licensed parlours in housing estates, and to clamp down on other back doors to red-light activities, including those who use the guise of traditional Chinese medicine providers.

In the debate on smoking, MPs asked for higher fines, plain packaging for cigarette packets, a reduction in licensed retailers by 5 per cent per year, and laws prohibiting smoking near the windows of homes, as there are neighbours who complain about second-hand smoke.

And yet, in both debates, there were also MPs who did not egg the Government on, but who, instead, asked questions of the clampdowns. They were a minority voice in each debate. But this bodes well, indicating there is no groupthink on such issues.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) called for greater understanding of why people become sex workers, and for their concerns to also be taken into account.

Mr Kok asked the authorities to support sex workers who want to transition into other jobs.

To this, Mrs Teo said: "Help is available and we are most willing to reach out to them."

In the tobacco debate, Mr Ng and Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera posed probing questions on e-cigarettes, which they argued are less harmful than real cigarettes.

Mr Perera spoke in favour of e-cigarettes being made available to smokers who want to stop.

Mr Ng noted there was conflicting evidence on the gateway effect of e-cigarettes, and asked if Singapore may be missing out on the use of e-cigarettes to battle real ones.

In responding, Mr Amrin stressed the harm that e-cigarettes posed, and said studies that confirmed a gateway effect were more authoritative than dissenting ones.

"Our goal is not just a smoke-free future but a nicotine-free one. So-called lesser-harm tobacco products still expose the user to toxic and addictive ways that are harmful to health," he said.

On the whole, a spirit of pragmatism came through in both debates, among front and backbench MPs.

Nobody likes the fact that these vices exist, but neither did anyone call for an outright ban. The consensus appeared to be that it was better to monitor the situation and keep it controlled within certain limits.

Such pragmatism may be less satisfying than taking principled positions. But it means the problem never gets out of hand, and never triggers a moral panic. The pragmatic approach may also be more effective, and more likely to reduce harm in the long run.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline 'Pragmatic approach to vices a welcome one'. Print Edition | Subscribe