Parliament: Human-trafficking law passed after debate on whether it goes far enough

Coast Guard ships sailing just off the shore of Sentosa Island. A new law to combat   human trafficking, which  Members of Parliament called  historic, was passed on Monday but not before a  2½ hour debate on whether it went
Coast Guard ships sailing just off the shore of Sentosa Island. A new law to combat   human trafficking, which  Members of Parliament called  historic, was passed on Monday but not before a  2½ hour debate on whether it went far enough to protect victims, and if the punishments were harsh enough to act as a deterrent. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A new law to combat human trafficking, which Members of Parliament called historic, was passed on Monday but not before a 2½ hour debate on whether it went far enough to protect victims, and if the punishments were harsh enough to act as a deterrent.

The Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, initiated by backbencher Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) last month in a Private Member's Bill, is expected to take effect from the first quarter of next year. It formally defines human trafficking for purposes of sex, labour and organ removal and empowers specialist officers to investigate cases. First-time offenders of trafficking face a mandatory fine of up to $100,000 and a jail term of up to 10 years, plus the possibility of up to six strokes of the cane.

But several MPs criticised the Act for not being victim-centric enough, an issue that had been raised by several non-government organisations recently. The MPs said the Act needed to make it clear that trafficking victims will not be prosecuted, for immigration offences for instance. It also should have included more provisions to secure the welfare of victims, for instance the right to work even as cases are being investigated.

In response, Mr de Souza said it was not pragmatic to mandate an umbrella suite of measures, beyond the provision of a temporary shelter and counselling service. Each case is unique, he stressed. For instance, several victims he met preferred not to work and wanted to remain in the safety of the shelter. But he assured that their needs would be met. He also told the House that the penalties were pegged against international benchmarks, as well as other laws in Singapore. He pointed out that Hong Kong has a maximum of 10 years' jail for sex trafficking-related offences.

"We have been mindful to ensure that all terminology and measures we have adopted internationally work well with our existing frameworks and laws. We want to ensure our measures are enforceable and pragmatic," he said. Critically, the Act "protects the most vulnerable of the vulnerable - the innocent who often do not have a voice, and who are caught in a merciless web of exploitation".

waltsim@sph.com.sg