Stop the people trafficking

Insufficient progress here to thwart human trafficking has been a persistent criticism for years, and the Government has had to periodically rebut the ratings of the American government's Trafficking In Persons report and such. Hence, it would not be lost on detractors that it took a Private Member's Bill, shepherded by Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza, to ultimately bring about a landmark law to fight the scourge comprehensively.

In fairness, it should be noted that the Singapore Inter-agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons had assisted Mr de Souza in the process. It also had ensured that in the hitherto absence of dedicated laws against such trafficking, a suite of current measures was being harnessed to deal with culprits and assist victims. The latter already have access here to temporary shelter, food, counselling, medical services and temporary employment.

The number of criminal prosecutions has grown but not nearly enough, say non-governmental organisations, which point to the lure of Singapore as a destination for different kinds of workers from the region. Regrettably, this has also drawn petty criminals and syndicates which prey on the vulnerable, including minors, and practise forms of slavery that have plainly shocked all Singaporeans.

Whether the Bill offers sufficient deterrence is a question of judgment, as one has to comparatively weigh the heft of other laws here as well as international benchmarks. Recalcitrant traffickers face up to 15 years in prison, a fine of up to $150,000 and mandatory caning of up to nine strokes. There are also provisions for arresting those suspected of trafficking without a warrant, and providing adequate protection for informers.

Crucially, what is needed is an overall framework that can align Singapore's efforts with international standards, significantly enhance the effectiveness of steps to combat trafficking and offer tailored support to victims, especially those who have suffered immeasurably and have been stripped of all dignity.

In the past, debates over whether Singapore has been doing enough have been dogged by differences in the definition of trafficking in persons. Given the severity of the punishment, some precision is required but worker abuse in lesser forms can still be dealt with under other laws. Similarly, any looseness in the framing of measures to benefit victims should be avoided as it could lead to false claims relating to, for example, a right to work.

Creditably, the Bill has struck a sound balance without losing sight of its fundamental objective - namely, to demonstrate Singapore's deep-held resolve to act decisively against such exploitation.