Parliament: MPs debate how to tackle vice, help sex workers transition to other work

The amendments will protect housing estates from vice activities, and target those who try to evade the law by moving their vice operations overseas.
The amendments will protect housing estates from vice activities, and target those who try to evade the law by moving their vice operations overseas.PHOTO: ST FILE

When Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) met Mya, a blind 21-year-old woman from Myanmar in 2009, she was dying from Aids.

Sold by her aunt to traffickers at age four, Mya had been held captive in a brothel and serviced up to 15 clients a day. She died two months after Mr Yam interviewed her during an overseas mission.

Her story was one of many heart-rending personal accounts given by MPs during the debate on the Women's Charter (Amendment) Bill yesterday, which was later passed by Parliament.

The new law will give the authorities more powers to clamp down on sexual service providers that use remote communications like websites or instant messaging apps. Home owners who rent out premises used as a brothel could also be criminally liable.

MPs such as Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said it may not be practical or fair to hold landlords responsible for their tenants' actions.

Ms Lee pointed out that a person with all his paperwork in order could lie low for the first few weeks of occupancy, before beginning his vice operations.

Mr Ng asked: "How does a home owner or tenant perform reasonable diligence other than asking directly whether one is a sex worker?

"If the home owner or tenant drops by and finds the tenant or sub-tenant is having sex with another person, how do they determine whether or not that is a vice activity?" he added.

Ms Sun assured the House the authorities would not punish owners or tenants, as long as they have done the necessary checks.

 
 
 
 

Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) said syndicates continue to exploit short-term rentals and technology to carry out vice activities.

Recalling his time in law enforcement, he said raids were regularly carried out on massage parlours suspected to be offering illegal sex services. But these establishments continue to operate, as syndicates can find locals to register themselves as the new owners.

This process of finding a fall guy is known in the Hokkien dialect as "finding a tua pek kong", he said.

He urged the ministry to consider imposing a cap on the number of public entertainment outlets, especially in residential areas.

While MPs like Mr Yam called for prostitution to be banned, there are no easy answers, said Ms Sun.

The economic and social factors and lack of alternative career options for sex workers will not go away by criminalising prostitution, she said. On the contrary, it may drive them underground.

The Government, she added, takes a pragmatic approach by taking down and blocking vice websites, and regulating public entertainment outlets.

Nominated MP Anthea Ong and Mr Ng said most of the women refuse to report abuse as they fear arrest and deportation. Granting them conditional immunity could encourage more to come forward and testify, Ms Ong said.

Any solution must holistically take into account public safety and prevailing laws, Ms Sun said. The issue is foreign sex workers had committed immigration offences by entering Singapore on, for example, short-term visit passes.

Mr Ng urged the ministry to fund programmes by non-profit groups like Project X, which seek to help sex workers transition out of the industry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2019, with the headline 'MPs debate how to tackle vice, help sex workers transition to other work'. Print Edition | Subscribe