Parliament: From finding 'tua pek kong' to supporting sex workers, MPs debate changes to Women's Charter

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

SINGAPORE - 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, she was 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.

Mya's story was just one of many heartrending personal accounts given by MPs during the debate on the Women's Charter (Amendment) Bill on Monday (Nov 4), which was later passed by Parliament.

The new Act will give the authorities more powers to clamp down on sexual service providers that use remote communication services, such as through websites or instant messaging apps. Home owners who rent out premises used as a brothel will face criminal charges.

Ensuring home owners are not unfairly prosecuted

MPs such as Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Mr Gan Thian Poh (Ang Mo Kio 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.

Many HDB flat owners are elderly residents who may not be well-educated and do not know what their legal obligations are, said Mr Yee.

Ms Lee pointed out that a person with all his paperwork in order could rent the place and then lie low for the first few weeks of occupancy, before beginning his vice operations behind the owner's back.

To deter "pop-up" brothels in residential estates, owners and tenants will now be held responsible unless they can show that, at the time of entering into tenancy agreements, they did not know and could not, with reasonable diligence, have ascertained that the premises would be used as a brothel.

 
 
 
 

Reasonable diligence includes conducting identity checks through face-to-face interviews. If the owner is overseas, he needs to engage an agent or trusted person to conduct the interviews on his behalf before leasing the place.

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

"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 had done the required checks.

Most stakeholders the Home Affairs Ministry had spoken to felt it was too onerous to impose legal obligations on owners to conduct post-transaction checks, such as with neighbours or using closed-circuit television, she said.

Even if the owner arranges checks, syndicates can remove any signs of vice activity in advance, she added. There are also personal safety risks to those conducting the checks if criminal groups are involved.

Finding 'tua pek kong' and exploiting technology

Syndicates continue to exploit mixed-use developments, short-term rentals and technology to carry out vice activities, said Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC).

Recalling his time in law enforcement, he said regular raids were carried out on massage parlours suspected to be offering illegal sex services.

But these establishments, often found in mixed-use developments like Bukit Timah Shopping Centre have continued to operate, as syndicates are able to 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 housing areas. This is because syndicates gravitate towards areas with a concentration of such outlets, resulting in a surge in illegal vice activities.

Mr Yong added that enforcement has become more difficult with the rise of encrypted messaging platforms like Telegram that are used to disseminate pornographic content, and short-term rentals on platforms like Airbnb.

Online messaging applications like WeChat also make use of geo-targeting technology that allows anyone to find sex workers in their vicinity, he said.

Criminalising prostitution and safe reporting

While MPs like Mr Yam called for prostitution to be banned, there are no easy answers, said Ms Sun. No country in the world has successfully eradicated what has been called the world's oldest trade.

"The economic and social factors and lack of real career options (for these women) will not go away by criminalising prostitution," she said. On the contrary, it may drive sex workers underground and make it harder for them to protect themselves.

The Government, she added, takes a pragmatic approach by ensuring that organised crime does not gain a foothold in the country through vice-related activities. It takes down and blocks vice websites and puts in place a regulatory regime for public entertainment outlets.

Nominated MP Anthea Ong and Mr Ng said it may be useful to enlist the support of women who have been exploited.

Many refuse to report abuse because they fear arrest, blacklisting and deportation. Granting them conditional immunity - similar to what is being done in the American states of California and Utah - could encourage more to come forward and testify, said Ms Ong.

Any solution must holistically take into account public safety and prevailing laws, Ms Sun replied.

Pointing out that Singaporeans who provide sexual services are not prosecuted as they have not broken the law, she explained that the issue was that foreign sex workers had committed immigration offences by entering Singapore on, for example, social visit passes.

To help sex workers transit out of the industry, Mr Ng cited non-profit groups in Singapore like Project X, which provide them with social, emotional and legal support. He urged the ministry to help to fund such programmes.