Parliament: Tougher penalties for unlicensed massage establishments

Women who were arrested in a police raid on two traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) establishments at Rangoon Road in April 2017. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Unlicensed massage establishment operators are set to face harsher penalties of up to a $10,000 fine and two years' jail.

The existing maximum fine is $1,000, an amount Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo called "grossly insufficient compared to the profits that (such) establishments can make, especially by engaging in vice activities".

Repeat offenders can be fined up to $20,000 and jailed for five years under changes to the Massage Establishments Bill, which was passed in Parliament on Monday (Nov 6).

Operators caught engaging in vice activities may also be guilty of additional offences under the Women's Charter.

The new laws come as police detected 40 per cent more unlicensed massage establishments between 2013 and 2016, said Mrs Teo.

There were nearly 300 such operators found last year, with 7 per cent in HDB properties and 40 per cent engaging in vice-related offences.

In contrast, less than 3 per cent of licensed establishments were found to have vice-related infringements last year. About a quarter of the 1,200 licensed establishments here are in HDB estates.

Mrs Teo said: "There is room to lighten the regulatory burden for the vast majority of low-risk and compliant operators."

While the Massage Establishments Act previously included manicures, light treatments for hair removal, fish spas, and baby spas in its definition of a "massage or special treatment", these activities no longer require a licence.

"Such activities do not pose the same law and order concerns as traditional massage establishments offering body massages in private rooms," said Mrs Teo.

Noting that some errant operators continued activities even after being charged in court, she said the new laws will allow police to shut down an establishment if they have "reasonable grounds" to suspect illegal activities are still ongoing.

An operator's licence may also be immediately suspended when a licensee or relevant person has been charged for a serious offence such as human trafficking and organised crime.

The Bill also deals with the "upstream problem" of irresponsible landlords who knowingly lease their premises to unlicensed operators, said Mrs Teo.

She added: "We will require landlords to evict tenants who have been convicted of unlicensed massage establishment operations, and provide them with early notice."

Eleven MPs spoke in support of the amendments on Monday, stressing the need to weed out unlicensed massage establishments in residential areas.

Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked for clarity on how landlords may be found culpable of "knowingly" leasing their properties to tenants that engage in vice activities.

He also urged the Ministry to consider imposing a sanction on premises that have been used for vice-related activities.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) suggested limiting the number of massage operators within a given area, and subjecting such establishments to an advertising code of practice prohibiting unsubstantiated claims and the "suggested offer of seductive services".

In response, Mrs Teo said the police intend to impose a new licensing condition to prohibit licensees from displaying indecent advertisements. She also said imposing a quota may be arbitrary, given the differences in each estate.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio) recommended that besides stipulating a minimum age and medical health screenings for practitioners, there could be a body set up to issue licences for individualsNominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun pointed out that some marginalised people may be pushed to sex work by personal circumstances, and asked if there are plans to help such workers in unlicensed massage places make the transition if they leave the trade.

Responding, Mrs Teo said that while prostitution is not illegal, such activities do not fall within the fit and proper conduct of a masseuse.

She added: "For those who wish to transit to other types of work... help is available, and we are most willing to reach out to them."

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