Vice

Tougher penalties for unlicensed massage places

Women in a massage parlour during a police raid. In the past five years, about 12 per cent of people caught for abetting vice activities were involved in illegal brothels operating in HDB flats.
Women in a massage parlour during a police raid. In the past five years, about 12 per cent of people caught for abetting vice activities were involved in illegal brothels operating in HDB flats.PHOTO: SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE

Fine of up to $10k and up to two years in jail; repeat offenders get heavier punishments

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

The existing fine is capped at $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 up to five years under changes to the Massage Establishments Bill, which was passed in Parliament yesterday.

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 last year, said Mrs Teo. There were nearly 300 such operators found last year, with 7 per cent in Housing Board 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 places 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.

  • 40%

    Jump in unlicensed massage establishments between 2013 and last year.

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 is charged with serious offences such as human trafficking or organised crime.

The Bill also deals with the "upstream problem" of irresponsible landlords who knowingly lease their premises to unlicensed operators, said Mrs Teo. "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 new laws yesterday, stressing the need to weed out unlicensed massage places in residential areas.

On tackling vice, and its possible displacement to residential areas, Mrs Teo said police investigate flat owners when there are complaints and brothels are detected in HDB units. Owners who have misused the unit can be fined and barred from buying another flat.

In the past five years, about 12 per cent of those caught for abetting vice activities were involved in illegal brothels operating in HDB flats.

The police also intend to impose a new licensing condition to prohibit licensees from displaying indecent advertisements, said Mrs Teo, responding to MPs who urged the Ministry of Home Affairs to consider having advertising guidelines.

Traditional Chinese medicine clinics that follow regulations remain exempt from the Act, she said.

Nominated MP 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 non-compliant or unlicensed massage places make the transition if they leave the trade.

In response, Mrs Teo said that while prostitution is not a crime, a person who provides sexual services in a massage establishment is not "fit and proper", and will no longer be allowed to work in the outlet. 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2017, with the headline 'Tougher penalties for unlicensed massage places'. Print Edition | Subscribe