Laws on Procuring Prostitutes and Sexual Services in Singapore

Last updated on April 23, 2021

Woman in shorts standing next to a street

Prostitution and sex work in Singapore can be dated as far back as to the nation’s founding in 1819. The influx of male foreign labour in the colonial days led to a high male-to-female sex ratio, which consequently resulted in an increased demand for sexual labour. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, there are approximately 4,200 female sex workers in Singapore.

Most of the time, sex workers are not in this industry by choice. They are often forced to work in this industry because of difficult circumstances, such as being in debt, or because they are single parents who need to provide for their children. Furthermore, they are often subjected to abuse and exploitation.

This article will discuss:

Legal Definitions of Prostitution-Related Terms

Before covering the legality of sex work, we will first be providing legal definitions for some important terms related to prostitution.

What is prostitution?

According to the Women’s Charter, prostitution is defined as the act of a female offering her body for sexual penetration for hire, whether in money or in kind. This is also known as commercial sex.

This article will be focusing mainly on commercial sex between males and females.

Procurement of prostitutes

Procurement of a prostitute involves the arrangement of a prostitute to engage in a sexual act with a customer. Often known as a pimp, the procurer acts as an agent for the prostitutes and collects part of their earnings. Procuring a prostitute can also involve trafficking or assisting to traffic a person into the country for the purposes of present or subsequent prostitution.

Procurement of sexual services

The procurement of sexual services involves paying someone for their sexual services. Currently, there is no law that criminalises commercial sex with a prostitute. However, commercial sex with minors under 18 years of age is illegal, even if the act had been committed with the consent of the minor.

What Are the Offences Related to the Procurement of Prostitutes and Sexual Services in Singapore and Their Penalties?

While it may not be illegal to be a prostitute in Singapore or visit one, there are many activities related to prostitution that are illegal. Examples of such unlawful conduct are:

  1. Procuring any woman or girl to have sex with any male person who is not her husband, either within or outside of Singapore, or for the purpose of prostitution (whether within or outside of Singapore)
  2. Living on the earnings of a prostitute
  3. Persistent soliciting by prostitutes, i.e. advertising their availability to perform any sexual services in exchange for money
  4. Managing a brothel

A person found guilty of offences (1) and (2) will be imprisoned for a term of up to 7 years and liable to a fine of up to $100,000 for a first-time offence. Repeat offenders will be imprisoned for a term up to 10 years and liable to a fine of up to $150,000.

Persistent soliciting by prostitutes

Prostitutes who are caught for soliciting will be fined up to $1,000 for the first offence. In the case of subsequent convictions, they will be fined up to $2,000, or imprisoned for up to 6 months or both.

Male and trans female sex workers who are caught soliciting may also be subject to a charge of gross indecency, as sex between men is criminalised under the Penal Code.

Managing a brothel

In general, it is also illegal to manage a brothel, which refers to a place that is used by 2 or more women or girls for the purpose of prostitution. Nevertheless, in practice, there are brothels that are allowed to operate in certain red-light districts in Singapore. These brothels are closely monitored by the Specialised Crime Branch of the Singapore Police Force.

These brothels are licensed to operate so long as their owners adhere to certain conditions, such as ensuring that the prostitutes are free of sexually transmitted diseases, and that they are working of their own volition. Prostitutes can work in brothels only when they are medically registered and given a medical card.

Persons found guilty of managing an illegal brothel are liable to a fine of up to $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term of up to 5 years or to both. Repeat offenders are liable to a fine of up to $150,000 or to imprisonment for a term up to 7 years or to both.

How Are Offenders Sentenced for Procuring Prostitution and Sexual Services?

The sentence to be meted out to offenders is largely dependent on the culpability of the offender in carrying out the offence, and the harm resulting from the offender’s actions.

There are three levels of culpability with respect to a person’s involvement in the procurement of prostitution and sexual services.

First, an offender is considered least culpable when he performs limited functions under directions, or when there is evidence that the offence had been committed on a one-off basis with little or no pre-meditation.

Next, an offender would be deemed to be moderately culpable if he had been closely involved with the work of the prostitutes, such as through the control of the prostitute’s finances, choice of clients or working conditions.

Finally, an offender would be considered most culpable when the court is satisfied that he has performed the following:

  • Abused the trust of the prostitute or the prostitute’s family;
  • Exploited those known to be under-aged;
  • Abducted or actively limited the freedom of the prostitute;
  • Groomed the prostitute to enter prostitution by making them dependent on drugs or alcohol; or
  • Used violence or threats of violence against the prostitute

Courts have also classified harm into 2 levels. The first level includes situations where the offender has treated the prostitute in a cruel and oppressive manner. Examples of such conduct include:

  • Detaining the prostitute against her will
  • Using violence or threats of violence against the prostitute or her family and friends
  • Levelling sustained and systematic psychological abuse against the prostitute
  • Forcing or coercing the prostitute to participate in unsafe or degrading sexual activity
  • Forcing or coercing the prostitute into servicing any customer against her will

The second level of harm refers to any other situations not covered under the first level of harm.

After determining the appropriate level of culpability and harm based on the facts of the case, the court will then decide on a suitable sentence.

Aggravating and mitigating factors

There are several factors that may aggravate or mitigate the seriousness of an offence related to prostitution, and hence call for a harsher or more lenient sentence respectively.

Aggravating factors

Examples of aggravating factors that can help increase the severity of the sentence include:

Scale and sophistication of the enterprise

Given the lucrative nature of prostitution, potential offenders might think that it would be worth the risk to implement a large-scale, and even transnational enterprise, comprising of many prostitutes, pimps and business premises. In such situations, the sentence to be meted out must strongly deter future reoffending.

Conduct of the accused while awaiting sentencing

Any other factors specific to the accused, including his conduct at the time of the offence or while awaiting sentencing, play a crucial role in the sentencing outcome.

For instance, in the case of Tan Tian Tze, the accused had been charged with harbouring an illegal immigrant who had been working as a prostitute. However, he proceeded to commit more crimes while out on bail. Therefore, to deter such similarly recalcitrant offenders, a harsher sentence would need to be imposed.

Harm as seen from the perspective of the prostitute

Aside from the two levels of harm discussed above, harm to prostitutes can also include:

  • Denying them basic necessities such as medical treatment and food
  • Reducing their wages excessively
  • Debt bondage

For instance, in the case of Govindaraju, the fact that the prostitutes had to pay off large debts to the accused, such as the costs incurred in bringing them to Singapore and applying for their work permits, was considered an aggravating factor.

Harm to society in general

Prostitution is harmful to society as it increases the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD). Therefore, if one of the prostitutes is found to be suffering from an STD, this would be considered an aggravating factor.

Second, the procurement of sex workers from abroad encourages international trafficking of women and this could tarnish the reputation of Singapore.

Third, the proliferation of such vice activities in residential areas could result in a harsher sentence as it would likely cause social unease in the neighbourhood.

Likewise, linkages to criminal syndicates would also be considered an aggravating factor.

Period of offending

In general, the longer the criminal enterprise has been in operation, the higher the likelihood that the sentence would be harsher.

Interference with the administration of justice

From a practical point of view, police face difficulties in arresting pimps. This is because their arrests are usually contingent on the evidence given by prostitutes or those that work for the pimps.

Therefore, if there are facts in the case to suggest that the offender had prevented the reporting of an incident or stopped any witnesses from assisting with investigations, this would be considered an aggravating factor.

For instance, in the case of Tan Tian Tze, the court took into account the fact that the accused had asked one of the prosecution witnesses to lie in his witness statement. In a similar vein, the fact that sex workers were told not to reveal details about the accused to the police if they were caught was also considered as an aggravating factor in the case of Seng Swee Meng.

Use of internet to commit prostitution offences

The availability of the internet may incentivise potential offenders to commit prostitution offences, as the lack of physical place of operation helps to reduce operating costs and also minimises the risk of being caught.

Furthermore, the internet can also allow offenders to reach out to a larger pool of clients compared to those typically found at red-light districts. Hence, the usage of the internet to conduct prostitution business is considered an aggravating factor.

Mitigating factors

On the other hand, examples of mitigating factors that can help reduce the severity of the sentence include:

Guilty plea and remorse

A guilty plea and evidence of remorse have been considered by courts as an appropriate mitigating factor. Generally, a plea of guilty can be a mitigating factor if it is motivated by genuine remorse or regret and a desire to assist in bringing about justice. However, the relevance and weight to be accorded to this factor depends on the facts of the case.

For example, in the case of Poh Boon Kiat, the accused had pleaded guilty after being apprehended by the police in a raid. Therefore, the court came to the view that the accused likely pleaded guilty because he realised that he had already been caught red-handed and that there was no way he could deny the offence. Hence, his guilty plea was not considered to be a mitigating factor.

What Happens to Persons Caught Working As Prostitutes/Offering Sexual Services in Singapore?

Any persons caught working as prostitutes or offering sexual services may be subject to sanctions. For example, prostitutes who are caught soliciting may be fined or even imprisoned for subsequent offences (as mentioned above).

Migrant sex workers face harsher penalties, such as deportation and being barred from entering Singapore. The Immigration Act prohibits anyone who:

  • Is currently a prostitute;
  • Has formally worked or lived on the earnings of prostitution; or
  • Intends on becoming a prostitute,

from entering Singapore.

Therefore, any persons found to be current or former migrant sex workers may be denied entry into Singapore. The reasons for denying these groups of people entry stems from Singapore’s effort to maintain public health by preventing the spread of STDs and counter possible human trafficking.

Typically, upon arrest, migrant sex workers will be deported and banned from the country for 3 years, although these workers may also be barred from entry indefinitely.

However in the event that the prostitute’s pimp or manager is arrested, the sex worker may be required to remain in Singapore as prosecution witnesses.

What if the Prostitution Services Are Advertised Online?

The Women’s Charter criminalises the use of websites to advertise sexual services in exchange for payment or rewards.

Therefore, any person who runs such websites can be subject to a fine or imprisonment. The penalties are the same as those for procuring prostitution services using offline means (as mentioned above).

What if a Woman Has Been Made to Work as a Prostitute Against Her Will? Will She Still Be Arrested?

If a prostitute is suspected to have been made to work as such against her will, she will not necessarily be arrested.

The Director-General of Social Welfare of the Ministry of Social and Family Development may first require her, or anyone who appears to have custody or control of her, to appear before him for an interrogation and examination.

Next, the Director-General may require any person in whose custody or under whose control the woman appears to be to provide him with:

  • Copies of their and the woman’s photograph
  • Security that the woman will not leave Singapore without written consent from the Director-General.

If the photographs and security cannot be provided, the Director‑General may, by way of a warrant, order that the woman be removed to a place of safety. She will be detained there until she can be returned to the place from where she had been brought, or until other proper provisions can be made for her welfare.

If the Director-General believes that the woman has been ill-treated and is in need of protection, he may, by warrant, order to move the woman to a place of safety and be detained, or be committed to the care of a fit individual, until he has held an inquiry as to the circumstances of the case.

Upon conducting the inquiry, the Director-General may order the woman to continue to be detained or committed to care for for as long as the Director-General believes she is in need of protection.

What Can You Do If You’ve Been Detained Against Your Will to Work as a Prostitute?

If you have been forced into prostitution, or know someone who is facing such an abuse, a case of human trafficking could potentially be made out. In such situations, you can make a police report via email at SPF-Report-Trafficking@spf.gov.sg or by calling 6435 0000. Alternatively, you may contact the Ministry of Manpower at 6438 5122 or email them at mom_fmmd@mom.gov.sg.

You can also reach out to Project X, a non-profit organisation that provides assistance to people in the sex industry. Project X provides counselling and aims to educate women in the sex industry on their basic human rights, hoping to empower and encourage them to report any violence or abuse.

Should I Engage a Lawyer if I’ve Been Caught for Prostitution-Related Offences? How Can a Lawyer Help?

It is recommended that you engage a lawyer if you have been arrested for offences in relation to the procurement of prostitutes and sexual services in Singapore. The lawyer will be able to help review your case and advise on whether the charge(s) have been made out in your situation.

If you are eventually found guilty of any offences, your lawyer can also help to mitigate the sentence before a judge. This would ensure that you obtain a fair outcome based on the unique circumstances of your case.

Prostitution continues to be a taboo in Singapore and this often results in sex workers being subjected to harassment or violence. Nevertheless, there have been attempts by law enforcement agencies to reduce any potential exploitation of sex workers by imposing harsh penalties on pimps and illegal brothel owners.

Some sex workers may have been forced into this trade, while others may have chosen this line of work voluntarily. Whichever is the case, the bottom-line is that all sex workers should be accorded with the basic level of respect and not be abused.

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