Laws on Procuring Sex Workers & Sexual Services in Singapore

Last updated on June 25, 2021

Woman in shorts standing next to a street

Sex work is generally not illegal in Singapore. 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.

However, one could be liable for procuring sex workers or sexual services, managing an illegal brothel and ill-treatment of sex workers.

This article will discuss:

Legal Definitions of Sex Work-Related Terms

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

What is sex work?

According to the Women’s Charter, sex work 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 sex workers

The procurement of a sex worker involves the arrangement of a sex worker to engage in a sexual act with a customer. Often known as a pimp, the procurer acts as an agent for the sex worker and collects part of their earnings.

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 sex worker. 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 Sex Workers and Sexual Services in Singapore and Their Penalties?

There are many activities related to the sex work industry 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 sex work (whether within or outside of Singapore)
  2. Living on the earnings of another person who is a sex worker
  3. Managing an illegal brothel

According to the Women’s Charter, 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.

Managing an illegal 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 sex work. 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 sex workers are free of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and that they are working of their own volition.

Sex workers 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 Sex Work 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 sex work 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 sex workers, such as through the control of the sex workers’ 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 sex worker or the sex worker’s family;
  • Exploited those known to be under-aged;
  • Abducted or actively limited the freedom of the sex worker;
  • Groomed them to enter sex work by making them dependent on drugs or alcohol; or
  • Used violence or threats of violence against the sex worker

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

  • Detaining the sex worker against her will
  • Using violence or threats of violence against the sex worker or her family and friends
  • Levelling sustained and systematic psychological abuse against the sex worker
  • Forcing or coercing the sex worker to participate in unsafe or degrading sexual activity
  • Forcing or coercing the sex worker 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 sex work, 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 sex work, potential offenders might think that it would be worth the risk to implement a large-scale, and even transnational enterprise, comprising of many sex workers, 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 example, if one commits crimes while out on bail.

To deter recalcitrant offenders, a harsher sentence would need to be imposed.

Harm as seen from the perspective of the sex worker

Aside from the two levels of harm discussed above, harm to sex workers 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 sex workers 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.

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 sex workers 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 sex work-related offences

The availability of the internet may incentivise potential offenders to commit offences related to sex work, 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 a business involving sex work 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 depend on the facts of the case.

For example, in the case of Poh Boon Kiat (the mastermind of a vice ring who committed sex-work related offences – discussed above), 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.

Other Sex Work-Related Offences in Singapore

Persistent soliciting of sex work 

Under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, any person caught soliciting sexual services 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.

Advertising of sexual services 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 sexual services using offline means (as mentioned above).

Should I Engage a Lawyer if I’ve Been Caught for Sex Work-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 sex workers 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.

Sex work 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.

The bottom line is that all sex workers should be accorded a basic level of respect and not be abused.

If you’re a sex worker in need of help, please do not hesitate to contact the relevant authorities. 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.

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