Tougher penalties to fight online vice with proposed amendments to Women’s Charter

(Getty Images file photo)

SINGAPORE — Tougher penalties for prostitution-related offences and additional curbs on the irresponsible lease of premises for such vice activities were among amendments proposed in the Women’s Charter on Monday (7 October).

The bill, introduced for its first reading in Parliament on Monday, “seeks to strengthen the laws against online vice”, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a press release. “These amendments will help, in particular, to stem an increasing trend of vice in the heartlands,” the ministry added.

While existing measures under the Women’s Charter, as part of the police’s larger vice management strategy, have helped to keep the vice situation under control in Singapore, the ministry called online vice, or vice activities perpetuated through online platforms, “a serious concern”.

“Vice syndicates have leveraged technology to facilitate their operations and extend their reach, with increasing sophistication in their modus operandi, by running their businesses remotely, often from overseas.” the ministry said.

Among the proposed amendments include the introduction of extra-territorial jurisdiction to Section 146A of the Women’s Charter.

This will allow the police to take more decisive action against those using remote communication services to offer or facilitate the provision of sexual services in Singapore, even if the websites used to provide such services are hosted overseas, added the MHA.

Maximum fines up 10 times

Enhanced penalties proposed to “achieve greater deterrence” and to “disgorge profits from vice syndicates” include raising the maximum jail terms from three years to five years, and for more severe prostitution-related offences, from five years to seven years, for a first conviction.

The maximum jail term for repeat offenders will be increased accordingly to seven years, and for more severe offences, to 10 years.

The maximum fines will be raised to $100,000 for a first conviction, and $150,000 for repeat offenders. The current maximum fines range from $2,000 to $10,000 for a first conviction, and $10,000 to $15,000 for repeat offenders.

The enhanced penalties for repeat offenders will be applied to all prostitution-related offences under the Women’s Charter, said the MHA.

“This is to deter re-offending across the board, as heavier penalties for repeat offenders currently only apply to selected offences, and do not apply to some roles in the vice syndicates,” the ministry added.

Getting tough on errant homeowners

As syndicates “evolve and use online platforms to advertise and solicit for clients”, they have also moved their vice operations from “traditional red-light districts into residential areas”, said the MHA.

“This has caused significant disamenities for residents, with the presence of unsavoury characters in our neighbourhoods, and affecting the residents’ sense of safety and security. This has to be dealt with,” it added.

The proposed amendments will, therefore, include “strengthening the ability” to clamp down on homeowners and tenants who let out their premises for vice activities.

If vice activities are detected at their premises, homeowners and tenants will have to show that they had no knowledge of and could not, with “reasonable diligence”, have known that the place would be used for vice activities, said the MHA.

The ministry has advised homeowners to conduct identity checks at the point of signing their lease agreements, as part of “due diligence”, a similar practice currently required under the Immigration Act, where homeowners must conduct identity checks to ensure that persons staying in their premises are not immigration offenders.

The MHA will be partnering the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA), property agencies and agents, to assist and advise homeowners and tenants to conduct due diligence checks.

“Property agents who knowingly assist in renting property for vice could also be liable for criminal prosecution,” stressed the ministry.

To “remain effective against the changing modus operandi of vice syndicates”, another proposed amendment to Section 140(1)(d) is to remove the condition for a woman or girl to have been “procured” for prostitution before an offence is made out.

“This will allow the police to take action against any person who brings a woman or girl into Singapore for prostitution, even if she is a freelance sex worker,” said the MHA.

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