Singapore's Parliament has voted to amend its Women's Charter, increasing penalties for sex work-related offences. The Women's Charter Amendment Bill, passed on 4th November, included provisions to "strengthen the laws against online vice", following concerns about sex work being carried out increasingly through online platforms.
The Bill amended the Women's Charter to widen the definition of a brothel, to make it easier for prosecutors to prove a premises is being used for vice activities. The prosecution will now be able to use circumstantial evidence as proof that sex work activities are being "offered", whereas before they would have had to prove sex work was being provided.
The Bill also increases punishments for people who facilitates sex workers entering Singapore, meaning those convicted face a prison sentence of up to 7 years, and a fine of up to $100,000 ($150,000 for repeat offenders). Penalties are also increased for 'living on the earnings of prostitution' (from $10,000 to $100,000). The language of the Bill focuses on women and girls, and the government acknowledges the laws will apply "even if she is a freelance sex worker":
"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"
The Bill also increases enforcement powers for brothel-keeping offences; brothels were already criminalised in Singapore, but this Bill increases penalties from $3,000 to $100,000 and a 5 year prison sentence. Changes to the law mean anyone letting or sub-letting a property is expected to undertake 'reasonable diligence' to ensure the premises will not be used for sex work, including identity checks and face-to-face interviews.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has focused specifically on 'those using remote communication services to facilitate the provision of sexual services in Singapore, even if the websites used to provide such services are hosted overseas;.
There were two interventions by MPs in support of protecting sex workers' rights. Anthea Ong MP made a speech, highlighting the work of Project X and the potential harms of this legislation. Louis Ng MP gave a speech voicing concerns about Singapore's approach to sex work, following consultation with sex workers.
Both MPs called on the government to research approaches taken in other regions, referencing laws in the USA which allow sex workers to report crimes without fear of arrest, such as the law recently passed in San Francisco.
"The sex workers I spoke to feared that when they report a crime committed against them, they too would be arrested... as such, many don't report crime[s]"
Louis Ng MP
"We still have a biased cultural attitude towards the sex industry, one that legitimises men’s (persistent) demand for sexual services but villanises the women who supply these services... We need to see sex workers as part of the solution, including our transgender sex workers who are also sometimes victims to exploitative and abusive agents."
- Anthea Ong MP
Project X thanked both MPs for their interventions, and said they will continue to work to ensure that sex workers are free from violence, exploitation and discrimination.