SINGAPORE: Harsher penalties for prostitution-related offences and new laws allowing "more decisive action" against online vice were among the proposed amendments to the Women's Charter on Monday (Oct 7).
The Bill was introduced for its first reading in Parliament and seeks to "strengthen the laws against online vice" and "enhance the police's levers" against vice syndicates, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a press release.
The Charter protects women and girls from exploitation and harm.
Among the proposed changes is the introduction of extra-territorial jurisdiction to a section of the Charter that will allow the police to better deal with anyone using "remote communication services" to offer or facilitate the provision of sexual services in Singapore.
This is even if the websites used to provide such services are hosted overseas, said MHA.
"Vice activities perpetuated through online platforms, or online vice, are a serious concern," said the MHA.
"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."
Currently, the section of the Charter dealing with such offences is "limited in its application to persons in Singapore who operate or maintain in Singapore a remote communication service that offers or facilitates, or organises, manages or supervises, the provision of sexual services", the Bill read.
DEPRIVE VICE SYNDICATES
Apart from online vice, MHA intends to "deprive" vice syndicates of operating space, especially in the heartlands, it said.
"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."
Under the proposed changes, homeowners and tenants will need 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, should such activities be detected at their premises.
"One way of satisfying themselves (homeowners and tenants) is to conduct identity checks at the point of signing their lease agreements, as part of due diligence when renting out or sub-letting their premises," MHA added.
The ministry will be partnering the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA), property agencies and agents to assist and advise home owners and tenants to conduct due diligence checks.
"Property agents who knowingly assist in renting property for vice could also be liable for criminal prosecution," MHA warned.
HIGHER PENALTIES FOR PROSTITUTION-RELATED OFFENCES
The proposed amendments include enhanced penalties against vice syndicates that "exploit and profit off women and girls". These new penalties will help achieve "greater deterrence and to disgorge profits" from vice syndicates, MHA said.
Maximum jail terms will be raised from three years to five years - and from five years to seven years in more severe cases - for a first-time offender.
The longest imprisonment term for repeat offenders will be increased accordingly to seven years and for more severe offences, to 10 years.
Fines will also be raised to S$100,000 for a first conviction and S$150,000 for repeat offenders.
The current maximum fines range from S$2,000 to S$10,000 for a first conviction and S$10,000 to S$15,000 for repeat offenders.
"This is to ensure that the penalties are sufficient deterrent, and also commensurate with earnings derived from the vice trade," MHA said.
"The higher imprisonment terms and fines for repeat offenders will be applied to all prostitution-related offences under the (Women's Charter).
"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."
Other amendments proposed in the Bill will also ensure authorities "remain effective" against the "changing modus operandi of vice syndicates", said MHA.
This includes amending a section of the Charter 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," the ministry added.
The Women's Charter was last amended in 2016.