'Full of inaccuracies': MHA rebuts Nikkei Asia article criticising Government's handling of KTVs amid COVID-19
SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Wednesday (Jul 28) rebutted a Nikkei Asia opinion piece criticising the Government's handling of KTV lounges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it "full of inaccuracies".
The article was written by Mr Andy Wong, a political and business intelligence analyst based in Singapore according to the Japanese news website. It was published on Jul 23 titled The Institutional Failures Behind Singapore's Latest COVID Outbreak.
In the piece, Mr Wong alleged that "decades of institutional failures" in dealing with the "organised crime cartels running illegal KTV brothels" have derailed Singapore's efforts in bringing the pandemic under control.
He also urged the Government to "explain what went wrong and how".
As of Wednesday, there were 247 cases linked to the KTV lounges cluster, which sprung up as authorities were about to ease COVID-19 restrictions.
READ: Police conducted average of one enforcement operation a day on KTV, illegal nightlife outlets since October: Shanmugam
In a statement on Wednesday, MHA's senior director of the joint operations group Sam Tee said the article was "full of inaccuracies", and that Mr Wong's comments should be "based on facts, not imagined realities".
"First, you state that most KTVs in Singapore are fronts for money laundering or 'illegal brothels run by organised crime cartels'. Your correspondent does not explain how he came to this conclusion," he said.
Mr Tee rejected the allegation, highlighting that Singapore has laws against organised crime, money laundering, and trafficking-in-persons.
"Singapore is one of the least likely places in the world to find organised crime syndicates running operations. The 2020 Gallup Global Law and Order Report ranked Singapore first for law and order, for the seventh year running," he said.
Mr Tee added that the Government is aware that sex workers visit KTVs and other places to solicit patrons, but it is unable to prevent people from meeting in these places.
"But any sexual activity in these premises will be a breach of licensing conditions," he said.
READ: First reported COVID-19 case of KTV cluster entered Singapore via familial ties lane: ICA, MOM
Furthermore, Mr Tee said the police deal with such breaches via regular enforcement.
From 2018 to 2020, the police checked nearly 3,000 nightlife outlets and arrested over 1,000 people, he said, adding that operators were punished, and foreign offenders deported.
The Government also welcomes visitors to Singapore, he said, but it is aware that some seek entry for purposes of prostitution.
"This is not allowed under our entry conditions," he stated. "While we take all efforts to turn away dubious travellers, there is no foolproof way of determining this upfront."
In the Nikkei Asia article, Mr Wong said: "Questions are also being asked as to who signed off on the conversion of known KTV fronts into so-called bistros, something they were never designed to function as."
Nightlife establishments have not been allowed to operate due to the COVID-19 pandemic but they were given the green light to pivot to food and beverage (F&B) venues.
Responding to Mr Wong's allegation that KTVs were allowed to reopen “without explanation”, Mr Tee said that this is false.
Nightlife activities had been disallowed since March last year, he said, meaning many livelihoods were at risk.
The Government had explained the considerations in Parliament for allowing some to reopen, not as KTVs but as F&B outlets, he said, adding that the authorities had also made public statements announcing the move.
"Your correspondent made sweeping statements, without basic checks," Mr Tee said.
On Monday, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had explained in Parliament the Government's reasons behind allowing KTV venues to reopen as F&B outlets.
Mr Shanmugam mentioned the Nikkei Asia article, which he said suggested that the Government was "in cahoots" with the KTV lounges, was "quite unbalanced".
READ: Daily enforcement checks on F&B outlets, pivoted nightlife venues since October, say Singapore authorities
On the point in the article that the Government “belatedly increased punitive raids” on KTV lounges following the outbreak, Mr Tee said on Wednesday that there has, on the contrary, been regular enforcement.
Since October last year, the police have conducted over 200 operations in addition to operations by other agencies, he said.
"Several of these were widely publicised when the law-breakers were brought to court," he added.
Mr Tee also rebutted the article's claim that the “Boyfriend/Girlfriend” category was "abruptly and without explanation" removed from the Familial Ties Lane for immigration entry.
The option to enter Singapore via the familial ties lane for boyfriends or girlfriends of citizens and permanent residents came under the spotlight when it was revealed that the first reported COVID-19 case in the KTV lounges cluster arrived in February under this category.
The Vietnamese short-term visit pass holder was sponsored by a Singapore citizen who indicated in the application that he was her boyfriend, said the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) on Jul 16.
ICA said that it removed the category in view of the evolving border control measures, and as part of its regular reviews on the requirements and application processes for travellers seeking entry into Singapore.
On Wednesday, Mr Tee said that the ICA and police had explained on Jul 16 and Jul 20 respectively, details of why the “boyfriend/girlfriend” category was introduced and subsequently removed, and the enforcement operations undertaken.
Mr Tee concluded by saying that the cluster linked to KTV lounges has been "swiftly contained", with about five new cases linked to it each day from Jul 22 to Jul 26, a figure that is also declining.
The cluster was not the reason why the Government re-imposed stricter safe distancing measures on Jul 22, he continued. This was due to spread into fresh food markets which had the potential for a wider outbreak.
"Your correspondent’s stance appears to be based on a stern disapproval of illegal sexual activity," Mr Tee said.
"We commend his high moral expectations. But his comments on public policies need to be based on facts, not imagined realities."
The Straits Times has identified the writer as one of four men charged in court earlier on Wednesday with possessing or transmitting obscene materials through a Telegram chat group.