Pop-up brothels: MPs question fairness of burden on home owners to exercise 'reasonable diligence'
SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament have voiced concerns over home owners having to make sure - at the point of signing their lease agreements - that their tenants will not use their homes for vice activities.
The feedback came as part of amendments to the Women's Charter Bill were passed in Parliament on Monday (Nov 4).
Under the Bill, an owner who rents out a place or a tenant who sublets one that is used as a brothel will be criminally liable unless he or she can show that at the time of entering into the letting of the place he or she had no knowledge and could not with “reasonable diligence” have ascertained that the place was to be used as a brothel.
The authorities will be working with the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) to introduce professional guidelines to ensure property agents help owners and tenants meet these “reasonable diligence requirements”, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling in moving the Bill for a second reading.
Of the nine MPs who spoke on the Bill, six addressed this aspect of the amendments.
MP for Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah noted that home owners and tenants will receive help, but asked how landlords are expected to know if tenants game the system.
"A respectable local or foreigner with all their paperwork in order could rent the place and then lie low for the first few weeks of occupancy, before beginning their operations behind the back of the property owners,” she said.
Ms Lee suggested intermediate property inspections by the landlord or agent, a common practice in places such as Australia.
Fellow Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng brought up the same point.
Conducting identity checks at the point of signing their lease agreements as part of due diligence when renting out or sub-letting premises sounds “good on paper”, he said.
But how would a home owner or tenant perform "reasonable diligence" other than asking directly whether one is a sex worker?
“If the home owner or tenant drops by and finds that the tenant or sub-tenant is having sex with another person, how do they determine whether or not that is a vice activity?” Mr Ng asked.
APPROACH “NOT TOO ONEROUS”
Ms Sun said the amendments make it clear in law the responsibilities of owners, tenants and others involved in the premises.
For example, owners should conduct identity checks on prospective tenants and have face-to-face interviews.
“This is necessary because syndicates commonly exploit the lack of checks at the point of leasing by misusing identity documents in order to secure premises for vice activities,” she said.
There have been cases of syndicates using false identities to rent a property, even that of a deceased person, she said.
“Pop-up” brothels are on the rise especially in residential estates, she said, adding that the police frequently receive complaints from the neighbours of the affected residential units.
In 2015, the proportion of women arrested for participating in vice online and not on other platforms was 16 per cent. In 2018, this increased to 50 per cent, said Ms Sun.
Between 2015 and 2018, seven in 10 women arrested for online vice were providing sexual services in residential estates, she added.
“The proposed approach in the Bill for owners and master tenants to exercise reasonable diligence at the point of entering into tenancy agreements is not too onerous, and is something many are already doing today,” she said.
They face practical limitations in doing post-transaction checks, such as a need to give tenants privacy and the potential safety risks if a vice syndicate is indeed operating on their premises, she said.
MORE SUPPORT FOR SEX WORKERS
MPs also called for more help and support for sex workers, noting that many sex workers do not report crimes committed against them because they are scared of being arrested.
Calling for the ministry to make “victim support part of the solution”, nominated MP Anthea Ong urged the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to consider offering sex workers conditional immunity from charges like soliciting and conditional protection from blacklisting to “join us in our fight against” exploitative agents, similar to the certificate of cooperation given to drug traffickers.
“We still have a biased cultural attitude towards the sex industry, one that legitimises men’s persistent demand for sexual services but villainises the women who supply these services,” she added.
Ms Ong and Mr Ng noted that conditional immunity for sex workers has been adopted in several American states, and called on MHA to consider the pros and cons of a similar law here.
“We have people committing crimes and getting away with it. They might continue with their crimes and start targeting others or, worse still, evolve to committing more serious crimes,” said Mr Ng.
In response, Ms Sun stressed that sex workers who have been victims of crime should come forward and get police assistance.
“The police will look into all allegations of criminal offences. Support is available for prosecution witnesses, such as assistance with housing and employment,” she said.
As for conditional immunity, Ms Sun said this issue “needs further deliberation”.
Foreigners who work as sex workers in Singapore have violated the conditions of their entry and are considered prohibited immigrants under the law, she said.
“We will thus have to carefully consider the impact of granting immunity to such individuals on public safety and our criminal justice system as a whole,” she said.