Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Massage Establishments Bill [Bill No. 39/2017]
Sir, let me start by saying that I stand in support of this Bill. With a 40% increase in the number of unlicensed massage establishments from 2013 to 2016, this is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed.
These unlicensed massage establishments taint Singapore’s image. These are sentiments, which are echoed by netizens who posted comments on my facebook page.
Mr. Zain Kazmi said, “Singapore’s reputation has been diminished by the operation of such sleazy businesses. We cannot afford to allow such vices to continue unabated, as it tarnishes the name of genuine massage parlours, and the country at large”.
Many have argued – and I agree – that a fine of $1,000 is too low to deter the operators of these massage parlours, who can simply pay the fine after they are caught and set up a new place soon after.
Tackling only one part of the problem
Thus, I welcome this Bill. By increasing the penalties by at least ten-fold and introducing a jail term, we are sending a very strong message that we want to clamp down on these vice activities.
This was my first impression when I read this Bill and started drafting the speech. However, as I looked into it further, researched further and met with the sex workers themselves and with Project X, a non-profit which provides social, emotional, and legal support for sex workers in Singapore, I realised that the amendments here are just one part of the equation. It is only about tackling the supply side and not the demand.
The other part of the equation that we are not tackling in this Bill is equally important. The 40% increase in unlicensed massage parlours must be in part due to an increasing demand.
I do understand that MOE’s current Sexuality Education programme already has elements to mitigate youth paying for sexual services but I feel there is more we need to do and perhaps for a start, launch a detailed study and research, to understand this demand before we can come up with further legislative or policy amendments.
Always one step behind
If we do not address the root of the problem, we will always be one step behind.
We are now clamping down on massage establishments. If the demand continues which I’m quite sure it will, the vice activities will just move on to the next place.
We already know from media reports that sexual services are offered at some Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinics. The current amendments do not cover TCM clinics and perhaps this is where the vice activities at massage establishments will be heading.
Of course, we can then legislate again and cover TCM clinics but I hope you see where I’m heading. We will always be one step behind. And if there is demand for something, there will always be supply.
Worse still, we might drive these activities further underground. This was the fear of former Home Affairs Minister, Mr. Wong Kan Seng who said this in Parliament in 1999 in relation to a question about prostitution “And it is better that the Police know where these areas are and enforcement action can be taken, rather than to disperse these brothels to the whole of Singapore and we have a cat-and-mouse game chasing after them or, worse still, drive them underground, and they will be operating everywhere.”
Mr. Wong also said “Criminalising prostitution will only drive such activities underground, resulting in crime syndicates taking control over such activities.” And I wonder whether crime syndicates have taken control of some of these unlicensed massage establishments.
Do some of these unlicensed massage establishments have links to other criminal elements and activities by organised criminal syndicates which finances the presumably high initial set-up costs of such massage establishments.
Again, a detailed study will allow us to further understand the underlying complex ecosystem driving this trend of the growing number of unlicensed massage establishments.
Understanding why people become sex workers
Sir, we also need to look at the supply side not just in terms of the penalties but also understanding why people become sex workers.
As I mentioned earlier, I met up with the sex workers – Singaporean sex workers. I met a young Singaporean who has been a sex worker for 2 years and is also pursing her diploma. She uses the money earned to pay for her education and is intending to pursue her degree as well and is saving up for that. I met a single lady who is a sex worker to help pay for her parent’s medical fees.
I went into that meeting with an open mind to listen and try to understand their viewpoints. To listen to their concerns and the dangers they faced working as a sex worker and how they worry about their safety. I listened to how lonely they felt at times, working in this industry.
At the end of the day there is no quick fix, no easy solution but the way forward is for us to study this issue holistically and engage the parties concerned.
Sir, I stand in support of this Bill. This is a complex issue and I hope that this Bill is a start and we can look into this issue further.