Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill 2019 (Bill No. 29/2019)
Sir, let me start by saying that I stand in support of the Bill. I do not doubt that there is a need to curb vice activities perpetuated through online platforms and I agree that this is a serious concern that must be addressed.
I also support MHA’s intent to deprive vice syndicates of operating space, especially in the heartlands. My residents and myself all want a sense of safety and security where we live.
But while I support these amendments, I have concerns about their effectiveness. Are we addressing only the symptoms of the issue and not the root cause? Are we just chasing our tails? Is it time to rethink our strategy?
Moving vice activities out of the heartlands
My first concern is about the amendment targetting the irresponsible lease of premises, and whether it is feasible and practical.
Sir, as I mentioned, I support the intent of the amendment. None of us wants our neighborhoods to become hubs of vice activities. But my question is: How are homeowners and tenants supposed to enforce this?
MHA has stated that if vice activities are detected at their premises, homeowners and tenants will have 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.
One way of satisfying themselves 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.
This sounds good on paper. In practice, however, how does a homeowner or tenant perform “reasonable diligence” other than asking directly whether one is a sex worker?
If the homeowner or tenant drops by and find that the tenant or sub-tenant is having sex with another person, how do they determine whether or not that is a vice activity? I hope that Minister can provide clarity on how we will be enforcing this.
Are we chasing our tails
My second concern is about whether our attempts to clamp down on sexual services works.
Sir, this would not be the first time I am making this point. Two years ago, I stood in this house to support the Massage Establishments Bill. But in that speech, I said, “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.””
I fear that we are doing what Mr. Wong advised us 20 years ago not to do and that the cat-and-mouse game has started.
In 2010, MP Baey Yam Keng said that vice raids in Geylang led to pimps and prostitues “spilling out” of the area.
Former NMP Kok Heng Leun raised the same concerns in his speech on the Massage Establishments Bill, he said “In the past, there used to be these health centres where sexual services were provided alongside massage. Most of these health centres were not allowed to renew their licences. The shutdown of these health centres led to the proliferation of smaller parlours set up by the people who used to work at these health centres. From interviews with massage workers, the proliferation was also because smaller parlours were harder to apprehend for sexual services.”
What is our end goal? As we wipe out one area, we only push the sex workers to another area which we then try to wipe out.
I appreciate that vice activities will always evolve, and enforcement needs to evolve as well. However, it seems that the vice activities are evolving at least partly because of our actions. This cat-and-mouse game means that we are wasting our precious resources and most importantly, we are always one step behind.
Listening to sex workers
Sir, I believe a long-term solution can come from speaking with sex workers themselves about the issue.
I met up with Singaporeans sex workers when I was researching the Massage Establishment Bill and I met up with Singaporeans sex workers again when researching this Bill.
I sat there listening to their stories, their fears and their aspirations. These are fellow Singaporeans and many are victims or circumstance. Many feel that they have no choice but to be sex workers. We need to ask ourselves how many people would want to sell sexual services willingly?
I listened to one woman share about how she got kicked out of her house by her parents when she was young, became homeless, didn’t know where to go for help and ultimately entered the sex trade just to survive. She was beaming with pride when she informed everyone that she had just paid the deposit for a makeup course, and everyone in the room cheered.
I listened to how another woman became a sex worker when she was only 19 years old and has been doing this for 4 years now. Her parents divorced when she was 5 years old and both parents didn’t want her. She was left with her grandmother who raised her. For her entire childhood, she was constantly reminded that she had no parents. I cannot imagine the impact that has on a young child.
She didn’t do well in her studies and could not get into a polytechnic. She tried to enroll in a private polytechnic but didn’t have enough money to pay the tuition fees. She then tried to get a bank loan but failed as she could not find a guarantor. Not knowing where else to go for help, she ultimately entered the sex trade for money to fund her education.
We can all take the moral high ground and tell the sex workers that they know the risk of sex work and that they can find another job, so why should we protect them and help them?
But I hope we remember that these are fellow Singaporeans. Rather than judge them for their actions, I hope we can help them.
Ensuring that crime does not go unreported
Sir, many of them also shared their fears with me and shared stories of how some sex workers get raped and robbed.
The Women’s Charter is all about protecting women and girls from exploitation and harm and this should include sex workers too.
The recent case where three youths hatched a plot to rob sex workers at knifepoint highlights how sex workers are especially vulnerable. The trio agreed this plot would be the “safest” way to commit a crime as they would be preying on the sex workers’ “vulnerabilities and insecurities”, given the illicit nature of their work.
The sex workers I spoke to feared that when they report a crime committed against them, they too will be arrested because of the illicit nature of their work. As such, many don’t report the crime and my concerns are not just for the sex workers but also for society at large.
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.
Do we really want a rapist to get away scot free just because his victim is a sex worker? Does our society become a safer place for all if this continues?
I can understand that what I’m proposing is not a simple suggestion. However, can I ask if MHA is studying this problem and also studying what others have done? I understand that in the US states of California, Utah and Washington, laws have been passed to allow sex workers to, without fear of arrest or prosecution, report crimes that they were victims of or witnesses to. Can MHA look into this holistically to assess the pros and cons of such laws and see what effects they have had on society?
Helping sex workers transit out of the industry
Sir, I believe the long-term solution is to put more resources into helping sex workers transit out of their industry.
Indeed, many of the sex workers I spoke to said they want to leave the sex industry but need help doing so.
Studies have showed that women who want to leave the sex work industry are trapped in their industry due to two key factors: One, society’s prejudice against former sex workers; two, the women’s lack of social support and low self-esteem.
The fortunate thing is in Singapore, we do have non-profit groups helping these women. Project X is one such group. It provides social, emotional, and legal support for sex workers in Singapore, and it hopes to launch “The Next Step Programme,” to which I hope the government can provide some funding and support.
The programme aims to help sex workers who wish to leave the industry. Over six months, case workers work with the women to devise a customised plan. The plan aims to help the women in five important ways: financial planning, individual counselling, job skills training, family counselling, and social and communication skills. At the end of the six months, the women will have the option of continuing or exiting the programme.
Research shows that sex workers who have successfully left and abstained from sex work for at least two years have been able to do so only after about six attempts on average.It is not an easy transition, but the result, I believe, is worth the effort.
In 2017, Minister Josephine Teo said in relation to sex workers, “For those who wish to transit to other types of work, I appreciate it really may not be easy for them, but help is available and we are most willing to reach out to them”. Sir, I hope that MHA will consider providing support and funding for “The Next Step Programme”.
Sir, let me end with what Mr. Wong Kan Seng said in this House 20 years ago: “Governments around the world and through the ages have tried to eradicate prostitution, but none had succeeded. Criminalising prostitution will only drive such activities underground, resulting in crime syndicates taking control over such activities”.
There is a need for us to relook and rethink our policies and remember what our former Minister told us.
I hope that rather than just prosecute sex workers, we can provide help. Rather than entrap them with our undercover officers, we can engage them holistically. Rather than lecture them on morals and the law, we can listen to them and understand why they became a sex worker what their concerns are and what their aspirations are.
I hope that MHA will consider holding discussions with the sex workers directly. I would be keen to help with this and facilitate it. Some sex workers may be concerned about meeting with MHA for fear of being identified, but we can start by meeting with sex workers who are transiting out of the industry.
Let’s work together with them to find long-term solutions rather than against them.
Sir, we can take the moral high ground and judge them, discriminate against them and even despise them. But let us remember that they are also someone’s chid, someone’s daughter, someone’s loved one and more than anything, these are fellow Singaporeans who need help. Let’s help them.
And by helping them transit out of the sex industry, we might actually reduce the number of sex workers much faster than arresting them and playing the cat-and-mouse game.
Watch the speech here
Watch the response here