Prostitution is legal in Singapore, but various associated activities are not. There is plenty of illegal prostitution in Singapore as well as government-regulated brothels.
The Singaporean government is trying to tread a middle line, accepting that prostitution will never go away on the one hand and controlling and criminalising some of the more undesirable elements on the other.
The oldest profession is a thorn in the side of governments and lawmakers worldwide. This is how Singapore defines prostitution and attempts to control it.
The definition of prostitution in Singapore
The Singaporean government defines prostitution as sexual services in return for payment between a man and a woman.
Legislation in Singapore only envisages prostitution as an act between a man and a woman. Activities between two or more men or transgender men were, until very recently, criminal offences under Section 377A of the Penal Code. However, in 2022, this law was repealed.
The Penal Code was designed to control relationships between men. It was enacted by the British in Singapore in 1938. More recently declassified documents suggest that scrutiny of female prostitution at the time coincidentally shone a light on male prostitution in Singapore. It was also a time that homosexuality was beginning to emerge from the shadows.
Government-regulated prostitution in Singapore
There are government-regulated brothels in Singapore. The women who work there must undergo regular medical check-ups and carry health cards. There is also plenty of sexual services offered across Singapore at massage parlours and karaoke lounges, but these are illegal activities.
For a woman to be granted a licence for sex work, she must be legally recognised as female and from one of five countries. These being Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, or China.
A sex worker is given a yellow card which requires them to have regular medical check-ups and restricts their employment to sex work only. The medical tests are for HIV and STIs, and workers risk being deported if they test positive. The same also applies to an unexpected pregnancy.
The yellow card has a life, and once it expires, a sex worker is deported and banned from returning to Singapore. The Singaporean government does not publicly acknowledge the existence of the yellow card, so it’s hard to find information about it, such as how long it is valid and whether renewal is possible. Sex workers with a yellow card are not allowed to marry Singaporean citizens.
Brothel regulations are strict; for instance, prostitutes cannot leave the brothel for any reason without permission. Some sex workers choose to take the unlicensed illegal route, working outside the government-regulated brothels because they feel the yellow card system has too many restrictions.
The legal age for a prostitute
Under Sections 376A and 376B of the Penal Code, it is illegal in Singapore to have sex with a girl under the age of 16. It is also unlawful to make a commercial arrangement with a girl under the age of 18, even if she is a willing party.
In 2012, a scandal broke in which around fifty men were charged with illegal prostitution with underage girls. These men were high-profile civil servants, business executives, high-society figures, and senior police officers.
Under Singaporean law, ignorance of age is not a defence. Section 377D of the Penal Code makes clear that offenders aged 21 years or older cannot claim a mistake if the prostitute they have entered a commercial arrangement with is underage. This crime attracts a jail sentence; however, there is one exception.
Offenders under the age of 21 can use ignorance or mistaken belief as a defence, but only if the prostitute is of the opposite sex, and if the offender has no previous criminal convictions for sexual offences.
In the online vice scandal of 2012, a pimp called Tang Boon Thiew recruited around 20 escorts, one of whom was aged 17. Thiew’s defence was that he did not know her age, and he put her online as 18 as she had shown identification to confirm this. In reality, it was her older sister’s identity card. Thiew received a sentence of 58 months in jail and a S$90,000 fine.
Illegal activities surrounding prostitution in Singapore
The Singaporean government’s approach is pragmatic. Officially, it recognises that the sex industry exists and regulates it as far as is practicable to protect sex workers, their clients, and other vulnerable sectors like minors.
Even with legalised government brothels, it is currently illegal in Singapore to live on immoral earnings – the income from prostitution – maintain an unlicensed brothel and soliciting publicly. These criminal acts are listed in Part XI of the Women’s Charter.
Pimping means living on the earnings from the prostitution of another person. This is illegal in Singapore.
A pimp who lives wholly or in part on the proceeds of prostitution can be fined up to S$10,000, and there is a possible jail sentence of up to five years.
Pimps can be prosecuted under Section 372 of the Penal Code for using minors to sell sexual services. For the purposes of this section, minors are defined as those under the age of 21.
Soliciting by prostitutes is an offence under Section 19 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. A first offence has a maximum fine of S$1,000; subsequent convictions carry an increased fine of $2,000 and a possibility of six months in prison.
A further offence is plying trade publicly, which is a criminal act under Section 294(a) of the Penal Code, even in a red-light district, attracting a maximum term in prison of three months and/or a fine.
Running an unlicensed brothel carries a maximum fine of S$10,000 and up to five years in prison.
Advertising prostitution online
The internet has made new ways of plying illegal prostitution easier and more accessible. In trying to control this, in 2016, the government added a new clause to the Women’s Charter.
Section 146A states that it is a criminal act to operate or maintain a remote communication service like a website that offers or facilitates the provision by a woman or girl of sexual services for payment or reward or that organises or manages the provision of such services.
But there’s always a way around new legislation, such as hosting a website outside Singapore.
However, a more recent subsection to Section 146 adds, “Any person who knowingly solicits, receives or agrees to receive any gratification as an inducement or reward for providing any service, and who by providing that service does or will aid the prostitution of another person (being a woman or girl), shall be guilty of an offence…”.
The Singaporean government is determined to stay ahead of the advanced disguise the internet offers prostitution with this new, sweeping catch-all addition to the legislation.
Final thoughts on prostitution in Singapore
Singapore is always considered a conservative, almost prudish city, so it’s a bit of a paradox that there is a licensed and legal sex trade here. The government has taken the view that regulation is better than criminalisation which would drive the trade underground.
The concept of licensing is to avoid the worst excesses of gangs, criminal involvement, the exploitation of minors and public health problems. However, the government plays a constant game of cat and mouse trying to regulate the sex trade.
The landscape concerning prostitution is complex, and lawyers are frequently involved in separating criminal activity from non-criminal in Singapore.