It may surprise some visitors to Singapore to learn that prostitution is legal. A pragmatic decision was taken that it was safer to legalise the activities and regulate them closely, rather than to make it illegal and risk driving it underground and out of sight completely. Therefore, both local and foreign women may offer sexual services from government-regulated brothels. They are required to have regular medical check-ups, and to carry a health card.
Sexual services may be offered for a fee in massage parlors and karaoke lounges. Customers in these venues should be careful however, as these operations are likely to be illegal. It is also against the law in Singapore to solicit for sex in public, or live from the earnings of a sex worker, or to run an unlicensed brothel.
Note that in Singapore, the term ‘prostitution’ refers to payment for sex between a male and a female. Sex between two males, including transgender males, remains a criminal offence in Singapore, according to section 377A of the Penal Code.
Although the strict licensing and regulations try to protect minors and prevent criminal activity, new ways of offering illegal prostitution appear regularly. Social media and the internet have made it easier to offer such illegal services, and led to the creation of a new section of the Women’s Charter. Section 146A outlaws the practice of illegal prostitution, even through online websites. Despite this, some sex workers have tried to host websites outside of Singapore, to get around these new laws.
This article looks at some of the issues and regulations relating to the selling of sex in Singapore.
Paying for sex with minors
In Singapore, according to sections 376A and 376B, it is against the law to have sex with a girl under 16 years of age, or to pay for sex with a girl under the age of 18 – regardless of whether she consented or not.
Some of the most infamous headlines in the Singapore news have been about high-profile cases involving online prostitution scandals. Well-known figures such as company directors, civil servants and police have been involved and found guilty of paying for sex with under-age prostitutes.
Any Singapore citizen or permanent resident who pays for underage sex outside of Singapore will still be liable, according to section 376C of the Penal Code.
Is ignorance a defence to the charge of paying for underage sex?
Section 377D of the Penal Code states that ignorance is not a defence to this crime. Offenders older than 21 years cannot claim that they did not realise they were buying sex from an underage person. There was a 2015 case involving a 52-year-old male who was imprisoned for 9 weeks after buying sex from an underage prostitute who he believed to be 19 years old.
An exception does exist; offenders younger than 21 years old can use the defence that they mistakenly believed the person was of legal age. However, this can only be used as a defence if the offender has not committed any previous sexual offences, and the person they paid for sex is of the opposite sex.
Living on the earnings of a sex worker, or managing a brothel
The term commonly used for living on the earnings of a prostitute is ‘pimping’. It is illegal in Singapore, as is the act of managing a brothel. Part XI of the Women’s Charter covers these offences.
Under section 372 of the Penal Code, pimps may be punished for selling sex with minors (defined as a person under the age of 21 years).
Again, there have been many high-profile news reports of people who have fallen foul of these laws and been punished severely. A 2012 case saw a 39-year-old pimp recruit escort girls who performed sexual services and earned him hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was one minor amongst the escorts, who was advertised as being 18 years old. The pimp claimed he did not know she was under 18, as she had used her elder sister’s ID card and lied about her true age. However, he admitted discovering her true age shortly after she began to work for him. He lied about her age to customers, and lived off her substantial earnings from sex work. For these crimes he was given a 58-month jail sentence and fined $90,000.
Another case, in 2016, concerned the owner of a social escort agency who was jailed for just over 7 years and fined $130,000 for 25 criminal offences. These included having sex with a minor, buying sex from minors, making obscene films, and living off the earnings of a prostitute. The judge also noted that some of the offences had involved girls as young as 15 years old.
Restrictions on Soliciting for Sex
Under section 19 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, soliciting by prostitutes – in other words, looking for trade – is prohibited in public. It states that a person ‘who, in any public road or place persistently loiters or solicits for the purposes of prostitution or any other immoral purpose, is guilty of an offence’. A fine of up to $1,000 will be given for first-time offenders, and subsequent offences will mean fines of up to $2,000 or a jail term of not more than 6 months.
Section 294(a) of the Penal Code means sex workers can be prosecuted for soliciting in public, even if they are in a red-light district. It states that ‘any obscene act in a public place’ is punishable by imprisonment of up to 3 months, and/or a fine.
Operating an unlicensed brothel is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 or a maximum of five years in jail. Anyone who knowingly lives on the earnings of a sex worker, either wholly or in part, faces jail for up to 5 years, and a fine of up to $10,000.
Soliciting Sexual Services Online
Section 146A of the Women’s Charter, amended in 2016, covers soliciting or promoting the provision of sexual services online. It states that it is an offence for someone in Singapore to operate or maintain, in the course of business, a remote communication service (e.g. a website) that offers or facilitates the provision of a girl or woman to someone else, for the provision of sexual services. Regardless of occupation, anyone who creates a website for those purposes risks a fine or imprisonment, or both.
The Singapore government has commented that the rise of online media has enabled those who operate in the vice and criminal areas to conduct business online, thus widening their reach, whilst using the internet to protect their anonymity. The amendments from 2016 aim to address this online activity. It is now an offence to offer sexual services on websites in return for payment. Police can also take action against anyone facilitating the prostitution of a person, such a setting up a website to advertise their services. Anyone receiving payment for that service – either in cash or in kind – will also face prosecution.
Section 146 (1A) addresses the wider scope of criminal activities relating to prostitution; ‘anyone who knowingly solicits, receives or agrees to receive any gratification as a reward or inducement for a service, and who so doing aids the prostitution of a woman or girl, is guilty of an offence. They shall be liable on conviction to a prison term of not more than 5 years, and also for a fine up to $10,000.
The definition of ‘gratification’ is as follows:
- Any employment, office or contract;
- Any money, gift, loan, fee, reward, commission, valuable security or other property or interest in the property of any time, whether movable or immovable
- Any release, discharge, payment or liquidation of any loan, obligation or any other type of liability, whether in part or in whole;
- Any other service, advantage or favour of any kind.
Police have said that they will make every effort to crack down on online vice activities, and have advised home owners to check that their tenants are not carrying out vice activities in their properties.
What is legal in Singapore’s prostitution trade?
Only sex workers who work within licensed brothels and their customers are covered by the protection of the law at the moment. All other types of prostitution in Singapore are illegal and anyone involved risks being raided or prosecuted for various offences.