Prostitution is not illegal in Singapore
That's right. The Minister of State for Law and Home affairs said it in
Parliament. It seems to be contrary to what we've always thought of
Singapore, as a straight-laced place with no room for immorality.
Don't we have rules, rules and more rules for everything?
The trigger for telling Parliament that prostitution was not illegal in Singapore was a report issued by the US State Department about human trafficking. In accordance with an Act of Congress, the State Department had to compile an annual Trafficking in Persons Report  for as many countries as possible.
Singapore was included in the 2004 report for the first time (it was excluded from previous surveys) because the State Department had "newly available information indicating it has a significant trafficking problem."
No doubt the above statement riled our government
The Report classified countries into 4 tiers, known as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watchlist and Tier 3. Singapore was put into Tier 2, which comprises "countries whose governments do not fully comply with the Act's minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards."
The standards in question are that countries should
(the above are my words condensed from the report)
In the narrative about Singapore, the Report said that "Singapore is a destination country for a limited number of girls and women trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation; while small, this number is likely more than 100 cases per year."
"Some of the women and girls... who travel to Singapore voluntarily for prostitution or non-sexual work are deceived or coerced into sexual servitude in Singapore. A small minority of foreign domestic workers face seriously abusive labor conditions; in a few such cases, these circumstances may amount to involuntary servitude."
On women in prostitution, the Report added that, "The government acknowledges the existence of the problem of trafficking in persons but does not consider trafficking for sexual exploitation to be a major problem in Singapore.... Prostitution is not illegal and procurement of sex from 16- and 17-year old prostitutes is not criminalized. Authorities generally tolerate prostitution, which largely involves foreign women, a few of whom are trafficked."
On domestic maids, it said, "Singaporeans employ an estimated 140,000 foreign domestic workers. A small minority of these workers experience seriously abusive employment conditions; in rare cases, such conditions may amount to involuntary servitude."
Ho Peng Kee's statement in Parliament challenged the State Department's figure of "more than 100 cases per year." He said there were only 8 allegations in the first 7 months of this year, of which 2 resulted in prosecution and conviction. In the past 2 years, none of 18 allegations were substantiated.
For some reason, Ho mentioned a threshold age of 14, below which the client would be guilty of rape, and the trafficker jailed for up to 20 years. But I am sure that other laws indicate a minimum age of 16 for a girl to have consensual sex. Reconciling this is going to take some research.
* * * * *
The government recognised that many women come into Singapore on social visit passes with the intention to work, voluntarily, as sex workers. But Ho stressed that unless they posed a nuisance to the public by brazenly soliciting on the streets, no action would be taken.
Ho's statement alluded to a mental shortcut that I have personally seen: an automatic association between prostitution and trafficking. Some people make that connection, even those who otherwise have quite liberal ideas about sex. Probably they see commercial sex work as something tawdry and humiliating. They can't imagine themselves doing something like that, and then assume that others feel the same way. It's as if one says, "Since I can't bring myself to do this, if she is really doing this then it must surely be against her will."
We should always be alert to such instances where we use our self as a reference standard for everything and everybody else. However distasteful something may seem to us, it may not be to others, and we should always respect others' freedom to do things we ourselves may not wish to do.
* * * * *The abuse of domestic maids, I consider more troubling, not least because too many employers in Singapore don't think they are behaving inhumanly even when they are. In contrast to prostitution where people tend to get oversensitive to the issue, with domestic maids, there is not enough awareness of the problem. Too many families still think maids should be at hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
That may be abuse, but would that be trafficking? Here again, one has to be careful with labels.
* * * * *
Another borderline issue was not mentioned in either the State Department's report or the government's statement: quickie brides. No doubt Western men, not least Americans, can be as much indicted on this issue as Singaporeans.
For decades, the mail-order bride business -- where I use 'mail-order' to mean visits so short, you have to suspend belief that real romance developed -- has been a booming business. Filipina, Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian women have been highly valued for their perceived docility by Western men.
Now Singaporean men are getting in on the act too. See the article Vietnamese brides and the latest story on the right. I would draw your attention to the mention about a "medical check-up to ensure that they are healthy and virgins."
The article in the Sunday Times was accompanied by a photograph of young woman. I reckoned she was barely 18.
And to top it all, the article ends by advertising the name and contact number of the marriage agency. Does the word 'tawdry' come to mind?
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