November 2004

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 [1] 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

  • prohibit human trafficking;
  • have penalties commensurate with the crime;
  • have penalties stringent enough to deter;
  • make sustained and serious efforts to eliminate severe forms of human trafficking.

(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."


3 Sept 2004
Straits Times

Cases of forced prostitution are 'very rare'

These women are not offenders, but if they solicit for sex in public, they will be prosecuted, says Ho Peng Kee

Women brought here and forced to be prostitutes will not be prosecuted. Neither will foreign women who come here to earn money as prostitutes.

The reason they are not treated as offenders is that prostitution is not an offence here. However, if they solicit for sex in public, they will be prosecuted.

Senior Minister of State Ho Peng Kee, in assuring Nominated MP Braema Mathi that these women are neither treated as offenders nor victims, gave updated figures to show that trafficking of sex workers is not a significant problem here.

Associate Professor Ho, whose portfolio covers Law and Home Affairs, said that of the eight cases of forced prostitution reported in the first seven months of this year, only two were substantiated. In the last two years, none of the 18 reported cases was substantiated.

Such cases of forced prostitution here are 'very rare', he added, reiterating the Government's position made earlier this week in response to a report by the State Department of the United States.

On Monday, Singapore had challenged the report which said there is a significant human trafficking problem here, with more than 100 foreign girls and women sent here each year for sexual exploitation.

Yesterday, Prof Ho said women forced or tricked to come here as sex workers will be witnesses in court against the agent who trafficked them. They are also offered temporary shelter and counselling.

Their agents will face the full wrath of the law, like the Thai and Sri Lankan who trafficked in the two women this year.

Prof Ho also did not see a need to stiffen the penalties as the current laws against the trafficking of women are tough enough. Offenders can be jailed for up to 10 years and fined.

However, if the girl was below 14-years-old, the client can be convicted of rape and the agent who trafficked her can be jailed for up to 20 years and not less than eight years. He will also be given at least 12 strokes of the cane.

Prof Ho also made a distinction to define what is a trafficked sex worker.

She is not one if she 'comes in voluntarily - as many of them do on social visit passes'.

For those who are tricked into coming in or have come voluntarily and are threatened or assaulted into continuing being a sex worker, then the definition of being forced into prostitution applies. 


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?

Yawning Bread 



7 Nov 2004
The Sunday Times

Now, Kalimantan Chinese brides 

Matchmaking agency thinks they are a better fit here because they can speak Chinese dialects 
By Tracy Quek 

Move over, Vietnam brides, here come the girls from Kalimantan. One matchmaking agency here is offering Singaporean men the chance to choose a Chinese bride from the Indonesian province on Borneo. And although new in the matchmaking industry, Mr Simon Sim, 50, manager of Mayle Marriage Agency, reckons he already has an edge.

The Kalimantan brides-to-be are Indonesian Chinese, speak various Chinese dialects, can whip up Chinese meals and would find it easier to fit in here, he said. They are aged between 20 and 30, and come from large farming families in rural villages. 

Their parents, who get a dowry of between $1,000 and $2,000, agree to such matches because they want better lives for their daughters, he added.

While agencies offering Vietnamese brides charge more than $12,000, Mayle's wedding package costs an auspicious $9,888. It includes return tickets to Kalimantan, a chance to pick a wife from among 20 young women, the dowry, a wedding banquet, suits and bridal gowns, and wedding photography.

The bride's Indonesian passport can be ready in about two days. In contrast, Vietnamese brides have to wait for over a month for their passports.

Mr Sim said he and a business partner started the agency about six months ago, after finding out about the communication problems their friends had with their Vietnamese wives. 'There's a language barrier, it can be a strain when they can't talk to their husbands,' he said. 

'Matching our local men with girls of the same cultural background will ensure a higher chance of the marriage lasting.'
But agencies offering matchmaking tours to Vietnam say they are not worried about the competition.

Mr Martin Yong, managing director of Mr Cupid International Matchmakers, said: 'We have established ourselves in the industry, we do thorough background checks on the women and our customers trust us.' 

Mr Sim says his agency also does its checks. The women go for a medical check-up to ensure that they are healthy and virgins. He interviews all his clients, to make sure that they have a steady income and a roof over their heads. 

His clients are mostly Chinese-speaking blue-collar workers in their 40s and 50s.
Chinese men make up almost nine in 10 of the 67,000 bachelors in Singapore aged 35 to 49, according to the 2000 Census.  

So far, Mr Sim has found wives for two Singaporean Chinese men in their 40s. One works as a driver, the other is a store keeper. Two more men, in their 40s and 50s, will be making the six-day trip later this year, he said.

One of them, Mr Peter Chua, 41, who will be selecting his Kalimantan bride later this month, said: 'Singaporean women have very high expectations, they want the five Cs and I can't afford that.'
The security officer, who takes home less than $2,000 a month, is now hoping to meet a 'simple, pleasant girl, who is not too demanding'.

Contact Mayle Marriage Agency on 6219-5709 



  1. The online version of the 2004 State department Trafficking  in Persons Report can be seen at 
    Return to where you left off
  2. See also the articles Vietnamese bridesProstitution and morality.