Engaging Sex Workers as Part of the Solution, with Protection

Anthea Indira Ong
9 min readNov 4, 2019

Parliamentary Speech, Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill, 4 Nov 2019


Mr. Speaker, I commend the Ministry for acknowledging the exploitation that women face in the sex industry with this Bill and stand in support of the Bill that introduces significantly enhanced punishments for persons who exploit women and girls, including those under 16 years old and/or with mental health conditions, for sex.

Sir, as much as I appreciate that we are protecting our vulnerable groups, I have to once again highlight the inappropriate description used. It was just last month when I brought to the attention of this House in the 2nd reading of the Income Tax Act that we still use archaic and deeply derogatory terms like ‘lunatic, idiot or insane’ to describe our differently-abled Singaporeans in our legislature. And here we are, in Section 144 of the Women’s Charter and Clause 7 of the amendments, we now call them ‘mentally defective’! Mr Speaker, unless our official narrative of a caring and inclusive Singapore is to still view our differently-abled Singaporeans in such derogatory terms and as lesser human beings which I’m sure it’s not, then I urge all Government ministries to ensure that all amendments to our laws brought to this House for readings must also be an opportunity to update all derogatory references to our vulnerable groups, even if the intent to protect them is well-meaning. I was not clear in my ask of the Finance Minister with the Income Tax Bill but I would like to be direct with my clarification with the Minister on this Bill: can the Minister please assure us that the term ‘mentally defective’ will be replaced with a more appropriate and dignified description that does not perpetuate this persistent need to label them as inferior human beings?

Two clarifications on the amendments of the Bill

Now, back to the amendments of the Bill, Mr. Speaker, notwithstanding my support for the Bill, I have two key clarifications to seek with the Minister.

First, will increasing the present penalty of $10,000 to $100,000 be enough to deter the offenders?

Second, given that the Ministry acknowledges the exploitation that happens in the sex industry with these amendments, would it be more efficient and effective for us to also engage sex workers as part of the solution by encouraging and protecting them to come forward to report on these offenders?

The impunity of agents and inadequacy of raising penalties

Sir, let me elaborate on my first clarification on the adequacy of merely enhancing punishments and the impunity of exploitative agents.

A recent report recounts a man who facilitated Thai sex workers into Singapore and required the women to submit all their income for the first 20 customers. I also learned about other examples of exploitation by agents from Project X, an NGO that was started 11 years ago by a social worker who saw how sex workers are amongst the most marginalised in our society and needed support, and The T Project, Singapore’s first and only shelter for homeless transgender women, some of whom are also sex workers.

Let me share the real story of a mother of a 2 year old boy in her early 30s to illustrate how even with the enhanced penalties, exploitative agents may still get away scot-free. I’ll call her Jasmine.

Jasmine came to Singapore to work on a 6-month visa that allows her to do “free work” at the behest of her friend. “Free work” was the agent’s way of expertly insinuating that she could do sex work anywhere in Singapore, even though the visa she had was to work as a performing artiste in a bar. She was told it would cost her $15,000 in total which she must pay over the course of 6 months. Three months later, Jasmine was arrested on the streets. At this point, she had already paid $6,900 to her agent.

Desperate, Jasmine went to Project X who helped her lodge reports with both the Police and Ministry of Manpower. The agent and the employer have ostensibly violated the Women’s Charter articles 142 on “importation of woman or girl by false pretences” and 146 on “persons living on or trading in prostitution”. Unfortunately, after multiple trips to the police station, ICA and MOM, Jasmine was deported 3 weeks later on having committed the offence of not working in her designated workplace. Meanwhile, the agent was still actively recruiting women based on the WhatsApp posts that Jasmine shared with Project X after she left Singapore.

In yet another case, a single mother with a 7 year old son in her late 20s was arrested after a tipoff. I’ll call her Rose. Rose assisted the police in every way possible. However, the agent whom she never met in person, had covered up his tracks on WhatsApp with fake/ inactive numbers. The investigation took 3 months, Rose had her passport taken away and given a Special Pass for the duration — yet the agent was not caught.

Project X alone supports about an average 8 of such exploitation cases every year for the last 3 years — and none of these cases so far saw the agents nabbed. So it begs the question if simply raising penalties will be adequate in curbing such abuse, especially for agents who know how to circumvent the law, who have intimate knowledge of the women’s families, and who leverage technology to conceal their identities.

Could the Minister please share with the House what is the number of pimps and vice-abetters prosecuted in the last 3 years versus the number of sex workers arrested? Is increasing the present penalty of $10,000 to $100,000 sufficient in deterring the offences?

The National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the US Department of Justice, released a 2016 report that pointed out that the “certainty of being caught is a vastly more powerful deterrent than the punishment”. They make a clear distinction between incapacitation and deterrence. Their evidence, which encompasses a large body of research on crime deterrence, suggests that higher penalties neither chasten already convicted criminals nor have the biggest effect on deterring potential crimes. Rather, certainty, or “the likelihood of being caught and punished”, is the major deterrent.

This means that in addition to raising penalties, we must also increase our precision in targeting and apprehending exploitative agents. To increase precision in targeting agents, the most intuitive and economic way is to enlist their victims. This makes the women under exploitative agents our most powerful ally.

Conditional immunity, exemption from blacklisting and criminal compensation

Mr Speaker, this brings me to my second clarification. The majority of women who go to Project X for support after exploitation refuse to make a police report because they fear that they will face punishment, deportation, and blacklisting. When our most efficient and effective access to exploitative agents is through the women they’ve abused, will the Minister work with the sex workers by concretising victim support as part of the solution?

Conditional immunity for sex workers specifically has been adopted in the American states of California and Utah. California’s SB-233, which was passed just this year, echoes many concerns that we have in Singapore. According to the official Senate floor analysis of SB-233, sex workers are victims of violent crime at a disproportionately high rate. Because they fear criminal charges and mistreatment with the police, they rarely report crimes done to them. The analysis further offers that the Bill (I quote) “simply prioritises…health and safety of people engaged in sex work, including human trafficking victims, over their criminalisation…for misdemeanor …when this population comes forward as victims or witnesses of specified violent crimes.” (unquote).

Mr. Speaker, I urge the Minister to consider offering these victimised women conditional immunity from charges like soliciting and conditional protection from blacklisting to join us in our fight against exploitative agents, similar in principle to the certificate of cooperation given to drug traffickers. This will not just increase the number of whistleblowers but also reinforce the Bill’s intent to protect vulnerable women and bring the offenders to justice.

Criminal compensation will further improve our precision in targeting exploitation. Women who enter into arrangements with unlicensed agents are almost always in a very low socioeconomic position and therefore desperate for work opportunities to survive and support their families. If we send them away with debt, we are implicitly pushing them to re-enter into risky business arrangements and fall prey to other dangerous agents. I seek the Minister’s clarification if we could consider working closely with the courts to arrange for criminal compensation for the exploited women. The court is obliged to actively consider whether or not to order compensation under Section 359 of the Criminal Procedure Code. I believe that the prosecution and investigation officer can invest greater effort in helping the victims understand their rights, produce evidence to guide compensation liabilities and collaborate with the courts to ensure the agents make these payments. This would increase the incentive for abused women to report their agents while also effectively protecting the interest of already-exploited victims.

Conclusion: Gender-based violence and respect for women

Mr Speaker, my recommendations may make some wonder if protecting sex workers and recognising them as victims may merely encourage more women to join the sex industry. However, experts have demonstrated that a framework that recognises the safety and welfare of sex workers elevates the safety of all women, and makes it easier for those who have been exploited to leave the sex industry. The alternative, however, is that exploitative agents and sexual predators continue to act with impunity and so more women are preyed on to join the industry. We need to see sex workers as part of the solution, including our transgender sex workers who are also sometimes victims to exploitative and abusive agents.

We still have a biased cultural attitude towards the sex industry, one that legitimises men’s (persistent) demand for sexual services but villanises the women who supply these services.

The Association of Women for Action and Research or AWARE, Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group notes that upholding women’s autonomy and agency, including that of sex workers, is crucial to respecting, protecting and fulfilling our commitment to gender equality as defined by UN Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. To this end, the CEDAW Committee has recognised sex workers as a group of women who are disproportionately affected by gendered violence, discrimination and marginalisation. CEDAW’s approach to gender equality should inform any policy to protect sex workers from exploitation. We must involve and empower sex workers as equal partners and experts in determining the solutions that work for them.

The physical, emotional and sexual violence that are systematically perpetrated against sex workers undermine gender equality. Studies have found that sexual violence is likely to occur more commonly in cultures that foster beliefs of perceived male superiority and social and cultural inferiority of women. At a time when a group like SG Nasi Lemak exists, when peeping tom/upskirting cases are on a steady rise, it is paramount that we treat all forms of gender-based violence with urgency and gravity. We should therefore be hypervigilant of the normalizing effects of impunity for exploitative agents and employers, and do all we can to prevent the disenfranchisement of sex workers.

I befriended a sex worker almost 15 years ago, let’s call her Lily. She shared with me that it was the sheer desperation of poverty back home that drove her to be a sex worker so as to feed her son and two ailing parents. Lily eventually left the sex trade after having saved enough to take courses. She is now a world-travelling and well-respected professional in the hair and beauty trade. Sex workers may be looked down upon, but it is clear that many of them have much to contribute to society and also, like us all, dream for a better life.

Not being heard as a sex worker is no reason for silence when it comes to being exploited. When we offer protection and give them a voice to be part of the solution to the problems of abuse and oppression that we are trying to solve in the sex industry, Mr Speaker, I’m sure they will come forward to say, #MeToo.

Thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng