Prostitution is legal in Singapore. It may be surprising to some visitors, but there are brothels which are regulated by the Singapore government, where both local and foreign women can legally offer sexual services to paying customers. However, these sex workers must undergo regular medical check-ups and carry health cards in order to work in the sex industry.
This relatively pragmatic approach to prostitution arose because Singapore decided that legalised sex work with government supervision was safer and more desirable than an unregulated industry forced to operate underground.
However, this approach to sex work only applies to commercial sex between a male and a female; all forms of same-sex (and transgender) sex remain illegal in Singapore under section 377A of the Penal Code.
Sexual services may also be offered for sale in massage parlours and karaoke lounges, but you should be aware that these are likely to be illegal businesses, unlike the licensed brothels. Other illegal sexual activities include living on the earnings of a prostitute, running an unlicensed brothel, and soliciting for sex in public.
New ways of offering sex for money illegally appear all the time in Singapore, despite the efforts of the law, which tries to protect minors and discourage criminal enterprise. Social media and the internet are both increasingly used to run illegal activities, leading to the introduction of section 146A of the Women’s Charter. This outlawed prostitution carried on online or via social media. However, as is often the case, some sex workers circumvent this law by hosting their websites outside of Singapore.
Below are some of the issues and regulations which affect the sex trade in Singapore.
Pimping and managing a brothel
Living on the earnings of a prostitute is known as pimping, and is illegal in Singapore. Along with managing a brothel, these activities are covered in the Women’s Charter, Part XI.
Section 372 of the Penal Code also provides punishment for pimps, if they sell minors for prostitution (defined as anyone under the age of 21 years).
There have been several high-profile cases in recent years involving prostitution. In 2012, a pimp who lived off the substantial earnings of his 17 sex workers (one of whom was a minor) was jailed for 58 months and fined $90,000. It was discovered that one escort was only 17 years of age, (she was advertised as being 18 years old), though the pimp had discovered her real age soon after she began working for him.
In 2016, there was the case of former owner of a social escort agency who lived off earnings from prostitutes, made obscene films, and had sex with underage prostitutes and minors (some as young as 15). He was sentenced to seven years in jail and fined $130,000.
Restrictions on soliciting for sex
Selling sex in public is outlawed by section 19 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. The law states that anyone who persistently loiters or solicits in a public road or place, for the purposes of prostitution, is guilty of an offence. The maximum fine for a first-time offender is $1,000, whereas a second or subsequent conviction may result in a maximum fine of $2,000 and/or a jail term of up to 6 months.
Selling sexual services in public, even in a red-light district, can be prosecuted under section 294(a) of the Penal Code which bans any obscene act in any public place. This can result in up to 3 months in prison and or a monetary fine.
Anyone found to be operating an unlicensed brothel, or who knowingly lives off the earnings of a prostitute, may be fined up to $10,000 and sent to prison for up to 5 years.
Paying for underage sex
Some of the most infamous headlines in Singapore have arisen through underage prostitution. In 2012, 48 men were prosecuted in an online prostitution scandal, involving high-profile civil servants and businessmen. These included the tycoon Howard Shaw, of the cinema and property empire Shaw Organisation.
Other cases have involved teachers and even policemen who were charged with paying for sex with underage prostitutes. According to the Penal Code (sections 376A and 376B), it is illegal to have sex with a girl younger than 16 years of age, or to have commercial sex with someone younger than 18 years—even if she consented to the act.
Any resident of citizen of Singapore who has commercial sex with someone less than 18 years old, will be liable for that act even if it was committed outside of Singapore (see section 376C of the Penal Code).
Is ignorance or mistake a defence to paying for sex with a minor?
Neither ignorance nor mistake is a defence in law. Offenders older than 21 years cannot claim they thought the person was of legal age, according to section 377D of the Penal Code. There was a case in 2015 of a man in his 50s who had sex with an underage prostitute, believing she was 19 years old. He was jailed for 9 weeks.
There is only one exception; if the offender is below the age of 21 years, they may rely on the defence that they thought the person was of legal age. This can only apply if the offender has not committed similar offences in the past, and providing that the victim involved is of the opposite sex to them.
Promoting sex work online
It is illegal to solicit for sex work or promote a brothel online. According to the 2016 amendments in section 146A of the Women’s Charter, operating a ‘remote communication service’ (e.g. a website) that offers sexual services from a woman/girl in return for payment, or manages such a service, is an offence. Regardless of occupation, any person operating a site like this will risk a fine and/imprisonment, under section 146A.
The Singapore government has recognised the threat that the internet and social media pose when they allow people anonymity to promote the sexual services industry, and made the 2016 amendments to combat this threat. They give more power to the police, in effect, to address online vice, as set out above. The police can also now take action against anyone who aids (or will aid) the prostitution of another person by setting up a website in exchange for ‘gratification’. Section 146 (1A) makes it clear that anyone operating a website or setting up a site for someone else for these purposes is liable for a $10,000 fine and/or 5 years in jail.
They define ‘gratification’ as:
- Any payment, discharge, liquidation or release of any obligation, loan or other liability, whether in whole or in part;
- Any office, contract or employment;
- Any money, loan, fee, gift, reward, security, commission, property or interest in property, whether moveable or immovable;
- Any other advantage, favour or service whatsoever.
Police have also made clear that they will enforce the law against online vice activity and that homeowners should make sure tenants do not use their units for the purposes of vice activities.
Is anything truly legal when it comes to prostitution in Singapore?
Currently, the only people operating within the law are those sex workers in licensed brothels. All other forms of activity are most probably illegal, and may be the subject of raids and prosecutions.