Stricter laws, penalties to curb rising trend of vice in heartland

Landlords required to do due diligence, will be criminally liable if homes used as brothels

In early 2018, property agent Vincent Jiang helped a home owner rent her flat near Tiong Bahru to a man who claimed to be an employer seeking accommodation for workers of his painting company.

The prospective tenant provided his Singapore identity card (IC) along with pictures of the ICs of his three employees who would be occupying the flat. The trio were Singaporean men in their 50s.

The tenancy agreement was signed, but four months later, a neighbour complained to the landlord that men were continually streaming into the unit.

The landlord and Mr Jiang fixed a date with the tenants to check on the unit, but when they arrived, nothing seemed amiss.

When the neighbour complained again, the landlord did a surprise check and found five women who spoke a foreign language in the flat. The three men were nowhere to be seen. Shocked, she sent the women packing. Her tenants, who had been paying rent regularly, were uncontactable.

Mr Jiang told The Straits Times yesterday that he and the landlord suspected the flat had been used for vice activities.

The episode was a close call for the landlord, as under harsher laws that took effect yesterday, she could have been fined and even jailed had she not checked on and evicted her tenants.

The authorities hope home owners will help to ensure their homes are not being used as brothels.

Under the new laws, home owners or tenants who rent or sublet their premises for use as a brothel are criminally liable, unless they can show they had no knowledge and could not have, with reasonable diligence, ascertained the place was to be used for such a purpose.

Landlords are required to exercise "reasonable diligence" by doing identity checks of prospective tenants or sub-tenants through face-to-face interviews.

If they are overseas, they should engage an agent to conduct interviews on their behalf, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Thursday. MHA also said it is partnering the Council for Estate Agencies, property agencies and agents to assist and advise property owners and tenants on conducting due-diligence checks.

 
 
 

Property agent M. Dhaneswery said most landlords would not turn up unannounced at their rented flats, unless there is an emergency.

"As for agents, it is definitely not practical to be visiting so many units periodically," she added.

The new stricter laws and stiffer penalties were put in place to stem the rising trend of vice in the heartland of Singapore. Said MHA: "The changes to the Women's Charter strengthen the laws against online vice, and enhance the police's levers against vice syndicates. These changes will help to stem an increasing trend of vice in the heartland."

The Women's Charter amendments, passed in Parliament on Nov 4 last year, were prompted by a rising trend of women arrested for vice being involved in online syndicates as well.

Official figures show that in 2015, 16 per cent of women nabbed for vice were involved with online syndicates. It rose to 55 per cent in 2018.

Also, from 2015 to 2018, seven in 10 foreign women arrested for advertising their services online were providing sexual services in residential estates.

 
 

To tackle the rising trend of online vice activities, the authorities can now take more decisive action against those who use remote communication services to offer sexual services in Singapore, even if the websites used are hosted overseas.

With the enhanced penalties, the maximum jail term for prostitution-related crimes is five years for first-time offenders, up from three years. For repeat offenders, the maximum is seven years, up from five.

For more severe offences, first-time offenders could be jailed for up to seven years, while the maximum for repeat offenders remains at 10 years. For fines, the maximum fine for a first offence has been raised to $100,000, and increased to $150,000 for repeat offenders.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2020, with the headline 'Stricter laws, penalties to curb rising trend of vice in heartland'. Print Edition | Subscribe