A news report caught my eye last month. It told of two guys fined for running a prostitution business involving Thai women.
A man and his accomplice collected nearly $12,600 in less than two months from the small stable of prostitutes they managed until they were busted.
Alan Heng Wei Kuang, 26, was arrested in his Yishun flat on Feb 8 following a tip-off.
He was fined $17,000 yesterday.
He pleaded guilty to managing a brothel, living off the earnings of prostitutes and abetting Low Yinn Loong, 23, in receiving a Thai prostitute at Changi Airport on Jan 1.
The court heard that in late 2009, Heng, then jobless, got a Thai contact to arrange for prostitutes to come here.
To attract customers, the Singaporean uploaded pictures of the women and advertised their services online.
By last December, business was brisk enough for him to need an accomplice. He hired Low for $50 a day.
On his instructions, Low would pick the prostitutes up at the airport, check them into hotels and collect payment for their services.
Between Jan 1 and Feb 8, the duo had three Thai women aged between 26 and 29 operating in rooms in Hotel Grand Chancellor in Little India.
Investigations showed that Low collected $12,590 from them during this period. After paying himself, he gave the rest to Heng, who spent it on his personal expenses.
Defence counsel Mervyn Tan told the court his client would not run foul of the law again. Heng, who now runs a cellphone business, married a Thai in March and the couple are expecting a child.
The judge took into consideration another three charges against Heng – one for abetment in receiving a prostitute at the airport on Jan 19, and two for living off the earnings of a prostitute.
He could have been jailed up to five years on each of the three charges to which he pleaded guilty.
The maximum fine for receiving a woman for the purposes of prostitution and living off immoral earnings is $10,000; for managing a brothel, the maximum fine is $3,000.
Low was fined $16,000 last month.
— Straits Times, 27 July 2011, Jul 27, 2011, Man fined $17k for running vice ring, by Khushwant Singh
In complete contrast to the fate of these two, an old report from the Straits Times told of another pimp, Tan Keng Soon, jailed four years:
A 46-year-old man who ran a vice den for male prostitutes was jailed four years yesterday for abetting four Malaysians to commit acts of gross indecency.
This is the third time Tan Keng Soon had committed such offenses.
Yesterday, he pleaded guilty to eight counts of abetting the four, aged between 16 and 23, to provide sexual services such as oral sex and masturbation to male clients.
He charged the clients $100 each between April 24 and 29.
Anti-Vice officers raided Century Hotel in Geylang on April 30 and arrested eight Malaysians along with Tan, also known as S-B-K or Alvin, and a 46-year-old customer.
Between April 24 and 30, Tan gave free food and lodging to the Malaysian prostitutes, who provided services at either an unknown apartment or at two Geylang hotels: Century Hotel and Happy Star Hotel. He collected $50 from the prostitutes for each introduction.
Tan had been jailed two months in September 1996 and 16 months in July 1997 for similar offenses. Pleading for leniency, the father of two said he was a bankrupt and a divorcee.
He was sentenced to 12 months’ jail on each of the eight counts, with four sentences running consecutively.
— Straits Times, 8 May 1999, Jail for man who ran den for male whores
There are key differences between the two cases. Tan Keng Soon was appearing before the a court for the third time whereas Heng and Low were likely committing their first offences. Even so, you would have noticed that Tan got two months’ imprisonment for his first office, in 1996.
Would a fine of $17,000 (as in Alan Heng’s case) be equivalent to two months’ jail? I don’t think so. For example, if you recall the article by Alan Shadrake, when he could not pay his fine of S$20,000, he was given two weeks’ additional jail time in lieu. So, clearly, comparing first first offence with first offence, Tan got the significantly heavier sentence.
This leads us to the other key difference. Tan managed a stable of male sex workers, while Heng and Low had female sex workers. As a result, despite operating similar businesses, they were charged under different laws. In Tan’s case, he was charged under Section 377A of the Penal Code for abetting gross indecency between men. Section 377A mandates a prison term; there is no option for imposing a fine.
It is not entirely clear from the Straits Times’ report which laws Heng and Low were charged under. In Heng’s case, there were apparently two charges: The first, from the phrase “pleaded guilty to managing a brothel”, appears to be Section 148 (1) of the Women’s Charter, which says:
148. —(1) Any person who keeps, manages or assists in the management of a brothel shall be guilty of an offence under this section.
This is followed by Section 148 (5):
(5) Any person who is guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $3,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both and, in the case of a second or subsequent conviction, to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or to both. (Emphasis mine)
The second charge, going by the press report, seems to be for “receiving a woman for the purposes of prostitution and living off immoral earnings”. While it is not entirely clear which part of the Women’s Charter this might be, it is probably either:
140 (1) Any person who —
(d) brings into Singapore, receives or harbours any woman or girl knowing or having reason to believe that she has been procured for the purpose of having carnal connection except by way of marriage with any male person or for the purpose of prostitution either within or without Singapore and with intent to aid such purpose;
146 (1) Any person who knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of the prostitution of another person shall be guilty of an offence . . .
Yet, here’s the strange thing: With respect to sentences, both 140 (1) and 146 (1) say:
. . . shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years and shall also be liable to a fine not exceeding $10,000. (Emphasis mine)
A plain reading of the law indicates that imprisonment is not optional. Like in Section 377A, jail time is mandatory, in which case, how did the court impose only a fine without imprisonment? Why didn’t the prosecutor object?
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In the article Ego hurt more grievous than grievous hurt, I raised the issue of parity in sentencing, pointing out the practice of only narrowly comparing sentences for similar offences under the same law. We seem never to undertake an exercise in moral comparability across different kinds of offences. This led to the absurdity, as discussed in that earlier article, of a more lenient sentence for someone attacking another with a broken beer bottle and a heavier sentence for another person mounting a peaceful one-man protest.
We see a similar problem in these pimping cases, except that here we have persons accused of running very similar businesses, albeit that one had female sex workers and the other male sex workers. Yet they were charged under different laws, with different scales of penalties. Each relied on precedents specific to itself; each case becomes precedential to future cases, again specific to itself. Continuing like this, penalties for running male brothels will never be compared against penalties for running female brothels.
Once again, moral comparability is ignored.
Is this the best justice system we can think of?
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On a technical level, the problem originates from the fact that our laws are gender-specific. Section 377A refers only to men; it is not applicable to any situation where females come into the equation. Sections 140, 146 and 148 of the Women’s Charter refer only to females as direct providers of sexual services; they do not provide for the possibility that males too can provide prostitution services — in fact, a point I often make is that it is perfectly legal for pimps to provide male prostitutes to women.
Solving the problem is simple: Make all laws gender-neutral. But that apparently is a bridge too far for Singapore. Our government and society is deeply wedded to old-fashioned social ideas. Male superiority and homophobia remain very current, as do racial bias and archaic expectations of deference to authority.
It’s time to make changes to laws, and I don’t mean just making them gender-neutral. I think these offences should be swept away. To start with why should pimping be illegal? So long as the sex worker is adult, trading out of choice and willingly wanting a brothel as a safe space and/or a pimp to market his or her services — the same way we engage property agents, employment agencies or insurance brokers to make deals for us — what’s the big deal?