Sex trafficking in Singapore: How changes to the law may protect women duped into prostitution


SINGAPORE: No one in her family knows of her past as a trafficked sex worker in Singapore.

Leah (not her real name) was punished at the hands of traffickers. She says she was physically abused and her phone was confiscated while being made to work long hours until she met a quota of clients for the day.

In Indonesia, Leah had marital issues with her then-husband, and she had a young son to take care of. So when a trusted friend offered her a job in Singapore working at a restaurant, she jumped at the chance for a better life.

That was a lie. Leah soon found herself being forced into sex work and held against her will in Singapore.

Traffickers like those who brought Leah to Singapore will face stiffer punishments with the amendments to the Women’s Charter – Singapore’s law to keep women and children safe – that were debated and passedin Parliament on Monday (Nov 4).

But how do you catch a criminal with no name, no face and who routinely finds ways to escape getting caught?

With the changes, someone found trafficking women or girls, or tricking them into sex work, will face a maximum jail term of up to seven years and a maximum fine of S$100,000 – a ten-fold increase from the current amount.

However, while the stiffer punishments may act as a deterrent, legal experts said there may still be challenges in bring perpetrators to justice, Ms Gloria James-Civetta, head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta & Co said.

For instance, the prosecution still needs to prove the act of trafficking occurred and that the accused knew they were bringing women in illegally, Ms James told CNA.

There were also questions raised in Parliament during Monday's session if changes to the Charter are enough. 

Can simply raising penalties curb exploitation, especially if perpetrators know how to circumvent the law, asked Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Ms Anthea Ong.

Alongside more severe punishment, women who are exploited are the "most powerful ally" who can help authorities bring abusers to task, she said. More can be done to protect those in the sex industry, Ms Ong and MP Mr Louis Ng suggested.


Women like Leah are the “perfect” targets for traffickers, according to Lynette Lim, director of development and communications in Hagar, an organisation that helps victims of human trafficking, and youths.

“Because of their inherent vulnerabilities, they are obviously a perfect prey for traffickers. They prey on them and promise them all the false job offers and a good salary.

“A lot of the time, they come from very impoverished backgrounds with at least five to seven dependents. That’s the reason why they have to look overseas for work opportunities so they can provide financially for the families back home.

“All of them who are classified as trafficked victims - they’ve all been tricked. There is a level of deception between what they were told and what the real situation really is.

“By the time they come here, it is too late for all of them. They pay lots of money to the ‘agents’ in their home countries. When they realise quickly that they are in this situation, almost all the time they no longer have the ability to say no or to come out of it,” she explained.