Is law effective?

SINGAPORE - If you are planning to have sex with a prostitute, you may want to take one more step before you do so - ask for her identity card to check her identity and age.

If there's even the slightest doubt, it is better not to indulge, lawyers said.

With more than 100 men charged and some jailed for having sex with underage prostitutes, the cases should serve as reminders to others to be careful when they seek illicit sex.

While prostitution is not illegal in Singapore, a 2008 amendment made having commercial sex with a minor below the age of 18 an offence that carries a jail term of up to seven years, a fine or both.

Then Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs, Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, had told Parliament then that young people, because they were immature and vulnerable, could be exploited and should be protected from providing sexual services.

Has the law been effective so far?

Awareness

Mr Alfred Dodwell, a lawyer of 17 years, said that media publicity over the underage sex cases would have created awareness among the public.

He said: "A lot of people who were caught were ignorant and many did not know the girl was underage because the pimp said she was of age.

"But now, (with the publicity) people have no excuse. Now, they can't say they are ignorant of the law."

Mr Dodwell, who is representing a client with a similar offence, said the onus is on the clients to ensure they have not been deceived.

He said: "Even though you have been deceived, you are still liable. She's a young girl - you cannot say that she has deceived you because you are the older man."

The law was passed then to protect women and to deter human trafficking.

Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs Hri Kumar Nair said the issue of sex with underage prostitutes was a concern that needed to be addressed with a multi-pronged approach.

He said: "By making underage prostitution illegal, we target the market.

"If the law deters people from paying for sex with underage prostitutes, there will be less incentive for pimps and traffickers to force or entice young girls into the trade."

But despite the law, some men are still seeking to have paid sex with underage girls.

Lawyer Charan Singh said: "There are the rare few who do it without worrying about the consequences. So they have to face the music when they are prosecuted."

But Mr John Vasavan, a relationship counsellor for almost 30 years, thinks that it is not easy to control human trafficking unless someone reports the consenting parties.

And the very medium - the Internet - which made prostitution easier with the mushrooming of online vice rings, is also its bane.

Mr Vasavan said: "When they go online, they can get too popular and get found out. But otherwise, they will continue."

He also warned that the law has bite even if a Singaporean man pays for sex with an underage girl outside of the country.

"If I go to Thailand and have sex with a 13-year-old girl, I can still be charged in a court here," he said, noting that many men go out of country to have sex and would usually seek younger girls.

Just last week, heartbreaking and horrendous details of how a 17-year-old Chinese girl was forced into prostitution were revealed.

She was tricked, drugged, raped, turned into a sex slave and then forced to prostitute herself here by a pimp.

While she has been forced to sell herself, there are also local girls who have done it for extra pocket money.

One case in mind is the girl in the centre of the high-profile online vice ring, where 51 men have been hauled to court for paid sex with the 17-year-old.

This raises the question: Should there be a different set of laws for those who are forced into prostitution and those who do it knowingly?

Experts we spoke to resoundingly said no.

Ms Gloria James of law firm Gloria James-Civetta & Co said: "They should be charged as they are fully aware of what they are getting into.

"It is rarely or hardly heard of for a girl to be raped in Singapore and forced into prostitution.

"Most of the time, the girls know what they are getting into, and for the majority, it is the lure of easy money."

Take advantage

Criminal lawyer Edmond Pereira, who is representing an accused in the high-profile online vice ring, said that sometimes, the girls exploit the law and thus, their identity should not be concealed.

He said: "They take advantage of the issue and they lie, such as giving the wrong passport."

But the crux of this whole issue is the demand.

Said Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of the Singapore Children's Society's Youth Service Centre: "It has nothing to do with the act. The devil is in the handful of men who still find ways to deviate from the law."

Mr Pereira agreed: "The law should go hard on these people who solicit for young girls. They are like paedophiles."


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