As published in the Straits Times Opinion pages on 21 October 2013, by John Gee.

Why S’pore needs anti-trafficking laws

District Judge Low Wee Ping was very forthright in his comments on Sept 12 when he sentenced four men who had sexual relations with a 17-year-old girl.

“What you and similar offenders have participated in is in this horrendous trade of trafficking in a minor,” he said.

The details of the case: how the girl concerned was tricked about the nature of her future employment, raped, beaten when she resisted, forcibly confined and then compelled to provide paid sex left no doubt that the judge was right: this was a case of trafficking.

It may therefore have struck detached observers as a little strange that Tang Huisheng, the pimp who abused and exploited this minor so outrageously, was convicted of four offences on Oct 10, none of which was trafficking.

He had been tried on six charges – five concerned offences under the Women’s Charter and one was under the Penal Code.

Not one was a specific charge of trafficking, although Article 141 of the Women’s Charter, headed Traffic in Women and Girls, appears to have been applicable.

This inconsistency is due to the inadequacy of Singapore’s laws in dealing with trafficking.

Most of the articles of the Penal Code from 363 to 374 are directed against offences that occur within the process of trafficking. These include physical coercion and constraint of individuals by perpetrators, kidnapping, abduction, enslavement, and buying and selling of minors for the purpose of prostitution.

But the Penal Code does not set these offences within the framework of trafficking. This is probably because the issue was

under-recognised internationally when the Penal Code was originally framed.

On the face of it, the specific reference to trafficking in the Women’s Charter plugs this gap. But it appears in the context of Part XI, Offences Against Women and Girls. This section is concerned above all with offences connected to prostitution.

Trafficking does not appear as a serious offence in its own right.

Instead, a series of coercive practices directed at the exploitation of the labour of controlled individuals (often, but not predominantly in the form of work in the sex industry) is listed.

Justice would have been better served if the full gravity of the crime of trafficking could have been acknowledged. But this was not in the hands of those conducting the trial.

Ensuring that this will be possible in any similar cases in the future would require either substantial amendments to existing laws or, better, the passing of a specific anti-trafficking Act creating a full legal framework for tackling the crime.

Such a law should provide both for the punishment of anyone who traffics in others as well as anyone who colludes in or facilitates the process.

It should also have a victim-centred approach, offering protection and support to those who are trafficked.

Women and girls trafficked into sexual exploitation in particular need refuge, counselling, and assistance to restart their lives in safety.

The law would also have to adopt a clear definition of trafficking. This is lacking in the existing legislation and has become a serious impediment to dealing with the offence.

It is hoped that a draft Bill will be one outcome of the work of Singapore’s Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons. Set up in 2010, this taskforce is due to complete its legislative review this year.

John Gee, a freelance writer, has worked on anti-trafficking issues with the non-profit group Transient Workers Count Too since 2007.