Singapore Minor in Major Sex Scandal

A seamy scandal involving a sexy underage prostitute has become the talk of Singapore. On Monday, 44 men were charged with “commercial sex with a minor under 18,” a relatively recent law which prohibits men from engaging the services of an underage prostitute.

While the salacious allegations may seem incongruous, coming from a nation best known for its graffiti-free streets, strict laws and squeaky clean image, the story has exposed Singapore’s wild but under-reported sexual history. It is a history that by and large the government prefers to ignore publicly, instead emphasizing family tourism to its vast Sentosa complex.

However, the city-state has its raunchy side, an underworld teeming with prostitution that the police attempt to regulate carefully. The government licenses brothels such as those in the Geylang neighborhood. The nightclub-packed retail section of the Orchard Towers office building is known as “Four Floors of Whores.” There are more than 60 "escort services" listed in the Singapore telephone directory. Although Bugis Street, known during the colonial era as a promenade for transsexual hookers, has been redeveloped into an imitation of its previous self, the trade migrated to Changi Village and remains there.

While the local age of consent is 16, the age for commercial sexual transactions – prostitution is legal in Singapore -- was raised in 2007 by two additional years. The government acknowledged at the time that there was little need for the new law.

“Although there is no evidence to suggest that we have a problem with 16- and 17-year-olds engaging in commercial sex in Singapore, we decided to set the age of protection at 18 years so as to protect a higher proportion of minors,” said senior home affairs minister Ho Peng Kee on the floor of Parliament when the bill was introduced. “Young persons, because they are immature and vulnerable and can be exploited therefore, should be protected from providing sexual services.”

The young woman at the center of the controversy has been identified on Singaporean web sites as a now-19-year-old polytechnic student, Steph Thia Hwee Koon, who worked under the name Chantelle. The debate is whether she can accurately be described as vulnerable, exploited or in any way a victim.

The young woman’s actions, as described in court documents and media reports, have been ripe fodder for gossip. She charged between S$400 and S$650 (US$320 to US$520) per assignation. On Oct. 10, 2010, she met with four clients within three hours. The service’s website described her as “18 year-old. Singapore Chinese student and part time model. 1.60m tall, 48kg. Cup C. Bubbly girl. New to escort trade.”

The agency’s alleged ringleader, 39-year-old Tang Boon Thiew, was charged late last year with 34 counts of living off the earnings of prostitutes and at least one count of having sex with an underage employee, according to media reports. He reportedly paid one of his recruits S$50 (US$40) to test the quality of her services.

This week’s charges – in addition to the 44 men on Monday, four more were named Tuesday and additional prosecutions are expected -- against the johns appear to have originated when Tang or the young woman traded a diary and cell phone records to authorities in exchange for lenient treatment. There is currently no indication that the woman has been charged with a crime, an issue that rankles some of the defense lawyers.

“Who are they trying to protect?” asked defense counsel Subhas Anandan (in a televised quote which was later edited out of the state-controlled media). “As far as I’m concerned this girl doesn’t need any protection. She’s a hardcore prostitute who got so many people into trouble.”

While prosecutors originally refused to divulge the woman’s name, the Attorney-General’s Chambers announced late Wednesday that it would identify her in amended charging documents but would seek a gag order, which has since been granted , prohibiting the dissemination of her name. Two mid-level members of the ruling People’s Action Party have publicly requested that the woman not be identified, and the government press has focused its coverage on the men while largely ignoring the girl.

Meanwhile, in addition to the fresh reports identifying Steph Thia Hwee Koon as the young woman, internet postings from 2010 described her by name as engaging in underage prostitution at the rates, circumstances and time periods described by prosecutors. Photos in which her face has not been obscured and which purport to match cached copies of the now-deactivated escort site (www.theviemodels.com) have appeared on the Singaporean Internet, particularly the Eat Drink Man Woman forum of the Hardware Zone tech site. As of late Thursday night, multiple internet sites were identifying the woman and posting the alleged photos.

The men caught up in the scandal come from a broad swath of Singaporean society. The alleged patrons include a low-level PAP organizer, a school principal, a member of the Shaw Brothers motion picture family – one of Singapore’s most distinguished – as well as a police officer and a former UBS banker.

“There is no defense unless doubt can be raised about whether or not the sex took place. The burden is on the man to satisfy that she is 18 by asking for a passport or identity papers,” said Chia Boon Teck, a local attorney.

While the relevant Penal Code statute for the johns provides for criminal sanctions ranging from a fine to seven years of imprisonment, Chia said “nine months plus or minus is the benchmark we are looking at.” In the 2009 case of Tan Chye Hin v. Public Prosecutor, the Singaporean High Court affirmed a sentence of nine months, noting that “a custodial sentence should be the norm in order to sufficiently deter such behavior and to reflect the seriousness of such offenses.” A fine and no imprisonment would be appropriate when the woman was just under 18 and presented convincing forged identity documents to the customer, the court noted.

(Paul Karl Lukacs is legal affairs correspondent for Asia Sentinel.)