Tackling vice in housing estates: Residents welcome new laws
Residents welcome new laws even as some seek clarity on property agents' role.
Odd-job labourer Pochan Sekaran's new neighbours were no trouble: They were quiet, "private" folk who preferred not to socialise with others in the block, so revelations that the flat was a vice den came as a shock, to say the least.
"Nobody even knew what was going on. They made no noise, there was nothing at all until the arrest," said Mr Pochan, 62.
And even though he lived right next door, Mr Pochan could not pinpoint who his actual neighbours were as he saw different people walking in and out of the unit.
The shocking truth came last month when the police raided the Woodlands Housing Board flat and arrested two women for vice.
The growing problem of prostitution in residential estates is back in the spotlight after amendments to the Women's Charter were passed in Parliament earlier this month.
The changes further empower the authorities to act against errant and negligent home owners and tenants who allow vice in their homes. Penalties for vice-related offences have been increased as well.
The amendments also extend the arm of the law to penalise syndicates operating communication services overseas that offer women and girls for sexual services here.
Residents, observers and experts approved of the changes even as some raised concerns about the efficacy of the new laws and who should bear the legal responsibility of ensuring a vice-free home.
WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY IS IT?
Around 70 per cent of foreign women arrested for online vice between 2015 and last year were operating in residential estates, with 47 per cent of this group found in HDB estates.
The remaining 53 per cent were caught in private estates, a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) spokesman told The Straits Times last week.
Under the new law, home owners and tenants could be held criminally liable if they do not show that they have exercised reasonable diligence to ensure that their flats are not rented or sublet for use as brothels.
This means they should run identity checks, or engage an agent to conduct interviews on their behalf.
But it has been noted that many home owners take a backseat when tenants are picked for a flat.
A home owner, Madam Low, a 70-year-old retired clerk, said property agents should shoulder more responsibilities as they often handle all rental matters on behalf of the owner.
"Since the agents are out there, they should know how to handle this, and ask the right questions to see what type of people the tenants are," said Madam Low, declining to give her first name.
Property agents also want more clarification on their role in eradicating vice.
The amendments do not specifically target negligent property agents who help lease properties used as brothels, unlike home owners and tenants. But agents must conduct identity checks on those on the lease or risk regulatory action by the Council for Estate Agencies under the Estate Agents Act.
MHA said it is working with the council to provide guidelines to the industry.
Mr Wong Cheong Hong, chief executive of the Singapore Estate Agents Association, said guidelines are needed to clearly spell out what a property agent's duty is, and how he should fulfil it.
For example, agents and others would benefit from a checklist of telltale signs of vice activities, he said. If landlords do not wish to see their tenants during the house viewing - as is the case with some landlords now - this must be explicitly stated in a contract if they want to engage the agents, he added.
This would help in the event of a dispute where it could boil down to a "landlord's words against an agent's words", said Mr Wong.
But there is a limit to what property agents can do to prevent vice, given that their legal liabilities end when a lease is signed.
Mr Wong said: "You've got to get the involvement of the whole neighbourhood, like the private property guards who can also monitor these things, like if there are irregular visitors."
Mr Chan Kok Hong, president of the Association of Strata Managers, said there have been many instances where vice activities have been reported in private properties.
Management corporations (MC) would monitor the situation and inform the authorities if necessary, he added.
But there is also a limit to what they can do, as the units are the matter of a "private contract between two parties", and MCs have no right to repossess a unit, he added.
So profiteering landlords who choose to ignore the rules can continue renting out properties for vice, said experts.
On the contrary, the HDB can intervene and repossess a flat if it finds that it has been misused for non-residential purposes like vice.
HDB records show that no home owners have been convicted of vice activities in their flats, said an HDB spokesman, noting that errant tenants cannot rent an HDB flat for five years.
The MHA spokesman also said that the police can apply to confiscate the "monetary value of the property", if it was financed by the proceeds of crime.
There is also concern about how well the new laws will work.
For example, while the authorities' powers have been extended to ensnare syndicates operating remote communication services from overseas, there are several operational issues to be dealt with.
Lawyer K.K. Lim, head of cyber-security, privacy and data protection at law firm Eversheds Harry Elias, said traceability and attribution of these sites are two major issues. Technology, such as virtual private networks, could make it difficult for the authorities to trace the writer's origin, he added.
And even if they manage to trace it to a specific source, the source may not be responsible for wrongdoing, as errant users may "spoof" these sources by using someone else's credentials.
Mr Lim said: "The law is more of a deterrent, but whether you can actually prosecute someone located in another jurisdiction is something else."
Estimated percentage of foreign women arrested for online vice between 2015 and last year who were operating in residential estates.
Percentage of those above found in HDB estates.?
Remaining percentage of women who were caught in private estates, according to a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman.
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.