In 1999, Wong Kan Seng (the then Minister for Home Affairs) was asked about Singapore’s approach to prostitution in Parliament by J. B. Jeyaretnam (a famous opposition figure)
Wong replied that:
Governments around the world and through the ages have tried to eradicate prostitution, but none had succeeded. Criminalising prostitution will only drive such activities underground, resulting in crime syndicates taking control over such activities.
The Ministry of Home Affairs therefore has taken a pragmatic approach of recognising that the problem cannot be totally suppressed or wished away. Our approach is therefore to contain the situation, particularly through continuing enforcement against prostitutes and pimps who solicit in public.
In practical terms, this takes the form of sanctioned brothels, pimps and prostitutes in designated red light districts () despite brothels and pimping being technically illegal.
Meanwhile, non-sanctioned ones are cracked down on; for example, while prostitution per se is not illegal, “foreign sex workers and pimps are deemed to be “prohibited immigrants” and may be removed from Singapore (s 31 of the Immigration Act” (); while it's not illegal to be a prostitute, foreigners don't have work permits to work as prostitutes (unless they're one of the licensed ones).
As for pornography, it is targeted by laws such as the Penal Code, the Films Act and the Undesirable Publications Act, where “obscene” materials are those deemed “to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely . to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it”. It is noteworthy that even in 1998, 3 decades after the latter bill was first passed, these were maintained as public policy goals despite it being pointed out that texts like D.H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, formerly targeted by similar laws, are now the subject of school examinations sat by 16 year olds
The distinction between pornography and prostitution, then, was presumably made because those who visit prostitutes are considered to already be depraved and/or corrupt, whereas pornography has the potential to corrupt the hitherto pure, and thus degrade the societal fabric. Given that prostitution is confined to certain designated red light areas, whereas pornography is portable, there is a certain logic to this.
Like with most other facets of life, the internet has disrupted the on-the-ground realities and legal framework around both pornography and prostitution, with everyone potentially being able to carry pornography around with them in their phones and online ads for prostitution (it’s not soliciting in public if a client contacts you after seeing your ad).
With pornography the government seems to given up on what is available online, with a “practical light-touch approach to regulating the Internet”, with only 100 websites (most of which seem to be pornographic - see) blocked.
Indeed, the most frequently asked question at the government censorship agency’s website () is “Is accessing pornography on the Internet illegal?”, to which the answer is “The IMDA does not monitor or track users' access to any sites on the Internet and does not interfere with what individuals access in the privacy of their homes. We are primarily concerned with the purveyors and distributors of pornography. Unless you engage in such activities, the mere act of visiting such sites is not an offence.”
Yet, physical pornography is still frowned upon - merely possessing it can get you fined (). This is kind of schizophrenic given the IMDA’s stance - the digital-physical distinction is problematic (Is there a big difference between pornography on your computer and that on DVDs, given that both are stored in the form of 1s and 0s? If downloading pornography is obscene what about your browser cache after you visit a pornographic website?)
As for prostitution, despite attempts to amend the laws (e.g. the 2016 Women’s Charter amendment to criminalise "Remote communication service[s] operated or maintained for offering or facilitating provision of sexual services, etc.", i.e. websites which facilitate prostitution), it is simply impossible to stamp out unlicensed prostitution - it is just too lucrative. For example, in 5 years Chew Tiong Wei made recorded almost $2.6 million in revenue and made a profit of about $1 million (). As an industry insider notes, “You chop off one syndicate head, seven others will appear. It's easy money that nobody would want to miss out on” ( ).
Containing Commercial Sex to Designated Red Light Areas: An idea past its prime?