SINGAPORE: The Government is looking to introduce new offences to tackle child abuse materials and protect minors from sexual exploitation as part of its Criminal Law Reform Bill, which had its first reading in Parliament on Monday (Feb 11).
These are in addition to a wider effort to protect the vulnerable in society, with the bill also introducing enhanced punishments for offences committed against persons with mental or physical disabilities and domestic workers, according to a joint press release by the ministries of Home Affairs and Law on the same day.
The Penal Code Review Committee (PCRC) had last August submitted 169 recommendations to amend Singapore’s Penal Code, and a key focus was to enhance protection for vulnerable victims.
Looking at children, specifically, the committee recommended that new offences be introduced that criminalise the production, distribution, advertising of child abuse material. It also asked for new offences relating to “exploitative sexual activity" with minors between 16 and below 18 years of age.
To deal with predatory conduct against children by adult offenders, it sought new offences looking at sexual communication, causing the minor to look at a sexual image or engaging in sexual activity before them.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said last September that authorities wanted to deal very severely with offenders who expose young children to unacceptable material and sexually grooming them, like in the case of Joshua Robinson. The American mixed martial arts instructor was jailed for four years in 2017 for various offences, including sex with minors and showing an obscene film to a six-year-old girl.
While proposals to protect children from sexual exploitation received “resounding support”, there was, however, mixed feedback on whether fictional child abuse material such as comics or Japanese anime should be criminalised.
“Those who did not support criminalising fictional child abuse material were of the view that the production of such material did not cause harm to actual children,” the press release said.
The Government, in turn, recognises that children are “particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and require greater protection under the law”. It accepted the committee’s recommendations to criminalise child abuse material depicting actual children, or materials featuring images which are indistinguishable from actual children.
The ministries clarified that for the latter, an offence is deemed to have been committed when the material "so closely resembles that of a human being" that an ordinary person would find it difficult to distinguish it from an actual human being.
"As such, drawings, cartoons and animation would (generally) not be included," they said in an email.
The distribution and sale of fictional child abuse material will continue to be criminalised as obscene material in the Penal Code and subject to enhanced penalties, the ministries said.
They added that the Government has decided to criminalise the possession, production, sale and distribution of child sex dolls.
TWO NEW GROUPS OF VULNERABLE VICTIMS RECOGNISED
In addition to efforts to better protect children, the PCRC had proposed to enhance punishments for offences committed against two other groups of vulnerable victims - people with mental or physical disabilities and domestic workers. Those convicted may be punished with up to twice the maximum punishments their offences warrant.
Causing the death of a vulnerable person by sustained abuse should also be an offence.
Respondents to the public consultation had agreed that enhanced protection should be accorded to the two groups, and some even suggested to add those who are abused by their spouses or intimate partners and the elderly to the list.
To these, the Government accepted the recommendations, and will also recognise two new categories of vulnerable victims: Those in a close relationship with the offender, such as the elderly, and people who are in intimate relationships.
For the first group, these could be people who are living in the same household and have frequent contact with each other. Intimate relationship was described as those who share the care and support of a child, are financially dependent on each other or share tasks and duties of daily lives.
These amendments come on the back of the Vulnerable Adults Bill passed in Parliament last May, which allows the Government to intervene to protect vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect and self-neglect.
The Criminal Law Reform Bill introduces amendments to the Penal Code to ensure it remains relevant and up to date, and the proposed changes came on the back of a two-year undertaking by the committee.
The last major review of the code was carried out in 2007.