Singaporeans have busied themselves with two pieces of news this week. Our MRT has been breaking down in comical fashion coinciding with the ongoing inquiry. And 44 men got hauled up for doing the same girl who turns out to be underage. I don’t usually comment on such pieces of news but I have a word or two from an economic standpoint regarding this.
The Singaporean society does not view prostitution favorably. The same goes with extra marital affairs. In fact, such acts can break one’s career path (on top of family ties) if found out. But, the Singaporean law allows prostitution. It is a legal trade. The law is not complex but not straightforward as well. Anything below 16 years of age is illegal. From 16 to 18, sex is legal but must not be paid for. From 18 onwards, you can do anything you want. It would be a lot simplier if they just stuck to 18 years of age rather then create such tiers. Distortion is bad for both market forces and the law.
It is clear, that the demand for barely legal prostitutes is sky high. The prices paid as reported by various news sources were large. It is not surprising that the group of customers were mostly well off and had a relatively high social standing. So the 44 men face charges for seeking the services of an illegal prostitute.
The catch here is that she lied about her age. She was 17 at that point, a year below the legal age. Yet she claimed to be 18 to get into the trade.
This is similar to a familiar problem. An example would be stolen goods. Would you charge a buyer who paid for stolen goods not knowing that the seller had stolen them in the first? I am not a law student but this represents a significant grey portion of judicial decisions. Buyer ignorance is a problem whatever the case. Because this trade is often held in disgust by Singaporeans, we cannot apply the usual methods of ensuring clear information flows to protect buyers (the same way we do for other goods and services).
I agree with hauling these men to court on legal grounds. I am not going to discuss morals here because everyone is a little different when it comes to such and it is easier to focus on clear logical grounds. Due to the nature and scale of this case it would be prudent to hand a deterrent sentence.
As I mentioned above, ensuring proper information flows is not possible in this murky trade. Prostitutes do not want to be clearly IDed and neither do their customers. So, passing such a sentence would place the onus on the prospective buyer to do proper checks before engaging in such a transaction. Hand these men jail sentences. A fine does nothing. Most of them are sitting on massive bank accounts. If they could pay an average of $500 for a couple of hours, they can pay over $50,000 in fines without sweating it.
Make the sentence count not because we want to make them public examples for the conservative Singaporean society but because we cannot ensure proper market controls for the prostitution trade.
It is interesting that the media has hardly covered on what would happen to the girl and the pimp. As seen in many cases, demand and supply goes hand in hand. You cannot control demand without looking into supply. If you leave it that way, you get a market disequilibrium. Using demand to indirectly control supply is often slow and inefficient. Supply of illegal prostitutes must be curbed.
Hand down heavy sentences on both the pimp and the girl relative to their ages and income standings. The former must pay for not checking the validity of his workers and the later for lying to get into the trade.
It must be clearly shown to the public that illegal prostitution is not tolerated and all members are liable for it. Only by doing so would a self correcting system of checks and balances be placed on a trade that cannot be well monitored.
By making it the interest of every party involved to play safe, the judicial system would be able to solve what is a relatively grey and complex case and reduce further occurrences.