In Singapore, an online analysis (updated on 1st September 2018) revealed that pornography streaming sites were the 5th 11th, 12nd and 13th most visited sites, even ranking above popular sites Instagram and Whatsapp. But exactly how legal is it to access these sites? This article will examine the general legality of pornography in Singapore.
What is considered Pornography?
Obscene images are images (whether moving or still) meant to sexually arouse, usually containing nudity, sexual images or sexual acts. Media, films, books or any digital files that contain these are considered pornographic material.
Are there laws in Singapore meant to criminalise pornography users?
Yes. The Films Act, Undesirable Publications Act and the Penal Code have provisions making it illegal to make, keep, distribute, or sell pornographic material.
First, let’s look at the laws surrounding pornographic films in Singapore.
Section 29 of the Films Act governs the offence of dealings in obscene films. This is applicable to those attempting to profit from or spread obscene films to others.
The illegal acts and punishments prescribed are as follows:
|Making or reproducing an obscene film for exhibition or distribution.||Fine of up to $40,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 2 years.|
|Importing obscene films for exhibition or distribution.||Fine of up to $40,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 12 months.|
|Distribution or possession for the purposes of distribution.||Fine of up to $80,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 2 years.|
|Exhibition or possession for the purposes of exhibiting them.||Fine of up to $40,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 2 years.|
Section 30 of the Films Act governs the possession of obscene films. This is applicable to those who keep physical or digital pornographic videos or images in any device or storage devices.
|Possession of obscene films, physical or digital.||Fine of up to $40,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 12 months.|
|Possession of obscene films knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that they are obscene films.||Fine of up to $80,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 2 years.|
So, what happens when one is caught with pornography?
- Obscene films for personal use
If caught with a small number of films are purely for personal use, a small fine will usually be imposed instead of imprisonment. It also helps if the accused is a first-time offender, and the accused pleads guilty to the offence.
The courts do not appear to be too concerned with possession of pornography for personal use, but if one is found in possession of a large number of films, one would still be fined accordingly. In the case of PP v. Chandran s/o Natesan, the accused was found with 291 pornographic films on his Dell laptop. The judge did not think these were ‘serious offences’, but he was still fined $20,000 accordingly.
That being said, in most cases, these individuals who were caught with, and charged for possession of pornography, were actually being investigated for other charges unrelated to pornography. It appears the courts are not too unduly concerned with tracking down individuals who have downloaded or purchased copies of pornographic material. However, if one is found to possess such pornographic material, the courts will impose a sentence accordingly, so it is recommended that one refrain from downloading and keeping pornographic material.
- Obscene photos or footages of others taken without consent (spycams etc)
Possession of obscene films becomes problematic when they involve violating the privacy of others, such as obscene footage of other people, taken without consent. The accused in PP v. Chong Hou En was found with 10.574 obscene films on his computer and hard drive. These films mainly contained up skirt videos he had filmed in public, as well as films from the digital camera he planted in the bathroom of his girlfriend’s home to record her family members (her young nieces, her sister-in-law and her older sister) showering. The court considered the nature of his crime and found a fine inadequate here as a very large number of video clips was involved and imprisoned him to 4 weeks accordingly.
This offence is becoming more common nowadays as there are several reported decisions involving accused persons taking voyeur videos or photos of the opposite sex and keeping on their mobile devices or even distributing it too. Obviously, both offences are serious and would carry imprisonment terms but the number of photos or videos taken together with the duration would impact the severity of the sentence.
- Obscene footages meant for commercial distribution
If possession is for a commercial purpose, the courts will be a lot more stringent, and a jail term is more likely to be imposed. Although this would still depend on the number of films involved and other circumstances.
In PP v. Yang Qiuyu, the accused was selling a large number of obscene DVDs, but the court noted that the accused did not blatantly display her DVDs, but instead hid them in a haversack, hence she was only fined. Only in PP v. Er Sok Tin was there a jail term of 12 months imposed, as the accused was in possession of 714 obscene films and selling them openly at Katong Shopping Centre.
For sale of physical copies of pornography, the public prosecutor will also try to slot in a charge under s 21(1)(a) of the Films Act for having no valid certification to approve the exhibition of the films. This adds to the severity of the punishment where sale of pornographic material is concerned.
In the situation where anyone sells pornographic material of any form, the public prosecutor may not be lenient if it involves young children but even if it does not involve young children, it depends on the nature of the offence and the frequency of the sale too. Basically, it is wrong to sell but the longer the act is done, the harsher the punishment.
Section 12 of the Undesirable Publications Act as well as section 292 of the Penal code restricts the import, sale and circulation of obscene publications, and books respectively. For the purposes of these sections, ‘publications and books’ include (not exhaustive) magazines, photos, obscene data stored in computer discs, books, pamphlets, paintings, representation or any other obscene objects.
The punishment attached to the sections are as follows:
- Section 12 of the Undesirable Publications Act carries with it a punishment of up to $5000, and/or imprisonment of up to 12 months.
- Section 292 of the penal code carries with it a sentence of up to 3 months of imprisonment, and/or a fine.
It appears that section 292 of the penal code is more commonly used to prosecute individuals found in possession of obscene materials than the Undesirable Publications Act (‘UPA’). That being said, the UPA is not without its own power as it currently maintains a list of banned publications, including Playboy magazine.
Also, in PP v. Er Sok Tin¸ the accused was charged under s 292 for being in possession of 713 compact video discs that had inlays containing obscene pictures for the purposes of distribution. This means that someone selling discs containing obscene films will not only get charged for possession of these films, but also possession of the inlays that come with the discs. Similarly, in PP v. Ling Ah Poi alias Chen Yi Chai, the accused was found with 665 obscene discs that contained obscene inlays. These inlays were considered obscene papers, which was found to be an offence under section 292 and the accused was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment accordingly.
- In a recent decision of Public Prosecutor v GCI  SGDC 137 delivered on 15 May 2018, the Accused person was given 3 months’ imprisonment for possession of child pornography materials contrary to Section 292(1)(a) of the Penal Code. This case involved the Accused person transmitting, by electronic means, five obscene photographs showing the vagina of his daughter, thereby committing an offence under s 292(1)(a) of the Penal Code, which carries a maximum penalty of up to three months’ imprisonment and/or fine.
So, is it illegal to access pornography on the internet?
The quick answer to this is no, the mere act of visiting these sites is not an offence. The IMDA does not monitor or track users’ access to any sites on the internet, as the primary concern with pornography are sellers and distributors of pornography.
The MDA does keep a symbolic ban on a list of 100 websites (most of them being pornographic in nature), but most of the banned sites contain harmful content like paedophilia and child pornography. The ban has been said to be ‘symbolic’ as it is only intended to communicate the government’s and society’s disapproval of pornography, and to prevent young children from accidentally accessing these sites. Internet users have since found effective software and programs to sidestep these bans.
So, there it is, viewing pornography is not illegal, but one should definitely be cautious with downloading or buying any physical copies of such material.
 For more information: see S 29 and S 30 of the Films Act
 For more information: see S 12 of the Undesirable Publications Act
 For more information: see S 292 of the Penal Code
 PP v. Chandran s/o Natesan  SGDC 33 PP v. Ling Ah Poi alias Chen Yi Chai  SGDC 265lling
 PP v. Chong Hou En  SGHC 69
 PP v. Yang Qiuyu  SGDC 51
 PP v. Er Sok Tin  SGDC 22
 PP v. Er Sok Tin  SGDC 22
 PP v. Ling Ah Poi alias Chen Yi Chai  SGDC 265
Have a question or need legal advice?
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This article is written by Pratap Kishan from Ho Wong Law Practice and edited by Jen from Asia Law Network.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.