Prostitution in Malaysia

What is the legal position of prostitution in Malaysia?

There is no law within the Malaysian Penal Code which states that prostitution is illegal. People are not committing a crime under the Penal Code by being a prostitute unless they are Muslim. Sharia Law applies to Muslims, and Section 28 criminalises the act of women engaging in prostitution.

Although prostitution is not illegal under the Penal Code, certain and often unavoidable acts which are a natural consequence of being a prostitute are illegal. Acts such as living on the profits made from someone who is a prostitute, and soliciting, or persistently approaching people for the purpose of prostitution is also illegal.

People who exploit prostitutes (referred to as pimps) are prohibited from profiting from sex workers.

Any person who carries out one or more of these acts would be committing a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment, fines, and whipping.

How is the law aimed at preventing prostitution in Malaysia?

There are a number of laws within the Penal Code of Malaysia that aim to prevent prostitution. This article will take each, in turn, to illustrate how they operate.

Section 372: Exploiting any person for purposes of prostitution.

This provision encompasses all aspects of exploitation for the purposes of prostitution. The section operates to penalise the trading of people. This includes buying, selling, hiring, or swapping individuals for the purpose of prostitution.

This section also aims to prevent and deal with trafficking, hiding, or restraining (imprisoning or forcing them to stay against their will) for the purposes of prostitution.

So, pimps and organised gangs who smuggle people for the purpose of facilitating or forcing them into prostitution would be committing a criminal offence. This is punishable by imprisonment for up to fifteen years, whippings, and fines.

The law extends to those within any organisation. This includes those ‘on watch’ outside of an illegal brothel or scouting the local area for police or customers.

Pimps and organised gangs are also prohibited from advertising sexual services. It does not matter what form the advertisement is in. If a reasonable man or bystander would know that the advertisement was for prostitution, the advertisement would be caught.

This law also applies to people who are seeking information for the purpose of prostitution:

Section 372A: Persons living on or trading in prostitution.

Section 372A: catches those who ‘knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of the prostitution of another person.’

This targets pimps, middlemen, and gangs living off an income which derives from the prostitution of another person.

This law may even catch an impoverished family. For example, a woman may resort to prostitution to provide for sick or hunger-stricken relatives. The relatives may be caught by this. It’s important to note that they must ‘knowingly’ live off the earnings.

So, if the family is unaware, then they are seemingly in the clear from being caught under this law.

A person convicted for living off the earnings of a prostitute could be liable for a maximum of 15 years imprisonment and a fine.

Section 372B: Soliciting for the purpose of prostitution: This catches those who solicit or importunes for the purposes of prostitution or any immoral purpose in any place. If caught by this section, you could face imprisonment for up to a year, or a fine, or both.

This means that a prostitute cannot ‘offer’ themselves to you. They cannot approach you or advertise themselves offering sexual services. But prostitutes can provide sexual services in return for money. The question is, can you have one without the other?

This section may apply to you as an individual if you are seeking out prostitutes. Although, it is unclear whether Malaysia’s legal system considers the definition of solicitation to include those who look for prostitutes.

However, we can look at the Oxford Dictionary, which defines solicitation.

It is defined as either the act of asking for or trying to obtain something from someone. Or the act of accosting someone and offering your own or someone else’s services as a prostitute. The likelihood is that a person seeking out prostitutes could be caught by this section.

Section 373: Suppression of brothels.

This law prohibits people from keeping, managing, or assisting in the management of a brothel. It also prohibits people from being the owner, occupier, or agent of an owner of a place which is used as a brothel.

The penalty for being caught under this law is a maximum of fifteen years imprisonment and a fine.

Section 27(b) Minor Offences Act 1955 (MOA 1955): prohibits prostitutes from behaving in a disorderly or indecent manner in or near any public road or place.

As you may recall, Section 372B of the Penal Code does not allow prostitutes to offer their services to you. A police officer may not have grounds to suspect that a prostitute has offered themselves to members of the public and would not be able to arrest them.

A police officer may instead say that the prostitute was acting indecently on a public road. This is easier for a police officer to prove if faced with a lack of evidence to arrest under Section 372B.

The penalty under Section 27(b) MOA 1955 is a maximum of one-month imprisonment or a maximum fine of one hundred ringgit or both.

What happens when you are charged with a crime related to prostitution?

The Royal Malaysian Police reported 1,988 people arrested for prostitution-related offences in Malaysia in 2022, down from 2,336 in 2021.

If a police officer suspects a person of prostitution, they will be arrested and taken to a police station. The incident will be investigated, and if there is enough evidence, the individual will be charged and appear in court before a judge.

Should the judge consider the individual guilty of the alleged offence, they would be sentenced under the Penal Code. They would be liable to the maximum penalties outlined above.

Risks associated with prostitution in Malaysia for sex workers

Prostitutes would be committing a criminal offence. This may result in jail time, fines, whippings, and a ban on doing certain things, such as travelling to certain countries.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it is estimated there are over 10,000 people who are victims of sex trafficking in Malaysia. Victims of sex trafficking are often abused, raped, and drugged for their exploiters to gain control and take advantage of them.

The consequences of sex trafficking can be severe and everlasting. Victims may suffer physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Victims often experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health issues.

There is an inherent reluctance from sex workers to seek help from authorities if they become victims of crime. There are many reasons why this could be, but the most likely reason is a fear of criminal charges if they made their position known to the police. People who commit crimes against sex workers are often aware of the difficulty that sex workers face.

A report from the Ministry of Health in Malaysia published in 2018 estimated 7,500 sex workers were living with HIV in Malaysia. If left untreated, HIV will turn into AIDS. The Malaysian Government is aiming towards ending AIDS in Malaysia by 2030.

HIV and AIDS are the most dangerous sexually transmitted diseases. But there are many other diseases which affect sex workers, such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhoea, hepatitis, herpes, and many more.

Plus, there is also a lack of funding to improve the safety of sex work. There is insufficient health testing, disease prevention, condoms, and personal safety. Regulation could promote better funding towards preventing these issues that sex workers face.

How prostitution differs in nearby Singapore

There is legal prostitution in Singapore. There are government-regulated brothels which permit commercial sex between males and females. All other forms of prostitution are illegal.

But there are also prohibitions on what prostitutes and people can do. For example, soliciting in public, people living on the earnings of a prostitute, and people running a brothel (if it is unlicenced).

A person who persistently loiters or solicits for the purpose of prostitution in a public road or place shall be guilty of an offence. The first offence holds a fine of $1,000. A second conviction may result in a maximum fine of $2,000 and/or a maximum prison sentence of six months.

If caught carrying out sex work in public (even in the red-light district), a prostitute could be imprisoned for up to a maximum of three months and/or a fine.

If found guilty of running an unlicensed brothel or knowingly living on the earnings of the prostitution of another person, you could be liable for a maximum of five years imprisonment and/or fined up to $10,000.

In Singapore, the age of consent is 16 years old. But, for commercial prostitution, it is prohibited to have sex with girls under the age of 18.

Something important to note is that mistake is not a defence. Those over 21 years old cannot assert that they mistakenly believed the girl was 18 years old or over.

It doesn’t matter if a minor is participating in activities which are restricted to people aged 18 years or above. Even if the minor is in a nightclub or brothel, a person (the adult) can be jailed for up to fifteen years and fined or caned if found guilty.