They shared erotic images in a group chat. The fine: $17,000.
The video shows the woman in a spaghetti strap top and very short shorts strolling outside a mall in central Singapore. She looks around to make sure no one can see her. Then she lowers her top, revealing a breast to her partner who films her.
The wife, Nguyen Thi Anh Thy, and her husband, Jeffrey Chue, say no one saw them making the video in May 2020. A a day later, Mr. Chue uploaded it to a private channel he had created on the Telegram messaging app, mainly for people who engage in group sex and partner swapping.
The channel’s membership grew and the video quickly found its way beyond the members – onto the internet.
Two years later, a Singapore court fined the couple $17,000, saying the video and other photos of Ms Nguyen in various states of undress violated the country’s laws against nudity and obscenity. The couple were also found guilty of providing and encouraging false information.
In Singapore, the prosecution made headlines not only for its details but also because it touched on a subject that remains sensitive for many Singaporeans: sex.
Singapore has long imposed numerous restrictions on behavior and expression in pursuit of a conservative view of morality as well as an enviable public safety record. But the wealthy city-state has slowly relaxed some of those restrictions. In the early 2000s, the ban on oral sex was lifted. Last year, after years of activism and growing social acceptance of homosexuality, the government repealed a ban on consensual sex between men.
In Asia, Singapore is no exception when it comes to nudity and obscenity laws, but it has, in some cases, taken a tough stance on violations, even when committed within the confines of its jurisdiction. residence. The government does not provide statistics on the number of people prosecuted on similar charges, although legal experts say such cases are still rare.
In 2009, a court fined a man $1,900 for being naked in his own apartment while in plain view of his neighbours. Last year, the government fined content creator Titus Low $2,200 for uploading photos and videos to OnlyFans, a website that offers sexually explicit photos to paying subscribers.
Supporters of Mr. Chue and Ms. Nguyen have questioned why sexual activity between consenting adults is still criminalized. And rights groups have called on the government to use consent as the deciding factor in determining whether sex acts are illegal.
The couple point out that Singapore allows prostitution in a regulated neighborhood, while hundreds of sex workers operate in poorly supervised karaoke bars. They argue that it is hypocritical for the state to go after them when such places exist.
But Singapore’s Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo said last year, in response to a question on OnlyFans, that the government needed to “ensure that these content creation platforms do not expose Singaporeans at risk of exploitation and abuse, especially our young people.”
Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, said: “People might see Singapore’s laws as somewhat prudish, that these people should be free to speak up.” He added: “In Singapore, we certainly don’t see this as freedom of speech, especially when it seems to have a negative effect on the social mores of society.
After their sentencing, Mr. Chue and Ms. Nguyen left for Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where Ms. Nguyen is from. They say they were unfairly penalized as sexual deviants when they were just exploring an alternative lifestyle in a consensual way.
“We didn’t do what we did at anyone’s expense,” Chue said in an interview with The New York Times. “Our point is – what they did to us – do we deserve this?”
Vanessa Ho, executive director of Project X, an advocacy group that supports sex workers, compared the couple’s plight to that of sex workers who “feel they have been unfairly portrayed and persecuted as beacons of immorality”. She added: “In order to represent a certain sense of morality, you have to control it, and you have to control it in a very obvious way, sometimes spectacular ways.
Many of the couple’s supporters say the case prompted them to remove their own erotic photos and videos from private websites that cater to people who swap partners or engage in group sex.
Ms Nguyen, 30, the owner of a clothing label printing business in Vietnam, said that in 2019, ahead of their wedding next June, she and her husband joined an online forum – the swinger community Undertable – which has over 50,000 members, based in Singapore. Many members say they quickly became one of the most popular couples on the platform for their daring photos in public spaces.
In March 2020, Mr Chue, 50, launched the Telegram channel, charging $19 a month and $52 for three months to access photos of the couple. A former chief executive of an international table tennis league, he said he was trying to offset drinks accommodation costs for people who wanted to meet the couple but would leave without paying their part of the bill.
At its peak, the channel had 320 members.
A few months later, Mr. Chue uploaded the video of Ms. Nguyen outside the mall. Soon the couple discovered the clip – along with other photos of Ms Nguyen that the couple had shared on the channel – were spreading on WhatsApp, Instagram and various public internet forums.
Mr. Chue quickly deleted the content, but it was too late.
The next day, the front page of Shin Min newspaper, a Chinese broadsheet, displayed photos of Ms. Nguyen with the headline, “Husband takes naked pictures of his wife on the street.” An anonymous person then filed a police report via email, attaching the clip.
Two days later, about a dozen officers raided the couple’s apartment, they said, and arrested them.
“I was in complete shock,” Mr. Chue said.
Prosecutors accused Mr. Chue of using social media “to trick subscribers” into subscribing to the Telegram channel, which amounts to violating laws on the distribution of “any obscene material”.
Lawyers for Mr Chue have called for “adaptation and evolution of the law” to keep up with “changing standards of morality and normality” in Singapore. They argued that the images should not be considered obscene as they were only accessible to consenting adults and “should be viewed in the context in which they were made”.
But Mr Tan, the professor, said paid subscriptions for the content would “certainly be considered public domain”.
In October, Mr. Chue and Ms. Nguyen were found guilty. In her ruling, District Judge Janet Wang said it was “irrelevant that the platform is directed to consenting parties and that the objection lies in the obscene nature of the materials disseminated.”
Mr. Chue acknowledged that he had “made a stupid mistake” and that he takes responsibility for it.
Last November, the Chues moved to Vietnam, where they are expecting a baby boy in May. Mr Chue, who is interviewing for a job, said he was unable to find a job due to media coverage of the case.
To pay the fine, the Chues say they had to sell everything. They have no intention of ever returning to Singapore.
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