SINGAPORE’S APPROACH TOWARDS HOUSING OF TRANSGENDER PERSONS IN PRISON SETTINGS

Murali Pillai
4 min readNov 22, 2023

Recently, I learnt about the incarceration of a transgender person who identifies as a female but was born with male genitalia in a female prison in Scotland for the offence of committing double rape of women. This, naturally, raised an outcry as a result of which, the person was transferred out of the female prison. I wanted to understand how our Singapore Prison Service deals with transgender persons. Hence, I filed a question asking for the Ministry’s approach on the matter. Minister Shanmugam provided a detailed explanation of how transgender persons are housed in prison. My parliamentary question and Minister Shanmugam’s response are set out below.

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Mr Murali Pillai asked the Minister for Home Affairs what is the Ministry’s approach towards the housing of transgender persons in prison settings in Singapore, having regard to the recent situation in Scotland where a transgender person, convicted of double rape of women, was initially housed in segregation in an all-female jail.

The Minister for Home Affairs (Mr K Shanmugam): Mr Speaker, Sir, the case that Mr Murali refers to involved a Scottish male sex offender called Isla Bryson. Isla Bryson was undergoing hormonal treatment at the time of his conviction to transition to a female.

In January of this year, 2023, Bryson was convicted of raping two women. At the time of conviction, Bryson’s self-identified gender was female. However, his registered sex was male and he still had male genitalia. Bryson was remanded in women’s prison while awaiting his sentence. That was done based on the Scottish Prison Services’ policy, which determines housing arrangements based on an inmate’s “new gender”.

The prospect of a convicted male rapist serving a sentence in a women’s prison sparked public debate and concerns about the safety of the other prisoners. In response, Bryson was moved to a male prison facility.

In Singapore, our primary consideration is the safety of the inmates.

As a rule, inmates are housed in a male or female institution based on their registered sex and not their self-identified gender. There may be situations, however, where it may be better not to house an inmate with other inmates of their registered sex for consideration of safety, either for the safety of the inmate or the safety of the other inmates. For example, a male inmate who is transitioning and who has developed female features, such as breasts, it may not be completely safe for this inmate to be housed together with other male inmates. On the other hand, inmates in a female institution may not feel comfortable if we house with them, a former male who has just completed transitioning to be a female, especially, like in the case of Bryson, the person had previously committed sexual offences. So, in such cases, we may house them alone in individual cells within the institution of their registered sex, or in a shared cell with other inmates who are in the same situation.

There may also be situations where inmates, during medical examination upon admission, are found to have external genitalia different from their registered sex. In such cases, Prisons may first house them alone in individual cells in the institution of their registered sex. Prisons will then facilitate an examination by a medical specialist to assess if they have had a complete physical change in genitalia, and if so, will assist the inmate to update their registered sex with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA). This follows ICA’s requirements that a person’s sex change must first be verified by a local relevant medical specialist before ICA updates the registered sex of the person in its database.

Mr Speaker: Mr Murali Pillai.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok): Mr Speaker, Sir, I am glad to note the nuanced approach in dealing with the transgender prisoners. I have two supplementary questions.

First, may I ask the hon Minister for Home Affairs whether there have been any instances of transgender persons being assaulted, particularly sexually assaulted, in our Singapore Prisons and what steps have been taken to deal with that?

And secondly, I wonder whether there is a regime put in place by the Singapore Prisons Service where transgender persons are regularly interviewed to see how they are faring so that we can make sure that they are safe in the prison environment?

Mr K Shanmugam: I thank the Member for the supplementary questions. On the first, if he wants specific data, he can file a question and we can answer. In general, the level of violence in our Prisons is very low, both because of preemptive measures and the discipline in the Prisons and fairly tight control is exercised. So, I would be surprised if there were many such instances. But if he wants specific data, he can file it. It is certainly not something that has come up in a serious way as an issue for a policy decision. And Members can see how we have taken an approach which is slightly different from the approach, for example, in the Isla Bryson’s case. I would say ours is a very practical approach.

On the second question, if you can remind me.

Mr Murali Pillai: Sir, it is about whether the Prisons have an institutional practice of reaching out to transgender —

Mr K Shanmugam: Yes, okay. Not just for transgender persons but all inmates, there is an approach as part of the rehabilitation process where counsellors are available, and prisoners are interviewed regularly and spoken with, and where inmates are able to raise the issues they have and they will be considered. Of course, not all requests and concerns would be considered as legitimate. Legitimate issues would be dealt with.

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Murali Pillai

Member of Parliament, Bukit Batok SMC, Advisor to Bukit Batok SMC GROs.