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 pulls down her top, revealing a breast to her partner, who is filming her.
The woman, Nguyen Thi Anh Thy, and her husband, Jeffrey Chue, say no one saw them make the video in May 2020. A day later, Mr. Chue uploaded it to a private channel he had created on the messaging app Telegram mostly for people who participate in group sex and partner swapping.
Membership in the channel grew, and the video quickly found its way beyond the members — to the internet.
Two years later, a court in Singapore fined the couple $17,000, saying the video as well as other photos of Ms. Nguyen in various states of undress violated the country’s laws against nudity and obscenity. The couple was also convicted of providing and abetting false information.
In Singapore, the prosecution made headlines not only for its details but also because it touched on a topic that remains sensitive to many Singaporeans: sex.
Singapore has long imposed numerous restrictions on behavior and expression in pursuit of conservative views of morality as well as an enviable public safety record. But the wealthy city-state has slowly loosened some of those restrictions. In the early 2000s, a ban on oral sex was lifted. Last year, after years of activism and a growing social acceptance of homosexuality, the government repealed a ban on sex between consenting men.
In Asia, Singapore is not an outlier when it comes to nudity and obscenity laws, but it has, in some cases, adopted a strict stance on violations, even when they are done in the confines of one’s home. The government does not offer statistics of how many people are 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 clear view of his neighbors. Last year, the government fined Titus Low, a content creator, $2,200 for uploading photos and videos on 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 a deciding factor to determine whether sexual acts are illegal.
The couple point out that Singapore allows prostitution in a regulated district, while hundreds of sex workers operate in karaoke bars that are loosely policed. They argue it is hypocritical for the state to go after them when such venues exist.
But Singapore’s minister for communications and information, Josephine Teo, said last year, answering a question about OnlyFans, that the government had to “ensure that such content creation platforms do not expose Singaporeans to the risk of exploitation and abuse, especially our youth.”
Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University, said, “People might regard Singapore laws as being somewhat prudish, that these people should be free to express themselves.” He added, “In Singapore, certainly, we don’t regard this as freedom of expression, particularly when it seems to have a negative effect on society’s social mores.”
After their conviction, 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 all they were doing was exploring an alternative lifestyle consensually.
“We didn’t do what we did at the expense of anyone,” Mr. Chue said in an interview with The New York Times. “Our point is — what they’ve done to us — do we deserve this?”
Vanessa Ho, the executive director of Project X, an advocacy group that supports sex workers, compared the couple’s plight with sex workers who “feel like they have been unfairly portrayed and persecuted as beacons of immorality.” She added, “In order to portray a certain sense of morality, you have to police it, and you have to police it in very obvious, sometimes spectacular ways.”
Many of the couple’s supporters say the case has prompted them to remove their own erotic photos and videos from private websites that cater to people who swap sex partners or engage in group sex.
Ms. Nguyen, 30, the owner of a label-printing company for clothing in Vietnam, said that in 2019, before their marriage the next June, she and her husband joined an online forum — the Undertable Swingers’ Community — which has more than 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, started the Telegram channel, charging $19 a month and $52 for three months to gain access to the couple’s photos. A former chief executive of an international table tennis league, he said he was trying to offset the costs of hosting drinks for people who wanted to meet the couple but would leave without paying their portion of the bill.
At its height, the channel had 320 members.
A few months later, Mr. Chue uploaded the video of Ms. Nguyen outside the mall. Soon, the couple discovered that the clip — as well as other photos of Ms. Nguyen that the couple had shared in the channel — was spreading on WhatsApp, Instagram and various public internet forums.
Mr. Chue scrambled to delete the content, but it was too late.
The next day, the front page of the Shin Min Newspaper, a Chinese broadsheet, carried photos of Ms. Nguyen with the headline: “Husband takes nude photos of wife on street.” An anonymous person later filed a police report by email, attaching the clip.
Two days later, around 10 officers raided the couple’s apartment, they said, and arrested them.
“I was in a complete state of shock,” Mr. Chue said.
Prosecutors accused Mr. Chue of using social media “to entice followers” to subscribe to the Telegram channel, which amounts to violating laws on the distribution of “any obscene object.”
Lawyers for Mr. Chue called for “the adaptation and evolution of the law” to keep up with “the evolving standards of morality and normalcy” in Singapore. They argued that the pictures should not be considered obscene because they were available only to consenting adults and “must be viewed in the context it was made.”
But Mr. Tan, the professor, said paid subscriptions for content would “certainly be regarded as being very much in the public domain.”
In October, Mr. Chue and Ms. Nguyen were found guilty. In her ruling, Janet Wang, a district judge, said it was “irrelevant that the platform caters to consenting parties and that the objection lies in the obscene nature of the materials being disseminated.”
Mr. Chue acknowledged that he “made a stupid mistake” and that he takes the blame for it.
Last November, the Chues moved to Vietnam, where they are expecting a baby boy in May. Mr. Chue, who is interviewing for jobs, said he had not been able to find employment because of the 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.