Singapore's Growing SEX Trade

Posted by Greg Cruey under Features on 27 December 2003

Many of Singapore's 6000 prostitutes are imported from Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Prostitution and brothels are legal, solicitation is not [there is no (legal) street walkers]. Is the government cashig in on the booming profits of the industry by taxing and regulating it as a legitimate job?

Singapore's Spots to Avoid:

Singapore's Designated Redlight Areas

A prominent news magazine once said that Singapore was a fine city, and then went on to explain that you could be fined for almost anything in Singapore.

Jaywalking can become a blot on your police record.

The mosquito patrol can enter your home without a warrant and check your flower pots for standing water, which constitutes an offence in the Lion City.

Not flushing a public toilet is an infraction punishable by a fine. Urinating in an elevator would get your picture in the paper in the early 1990's (along with a fine of about S$800). Even feeding the city's wild pigeons was illegal when I was there....

But in this squeekiest of squeaky clean cities, prostitution is legal -- and relatively well regulated. And if you're not careful you could walk right into a brothel in some of the city's shopping malls without even realizing what you were opening the door to...

More of this Feature ?

Part 1: Squeaky Clean Sex
Part 2: The Designated Redlight Areas
Part 3: The UN and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women

Part 1: Squeaky Clean Sex

Prostitution in Singapore is restricted to designated redlight areas (DRA's); some sources say there are five of these, others say six. But since they are all fairly close together, it's probably irrelevant. There are a total of about 400 brothels in the city with an estimated 10 to 20 prostitutes each. That's about 6000 prostitutes in the city...

Prostitutes carry a yellow health card in Singapore. They must report in "regularly" for health checks.

And while prostitution and brothels are legal, solicitation is not. Even in the DRA's, there are no (legal) street walkers.

The sex industry in Singapore seems to be part of an official desire to make being "sensible" as controversial as possible. But for tourists who are not part of the Singapore mindset, the situation can become confusing. (And keep in mind that the government wants to be sensibly controversial to the International Community; the idea of citizens doing the same at home doesn't fly.) Organizations like Amnestry International and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) see things in a different light than the government of Singapore. The official line is that, since prostitution is going to exist, regulating it is the only sensible course of action. CATW and similar groups take the position that legalization provides protection mostly to the individuals who run the brothels, and to some lesser degree to the men who frequent such places, but rarely to the actual prostitutes.

Many of Singapore's prostitutes are imported from Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Part 2: The Designated Redlight Areas

Where are the DRA's?

The locations for some of the city's Designated Redlight Areas is a little surprising, in as much as they exist in the heart of the city's commercial and historic districts. So while the odds may be slim, it is possible to simply stumble into one of these places -- just you, your husband, and your nine-year-old son...

As tourists walk up and down the shop-til-you-drop store fronts and department stores on Orchard Road, few realize that Orchard Towers is one of the DRA's. Angel's Disco (formerly Club 392) in Orchard Towers is a sister-club to the Angel's Disco in Bangkok's notorious Sukhumvit area.

If you're like me, the sound of disco alone would be adverse enough to keep me from stumbling in to Angel's. But then there is Ginivy's -- an Orchard Towers bar with a Country & Western feel. Or FB's, which has an English Pub atmosphere. And there's also a karaoke bar in Orchard Towers. Without a child in tow, it is conceivably that you could peak inside one of these places, decide to eat (or have a Tiger Beer), and perhaps have even ordered before you come to the embarrassing conclusion that the menu isn't really the menu and that the food and beer isn't what's really for sale...

The bar scene isn't the only pitfall in Orchard Towers; it is home to several escort services. The ironic thing about the Orchard Towers set up is that Singapore has managed to squeeze escort services and bar front brothels onto it's most fashionable shopping street, and managed to build them into a plaza with dry cleaning services, foot doctors, jewelers, golf stores, pharmacies, flower shops, etc. Open a door ont he wrong floor and you're in a different world from the touristy, commercialized bustle that most poeple think of wen you say "Orchard Road."

Some of Singapore's DRA's are pretty seamy. Deskers Road, in the words of one sources, is "the classic low-end red light district." But it is within easy walking distance of the City Hall MRT station. The "Deskers Report" goes on the describe the area. The DRA is in...

"...the back alley between Desker Road and Rowell Road. Here you will find a teeming mass of humanity milling along the alley, looking in at all the doorways. Inside the doorways you will see 1 to 6 women sitting around looking bored and contemptuous in a bare room with cane chairs. Posters on the wall advise the use of condoms..." Deskers Road and the nearby Flanders Square DRA's can be reached by foot from the Little India section of Singapore. And if you don't know where you are or where you're going, with little effort you can accidently find yourself in the wrong alley -- appalled to find that this part of the city even exists and wondering how to get back to the tailors and trinket shops of Little India.

Fortunately, the most popular DRA is in the Geylang area of Singapore - not a normal tourist hangout. One writer remarked on the way in which brothels, residences, and the store fronts of Indian merchants are blended together. Geylang is the land of cheap accommodation and immigrant housing in Singapore.

Part 3: The United Nations and the Coalition Against Traffic in Women

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) is unhappy with the U.N.'s International Labor Organization (ILO) over a 1998 report which takes the view that the sex industry in Asia should be brought into the mainstream of the economy. The government of Singapore presents itself as simply following ILO recommendations.

In a 1998 letter, Janice Raymond, Co-executive Director of CATW, critiques the ILO position (and in doing so, critiques Singapore's stance on the issue). Some exerpts from her letter follow in red.

Citing the expanding reach of the industry and its unrecognized contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of four countries in Southeast Asia, the ILO urges official recognition of what it terms "the sex sector." Recognition includes extending "labor rights and benefits to sex workers," improving "working conditions" (Lim, p. 212, hereafter referred to simply by page) in the industry, and "extending the taxation net to cover many of the lucrative activities connected with it" (p. 213). Although the ILO report claims to stop short of advocating legalization of prostitution, the economic recognition of the sex sector that it promotes could not occur without legal acceptance of the industry.

Effectively the ILO is calling for governments to cash in on the booming profits of the industry by taxing and regulating it as a legitimate job.

Governments which follow the ILO recommendations to recognize prostitution as legitimate women's work will thus have a huge economic stake in the sex industry. Consequently, this will foster their increased dependence on the sex sector. The ILO report will be used as a justification for increasing the entry of women into "sex work" to lower the unemployment rate and then for taxing women's earnings to raise desperately needed capital.

Rather than economic opportunity, the most glaring evidence of women's economic marginalization and social inequality in almost all Asian countries is the rampant commodification of women in prostitution, sex trafficking, sex tourism and mail order bride industries.

The ILO report reads as an economic anointment of the sex industry.

....the ILO report seems to regard human rights concerns about prostitution as an impediment to recognition of the sex industry.

You can make own judgements about the credibility of the ILO position. A few links to ILO, CATW, and End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) documents follow:

Sources and Relevant Links:

Asia For Visitors Singapore's Spots to Avoid: Singapore's Designated Redlight Areas Greg Cruey

Sg_Review Singapore's Spots to Avoid


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