Photo: Blemished Paradise/CC BY-SA 2.0
Prostitution is legal in Singapore, where the state openly regulates rather than suppresses the trade. However, illegal sex workers vastly outnumber those with a license, many of them picking up trade using the internet and social media.
By John Pennington
In Singapore, prostitution is legal, but public solicitation, living on the earnings of prostitution and operating a brothel is illegal. The government regulates prostitution rather than trying to eradicate it, but nevertheless illegal sex workers saturate the industry. The problem is showing no sign of going away.
There are an estimated 1,000 or more licensed sex workers in Singapore, and 95% of those come from abroad. Yet thousands more choose – or are forced – to work without a license. Unable to access the same protection the state offers licensed workers, illegal sex workers will either work from massage or beauty parlours or cut out the middleman altogether and set up a profile online which they use to pick up clients.
As Director of Health Education and Research at HOME (The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics) Dr. Thein Than Win explains, “In the licensed brothels, everything is in place: mandatory health screenings, condoms. But for the illegal sex workers, the transient ones, there are no health services, education or testing services for them.”
Sex workers adapted their methods to avoid capture
As police stepped up their efforts by increasing surveillance and police patrols, sex workers reacted by changing how they went about their business. Pimps employed people to keep watch and alert them whenever police patrols were on their way. Prostitutes started advertising their services online. In response, lawmakers added Section 146A to the Women’s Charter to outlaw the practice. Sex workers used websites hosted outside of Singapore to circumvent it.
“The rise of online media has allowed vice syndicates to take their business online to widen their reach to clients, while hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet,” said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin.
Prostitution is thriving, driven by popular online sites
Although police operations and raids have increased, illegal prostitution continues unabated. Win adds, “Even though the government has been raiding these places – Geylang, Orchard Towers – we still see sex workers coming, soliciting, and providing sexual services to the clients.”
Websites on which sex workers advertise their services and others where clients openly discuss their own experiences and recommendations are easy to find. One popular site is the Sammyboy Forum (www.sbsg.net). Here, reports of sexual activities and advertisements run into hundreds of posts. There is no attempt to hide what is going on. Visitors are even encouraged to download a specific browser to avoid censorship.
Local law enforcers have spoken out against the forum. District judge Matthew Joseph called it, “a thriving community of like-minded and depraved individuals…commenting on each other’s perverse handiwork.” He urged authorities to act against the site but got nowhere. The site itself is hosted in the US, meaning the Singapore government cannot easily act against it.
The police seem to be missing an obvious opportunity
Easily accessible via Google searches, as these and similar sites enable sex workers to advertise their services, location and contact details, why aren’t the police using information that is placed in the public domain to investigate them? If it’s obvious to anybody looking at the site, shouldn’t it be obvious to them?
Instead, the police wait for others to make complaints rather than being proactive. “When a report is made, police will consider the facts and circumstances of the case to assess if a criminal offence is disclosed and take appropriate action,” a police spokesman said.
Some using the site have been arrested and sentenced. In one case, a woman was using the site to sell videos of other women in various states of undress but she was only investigated because the fitness centre where she was operating made the complaint. In another, the Singapore Civil Defence Force reported footage appearing on the site to the police.
The challenge is significant but the police are not doing enough
The fluid nature of the illegal sex trade and the sheer numbers of workers mean they face significant challenges. The growth of social media and the internet makes it hard for the government to control the proliferation of prostitution. Even when sites are blocked, mirrors are quickly set up so users can maintain access.
Time could also be an issue and one reason why the police are seemingly reluctant to act. “It might take nothing short of getting Interpol involved and even then, it might take years,” a criminal lawyer commented.
According to Vanessa Ho, coordinator of Project X, a human rights group for sex workers in Singapore, if the police were to raid a brothel the women taken away will simply be replaced within 24 hours. How motivated are the police to send them home when many illegal sex workers are only in the country on a short-term tourist visa anyway?
The police claim they are clamping down on illegal prostitution
Meanwhile, the police say they are making progress against illegal prostitution in Singapore. “It is not realistic to expect vice…to be eliminated,” a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman said. “The police are focused on maintaining law and order…and have taken strong enforcement actions against those involved in illicit activities.”
Following the arrest of 26 women in March, the police affirmed that they will, “continue to take tough enforcement action against vice-related activities and those who engage in such activities will be dealt with in accordance with the law.” Further raids and arrests followed in April as part of the clampdown.
Geylang is now virtually a no-go area for illegal sex workers after police stepped up their efforts. Locals believe that the police had an ulterior motive – to ensure the area around the nearby National Stadium was cleaned up ready for opening in 2014. Orchard Towers, meanwhile, thanks to its parlours and steady stream of potential clients, remains a more lucrative place for them to operate from – despite the risks.
To deal effectively with sex workers, Singapore has to take a fresh look
Singapore’s policy of pragmatically regulating prostitution has some merit. After all, trying to eradicate prostitution completely would drive it underground, create the conditions for fraudulent and criminal behaviour to thrive, and increase the workload of the police force. There are already too many illegal sex workers flooding into the country, making their job difficult.
Licensing sex workers is helpful, but loosening restrictions could result in fewer illegal sex workers. Licensing agencies is another option. Something must be done about what is happening online, however. If the police cannot close sites down, then the onus is on them to use the information provided and make arrests.
A problem with illegal sex workers does not help Singapore’s global image. The state must look again at balancing regulations, restrictions, and licensing so that prostitution does not become an even bigger problem than it already is. It must to more to proactively seek out illegality – applying themselves online and offline – and counter it.