'Brothel village' caters mainly to sex tourists from Singapore
December 1, 2000
TANJUNG PINANG, Indonesia
FROM the mangrove swamps and jungles of Indonesia's Riau Islands, Singapore's steel and glass skyscrapers are visible on the horizon - gleaming symbols of another nation's wealth.
The islands draw thousands of Indonesians in search of jobs in Singapore-backed factories and resorts. But many who come end up as prostitutes in 'brothel villages' hacked out of the jungle, catering mainly to sex tourists from Singapore.
'My sister and I were tricked into coming here. I thought I was coming to work in a disco as a waitress,' said 18-year-old Egy, who said she was forced into prostitution to pay off the syndicate that brought her to the islands.
Indonesia's hunger for development and Singapore's prosperity have provided a potent formula for economic growth: the islands are dotted with lavish resorts and industrial parks. But the combination has also created a flourishing sex trade.
The proximity of wealthy Singapore, just a 20-kilometre (12-mile) ferry ride away, is a natural resource for the Riaus. The islands are far cheaper and faster to reach for Singaporeans than more traditional sex tourism destinations such as Thailand and the Philippines, which are frequented more by Europeans and Americans.
Two Riau islands known as Bintan and Batam, especially, have become seedy escapes from Singapore's strict social confines, and a dangerous lure for Indonesians seeking a better life.
'Weekdays, a lot of older men come here from Singapore. They tell their wives they're on business, or fishing,' said Ianow, watching TV and waiting to be chosen by clients and taken to hotels.
Most of Batam's sex tourists are Singaporeans. But many from Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan often make short detours to the island during holiday trips to Singapore, said Evan Jones, an Australian who owns a restaurant in Nagoya.
Many young women get trapped in the Riau Islands' sex trade by debts to the organized crime rings and brothel owners who bring them in, said the Rev Felix Supranto, dean of the Riau Islands Catholic Church in Nagoya.
'People say to the girls: 'What do you do in your village? You can come with me to Batam, work in a factory, make big money.' They are clever, sweet talkers,' he said.
In Bintan's 'Kilometer 24', a village supported entirely by prostitution, an unmarked turnoff from the potholed, muddy main road suddenly becomes a modern paved lane leading into the jungle.
The lane is lined by about 100 tidy, colorful houses, each fronted by a stand selling soft drinks, beer and snacks. When a vehicle enters the village, hundreds of smiling and laughing young women rush out of the houses and try to yank open the doors.
Brothel owners and local authorities set up the village in 1992 to contain Bintan's growing prostitution problem and keep it away from ordinary towns on the mainly Muslim island.
About half of the women in Kilometer 24 are conned into coming or bought outright from their parents by syndicates, largely in Indonesia's West Java region, said Bintan police chief Agus Setiyoko. The rest come on their own seeking jobs, he said. Many of the women fall ever more deeply into debt to the crime syndicates and brothel madams because they get to keep little of the cash handed over by customers.
Egy said that after her promised waitress job fell through, she owned 1 million Indonesian rupiah (US$112) to a syndicate.
Now her debt is 1.5 million rupiah (US$168). five times the official minimum monthly wage earned by many on the Riau islands, and it keeps growing as she struggles to pay 600,000 rupiah (US$ 67) to her madam for monthly room and board.