Prostitution wave hits 'squeaky clean' Singapore

October 12, 2004

By Fayen Wong

ON a residential street corner on the outskirts of Singapore's red-light district of Geylang, a van pulls up beside two women in the evening dusk, both dressed in revealing blouses and hip-hugging skirts.

Moments later, 27-year-old Ming opens the van's door and disappears. Her friend, 30-year-old Yeh, waits for another customer. Both are tourists visiting from mainland China, and both are the vanguard of a new trend in the oldest profession.

Prostitution is expanding from red-light urban districts into the leafy suburbs, propelled mostly by mainland Chinese women on tourist visas and fuelling a growing underground sex industry in a country known for prudish laws and orderly living.

The trend follows a blossoming in ties between Singapore and China, nourished on ethnic bonds, and is provoking a groundswell of public criticism as prostitution spills out of legal and tightly regulated brothels.

Adding to the assault on Singapore's reputation as a strait-laced, strictly controlled society is a US State Department report this year that said the wealthy city state had a "significant" trafficking problem involving women and children.

Singapore's government refuted the report, which put the Southeast Asian island on par with Cambodia, China and Indonesia as "countries that do not fully comply with the minimum standards" to eliminate trafficking of women and girls for sex.

The focus on sex-for-hire in Singapore, whose ardour has been cast in some doubt by a record-low fertility rate, has been further sharpened by a new book "Invisible Trade" on a thriving world of high-class prostitution in Singapore.

"People generally have this perception that Singapore is a squeaky clean, prim and proper kind of place so they tend to be very surprised when they find out that there is a thriving escort industry here," the book's author, Gerrie Lim, told Reuters.


Singapore's Chinese-language media has branded the new wave of prostitutes from China as "roaming nightingales" or "liuying" in the Mandarin dialect, an analogy to birds known for singing at night. Newspapers report cases of worried housewives escorting their husbands home from work to prevent temptation.

In a report titled "China hookers are now in your neighbourhood", the Straits Times newspaper thrust the issue into public debate in July, describing prostitutes who single out elderly men in residential areas.

The report touched a raw nerve. Some alarmed residents urged their leaders to raise the issue with China.

"Bilateral ties with China are no doubt important but we should not compromise our social values by allowing the prostitution problem to get out of hand," wrote Tang Li Shan in one of a series of complaints to local media.

Prostitution in Singapore is legal in several red-light districts where Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Indian and Chinese women ply their trade in brothels, karaoke lounges and massage parlours. Sex workers must carry a health card and submit to medical checks. But soliciting for sex on the street is illegal.

By far the biggest source of new sex workers is China, where an industrial boom has triggered rural unemployment and a range of vices -- from prostitution to human trafficking.

Singapore, whose population is Asia's third-wealthiest and 77 percent ethnic Chinese, is a natural magnet.

Hoping to tap the new wealth of Chinese travellers, Singapore relaxed immigration rules in January, doubling the days Chinese can stay to 30 and allowing more tour agencies to obtain visas.

The impact was immediate. Mainland Chinese were Singapore's fastest-growing source of tourists from January to June. In the same period, the number of foreign sex workers arrested shot up 50 percent, police data show. Most of the women were from China.

"It's my first time here," explains Yeh, an affable, soft-spoken women who looks about 5 years beyond her age. "I've stayed for about 20 days." She says she earns about S$300 each day. "I will have to leave when my social visit pass expires."


The lure to work Singapore's streets is strong. The island's annual per capita income of about $21,000 dwarfs China's by about 25 times, and Chinese prostitutes charge S$30 to S$100 for a tryst -- far below the S$100 to S$200 in most brothels.

Human rights activists caution that a public backlash could single out mainland Chinese women who themselves are victims.

"When these women are arrested, it is important to ask if they should be treated as victims or as criminals," said Edward Job, president of One Hope Center, a non-governmental organisation that helps prostitutes get out of the trade.

"Those who are forced into prostitution look to Singapore as the land of milk and honey. They borrow money to come here in hope of decent work but only to find themselves landing in debt and in prostitution," he said.

The US State Department's annual report on human trafficking, issued in June, said Singapore did not consider it had a major problem in sex trafficking and criticised it for lacking a plan to deal with the issue.

It reported seven cases of alleged forced prostitution in 2003 and two convictions. Singapore's government said only two of 18 reports of forced prostitution in 2002 and 2003 were substantiated, describing them as "very rare".