WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN A look into the world of sex workers in Singapore revealed as much about them as it did our society as a whole


SEX IN SINGAPORE is readily available if one is willing to pay. For a start, there are regulated brothels in Geylang and Little

India that operate under close police supervisio­n. Unlicensed streetwalk­ers can be found in these areas too, and elsewhere like Orchard Towers. Behind closed doors, some massage parlours, spas, and nightspots like KTV lounges also offer “special services” for the right price. Finally, there’s always the Internet, whether you need a massage complete with a happy ending or an hour at a dominatrix’s feet.

This accessibil­ity isn’t congruent with our attitudes towards the industry though. For something that’s so seemingly available, sex remains taboo ‒ a topic best avoided in polite company ‒ and the industry that trades in it even more so. Ironically, however, candid discourse is precisely what this industry and its workers need in order to change things for the better. So let’s try to get this conversati­on started.

State Of The Industry

Sex workers in Singapore run the gamut from streetwalk­ers hustling for several tens of dollars per customer, to escorts who charge by the thousands. The industry is a complex one and detailing all its intricacie­s is well beyond this story’s scope. (Game theory in price setting, or asymmetric informatio­n’s effects on punters’ choices, anyone?). Things here are, however, defined by two important characteri­stics: most sex workers here are foreigners, and “high end” sex work accounts for just a small part of the industry.

Taken together, what this means is that most sex workers in Singapore are migrants who work as “prostitute­s”, as the term is commonly understood. “Sex worker” is preferred though ‒ not due to political correctnes­s, but because it recognises the labour that’s involved and avoids the baggage that the label “prostitute” carries.

Sex work in Singapore isn’t technicall­y illegal, but anyone who isn’t licensed by the police via its “yellow card” permit system to work in a regulated brothel is, by exclusion, engaging in it illegally. Furthermor­e, foreign sex workers fall under the definition of “prohibited migrants” who are not welcomed in Singapore.

It’s a stark reality: those who are caught engaging in illegal sex work here face deportatio­n and a ban on re-entry. The potential earnings from doing sex work here, however, makes it an attractive propositio­n to take the risk, consequenc­es notwithsta­nding. This is especially so given how strong the Singapore dollar is vis-à-vis the sex workers’ home currencies, as most of them hail from China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Sex Workers Blues

In many ways, the experience of sex workers here mirrors the low skilled migrant folks who are employed in the constructi­on sector and other such industries ‒ both belong to an invisible underclass that’s largely comprised of transient migrants. Yet how the two groups are viewed and portrayed are starkly different.

Attitudes towards migrant workers

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