Issue work permits to sex workers

One clear sign that a general election is coming is the resurrection of the “sleaze in Joo Chiat” issue. This was an issue in the 2006 election that dogged the People’s Action Party candidate Chan Soo Sen. We now have Law Minister K Shanmugam addressing Joo Chiat residents’ concern in a dialogue session. This is what the Straits Times reported:

The dialogue was streamed live on the constituency’s website and a resident following it online wanted more to be done to clean up sleaze in Joo Chiat.

Mr Shanmugam acknowledged her concern, but said the situation had improved ‘substantially’ over the past five years.

The number of pubs was down to 28 from 46 previously, as licences were not renewed. Only three massage parlours remain where there were 30, and hotels can no longer charge hourly rates.

The number of women arrested for vice in the area has dipped from about 400 a year in 2007 to 40 last year. And the area where such activities take place is now a 50m stretch of Joo Chiat Road, down from 300m before.

‘It won’t be to the satisfaction of everyone, but there’s been significant progress due to the combined action from the agencies as well as grassroots leaders and advisers,’ he said, referring to MP Chan Soo Sen and Joo Chiat’s second adviser, East Coast GRC MP Lee Yi Shyan.

— Straits Times, 10 May 2010, Tough stance on serious crimes saves lives: Minister

Joo Chiat has not been the only place getting police attention — when the police aren’t too busy harrassing leaders of the Singapore Democratic Party. Singapore’s primary red light district, Geylang, has also been subjected to frequent sweeps. Another story in the Straits Times told of their success.

Whether in Marine Parade or Bedok, Kovan or online, prostitutes are making their presence felt.

No longer are they plying their trade in traditional red-light districts such as Geylang, going by police vice raids over the past few months.

Their forays into the HDB heartland are upsetting MPs, who think that, among other things, the ‘cleanup’ of Geylang has simply led to the pimps and prostitutes moving elsewhere.

MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Baey Yam Keng said: ‘They are spilling out because of the raids. People accept what they do in Geylang, but may not be used to it elsewhere.’

— Straits Times, 11 May 2010, Geylang cleanup leads to vice in heartland

And so, the police now have to broaden their attention to other districts.

Yesterday, police said 60 Chinese women had been arrested for offences such as vice activities at 32 unlicensed massage parlours in Bedok, Tampines and Marine Parade. They were nabbed over a 15-day operation in March.

Anti-vice raids had been carried out in Geylang, Kovan and two budget hotels at Balestier Road, in which 12 foreigners were arrested.

Some of those arrested had also hawked their sexual services online: Customers made an online booking and turned up at an appointed time at a pre-arranged hotel room, mostly in budget hotels in Bugis, Lavender and Little India.

On April 21, budget hotel owner Siah Chen Long, 52, was convicted of allowing prostitutes to carry out vice activities in his hotel, Shing Hotel, at Kitchener Road.

A day after, police raided a budget hotel at Lavender Street and caught 38 women for vice activities.

— ibid

The problem with issues that in some way touch on “morality” (as some people define that term) is that critical thinking slams to a halt. Not only does it become difficult to argue the opposite case, most people won’t even contemplate it: Of course prostitution is bad, they say. Of course it is offensive. Of course we should do something about it.

Why is prostitution bad? Because it is immoral! they would say, and that would be that.

But a funny thing has happened along the way. For some years now, the United States’ State Department has been reporting that our government partly closes an eye to human trafficking, in particular, trafficking for sex. A Straits Times story, 11 May 2010, reports that these charges were dismissed by our government in 2008. In fact, they’ve been dismissed for a long time. Yawning Bread has an article dating from 2004 (Prostitution is not illegal in Singapore”) recording Minister for State for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee making the point that one should not confuse prostitution with sex trafficking.

First, the Straits Times report of 11 May 2010:

And in the last three years, a United States government report had described Singapore as a country that does not meet the minimum standards of American anti-trafficking laws, but is making significant efforts to do so.

However, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng had said in 2008 that the US State Department’s findings were a ‘gross distortion of reality’ and that investigations here showed there were ‘very few’ cases of forced servitude.

He added that of the 96 human trafficking cases reported between 2005 and 2007, none were proved as trafficking.

– Straits Times, 12 May 2010, Results of sex trafficking study in July

Indeed, it is important to distinguish between sex work and human trafficking. Providing sex for payment, whether in money or kind, is legal in Singapore. As I have argued many times before, if it were illegal, then every woman who married a rich man in the hope of living comfortably would be committing a crime. Every girl wooed with a fine meal paid by her boyfriend and getting into the sack after a date might likewise be flirting with the law.

Prostitution per se is not sex trafficking. Controlling our own body is a human right, but in the same way that we would not want another person to dictate whom we give our bodies to, each of us has the right to determine whom we do give our bodies to, and for what exchange. In other words, we each have a right to decide for ourselves whether we want to prostitute ourselves or not. They are two sides of the same coin. Disapproval of human trafficking must go hand in hand with defence of the right to prostitute oneself. It’s called respect for individual autonomy.

I wonder whether the conflation of prostitution with sex trafficking plays any role in the US annual reports. This especially as the puritanical approach that Americans tend to take towards matters sexual is well-known. It wouldn’t surprise me if the existance of prostitution is taken as prima facie proof of human trafficking, particularly during the eight years of the George W Bush presidency – remember, the one who pandered to the Christian rightwing?

* * * * *

This does not mean that we should ignore the fact that many people feel uncomfortable when prostitution occurs blatantly before their very eyes. Some kind of modus vivendi must be struck, and the way to go about it is zoning.

Zoning has many dimensions. Most commonly, we think of macro, geographic zoning. As alluded to by Baey Yam Keng (quoted above), Singaporeans mostly accept the fact that Geylang is “special” in this regard.

But even in Geylang, there had been complaints by residents, which prompted the police to conduct sweeps, which then led to the sex workers moving out to other neighbourhoods, which led to more complaints…

You know why? Because nobody stopped to think.

There is also micro geographic zoning. That is, keep prostitution indoors in well-signed locations so that others aren’t so easily confronted with it (though even then, we’d still have nosey parkers who would make a journey all the way there and poke their proboscis in just for chance to exclaim that they are horrified, and demand government action — but we’ll know when that occurs, right? ).

We should be able to have both macro and micro zoning: indoors only, in selected districts, e.g. Geylang, only.

Yet, we can’t adopt this eminently sensible solution because our brilliant administrators and police scholars don’t or can’t think. The thinking process must recognise certain facts:

  • There will always be demand for commercial sex, it being as old as humankind;
  • We have a law that makes it illegal for intermediaries to benefit from commercial sex. The law says it is a crime to “live off immoral earnings”. So pimps, brothel owners, bar owners, landlords, even hotel establishments that offer transitory private spaces run real risks of being hauled off to lock-ups.

The result? A tendency for the foreign sex workers to ply their trade on the streets — exactly the situation that causes residents to howl — since it isn’t easy for sex workers to get “shelter”, a term I would use to cover a safe working environment and a safe living space. This is because people who have control of indoor spaces are reluctant to be associated with them. The more unscrupulous ones who do might extract a “risk premium” from the sex workers, creating exactly the exploitative situation that should offend our conscience.

Moreover, we should not deny that:

  • There are hardly any Singapore citizens who need to sell sex to make a living. Providers of such services are almost always foreigners.
  • These foreigners come in on social visit passes (usually two weeks), during which they are not supposed to work, but merely visit our touristy corners and snap pictures, or better yet, buy Gucci handbaggs from our Orchard Road stores. Not to sell sex.

It is also no use saying, as our government does, that prostitution is legal, without recognising the fact that sex workers are here illegally. Their two week stay may be legal, but selling sex during those two weeks is not, so they are at risk every second of their stay. To say prostitution is legal and then go around chasing and arresting them for immigration offences is to give with one hand and take away with the other. How does that resolve anything?

Solution? Issue work permits to sex workers. Surely, that’s an industry for which it is hard to find Singaporeans prepared to work in? Isn’t that a good justification for opening up this category of work to foreigners? By the way, the permits should come with mandatory health checks – to address yet another problem of an underground industry. And like all other areas of work, should there be a dispute between a sex worker and his or her pimp, the Manpower Ministry should step in to arbitrate, like it does among shipyard or construction workers. That way, we’ll know quite easily when a person has been trafficked against his will and be able to deal with that problem promptly.

Regulation, not eradication, should be the answer. Get real, you cannot eradicate commercial sex. There is a large constituency of men (and women) who want it. Get real, the providers will be foreigners.

In short: Not only should prostitution be legal, the “value add” for the intermediaries should also be legalised. It should not be legally risky for people to provide safe shelter and to facilitate safe transactions. Brothels, bars and hotels should be able to get licences (without high hurdles or exorbitant costs) to “specialise” in such trade. And the sex workers themselves, perhaps on their own recognition, perhaps through a competitive industry of “labour agents” should be able to get work permits.

Surely that’s a smarter way of dealing with the problem than all sorts of moral posturing, and having our police charge up here and charge up there in weekly Sisyphean raids.

8 Responses to “Issue work permits to sex workers”


  1. 1 Raelynn 12 May 2010 at 16:58

    I’m not to sure how to respond regarding the point about “There are hardly any Singapore citizens who need to sell sex to make a living. Providers of such services are almost always foreigners.” “To make a living” maybe, but it is a fallacy that singaporean citizens are not providers of such services. my understanding is that “social escorts” do provide “extra service” but this is the personal private agreement between the escort and the client (maybe that’s how the social escort agency avoids getting trouble with the law). it might not be blatantly stated as so by the agency, but the way they describe the girls, to me, is quite an obvious sign.

    having said that, i do agree that it is better to give work permits to sex industry workers and your other suggestions. but it’s going to be a tough fight because on one hand you have to deal with the morally high and mighty public who claim that it’s going to bring down the morality of the public conscience (as if prostitution doesnt happen in singapore), on the other hand which i think is a more valid argument is this: when you grant work permits, it means that the ministry of manpower has to regulate the numbers, ministry of manpower has to make sure that the rights of these people are taken care of just like our foreign domestic workers and foreign labour workers. on a personal basis, i would say, why not, these workers are people too, it’s not like as if they really wanted to do this job, since they’re here and they have to do so to make a living, the least we can do is to leave some dignity and protection for them.

  2. 2 Hun Boon 12 May 2010 at 17:53

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always thought that brothels are licensed in Singapore, and it’s only the freelancers and streetwalkers that the authorities are clamping down on?

    Are you suggesting that we issue licences to individual prostitutes instead?

    thanks.

  3. 3 Matalamak 12 May 2010 at 20:44

    We must understand that the PAP likes to show that action is taken, not just controlling prostitution, but also in many other things and where publicity and face is at stake.

    Whether effective or not is secondary, most important is to be seen to be doing something. This become more necessary and crucial when that something will not solve much or anything, but at least they have to show that they tried.

    And of course in the process they may catch some votes too, from the more simplistic electorate. Anyway it is also a Hobson’s choice, where voter choice here is concerned.

  4. 4 KiWeTO 12 May 2010 at 21:54

    I was always under the impression that there was a department within the Ministry of Health that deals with the legalized prostitutes, with monthly (weekly?) checkups and all those things.

    Perhaps there is confusion between those who have come to SG on their own because they heard they could make money off the streets? Afterall, the areas of Geylang where there are red lanterns can’t be hosting people on two-week visit passes too?

    It is a many nuanced area – and morality needs to stay out of most secular affairs the state takes care of.

    I get the feeling that its the truly unlicensed ones that make things difficult. Will zoning solve the problem? It will limit their influence, but seeing ladies of monetary persuasion ‘working’ Orchard road… is like seeing Soho expanding to include Regent Street in London.

    How do we control for illegality of social visits at the gates?
    (even if we have pretty well secured gates, can we impinge honest intent to see Singapore and not $ingapore?)

    E.o.M.

  5. 5 George 13 May 2010 at 10:40

    Alex,
    The huge stumbling block for the govt, in spite of its purportedly secular leaning,is that it cannot afford to be tainted or even suggested by the slightest of hint, that it is neutral and not actively or pro-actively against such activities. In its mindset, it will lose votes of that segment of the population that is wildly against such ‘dirty’ activities, if such a group of any significant size or dimension exists at all.

    On the other hand, as is currently unveiling before our eyes, such issues are handy, sure to please, positive publicity for govt to score points with the public at the appropriately time.

    As we have seen, govt has been pulling quite a few of such white rabbits out of its hat recently – the mother tongue ‘issue’ is another – in an obvious preparation of the grounds for the soon next GE. How do we know that the MT issue isn’t such a gimmick to positively sweeten ground sentiments,particularly of the heartland, which has been soured recently by job losses to FWs.

  6. 6 FeebleChicken 13 May 2010 at 11:24

    Check out an episode from Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit” on prostitution. Couldn’t find a link to the episode but here’s the wiki on legalised prostitution in the US http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Nevada. Prostitution is legal in the state of Nevada. From the way its regulated, prostitutes there get better protection from abuse, sexual diseases etc. Not sure if openly regulating prostitution is politically viable here in Singapore.

  7. 7 Liew Kai Khiun 13 May 2010 at 21:16

    Good article and suggestions once again.

    To the best of my knowledge the state’s does have some form of regulation for sex-workers that has not been formally articulated and legally encoded. There is some recognition by our “pragmatic” leaders on the impossibility of stopping vice, hence explaining the zone of tolerance that they have “gazetted” in Geylang, and to a smaller extent, Joo Chiat. Aside from the semi-legalised sex workers who have to undergo medical examinations to make sex safe for men, there is also a more transient group of foreign sex workers that the state does obviously have some, again, unofficial registry from the “social visit pass” they issue (do anything during these two weeks but don’t get caught). I too agree with some comments that sex work by local Singaporeans do exist on more casual basis (ie female student earning extra cash during the weekends), and is probably harder to detect and register than non-Singaporean women.

    Hence, the regulatory mechanisms are there to keep these women in some legal limbo that can be arrested and deported as and when it is convenient (ie complaints by MPs). These measures in some ways, tend to reduce women to cattle without any legal rights and protection under the law on a more routine basis rather than dramatic cases of wrongful confinements and murder-rapes. Hence, how can a woman cry foul or make reports of any injustices if she feels that her presence is in itself illegal in Singapore. This is the root and the beginning of all sorts of exploitation and abuse.

    I too feel that there should be some form of institutional framework that not only recognizes their presence, but is also able to provide some form of legal umbrella for them. Aside from short term publicity, police raids and repatriation will not solve anything in the long term for those involved and for Singapore society in general.

  8. 8 Someone said to me that in Chinatown and elsewhaere there are..... 17 May 2010 at 14:36

    Such legalized workers for decades. and that they are checked weekly or fortnightly at designated clinics? It seem protection for men are mandatory and the workers dare not flout the law? been told they are mostly Malaysians?

    Anyone with more info to enlighten?


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