Prostitution, off-the-shelf brides, seeing and communicating

In this graphic below, which colour represents human trafficking?

Prof Aurora Javate de Dios of the Women and Gender Institute (WAGI) in the Philippines would probably point to the mahogany patch marked ‘female prostitution’ (See How to fight human trafficking: Ban the term sex work). As I made clear in that article, I disagreed. Even so, I expect that some readers will still agree with her, saying that mahogany would represent the closest approximation to where human trafficking occurs.

But I think there will also be some readers who, perhaps with a bit of effort, can spot the colour that represents human trafficking.

It is black.

In order to see the black stain, we need to be able to look past the forms of sexual relationships. In the next diagram, I have lightened up the various “sexual relationship” colours:

We need to do the same thing when we’re looking for human trafficking: to look past the superficial forms of relationships and to probe into questions of disempowerment, abuse and exploitation.

This article is a follow-up to Singaporeans’ national duty: buy women from abroad, which received an unexpected number of comments that only showed me a need to clarify the issue better. That article spoke about quickie matchmaking, and the role of the press and the government. I said that this kind of matchmaking offering “off-the-shelf” brides is a form of human trafficking.


No agreed definition for human trafficking

Coming back to the diagrams, you will also have noticed that I have drawn the black stain with blurry edges. This is to represent that fact that there is no universal agreement as to how much disempowerment, abuse and exploitation is needed to warrant the description ‘human trafficking’. Some people use a broader definition, others a much narrower one.

At its blackest core, we have victims who are tricked, deceived, even kidnapped, and then have their liberty circumscribed and exploited. I think we can all agree that in such situations the full force of the law should be brought to bear.

At its edges, we have people who voluntarily put themselves into “at risk” situations, typically hoping to profit by it. Some deserve our sympathy more than others, in that they may have been misled to some degree by middlemen talking up their chances of success or riches, and playing down risks. It’s not difficult to come to a consensus that people should be allowed to take those risks if they so choose, and if they are well-informed. Where opinions differ is what the state’s and community’s responsibility is towards the middlemen, the buyers (who typically are armed with more information and social power, hoping to get the better of the deal) and the industry as a whole. Some may adopt a Caveat Emptor approach: Too bad, you chose to put yourself at risk by marrying a man after one look and if your mother-in-law makes you work like a kitchen maid for the rest of your life, tough luck.

In Singaporeans’ national duty: buy women from abroad, I pointed out that it’s not as simple as that. The existing laws here reinforce the hold that the husband has on his foreign wife. Society also has a responsibility to protect the vulnerable (including foreign girls from poor families, equipped with little information) from others with more leverage. That’s why we have consumer protection laws to soften the cold-heartedness of caveat emptor in transactions. That’s why we have drug safety laws to protect people from being sold quack medicine with wild claims (and sometimes lethal side effects).

As Ponder Stibbons said in one of his comments:

It’s not clear that the foreign wives understand the risks. The problem with marriage agencies being involved is that they have strong incentives to play down the risks so that they can complete more deals and make more money.

And I also pointed out the moral responsibility of media when they go out to promote more of such quickie matchmaking. Read carefully: I am referring to quickie matchmaking, not to matchmaking in general.

In other words, at its edges, we can sincerely differ in our views as to what needs to be done. Some might say: Nothing needs to be done. Others might argue for a total clampdown. I am rather middle-of-the-road here. I think something needs to be done, but I would argue it should be more along the lines of empowering the woman, requiring a longer “dating” period and educating her about risks of life-long selling out, than any campaign to stamp out the practice.

For sure, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with matchmaking, and I never made any such point in the previous article. What is wrong is the power differential in any match so made. I hope this answers the comment by RW in the previous article:

i’m not sure i follow the logic of marriage agency is inherently a bad thing. Yes, marriage agency makes money by matching a guy and a girl together. Does that automatically make it a bad thing?

RW went on to say:

Yes, there are many instances of human trafficking. But it is the act of forcing/coercing women and not the general idea of matchmaking that is the problem.

In my view, his definition is too narrow. We should also be alert to acts that put people into risky positions, even though no overt coercion is evident. For example, we think that it is unethical for car manufacturers to sell cars with faulty brakes; or recommend surgery to an elderly person with other underlying health problems. This should answer the question by KT:

I would also like to ask you: Do you think matchmakers are guilty of human trafficking even when they have not coerced or deceived anyone?

She also asked:

Why can’t/shouldn’t the divorced wives take their children with them to their home country?

This would be with reference to my point that Singapore-born children from quickie matchmakes are citizens here and if the mother through divorce loses her Permanent Residency, she faces separation from her own children. This heartbreaking prospect works to keep foreign wives under their husbands’ control. My reply to KT would be this: It’s a difficult solution. The children may have no citizenship rights in the other country. The father may contest the move, and the children themselves may suffer from being relocated into an environment they have not known before.


‘Trafficking’ and ‘people-smuggling’ — is there a difference?

The term ‘human trafficking’ is not only blurry at its edges, there is a growing realisation that we really should have two distinct terms for two conceptually different phenomena.

Firstly, there is a business worldwide that smuggles people through international borders. A conveyancing service is provided; it’s the main function of these “businessmen”, who may not have much interest in retaining the people so conveyed for further exploitation.

Human trafficking in my view doesn’t necessarily cross borders. A heartless parent selling his young daughter into prostitution in the nearest big city is also a human trafficker. However, with adults, crossing borders into alien cultures where foreigners have fewer legal rights certainly aids in disempowering the victim. But I think the key test is not the moving of people, but the abuse and exploiting of them.

Undeniably, there is a lot of overlap, as Lee Chee Wai wrote, though he uses the term “trafficking” to also mean people-smuggling:

For me, the complication arises from the apparent fact that trafficking per-se isn’t entirely the biggest problem. The biggest problems arising from trafficking seem to be the cases of exploitation that occurs during or after people are trafficked into (or out of) a country. This exploitation tends to occur because of the vulnerability of these individuals, mostly because of their legal status (in the cases of illegal immigration) or lack of uniform legal protection for the rights of individuals (as is the case of residency/citizenship rights for the “mail-order brides” highlighted in this article).


Communication problem

It hit me after seeing a few comments that some readers did not have the benefit of knowing what these quickie matchmaking agencies do exactly, nor the tenor of the marriage transactions. It’s my fault; I assumed that people knew.

Unsurprisingly then, some readers had the impression I was referring to matchmade marriages in general, or to foreign spouses in general, leaving me momentarily perplexed. Then I realised my mistake. Thanks to Rojakgirl, we have this video featuring Jansen Ong who was also mentioned and quoted in the Sunday Times feature of 25 July 2010.

The tenor is shockingly degrading to the women. Ong boasts about his girls being “pretty, sweet and they have nice figures”. At another point in the video, he says — almost surely as a selling point — that when husbands no longer love the Vietnamese women, they can always send them back to Vietnam. Sounds awfully like what we do when we have a malfunctioning toaster. And of course we have that demeaning bit about getting their virginity certified.

The main point of my article was about how wrong it was for a newspaper to celebrate this kind of matchmaking, not once, but repeatedly over the years. About how wrong it is for a state to turn a blind eye to the potential for abuse. No doubt, for some couples, the marriage will work out very well. But this does not absolve us of our responsibility to reduce the risks of future abuse inherent in such transactions. As beast wrote in his comment:

The obvious crux of the problem is that these agencies are not bothered about the plight of the women they are trafficking (even if they are acting like it); they are just selling these women for a quick buck.


Not criticising foreign wives

Averagejoe wrote:

as much as i dislike the idea of getting a foreign wife, my thinking is that since these women have the same intention to get married ( and maybe have children). why not?

Indeed, why not? What I was concerned about in my article however, was the process of meeting the prospective spouse and how the process shortchanges the vulnerable women. Go ahead, marry a foreign wife, but treat her well.


What about prostitution?

Let me deal with one more significant comment. This one is by Cymric, and relates to the tension between the articles How to fight human trafficking: Ban the term sex work and Singaporeans’ national duty: buy women from abroad.

The difference between a sex worker and a foreign bride is that a sex worker sells her body temporary, while a foreign bride promise to sells her body permanently. If both are done willingly, what makes the first not human trafficking and the second human trafficking?

Hold on. . .  Look where I have placed the main part of the black smudge in the diagrams above. If we use a relatively broad definition of human trafficking, then I would say many forms of female prostitution constitute human trafficking. Some arrangements (e.g. debt bondage) are plain unacceptable and should be dealt with sternly. Others fall within the blurry edges and therefore in my view, its worst features should be ameliorated, yet leaving  people with some freedom to sell their bodies for an hour, even using a pimp (or “talent agent”)  to do so if they wish.

Where I disagreed with de Dios was the conflation of all prostitution with human trafficking.  I told her that this would open her to criticism about misfocussed objectives and misaligned plans of action.

It’s exactly like what happened in the comments section of  Singaporeans’ national duty: buy women from abroad. Some readers, thinking that I was referring to foreign wives in general or matchmaking agencies in general argued that this would be misfocussed and misaligned.

I also pointed out to de Dios that one fallout from a lazy conflation was that her notion of “human trafficking”  would be under-inclusive. Her focus on prostitution and pornography led me to suspect her real agenda was to combat the commercialisation of sex, the flip side to which would be the celebration of marriage. Well, in that case, it might blind her to the human rights abuses that follow from quickie match-making.

* * * * *

On the whole, this has been a very useful discussion — I thank you all — and I hope we come away with a clearer picture of the issues. We need to be more discriminating when we speak of marriage, prostitution, human trafficking and people smuggling. Or of traditional match-making versus “off-the-shelf” bride buying (under the guise of matchmaking).

More importantly, we really need to stop shrugging our shoulders and start taking an interest in addressing abuse when we see them.

11 Responses to “Prostitution, off-the-shelf brides, seeing and communicating”

  1. 1 KiWeTO 1 August 2010 at 16:24


    perhaps Singstat has the data, but refuses to release it (protecting the national interest!)

    What are the educational metrics for marriages between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans? I’m sure when you apply for the PR-ship(marriage application? haven’t filled in one before?!), the application form includes the data point “highest education attained”.

    Would there be a statistically significant correlation between match-made marriages and education levels? If so, would then the desired societal solution be different?

    From where these matchmaking services are usually located (and the language used by potential buyers in the video as well as the middleman), it seems their services do generally cater to the lesser-educated segments in our society.

    Another slightly-off track point is – if we spend all our time working (especially in the lesser-educated segments where longer hours for more pay is a recurrent theme), when do we have time to socialize and meet people outside work?

    Singaporeans tend to circulate in fewer social circles, since we do not seem to have truly independent societies for all kinds of hobbies, which limits one’s shopping pool. (Singapore Trainspotting Society?) Too many of my fellow people seem to travel in work, family (and church/temple/etc) circles. There are no regular other real hobby circles, or areas where people of different economic strata share a common interest.

    So, since one cannot marry family, nor are workplaces romances usually condoned by managers, the options to go ‘shopping’ are then limited to mosque/church/temple/etc or…?
    (odds of meeting the person you want to settle down with at an NDParade? pretty low.) Where else can one go (excluding the social stigma of attending SDU events) to meet people not of one’s usual social circles?

    And as YB has indicated, when the need to justify ‘return on bridal investment’ is a strong factor which such buyers judge their efforts on finding a bride, then spending money dating is viewed towards ‘investing’, rather than consumption and enjoying the time spent together. Perhaps this is a byproduct of our obsession with efficiency (and missing the objective).

    The financial factor is commonly cited as the reason for bride-shopping by photo. Looks before than personality. This concept usually raises the ire of feminists, and their supporters. (but nature had evolutionary tendencies! Sometimes the girl-power brigade dismiss genetic tendencies too quickly for seeking equality?).

    When the primary objective of finding a bride becomes “she looks pleasant”, “can care for me in my old age”, “Care for parents in their old age” (note the “me”-centric! narcissism!), and not someone whom one can share either common interests, or common values with.
    (eg: religion – see social circle church/temple/mosque/etc; pithy atheists get left out to their own social non-charity devices!), then, the feminists again get all upset about being kitchen-bound. But that misses the issue.

    The issue is – is marriage about the genetic imperative (carrying on the family line), or is it about a partnership to bring about a synergy of two people (towards raising kids, taking care of EACH other, etc).

    It seems, that in the case of the male shoppers at bridal matchmakers, it is more about the former, and the latter, is a bonus. Then again, who are we to rail against socio-human darwinistic practices?

    Afterall, 30 years ago, before the flower power (free love?!) revolution of the 60s (and their export of cultural influences), most Chinese marriages in Singapore were organized via an auntie matchmaker and that was the accepted norm?

    Aunties become Uncles (and auntie wives) and went international in their sourcing.


  2. 2 Least 1 August 2010 at 18:09

    ‘That article spoke about quickie matchmaking, and the role of the press and the government. I said that this kind of matchmaking offering “off-the-shelf” brides is a form of human trafficking.”

    “For sure, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with matchmaking, and I never made any such point in the previous article. What is wrong is the power differential in any match so made.”

    So to clarify you’re saying
    (a) quickie matchmaking is human trafficking.
    (b) human trafficking is wrong (?)
    (c) power differential in matchmaking is wrong
    (d) power differential in quickie match making makes it human trafficking (?)

    Assuming you intend to claim (d), the next question is why? Do you consider the employment of maids, where there is a huge power differential to be human trafficking too? How about construction workers? Toilet cleaners? McDonalds Staff? Interns? Secretaries?

    Regarding your faulty breaks analogy, there are limits to that too. If my TV that starts having dead pixels immediately after its warranty period expires, we can question the ethics of the manufacturer, but it isn’t illegal either. Likewise, just because the actions of “quickie matchmakers” are ethically questionable doesn’t automatically make all of them human traffickers.

    I agree with you that guidelines should be setup to make sure these brides are better informed, and perhaps better “escape mechanisms” for them to get out of marriage that don’t work. I don’t agree with calling every “quickie matchmaker” a human trafficker.

  3. 3 Mr Lee 1 August 2010 at 23:14

    Good clarification, but I don’t think that you have established that the process of quickie match-made marriages amounts to human trafficking.

    Rather, I think you have pointed out the high potential for spousal abuse within such arranged marriages between local men and foreign brides. So the problem then does not lie with the match-making itself, the problem then lies within the legal protections for foreign wives who marry Singapore men.

    As I mentioned earlier, I am in full agreement that women should be protected from spousal rape. In the same spirit, I agree that women should be legally protected from other forms of spousal abuse in Singapore.

    But then the issue really is the imbalance of power within the institution of marriage in Singapore, not the process of matchmaking itself.

  4. 4 KT 2 August 2010 at 00:16

    The foreign bride takes risks but so does the local groom. In fact, the groom may be taking bigger risks! Weren’t brides from China quite popular at one time? They came, cleaned out their husband’s life savings, then simply disappeared! That’s partly why Vietnamese women are more popular now.

    Vietnamese women may be more innocent compared to the mainland Chinese but surely they know they can fly back home and disappear into thin air if they are really miserable in Singapore? If they don’t have money to buy an air ticket, they can seek help from their embassy. They will face difficulties such as livelihood and opportunities to remarry (not virgins any more – gasp!) but it can be done if they really want to, especially when the average Singapore husband isn’t exactly resourceful, wealthy or well connected in Vietnam.

    It’s more complicated if there are children but unless the kids don’t have residency rights in Vietnam, the mother can still extricate herself from a sticky situation if she really wants to. Giving her citizenship automatically upon marriage with a Singapore man would just encourage fake marriages.

  5. 5 yawningbread 2 August 2010 at 00:18

    Least –

    We have in human societies a continuum of exploitation. And exploitation typically comes from a power differential. When exploitation reaches a degree wherein

    (a) the victim loses a substantial degree of self-autonomy, and
    (b) that loss is due at least in part from displacement into a location where his/her legal rights and access to help/remedy are severely reduced, and
    (c) there are agents that entice/create/magnify/sustain the above

    then there is cause to apply the term human trafficking.

    Marriage is very different from being exploited as a maid or labourer. Marriage involves the surrender of one’s body to invasion – particularly in the case of women. It commonly involves lifelong emotional complications when children are born into it, children that have to be shared with the spouse.

    Prostitution is a cousin of marriage, because it too involves the surrender of one’s body, though at least it does not have anywhere near the same degree of longterm consequences like marriage.

    For these reasons, exploitation within marriage and prostitution can potentially (NOTE THE WORD ‘POTENTIALLY’ and note that I am talking about risks, not making a sweeping generality) be far more severe than other exploited work. It can also be widespread through the industry, e.g. prostitution.

    Hence we should apply heightened scrutiny (it’s a legal term) to any middlemen who facilitates sexual liaisons and marriage, and it is fair to expect anybody acting as a middleman in these businesses to be ultra-scrupulous in discharging their ethical responsibilities.

    (Example: doctors and surgeons do work that have life and death consequences on us, and can potentially be invasive of our bodies, and for this reason, we mandate high standards of ethical behaviour when they go about their work)

    When middlemen do not discharge their roles with sufficient scrupulousness in ethics in the areas of marriage and prostitution, knowing full well that serious abuse can potentially result, we can hold them responsible. If that serious abuse meets the tests of (a), (b) and (c) above, then we have a trafficked human situation. Any middleman who goes about putting people into such “at risk” situations is a human trafficker – in the broad sense of human trafficking (NOTE: I HAD SAID IN THE ARTICLE THAT THERE IS NO YES/NO DEFINITION).

    I do not think that creating the routes and conditions wherein girls have to decide within half a day whether to marry a man she can hardly speak with (different language), let alone know his character, meets any sensible test of scrupulous ethics.

    I think my last para also answers Mr Lee.

    • 6 Least 2 August 2010 at 01:28

      “Marriage is very different from being exploited as a maid or labourer. Marriage involves the surrender of one’s body to invasion – particularly in the case of women. It commonly involves lifelong emotional complications when children are born into it, children that have to be shared with the spouse.”

      So the maid trade in SG isn’t human trafficking, but the quickie marriage trade is human trafficking because sex and children are involved? To me, maid agencies and contractors fulfill your (a), (b) and (c) conditions as well.

      “For these reasons, exploitation within marriage and prostitution can potentially (NOTE THE WORD ‘POTENTIALLY’ and note that I am talking about risks, not making a sweeping generality) be far more severe than other exploited work.”

      I’m not sure the potential for abuse in marriage is any greater than a employer-maid relationship.


      Considering you were accusing… I guess the system(?) (I’m not sure anymore) of promoting trafficking, I think it’s reasonable to expect you to have a yes/no definition.

      “I do not think that creating the routes and conditions wherein girls have to decide within half a day whether to marry a man she can hardly speak with (different language), let alone know his character, meets any sensible test of scrupulous ethics.”

      If the girl knew the circumstances under which the decision-making process would be done (with knowledge of her length of her visa b4 coming to Singapore, it’s fair to assume she’d have an idea of the time frame involved) before coming to Singapore, flew to Singapore herself, and decided within half a day to voluntarily marry a guy, would you consider that human trafficking? I’m still not convinced.

  6. 7 Least 2 August 2010 at 01:34

    Re: the video you linked, the girls looked very aware of what they were getting themselves into, and it looked like (quite naturally) the girl was offended by the virgin test, but agreed to it. Is it degrading? Yes. Exploitative? Yes. Human trafficking? I don’t see it, unless you want to make human trafficking inclusive to the point of including maids and labourers, and I don’t think you’re willing to go that far.

  7. 8 anony 2 August 2010 at 12:34

    Back to the ST article on Vietnamese women marketed by Spore matchmaking agencies.

    If I am not wrong, the Vietnamese women are from the agricultural heartland where their families face economic hardship. So in traditional Vietnamese societies which is similar to Chinese societies, filial piety is an important issue which is also the cause of these women subjecting themselves to the matchmaking industry blindly.

    There is usually a Vietnamese fixer or an intermediary who goes round marketing this “get married to a Sporean man & save your family from economic hardship thru your marriage dowry” slogan in the rural areas. The dowry is the life saviour here & our Spore dollars goes a long way in Vietnam. I am assuming here too that Sporean man will alos contribute some monthly allowance to Viet family.

    So the parents most probably goad their daughters to try it out & gets sucked into the matchmaking system. Being rural folks without much education they are unaware of the dire consequences that await their daughters should they be abused in their Sporean marriages.

    So who is to blame? The parents of Vietnamese women who unknowingly sent them to their sad fate or the Viet government who has failed to educate the rural folks on this matchmaking trade?

  8. 9 Ape 2 August 2010 at 17:50

    “Hence we should apply heightened scrutiny (it’s a legal term) to any middlemen who facilitates sexual liaisons and marriage, and it is fair to expect anybody acting as a middleman in these businesses to be ultra-scrupulous in discharging their ethical responsibilities.”

    Ape thinks YB’s point is that “quickie match making agencies” maneuvers close to the border of human trafficking and as such, a “heightened scrutiny” is required.

  9. 10 RW 3 August 2010 at 02:17


    Thank you for the followup article on the issue.

    It seems your main gripe about this is the “quickie” nature of the matchmaking.

    What is wrong with the “quickie” nature of it?
    Is it that the girl has no time to know her future husband?
    or she has no time to ponder on the consequence of her decision?

    As you rightly pointed out, the girl is not coerced into this and is fully in charge of how slow or fast she wants it to go. If she wants to marry fast after a glance at her husband, who is to say she should wait 1 week, 1 month, 1 year or 10 years before she can marry? The suggestion of a mandated dating period is rather paternalistic- imagine if we had one for ourselves!

    I think the decision to marry outside her own country is not something a person makes at a whim, but after much consideration. If she has decided on marrying as a transaction and not for love, what is the point of mandating a prolong dating period?

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