Human Trafficking

Sex and the Lion City

Singapore’s image may be squeaky-clean, but its dimly lit back streets swallow up countless girls who are trafficked into the country and exploited

Joel Cooper
March 4, 2014
Sex and the Lion City
Sitting ducks: sex workers wait roadside for clients in the red-light district of Geylang in Singapore. Photo: Sanchez/Reuters

All she wanted was a better paying job. Instead, the 17-year-old from China was beaten, raped and forced to work as a prostitute in Singapore.

Her heartrending story, and many others like it, have provoked calls for action in the city-state, whose squeaky-clean image belies its status as a major destination for women and girls trafficked into the sex industry.

For the 17-year-old, whose plight came to light in a recent court case, the bait in the trap was the promise of a job in a casino. Her father had died of cancer, leaving the family with 100,000 yuan ($16,500) of debts from loans and medical bills. So when she was offered a job soliciting “VIP customers” for a Macau casino, she jumped at the chance of a glamorous-sounding post that could help ease her relatives’ financial burden.

The reality, however, turned out to be very different.

After meeting the teenager to “teach her about the job”, her pimp drugged and raped her, his trial in Singapore was told. He locked her in a room and pestered her repeatedly for sex, beating her up when she refused. At one point, she even tried to escape by leaping from the room’s window – on the fifth storey.

It was only after she was caught selling sex on the streets of Geylang, Singapore’s red-light district, that her ordeal finally came to an end.

The case – which led to pimp Tang Huisheng being sentenced in October of last year to six years in prison – has triggered soul searching in a country still reeling from a series of high-profile underage prostitution scandals, including a notorious 2012 episode in which prominent figures such as a former bank executive and a school principal were among the perpetrators. Yet the details of her plight are tragically familiar to those who work with women ensnared in the sex trade.

Singapore, where prostitution is legal but paying for sex with a girl aged under 18 is against the law, has a thriving vice industry – despite its manicured image.

According to the US’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, the island is a destination for women and girls coerced into the sex trade from countries including China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In the dimly lit back streets of Geylang, far from the glitter of Singapore’s business district, victims toil in silent misery, plying their trade in hotels, karaoke bars and massage parlours. Others are taken to ‘forest brothels’ in more remote areas, where they service foreign construction workers staying in dormitories.

Some of the methods of control and coercion employed by their ruthless pimps make for grim reading. Women and girls sometimes have their passports, money and phones confiscated, as happened in the case of the 17-year-old girl from China. Many are brought into the country using tourist visas and fake documents, according to a 2011 report by anti-trafficking charity Ecpat International. Once in Singapore, they may be locked up during daylight hours and forced to have sex with numerous men by night.

Celine Dermine, legal consultant at the Singapore-based Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said she had seen cases of women who came in on social-visit passes and thought they would get regular jobs, but ended up as prostitutes.

“There’s a lot of stress,” she added. “One girl said: ‘I could not run away or he would go after my family and tell them what I had been doing.’”

The Singapore government has been taking steps to deal with trafficking, such as setting up an inter-agency task force in 2010. However, victims’ rights campaigners say bureaucracy, a lack of transparency and a general unwillingness to cooperate with non-governmental organisations means that little has been done to stamp out the problem.

To make things worse, the country has no specific anti-trafficking legislation and is yet to sign up to the United Nations’ Palermo Protocol, which aims to help eradicate modern-day slavery.

“This means that they do not adopt the legal definition of trafficking that has been agreed upon internationally,” said Vanessa Ho, project coordinator at Singapore sex workers’ rights group Project X.

As a result, trafficked women are not always identified as victims and given the appropriate care. Ho said those considered illegal immigrants are typically deported, without being given the chance to look for another job. This leaves them in danger of ending up in the same dire circumstances that drove them into the arms of traffickers in the first place.

I could not run away or he would go after my family and tell them what I had been doing.

And although some women do receive counselling, Dermine said cases “take a very long time” to be resolved.

“The victim will stay in Singapore and there will be no compensation,” she added. “Once the perpetrator has been sentenced, the victim will go home penniless.”

To complicate the situation further, Singapore’s sex-trafficking problem comes against the backdrop of an economy heavily dependent on legal migrant labour such as maids and construction workers. Many of the country’s 1.1 million-strong foreign workforce are treated in a way that shows evidence of institutionalised trafficking, said Dermine. For example, they sometimes sign employment contracts before leaving their home countries, only to arrive and find the terms have changed dramatically.

Dermine added that the government might be reluctant to sign the Palermo Protocol because of the effect it could have on the supply of cheap foreign labour such as maids. This appears to chime with the findings of the Trafficking in Persons Report, which said factors including the lack of a dedicated anti-trafficking law mean the country does not fully comply with the minimum standards for eliminating the problem.

Singapore’s government has hit back at the report, releasing a statement last June claiming it contained “inaccuracies” and lacked an objective methodology for comparing countries.

With no specific figures available on the number of women or girls trafficked into the island’s sex industry, the picture will inevitably remain murky. Yet whatever the numbers, organisations working with the victims are sure of one thing.

“If sex workers are empowered through knowledge of their basic human rights, it will be easier to get rid of traffickers,” said Ho.  “We stand by the philosophy that one is one too many.”

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