Hey, big boy . . .
You don’t have to stay long in this ‘fine’ city to become aware of the sex trade. You will see many a beautiful girl – sometimes lines of them and all toting small fashion handbags – idling conspicuously on street corners near major hotels and their car parks. In your own hotel at any hour you may note couples who, after having met first at reception, then head off to a room only to re-emerge shortly thereafter looking flushed, and with an air of embarrassment should you catch their eye. In Karaoke bars, especially those annexed to hotels, pretty ladies lurk and lure willing clients. The infamous Four Floors of Whores* in Orchard Towers still exists and has something for everyone. In Little India, on certain days, you may come across a group of small adjoining shops and see through the open doors demure ladies (most, appearing somewhat shop-worn) seated gazing out, patiently waiting for your selection. And in areas with large-scale, long-term construction projects with live-in migrant workers – there are many of these under way – the adventurous will encounter compartmentalised buildings in the back streets with a steady flow of males entering and departing the cubicles in rapid succession. These latter are the contemporary version of the old, pre Lee Kuan Yew, winky-wank bars, where rapid sexual relief was handed out to (mostly drunken) seamen.
* It is located in a somewhat prosperous area in which westerners are inclined to feel safe A lot of Thai and Filipina prostitutes hang out here for the usual reasons, but many are hoping to snare themselves a western husband who will take them ‘home’ with them. Singapore girls can also be found here and are locally called ‘SPG’s’, i.e. Sarong Party Girls. They, too, use this venue to find a foreigner to marry. Alas, few are successful because the majority of customers here are young sailors and navy personnel on a dare, or wide eyed travellers on their first OE. ‘Decent’ guys rarely patronise the place. Not that that discourages the hookers and hunters as there is good money to be made from these mostly naïve (and well intoxicated) young clients. Singaporean males don’t usually bother with the place either because the preferred Catch-of-the-Day is always a ‘foreigner’, which leaves the local boy feeling rather discarded, a bit like the syringes that can be found in the toilets.
Hello sailor . . .
In the days before the ascension of tourism, merchant ships could be in this busy port for weeks at a time. Therefore, at any time of the day or night, there would be a thousand or so randy seamen roving the streets and bars looking for a good time. Singapore had quite a reputation, and it hasn’t diminished. Shipping containerisation may have marginalised the seamen and their time ashore, but this clientèle has been replenished by other means. A controlled explosion of tourism, a massive construction boom with its contingent of migrant workers, and an increasing influx of businessmen. These, combined, have ensured an ongoing supply of predatory males. Day-time or night-time, twenty-four-seven, both demand and supply are sustained. I see it all as being somewhat analogous to the old fast-food trade, where street hawkers (now replaced with Food Halls and Hawker centres) catered low-cost delicious food at a fast pace. So, too, the sex industry offers up fast and heady sex – though not necessarily at low cost – satisfying another of man’s basest needs.
A Slap-up Meal or Quick Sexual Gratification
Philosophically argued, on a basis of value-for-money, it’s a toss-up which of the two financial transactions gives man better bang for his buck. Knowing that neither of these pleasures can be satisfied to any enduring degree doesn’t deter males from indulging in a surfeit of both while in Singapore. It is, in fact, difficult to measure which is the more popular as there is always some form of pairing off, or mating ritual to be observed if you are tuned in to it. But while the food trade is largely an innocuous affair, the sex trade, visible and in-your-face as it may be, is arguably not. My first encounters with the trade here led me to believe it was relatively benign, but for any women who may have read this far I would like to allay your suspicions that my head is stuck firmly in the sand: further investigation into the industry has led me to have considerable concern for the women (and the transvestites and young boys) involved in this booming business. I am a sensitive soul after all. Read on madam.
In the last few decades we have seen businesses the world over facing increasing competition for market share. The business of prostitution has not been immune. It is not a business you take up for love, and these pressured, more competitive times have seen its artisans polishing up their act: fine tuning it. Given the transitory nature of the majority of their clients, there is little incentive to try to secure repeat customers, and many have become experts at giving maximum pleasure in the shortest of time. The business of ‘love making’ is being honed to the very second and cent. In one notable, recorded instance a couple was back in the hotel lobby within 12 minutes! Their room was on the fourth floor! Unless you are particularly well-heeled, and we’re talking serious money here, the male can forget any romantic idea he may have harboured of hiring some attractive and attentive hooker to fawn over him while he shares a candle lit dinner followed by a long, unhurried night of erotic lovemaking in his hotel. Attractive she could undoubtedly be, attentive . . . well, you could be lucky, but you can forget the ‘unhurried’, these are busy working girls. For those other than the elite prostitutes catering to the aforementioned well-heeled, turnover is where the money is, and the stopwatches are on.
This dynamic business hub is a leader in the world of innovative technology, a tourist magnet, and has the busiest commercial shipping port on the planet. It has a great deal going for it and its inhabitants. So where does this phenomenally active sex industry fit into all of this? Is it just a necessary side effect of Singapore’s economic success? I didn’t find all the answers, but given that visiting Asians from the surrounding tropical region make up the larger portion of the clients, I suspect some of it has to do with the libido of the Asian male: perhaps the climate stimulates them. Personally, as a European I find the muggy climate sexually enervating – though I may be far from typical of my race and my advanced age may be a factor.
As I write this article the police, at the behest of their political masters, are manoeuvring the more visible aspect of this game out of sight through the implementation of some newly drawn up Laws. This clean-up act is a periodic, but hardly permanent suppression of the profession – as if that were ever possible – and though things are not likely to return to the hedonistic, pre Lee Kuan Yew days, there will be a more visible and relaxed resurgence again next year. The pretty little handbags will be out there again. Then there will be another crack-down, and so on.
Showtime – all the time
The conspicuous aspect of the trade can be quite entertaining to the casual observer, especially in and around the lower cost hotels (but certainly not exclusive to them). Mingling with the clients – some shy and hesitant, others confident connoisseurs – you will notice ‘tyre-kickers’ just checking out the goods, and tourists (male and female) who, like me, succumb to curiosity. The noticeable rapid turnaround of many of the transactions will also bring a wry smile to the observer’s lips. Wham-bang-thank-you-ma’am indeed. At the very top end, for the wealthy, the business is far more discreet and there is more leisurely sex and companionship to be had, but these clients are also less likely to flaunt their liaisons. The ladies who cater to this elite market are for the most part notably not Asian; they are more likely to be Columbian, Russian or West European – and to see you off for roughly the price of a good 50″ flat screen TV. Affordability is always relative of course, but we can be fairly certain that dissatisfaction among this level of client would be rare. There will undoubtedly be a mutual understanding of the need for value for money and reciprocity of energy expended. Quite a few of these clients will favour and nurture one prostitute. While itinerant visitors and guest workers make up the largest part of the client market, Singapore men too, are not averse to a little bit on the side whenever the fancy takes them, and they are also prone to nurturing favourites.
Cause & Effect
Prostitution may be an ancient profession and have had sacred roots, but it was soon commercialised (in many countries this was with the complicity of its rulers) and it is both interesting and significant that it still thrives today. It would appear there are underlying causal factors that won’t go away. If we take the fact that men are wont to ‘do it’ anytime, anywhere, anyway as a given, then, from the seller’s point of view, the most likely basic factor is their human will to survive in the face of poverty. Others factors are rooted in a country’s economic fortune (+ or -), its political structure, Laws, and the socio-religious make-up of its inhabitants. If you look into these factors in depth you can see cause and effect at work. In a truly egalitarian society where poverty is unknown (no, I don’t know of any), given the lack of need, prostitution would be rare if not totally absent. There would simply be no need for a female to exchange her favours for money, and no need for parents to force their child into that trade. The male, of course, would continue to seek stray sexual liaisons with other willing woman, be it for money or for love, and would wear out his shoes crossing borders to find it. However it is notably in countries where there is unequal distribution of opportunity and wealth – and this would describe most on this planet today – where prostitution flourishes. Perversely, in some relatively affluent and perhaps morally lax consumer orientated societies, some women misguidedly see prostitution simply as an easy earner: an opportunity to make a lazy quick buck.
Ebb & Flow
Impoverishment can drive people to thuggery, banditry and piracy, but for most women, the traditional avenue has long been prostitution. Hardship and poverty will often drive them to migrate to where the action is too: to a more prosperous pool. This is true, in recent times, of eastern European prostitutes. Many migrated to the more prosperous west for that purpose – along with the concomitant contingent of criminal minders. The receiving Government may then be called upon to enact laws with which to control the increased trade; or at least to keep it off the streets where it may be deemed offensive. Local police may take the increased trade and regulatory atmosphere as a god-given opportunity to earn protection money or bribes and to enforce their own controls. Meanwhile, politicians and NGOs will have to work at effecting harm-reduction through better education and clinics, while those of the countries with the contracting, shrinking economies will be attempting to improve their society’s well being – hopefully.
Singapore was right up there with the western world in the recent property and finance-market boom. It was also up there when the bubble burst and was just as enmeshed in the global Crisis. The populace has certainly suffered some stricture, but things should be viewed as relative. Compared to most of its immediate neighbours Singapore is still buoyant; an affluent island nation that suffered little. But life for the Thai, Vietnamese, Myanmar, Filipina, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Tamil – and even some Chinese – simply went from bad to worse: political instability, entrenched corruption, religious violence, and natural disasters haven’t helped them of course. Singapore stands out as a shining beacon of modernity and prosperity to all around. How attractive that must appear to a woman suffering hardship in a neighbouring country!
Visas & Permits
There has always been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between neighbouring Asian countries, and prostitutes, by making good use of Singapore’s Social Visit Pass, have the opportunity to move to where the greater money is, albeit temporarily.
Entry visas and permits are a complex matter, but Singapore has quite a laissez faire attitude to visitor entry. Singaporeans are a busy people. They rely on a labouring force. They need female employees who can mind children and take them to and from school: baby sitters, house cleaners, cooks, someone to do the shopping . . . all those bothersome tasks that the well-to-do would rather pay someone else to do. Visitor entry is rigorously and scrupulously policed however, using the latest technology and Interpol links. But once in . . . Well, let’s look at that. Even without legitimate employment, if a neighbouring Asian woman flies in they can get a month’s Social Visit Pass, and if they come in by bus or train they will be permitted to stay two weeks. By turning tricks, working hard at it, they can make a lot of money in that brief time. The clever ones also bend the rules a little by hopping on a bus to Johore Baru in neighbouring Malaysia or even going up into Thailand towards the end of their visitors pass, returning to Singapore to extend it for another 2 weeks. This trick doesn’t work for all and some face immediate deportation and a black mark. Others who use the 2 week passes too frequently will have their pass restricted to 1 week or even 3 days. Those caught in an Anti Vice raid in a red light district like Geylang, can have their Pass cancelled immediately for an alleged vice offence and be deported – and banned from re-entering Singapore. While these cases should go to court first, Anti Vice officers are wont to just hustle them out en masse with due notation on their records. Those who aren’t greedy and play the system well can make a lot of money. Those who overstay can easily be swayed to come under a gang’s protection, thus losing any independence they may have had.
Hope Springs Eternal
Prostitution has many guises. In some societies a family may trade off a daughter to settle a debt or obligation. This is not unknown today, and some young girls will apply the same principle voluntarily. They wouldn’t call it prostitution, but it most certainly is. For other women, prostitution places them in an ideal market place in which to find a suitable foreign bachelor to marry so he will “take them away from all this”. And Singapore fits the bill. These ladies, usually Filipina, Thai and a smattering of locals, are likely to be found working around the Orchard Road area in pubs and clubs where Expats tend to congregate and it is this dream that sustains them. There is a certain type of male who, for whatever reasons, is happy to have an ex-hooker for his housekeeper, wife and mother of his children. It would be unfair to judge either of the partners in such a union. Orthodox relationships fall apart too, sometimes violently, and there may well be a degree of honest romantic attachment. But economic survival is a primal motivator for most prostitutes and many become very shrewd operators indeed. The newly married couple’s heads may sometimes appear to be in the clouds, but those two feminine feet at least, are planted firmly on the ground. There are many stories of mistreatment, misuse and abuse in these prostitute/client hook-ups – but there are sufficient success stories (like Lotto winners) to keep the dream alive.
And so they come like bees to the honey pot, young girls in their late teens and women upwards of their forties. The latter age group face stiff competition, and to their minders they are often considered not a saleable item. Yet there are shades within this area too. The market dictates and the Asian male client is very knowledgeable and selective when it comes to choosing sexual partners from this multi-ethnic pool. Vietnamese are often the younger girls, while the Chinese may work on the game into their late forties. You won’t find many Malays or local girls still active at it over thirty, being considered too old. As a European I find these racial subtleties difficult to comprehend, and I would argue that most European Johns (clients) don’t have a clue as to the ethnicity of their hired pleasure trove: other than to say that “She (he or ‘it’) was Asian”.
The Law & the Lawless
The question of the legality of prostitution in Singapore is a moot point. Legal or not, it flourishes – visibly. There are many legal establishments, or brothels if you prefer, that are licensed and regulated. The locals rather endearingly refer to these as “fuck shops”. From a health aspect though, these are to be applauded as the girls are required to have a monthly check for venereal disease. However, there always has been and always will be those who, for their own reasons, work outside the Law – and of these there is no shortage either. This side of the sex game is risky business, but we humans are nothing if not risk takers. This ‘hidden’ commercial sex can be found thriving in the massage parlours, dance halls, karaoke bars and on the streets. There is little attempt to disguise or hide it. Here the control is directly in the hands of businessmen (or women) and/or gangs.
In an ongoing, endless game, the authorities make battle with the criminal element of prostitution. To be honest, the girls are small bickies, just pawns to be moved by their minders to wherever they can attract the most money. The real money is earned by those who manage them. A gang, quite likely Triad – but this is difficult to prove conclusively – will run a Stable of girls; these can sometimes be seen displayed in a row along the side-walk (clutching their lovely handbags). For protection, the girl will pay a $10 fee for each trick (customer) to a minder/pimp called locally, a Stable Boy. In return, he will act as escort: giving them protection from difficult clients or making a client who is reluctant to pay, cough-up. He will also run general errands for them. Very pretty girls – and of these there are quite a few – can take from 10 to 20 customers daily. Given that the Stable Boy will have a number of girls under his wing, he can easily be taking $1000 daily.
Lately, the Law has declared “Check” on its opponents, re-categorizing a pimp as an ‘extortionist’ and also making it an offence to buy the services of a sex worker operating under a pimp’s umbrella. This move is designed to stem these immoral (untaxed) earnings, and to prevent the likelihood that, at the current rate of profitability, all of Singapore’s fine streets could soon be lined with hookers standing shoulder to shoulder, handbag to pretty handbag. As a pimp under Singaporean Law, the charge of “living on the immoral earnings of a woman” brings a 6 month to 2 year sentence – depending on the number of times he has been charged. As an extortionist however, the pimp faces a minimum sentence of 7 years reformative detention – without parole. The penalty doesn’t seem to daunt the gangs however, the earnings from such easy work are too attractive, but recent raids by Anti Vice have made the spectacle of these group girls a rather moveable feast: Check, un-Check. Check, un-Check. Geylang, a notorious hooker hangout is currently being subjected to daily raids with many arrests, and the area is re-imaging itself as a food paradise. It’s still the same chess board though, and the players will return in time.
Good Cop Bad Cop
You have to give them credit, the Anti Vice police on this small island are vigilant, and patiently bide their time. Little escapes their eyes and ears. They are also efficient and known not to be as corrupt as their counterparts in surrounding countries. Their dossiers include photo shots of all those involved in the racket. They generally manage to keep a lid on it, occasionally arresting some low level operator, pimp or stable boy who will sing like a lark to be released. It is another form of intelligence gathering, the threat of re-arrest and imprisonment remains hanging there to keep them on their toes. The authority’s attitude to prostitution is enlightened to say the least, though, as I mentioned earlier, when the politicians demand a clean up, they don’t hold back. They advance across the chessboard with skill. But the gangs are no amateur players.
Prostitution & Drug Addiction
Nowadays there are very few girls working out on the streets with a serious drug habit to support. This can largely be attributed to the HIV and Aids awareness campaign being waged around the globe. Today’s client is far better informed: any prostitute who even looks like she has an out-of-control habit won’t find work – or the pimp support network. Another determining factor is that the death penalty, carried out by hanging, is mandatory for trafficking more than 15 grams (half an ounce) of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine and/or 500 grams of cannabis and you could face 20 years imprisonment for the possession of lesser amounts of any of the above or any party drug. This has had a significant effect on both residents and visitors, and had the dealers turning to some quite innovative new modes of trafficking. In spite of the penalties there are still prostitutes who use drugs, but more as a soporific to get them through their arduous schedule of dick after dick after dick. Personally, I think I’d tire very easily of the repetitive demands of randy, cashed-up males (or females) and I could easily see myself needing some serious sort of prop to see me through the night. The trick would be not to become addicted to that prop. You can’t help but admire these girls. At the lower, more visible and competitive end of the business, it would be a very hard way to earn a living, and quite a few of them are out there involuntarily, at the (pressured) behest of their loved one to service his – and possibly their – debts.
Whys and Wherefores
So, most prostitutes choose the profession to earn money, and there are just as many reasons for them making this choice as there are for the rest of us in making our choice of profession. There is no formula. A factory worker, an office worker or a family’s maid can experience the same misery or good fortune at their chosen work as any prostitute might. The more independent, self confident and better qualified they are in their work, the more likely they are to have a degree of command over their terms and conditions of both their work, and their future. Those beholden to others – be they pimps, bosses or desperate and ruthless spouses – will have less command of their life.
Some young people however, naively see it as an easy way to get a few extra dollars together, on a needs basis, to purchase the latest mobile phone or some other gadget. The trap there though, is the same as when you win money on your first night at a casino. If they have an easy time with a client they may at that early time in their life decide to make a voluntary career choice of it, where there may well be a future available to them less fraught with pitfalls, danger, moral dissolution and corruption. It is one thing for a young person to turn to prostitution out of sheer desperation born of a life of hardship, but quite another matter entirely for one of relative affluence to delude themselves that this can be an ongoing, trouble-free source of easy money.
What is the prostitute likely to earn? Other than at the high end, where we can assume a more self confident, independent type of lady operates, the single task earnings of a short-time operative can initially appear quite high. But their overheads can also be high. Stable Boy fees, a bar owner’s cut if they work out of one, the to-die-for latest electronic accessory, the little fashion handbag and paying off some local law enforcement officer, can all amount to a considerable sum.
Different nationalities command different rates. The duration of the hire will be variable and kept as brief as the hooker can make it. If a client wants all day or night you’ll see the ca-ching ca-ching in her eyes as she does the multiplication, but a rough current price guide in SGD$ for the punter wanting the usual short time would be:
Malaysian and Local, quite a price range – from $20 if they work Deskar Road in Little India, which includes the room fee, to as high as $100 or $200 in Geylang (you get what you pay for).
Thai, $30 to $50 per visit of not more than 20 minutes – max.
Indonesian – generally considered not to be so concerned with the man’s interests but of the Wham-Bang sort – $25 to $35.
Vietnamese, $50 to $80.
Myanmar – a rare find as they are difficult to spot – $50.
Chinese, $30 to $80 depending on age – they offer a broader, more experienced age range and may well have the larger slice of the flesh-market pie with a strong repeat client base. They are generally kept very busy and carry the latest electronic fashion accoutrements.
Indian/Sri Lankan/Tamil, $20 to $40 – the cheapest and usually operating under the umbrella of their own countrymen. Their men have a reputation for being ruthless. And they will often escape a police raid simply by using the crowding technique, where their many cohorts physically block the approaching officers. Little India can be a crowded place at the best of times. Those in the winky-wank cubicles catering to the migrant worker can be charging as little as $12. Freelance girls in the better tourist areas will hit a naive and intoxicated young John up for $200 without blinking an eye – and usually get it.
Room to make money
The rash of new Budget Hotels in the Geylang area over the last few years may seem to be linked to the tourist boom, but their continued economic success can not be attributed solely to the overnight guest. Their location is no coincidence, and the hiring out of rooms for transit stays of 1 or 2 hours at $10 per hour is a significant factor. Though the word “transit” traditionally refers to a guest’s short use of a room for a freshen-up in between flights, at these hotels and many others throughout Singapore, the word “transit” is a euphemism for use of the room for short-time sex. And a short time it can certainly be: the average room use will be for between 15 and 30 minutes – not much time for pillow talk there. For the staff there is also an associated flourishing trade in condoms at $2 each. Once the couple leave, the staff enter, clean the room and recycle it. This can easily be up to 20 times on the weekend. That is only one of the rooms. For a room that rents out at only $70 to $80 overnight this amounts to a good return, especially when they can often get a genuine overnight guest on top of that. ‘Real’ guests often arrive late and depart early the next day. It is all about maximising occupancy. Having said that, in this ongoing game, moves are currently under way by Anti Vice agencies to make low cost transit stays illegal as part of their clean up. But this is being fought by the Hotelier’s Association who don’t want to let a good thing go. Check, un-Check.
The clientèle is any and every man, and sometimes woman. The client’s tastes can range from the mundane to the bizarre, and sometimes quite disturbing. Think kinky, then think really kinky. Then think really sick, and yes, there can be found women (and men) who specialise in catering to these clients too. We humans are a strange and interesting (if not always likeable) brew.
J Cedric Watkins copyright ©2009