The Situation

When walking through the lorongs of Geylang, one passes by rows of terrace houses with gaudy, bright lights and large red-coloured numbers. Seated on plastic chairs outside these houses are “uncles” who beckon the men who walk by. “Come inside and see, don’t shy,” some say.

Inside, typically behind a glass panel, women from neighbouring countries sit waiting. With a ready smile, they make eye contact with those who walk into the house and are identified by the number tags they wear. The women in these houses typically come from countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and China.

Across the street and in the back alleys, other women (some local and some from other countries) stand around seemingly nonchalantly. Most of them are watched discreetly by other “uncles” nearby. Men approach these women and, after hushed exchanges, they leave for another place.

For the average Singaporean, little is known about the red light district. Here are some commonly asked questions.

Who are the people involved in the sex trade? And why are they involved?

Over years of outreach to the red-light district, we have become friends with those involved in the trade and learnt their stories.

Local “Uncles”

We know of one “uncle” who has been involved with the trade for more than a decade. He grew up estranged from his family and joined gangs in his youth. Later on, in his adulthood, he gambled a lot of his money away and eventually found himself in debt. To make the repayments and to support his family, he started working at a “house” where he was promised good money. While he did receive more than he could earn elsewhere, most of it went towards his outstanding loans.

Another “uncle” is skilled with his hands and used to work as a contractor. However, he injured his back and could not work as before. He eventually found an opening taking care of a few Vietnamese and Indian women who were involved in the sex trade. What he receives nowadays is just enough to cover his rent and living expenses. He is content with living simply.

Local Women

One lady we spoke to said that she has been on the street for years. Initially, she had cringed at the idea of sleeping with a man she hardly knew. However, she soon discovered that she did not have enough money to feed her three children. Her boyfriend (and father to her youngest child) is addicted to drugs and does not work. He is often verbally and physically abusive. She was left to provide for her two oldest children when their fathers left them. To earn enough to meet the family’s expenses, of all the jobs she tried, the work on the street seemed to be the best option to provide for the family’s needs. Over time, she began using drugs to cope with the trauma she experienced at work. When her boyfriend found out about her involvement in the sex trade, he allowed her to continue and takes her earnings for himself at times.

Foreign Women

Another lady said that she came from the northeast region of Thailand. While working in Bangkok, she was promised the opportunity to earn THB200,000–300,000 (S$8,000–13,000) in two weeks as a KTV hostess in Singapore. When she arrived along with a small group of other women, she was aghast to be told to provide sexual services in budget hotels instead. After a few days, she was arrested by the police in a routine raid. The police said that she would be a potential witness in the prosecution of individuals involved in facilitating the vice activities. She was to remain in Singapore for the duration of the proceedings. While she was offered food and shelter by the police, she wanted her independence to find a way to earn to pay back the cost incurred to come to Singapore and to support her family who depended her financially. Heading back to Geylang, the place in Singapore most familiar to her, she found herself engaging in the sex trade to make ends meet.

Is prostitution legal in Singapore?

In Singapore, prostitution is not an offence. However, some prostitution-related activities like pimping and sex trafficking are illegal.

Police raids at hotspots are commonplace, surfacing issues like vice-related activities, drug peddling, and illegal gambling.

What impact does the sex trade have on those who provide sexual services?

Women in the sex trade are particularly vulnerable. Those we talk to often speak of the fatigue from servicing multiple sex buyers daily. They face a credible threat of sexual and/or physical assault every time they enter a room. Moreover, many of them are at risk and fearful of contracting sexually-transmitted infections.

While the allure of “fast cash” may seem enticing for those entering the sex trade, many whom we know continue to face financial stressors such as mounting debt and low earnings. The impact of selling sex also affects their emotional and mental health.

What is the situation of those who facilitate the selling of sex?

It is mostly men who facilitate the selling of sex. While it is easy to vilify them, some of those we spoke to revealed that they ended up in this trade because of constraints and limited options. They might be in deep financial debt and the community they are in point them towards the trade.

From our outreach efforts, we have learnt that many in the sex trade have plans to leave it once they have earned a certain amount of money or after a certain amount of time has passed.

For those who have decided to leave the work involving or revolving around the sex trade, we offer help and walk journeys of restoration with them to gain a second chance in life and pursue a different trade.

If the trade is so harmful, why not just leave?

Everyone’s reasons are different – for some, the pressing circumstances that drove them into the sex trade have not changed. For others, they are currently content with their situation.

Making a choice to leave the sex trade to pursue something else is a significant decision.

Change does not happen overnight. For individuals who do want to leave, they find that leaving is not so easy. For many, a significant part of their networks revolve around members of the red-light district and they do not have support elsewhere. Thus, leaving means losing those networks without a supportive community to help them. Many also lack the resources and connections to find other jobs. For many, they also struggle with covering daily rent and expenses — and struggle to move beyond providing for immediate needs.

Our goal is to empower individuals who desire to leave the sex trade with the support and resources necessary to do so. Recognising that leaving is not easy as we think, we patiently walk the restoration journey with our brothers and sisters towards wholeness and stability.

Find out how Tamar Village brings hope, help, and healing to those involved in or influenced by the trades of the red light district.