Prostitution in Singapore

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Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world and one of the most enduring.  It is probably the only profession that will remain the same throughout all of history as there will always be a supply and there will always be a demand.  You can find prostitution anywhere you go, but in ultra-conservative Singapore, it took me by surprise to find out that prostitution is not illegal here.

Here’s a quote from the “2008 Human Rights Report: Singapore” as per the U.S. Department of State:

Prostitution itself is not illegal; however, public solicitation, living on the earnings of a prostitute, and maintaining a brothel are illegal. The authorities periodically carried out crackdowns on solicitation for prostitution and arrested and deported foreign prostitutes, particularly when their activities took place outside informally designated red-light areas. In practice police unofficially tolerated and monitored a limited number of brothels; prostitutes in such establishments were required to undergo periodic health checks and carry a health card.

(Note: The quote says ‘foreign prostitutes’ because the majority of prostitutes in Singapore are not locals.  They are from the poorer surrounding countries and enter Singapore on a temporary visa, during which time they engage in prostitution to raise capital.  They then return home and, I assume, repeat the cycle as necessary.)

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Coming from the US, legalized prostitution is nothing new to me.  It’s legal in Nevada and until earlier this year it was legal in Rhode Island.  However, I grew up in a conservative family and spent most of my childhood in the South, which is commonly referred to as the Bible Belt.  Until I was older and put more thought to the subject I viewed all prostitutes as inherently evil.  I now know that most prostitution is done out of necessity.  That doesn’t make it right in my eyes, just understandable.

I had always assumed that this sort of activity was illegal in Singapore.  The laws are very strict here, including fines for eating or drinking on public transit and the outlawing of chewing gum.  So, I can’t help but wonder why prostitution is legal.  I see it as dangerous and morally reprehensible, but that could just be a cultural difference.  When it comes right down to it, consensual prostitution doesn’t really hurt anybody, and given the prostitute’s circumstances it may be beneficial to her (or him) financially.  The banning of prostitution in Singapore could be more detrimental than helpful to social order.  Or another way to look at it would be that since it’s not a problem, there’s no reason to fix it.

Legality aside, there are three places in Singapore that are known for prostitution.  I’ve mentioned most of them in passing in previous posts, but I’ll detail them here again.

The first place is the Geylang area.  Singapore is divided up into town areas for political and governance reasons.  Geylang is located in eastern Singapore along the East-West MRT Green Line.  The MRT won’t drop you directly in Geylang.  You have to get off at the Aljunied station and then catch a bus the rest of the way.  It’s not a long ride.  Geylang itself is a sort of seedy looking place.  It’s an older part of town that’s a bit run down.  A lot of the buildings look like they’ve been standing since before Singapore was Singapore.  The best spots for finding prostitutes in Geylang is to look in the mostly dark alleys around Lorongs 10 thru 12.

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The second place that’s fairly famous for prostitutes is Lucky Plaza.  Lucky Plaza is a mall along Orchard Road that caters mostly to the needs of Filipino foreign workers and Permanent Residents.  The mall contains shops that sell imported Filipino goods, remittance centers, Internet cafes, and Filipino restaurants.  It also has a lot of Filipina prostitutes.  If you click through on the link at the beginning of this paragraph there’s a photo of two of them in that post.

The last place is Orchard Towers, which is also known as the Four Floors of Whores.  It’s located at the end of Orchard Road, next door to the Thai Embassy.  My wife and I had heard rumors about the place but we’d never actually been there.  So, when we were out enjoying this year’s Christmas decorations we figured, why not?  We were close to it anyway.  As I walked up to the building and peeked down the stairs I saw two girls hanging around in the hallway area.  It was obvious what they were up to.  My wife had looked around the corner of the mall and told me to come see.  She said there was a whole bunch of them lined up back there.  So, being the ass that I am, I turned on the video recording function of my camera and recorded as I walked down the side of the mall.  How many prostitutes can you count in the video below?

There’s the girl all in white, the group sitting by the curb, and obviously the ‘couple’ against the wall who were negotiating a price as we walked by.  The inside of the mall was even more packed.  By the back entrance there was another group of them chatting as they waited for potential customers, as well as isolated pairs standing around.  They always seemed to be in groups of two or larger, except when they were appeared to be negotiating.  It was somehow exciting to see so many women engaged in an act that we considered wrong and criminal so blatantly plying their trade in an otherwise picturesque part of Singapore.

As we left the mall we speculated on whether or not President Obama would be put up at the hotel across the street, and what Michelle might think about it all.  We also saw some of the girls that we’d seen standing around in or on the side of Orchard Towers moving up the road a bit and engaging potential customers.

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Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that I don’t condone prostitution, nor am I posting this for the sake of directing people where to get paid sex. I’m just detailing an aspect of Singapore that I discovered while living here. What you do with this information is up to you. So, if you go to Orchard Towers, get paid sex and then find out you have black syphilis and can’t return to your country due to health reasons, don’t blame me alright?

Geylang, the Other Side of Singapore

Geylang - 001

Geylang - 001

When you get into Geylang it’s like you’re entering another country.  The buildings are all old and slightly run down.  The ground is covered with trash.  It smells funny.  It’s just a really seedy type of place, especially when you contrast it with the rest of Singapore. 

Geylang - 004

Geylang is a place that has developed a certain reputation, both good and bad.  The good part of it is that Geylang is reputed to have some of the best food in Singapore.  I have yet to find this out for myself, because during both of the times I’ve found reason to be there I already had a full stomach.  I did see some frog congee I’d like to try sometime soon.  Maybe I’ll do that next weekend!  Geylang is also well known for prostitution.  While we were down there last night I only saw a few hookers running around, but it must be a big problem, considering this sign:

Geylang - 006

The last time I was there I saw quite a few more.  Maybe there’s been some sort of crackdown recently.  I did see two uniformed police officers standing in a back alley where there are typically a few hanging around.  My wife thinks that they’ve all moved to the clubs where it’s a bit safer for them to ply their trade, if you know what I mean.

Update: Prostitution in Singapore is legal.

And per

Singapore is a destination country for women and girls who are trafficked from Thailand, the Philippines, the People’s Republic of China, and Indonesia for commercial sexual and labor exploitation. Some women voluntarily migrate to Singapore to work as prostitutes but are later coerced into sexual servitude.

Geylang - 002One thing that I find surprising about the hookers in Geylang is that they’re actually very attractive.  In the US, the stereotypical hooker is pretty rough looking, especially when you start heading towards the southern parts of the country.  In Singapore, they’re usually poor immigrants from surrounding third world and developing countries.  They’re brought over on promises of legitimate work and are then forced into prostitution.  That’s a story for another post though…

Something else you can find an abundance of in Geylang are cheap cigarettes.  You’ll see guys, or women, standing along the sides of buildings, or by pillars under overhangs with little baskets of cigarettes.  They won’t call out to you to buy but it’s obvious what they’re up to.  The reason these people are selling cigarettes on the street is that Singapore puts a heavy duty (or tax) on cigarette sales in Singapore, putting them in the 10.40 – 11.60 SGD price range, on average.  In Geylang they go for about 5.00 – 6.00 SGD if you buy them from one of these people.  That’s about half, and a really good deal.  The way they do it is they bring in cigarettes from the surrounding countries where they’re a lot cheaper.  This is actually a huge business for smugglers, but it comes with a very high penalty too.  I remember reading stories in the paper of people being fined upwards of 10,000 SGD for trying to smuggle in shipments of foreign smokes.  This is based on rumor, but I hear that some of the cops in Singapore wear plain clothes, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people selling smokes are actually cops.  So, if you’re going to go that route, be mindful of that fact and scout your potential supplier before you just walk up like an idiot and try to make a purchase.  Smuggling them into the country carries a fine, but so does buying them.  Only cigarettes stamped with the SDCP logo on the stick itself, and with the Singapore seal on the pack are allowed to be sold, purchased, or consumed in the country, with the exception of the open pack you might have on you when you enter the country as a tourist.

Geylang - 005

It was kind of hot tonight as we walked around Geylang, but we enjoyed ourselves anyway.  Like I said, it feels like you’re in another country.  It reminded my wife of some places in the Philippines, and it seemed a bit like Phuket in Thailand to me.  There were people everywhere.  People were packed in tight at the food stalls watching football (soccer) on the TVs or playing cards while drinking and smoking.  Besides those gathering around the TVs, there were a lot of folks simply roaming around.  I guess Geylang is a spot where people naturally congregate during the late hours to hang out.  The oddest part was that there were a lot of people just standing around or sitting on the pavement.  Some of them were talking on phones, but many of them were just sitting there smoking.  We also passed a lot of fruit stores.  I would’ve been cooler with that except they all had huge supplies of durian for sale and the odor was very very strong and very very unpleasant.  We did stop at one to buy a big round looking pear and an apple, but we haven’t eaten it yet.  I hope they’re good.  They were kind of expensive.

Geylang - 008

I took the above photo while sitting down and drinking kopi.  We’d walked past them before and it looked like they were doing some sort of gambling.  There were quite a few of these tables set up.  Shortly after I took the photo I glanced back over and they were gone.  It was weird.  I thought I’d been discreet but I guess not.  Later we walked past the same guys in an alley and as I came alongside the table they tore it down right away and everyone scattered.  I wonder if it was because of me or because someone they had set up as a spotter had seen police coming?  Or maybe there’s another reason.  I thought gambling was legal in Singapore.

Night Rider 7 Bus

We had a pretty good time walking around Geylang, taking in the sights, having some kopi and stretching our legs.  We wound up walking around until about 12:30 am, when we realized we should try to hop on a bus to get home.  The last trains run at 11:30 pm.  We missed the last of the regular buses that were heading to Pasir Ris, so we had to wait for about an hour to get on the NR7 to Pasir Ris.  That’s a Night Rider bus, which is meant for late night travelers who had to stay late at the office, or for drunks.  I think they go all night.  It was a fairly quick ride, given that it stopped so many times.

I’m looking forward to going back to check out the food.

The Not So Fragrant Fragrance Hotel

Last year when I first came to Singapore to visit, we had to find a place to stay short-term.  My first thought was hotels.  So, I got online and started searching around for where we could stay.  I didn’t mind spending a little money, but I figured we would be outside most of the time, so I didn’t want to spend so much on the hotel room.  I’d rather spend the money at the destination.  Looking through the internet for deals I came across a package for a flight and a few nights at a place called The Fragrance Hotel.  I asked my then fiance about it and she cracked up!

She told me right away that it would be a bad idea to stay at one of those hotels.  According to her, the Fragrance hotels aren’t very fragrant (cheesy right?).  She said someone she knew stayed in one for a few nights and it wasn’t very comfortable, clean, or hospitable.  On top of that, they have the reputation of being a hotel for one night stands and for hook-ups with prostitutes.  I was surprised, because the image I had of Singapore in my mind was a pristine one.  Singapore’s only reputation in the US is that it’s a place with hard laws and upright citizens, so the idea of a sleazy hotel where you take prostitutes didn’t occur to me.  Regardless, I quickly crossed it off my list.

Monday night I got to see one of the Fragrance hotels firsthand.  My wife and I went to the Geylang area to look at a place for rent.  I had never been there and we arrived just as it was getting dark.  Geylang is everything it’s rumored to be!  Geylang is the gritty underbelly of an otherwise polished Singapore.  The buildings are a montage of new and old, decrepit structures, some worse than shanties I’d seen in the Philippines.  Even so, there were people living in them.  There were newer structures here and there, but the further we got from the Aljunied area and the deeper we went into the Geylang area, the worse it got.

To clarify, when you travel to Geylang on public transit, the quickest way is to get off the train at the Aljunied station and then take a bus or a cab.  We were running late so we took a cab and as we entered Geylang proper I could see quite a few of what the area is most famous for: the Chinese hookers!  They were easy enough to pick out of the crowd and most were wearing cheap, slutty looking outfits and had hair dyed in unnaturally bright colors (for an Asian anyways). 

We weren’t too sure of where we were going and we wound up getting out of the cab a block short.  We didn’t mind though.  It gave us a chance to stretch our legs and get a feel for the neighborhood.  We called up the agent, got our bearings, and started walking towards the apartment building.  As we walked down Lorang 14 we soaked up the sleazy atmosphere, and, unfortunately, quite a few lungfuls of what smelled like stale sweat, rotting garbage and raw sewage.  It definitely wasn’t a very attractive place.  This is also where I got my first view of a Fragrance hotel, and where I took the photo above.

Once we reached the gate to the apartment complex we had to stand and wait a while, as the agent hadn’t arrived yet.  As we stood there waiting, more Chinese hookers passed in and out of the complex.  I don’t know what it is about hookers exactly, but they’re just so damn easy to pick out.  Maybe it’s because I’m so used to seeing decent folk around Singapore that they give off a negative vibe.  They have that cheap way about them.  They look cheap, smell cheap, and, even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, even sounded cheap.

Regardless, it gave my wife and I one more thing to talk about while we waited to view the apartment.  We chatted about how much like the Philippines Geylang is, and about how it feels a bit dangerous there, like you’d have to watch your wallet and watch your back while you were out.  We talked about how the place seems more lively than Tampines, though not necessarily in a good way.  Geylang definitely has an exciting atmosphere to it, and it might be quite an adventure to live in a place like that after having lived in Tampines for a year.  Tampines is much quieter, and very upscale, especially for a “provincial” area.  I say provincial, but nearly all of Singapore is becoming built up into more of a city-type area.

The oddest and most out of place thing I saw while standing there waiting was a young girl, maybe 12, in a school uniform come through the gate at about 7:30pm.  She was alone and it seemed wrong given the surroundings.  If I had a kid I don’t think I would live in Geylang in the first place, and I definitely wouldn’t let him or her walk around alone after dark.  Not in that area.  It just doesn’t feel safe.

I suppose you could call it a bonus experience, but one other thing of note is that as we were walking to and from the apartment we were viewing we got to see a man sleeping on the floor of the hallway.  He was around 40 to 45, shirtless, shoeless, and probably passed-out drunk, sleeping first face down and then on his side on the hallway floor.  That, more than anything else, was our quality of life indicator for that part of Geylang.

I suppose it’s not what’s outside your door that counts though, so even with all of that ‘excitement’ just a few steps beyond the elevator, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to live in Geylang.  If you maintain your home, it can still be comfortable, and given the area, the rent is a bit lower than usual as well.  Besides, there is one other thing Geylang is well known for, and that’s the food.  My wife and I both love to eat, and we’re tired of the choices available to us in Tampines, so the lure of fresh feeding grounds is a big one!