The flat (centre, with dim red light) in Jurong West Street 61 where a brothel operates (Source: The Straits Times).

Brothels in HDBs, a result of overzealous clamp down of vice-activities in designated red-light district

In a Straits Times report dated 2 October (Monday), it is said that many residents have made complaints that Housing Board flat in Jurong West Street 61 has been operated as a brothel.

Though there had been a number of raids in the area. However, such brothels keep running as the rents are low and they believe that they are less likely to be detected here. According to some residents, the rented unit has housed a number of foreign women for the last one year, and some were shocked to learn that it operates as a brothel.

MPs in Pioneer and West Coast are calling for more enforcement action after receiving feedback from residents and calling on residents to alert the authorities if they suspect an HDB unit is being used as a brothel. Mr Tay also suggested having a dedicated police hotline for residents to report suspected vice activities.

The Straits Times stated that they have visited the unit when they found out about it online. The unit is in a block about five minutes from Pioneer MRT station.

They made an arrangement through mobile text messages. Upon coming, they found out that there were four women barely dressed.  They stated they speak with accents which suggested that they were from China.

They admitted that they were in the country on social visit passes or tourist visas, saying, “We have many customers every day and have all sorts of services. But we will be leaving in two days’ time.”

After they leave, there will be another women taking their places.

ST waited around and spotted at least five men who looked to be between the ages of 20 and 60 entering the unit.
Such brothels have also been detected in Serangoon, Yishun, Ang Mo Kio and Sembawang, and were raided in anti-vice operations this year.

Mr Patrick Tay, an MP for West Coast GRC, told ST that those hawking sexual services could be exploiting low rents for HDB flats in the area.

Ms Vanessa Ho, director of sex workers’ rights group Project X, stated that there is a specific demand for brothels within HDB units as customers prefer to visit them because of convenience, saying, “They don’t have to go all the way to Geylang. The location is more private and discreet and they are less likely to bump into someone they know.”

Ms Ho was also quoted in a July report by The New Paper, saying that MP Fatimah Lateef had asked in Parliament in April 2014 for greater enforcement action for the vice-related problems in Geylang. “Raids became increasingly common. Together with the rise of the Internet, sex workers and their facilitators then decided not to be subject to raids by moving online,”

That report also noted during a six-day multi-agency joint operation in March this year, the police arrested 87 people in Geylang for various offences. Those arrested included 32 women for vice-related offences committed in residential units.

An apparel shopkeeper who wanted to be known only as Mr Ding said: “Since 2014, we have seen a lot more police officers in the area, both uniformed and in plain clothes. “They clamped down hard on those women working the streets.”

A post on the Singapore red light district at AskMeLah, wrote, ” The Singapore police has conducted several raids at Geylang over last one year to clean up the place, the place is now like the Little India where droves of Chinese immigrants congregate and vices have been driven underground temporary. The place now looks like the biggest Chinatown I have been to anywhere in the world, it may very well be the new and biggest Chinatown in the world. It is a sad day to see the vibrant life in the area which I have seen a few years back reduced to just an eatery place, the legal brothels (with the red lanterns) are still there, but the hookers and illegal street peddlers on the street are largely gone for now.”

The Police did not provide statistics on the number of vice activities detected in public housing. However, enforcement action since January shows at least 82 women have been arrested for suspected involvement in vice activities within residential areas and units.

A spokesman for HDB said the use of HDB flats for vice activities is strictly prohibited, and that it takes a serious view of the misuse of flats.

“We will not hesitate to take stern action against flat owners who misuse their flats, including imposition of fines and/or compulsory acquisition of the flat and/or debarment from buying another HDB flat,” the spokesman said.

A police spokesman said it will spare no effort in clamping down on online vice activities, and advised home owners to ensure that tenants do not carry out vice activities in their units.

A number of ST readers shared their views on the issue,

Khrishnan Gurusamy wrote, “It is happening in my flat too. There is a dormitory with full of foreign workers, another unit with 6 china girls. Feedback to HDB but went into deaf ears.”

Komathi Pakirisamy wrote, “Trouble of foreigners. Not being judgmental but never had this much brothel issues until flood gate for foreigners to migrate to Singapore. Those without family here want such services to suppress their sexual desires. The ones to suffer is Singaporeans who had great control on brothel matters.”

Alvin Chiong wrote, “This is the problem when you chase them out of Geylang, they move to neighborhoods. No more easy jobs for the anti vice now. Work harder.”

Arthur Ong wrote, “This is what happens when you clamp down and clean up Geylang too much. 6M cramped on a small island. Some people just cannot have sex in small spaces as recently suggested by some brilliant mind.”

As what some of the readers pointed out, there are two key issues causing the unsolvable problem faced by the residents.

First– The number of construction workers under Work Permit here in Singapore is 300,000 (not including the S-Pass, E-Pass and other work permit holders). Most will work to the full term of two-years and will not return back to their country before the term ends. Given that majority did not come with their spouse and that they have no time to hook up anyone in Singapore, the only way that the male individuals can seek to address their natural need is through patronising sex workers. Of course, these workers cannot seek the services ever so often but they would have enough once every few months.

Secondly, the spread of vice activities online and into the heartlands is created when you clamp down on vice activities so hard and chase sex workers out from a designated red light district. I can tell you how ridiculous is it to believe by clamping hard down the sex workers, less people will seek out their services. If the Police were to ask the operators of the legal brothels in Geylang, the business has dropped tremendously as compared in the past, but has the number of horny males dropped? Probably not, they would likely have changed their means of satisfying their need. Just like how shoppers shifted from conventional shops to e-commerce platforms.

The replies from the Police and the MPs, on the other hand, show how detached are they from reality. All the talk about increased enforcement, clamping down on vice activities are like motherhood statements. It forgets the fact that prostitution is the oldest profession in the human history, and there are surely plenty of reasons for that to be the case. Name me one city in the world that does not have a red-light district, perhaps Singapore wants to be the first but it will probably fail in its attempt like everything else.

If the government is determined enough, they can surely remove the supply from the HDBs but so long the demand is there, prices will be increased at one point due to the lack of supply and the appetite for risk by the sex workers will increase. The situation that we have today with having vice-activities in the heartland, is the result of the naive mentality of the Police and politicians to think that a millennium-old vice can be simply removed in this manner.

Should one day come where the Police and politicians come to their senses and call for a relaxation of law enforcement at Geylang, but all efforts will be useless by then, as consumers of the sex trade would have been used to the convenience of the alternative and there is no legitimate way to convince them back (you surely can’t advertise illegal services right?).