Singapore is known as the most beautiful, developed, and wealthy nation in Southeast Asia. It is also home to the vibrant sex industry, attracting women from many Asian countries to go there for prostitution over the years.
According to estimates by ProjectX, a non-profit organization supporting prostitutes in Singapore, there are about 10,000 to 12,000 foreign women every year working in the field in this city.
Under Singapore law, activities such as soliciting guests in public places for the purpose of selling sex, leading, broking, advertising prostitution, or even entering Singapore for the purpose of prostitution are illegal.
But many women from Vietnam, China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines … still take risk to enter Singapore to earn money by sex work, either professional or “seasonal.”
The road from Vietnam to Singapore
Dr. Nicolas Lainez, who has spent years researching the status of Vietnamese women working as sex workers in Singapore, told BBC News Vietnamese about their routes from Vietnam to foreign countries.
“Until the mid-2000s, Vietnamese women from the Mekong Delta often came to Cambodia to work as prostitutes.”
“Then when there is an agreement on the labor movement between ASEAN countries, they can easily go to other countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore.”
“Women in the North often go to China, Hong Kong, and Macau. The women I met in Singapore in 2010 and then often came from South Vietnam.”
His research shows that the majority of Vietnamese women coming to Singapore come from the West. They often go to Saigon first, work in bars for a while. After a time, they have some experience and familiar relationships, they are better prepared to work in Singapore. However, there are also people who come to Singapore without any experience in the industry.
Nguyen Thi Mai, (not her real name), a Vietnamese in Singapore who helped spread sexually transmitted infections to prostitutes in red light districts, told the BBC that up to 70-80% of Vietnamese women she met were from the western Mekong Delta.
Ms. Mai said they are usually between the ages of 17, 18 and 30, although some are older people.
The way women work is also diverse. There are professional sex workers, traveling from country to country; but many do this work on a seasonal basis for a short time, and there are also girls who go to school in the day time and “work” at night.
“Going to Singapore is easy to make money”
There are many reasons why some Asian women, including Vietnam, want to go to Singapore to make money. The top reason is attractive income.
Prostitution is “a high-risk but highly profitable job,” Vanessa Ho, ProjectX’s director told the BBC.
“Singapore is a high-income destination for prostitutes from Vietnam, as well as from Thailand, the Philippines, and other countries. It is a good place to make money in a short time.
“That’s why Vietnamese prostitutes often say ‘Going to Singapore is easy to make money’,” commented Dr. Lainez.
Second, many women say they find it hard to find good jobs in the locality they live in, so they want to go abroad to find better opportunities.
“Most of them cannot find jobs in their native country, others got divorced and have no money to take care of their children, so they go to Singapore to seek for better income,” Mai said.
This is also a common reason for female sex workers from many other Asian countries, said Vanessa Ho.
“Many of the prostitutes we meet also talk about the shortage of jobs in their country or the town they come from. Therefore, the lack of opportunity motivates them to find a better life for themselves. And Singapore often promises that, so they kept coming.”
The motives and circumstances of these women are not the same. Some people have a boyfriend, even a husband in Vietnam, they want to earn money for a while and then return to their family.
There are people who want to go to Singapore to “hang out” or experience and they go to make money to pay for the cost of the trip.
There are also people who want to find a Singaporean husband and stay permanently.
And there are professional sex workers, traveling from country to country. They have a network of customers, many connections and often speak English or Chinese, or both fluently.
Women who want to go to Singapore to work in the entertainment industry, whether in bars, karaoke, brothels or meet private customers, find many different paths.
They can enter Singapore with a 6-month working visa, register for a one-year course and apply for a two-year student card, use a 30-day tourist visa or other ways.
“Usually, the women who go through the first trip usually use a 30-day visa. They pass twice or three times, they know then they will make cards,” Ms. Mai said.
To come to Singapore, they often have to go through brokers who help them enter Singapore and give them a safe place to live.
Dr. Nicolas Lainez said that brokers often provide package entry services. Those who buy this service package will have an advance payment to pay for: taxi fare to the airport in Saigon, taxi from Changi airport to accommodation in Singapore, cash money – Singapore’s authorities may require a presentation to show they have enough money for travel- and airfare.
In addition, they are also advised on how to dress, how to answer questions when completing entry procedures.
They have to follow the tips like “don’t make up, dress properly, don’t look sexy, don’t bring instant food like instant noodles from Vietnam” from the broker to the women before they leave, Dr. Lainez said.
And when the final destination is reached, the broker also gives them a safe place to live. The cost of renting houses in Singapore is high, and many people cannot afford guest houses or hotels, so it is important to have affordable and safe accommodations.
The relationship between these women and the broker is quite close, almost like relatives. The prostitutes call the brokers a mother, claiming to be their children. Sometimes, they are distant relatives or introduced by relatives in Vietnam.
Prostitutes rely on brokers to help them return to Singapore for future trips. And brokers need customers to continue earning interest.
“Therefore, brokers often do not exploit prostitutes,” said Dr. Lainez.
“And another interesting thing, is that the broker does not control the sexual activity of women.”
The women have to find customers themselves, and their ability to make money depends heavily on communication skills, beauty and luck too.
Twenty Vietnamese women were arrested for prostitution in Malaysia
Vietnam News Agency quoted Bernama news agency reported that on the night of September 26, 2019, Puchong city police, Selangor state, arrested 20 Vietnamese women involved in prostitution at an apartment on Bandar 19, downtown Puchong.
Among these 20, a young girl under the age of 17 is believed to be the victim of a professional trafficking.
Kuchong City Sheriff’s Assistant, Mohd Hedzir Hussi, said the prostitution has been operating without permission for six years, providing sex services for 160 Ringgit for one service.
It is known that this facility is also equipped with a camera system to monitor customers’ entrance and exit to avoid being monitored and detected by Malaysian authorities.
In addition to 4 Chinese Malays who have been managing and operating this facility for 6 years, there are 3 Burmese employees.
Recently, many Vietnamese girls have been arrested by Malaysian police for prostitution. Besides, the police also rescued many victims who are Vietnamese girls when they were exploited sexually.
Johor State Police (Malaysia) on July 15, 2017 raided and rescued many foreign women, including 28 Vietnamese women who were victims of sexual exploitation in some facilities for massage and recreation in Johor Bahru city.
According to the head of the Johor state criminal investigation police force, Azman Ayub, the first raid, the police rescued eight Vietnamese women and two Chinese.
In subsequent raids, they arrested another 30 women, including seven Thais, 20 Vietnamese and three Indonesians.
“The initial investigation showed that Vietnamese women, aged 20 to 40, entered Malaysia by travel, and made up to RM 500 ($120) a day from tips,” said the Director of the Malaysian Immigration Department Seri Mustafar Ali said. “Those who violate without valid identification and overstayed.”
All of these foreigners are currently in remand for further investigation under Immigration and Anti-Trafficking laws.
Earlier, on October 4, the Malaysian Immigration Department also arrested 25 foreign women, including 24 Vietnamese women of the same age, for involvement in prostitution at an entertainment facility in the Putraraya area, Kuala Lumpur. Mustafar Ali said the women were paid RM 160 (nearly $40) for each 45-minute sex act.