Broken lives: The hidden pain of Singapore’s thriving sex industry

Photo: Blemished Paradise/CC BY-SA 2.0

Trafficked women from across Asia are finding themselves stuck in the back streets of Singapore’s sex industry, far from the financial independence they thought their journeys would bring them. New efforts by the government are trying to help but the hidden cost of sexual slavery is already reaching into people’s homes and lives. 


Singapore’s sex trade contributes to a whopping USD$10 billion in annual profits made from trafficking in Asia. And as the sex industry goes online, this worrying trend is set to rise.

Against this backdrop, prostitution is soaring. There is an increase in online advertisements where women solicit for paid sex in private flats. There are numerous online forums which rate the performances of sex workers. And although the police have sought to confine these activities to the red light district, their attempts have been only mildly effective.

Previously, the government’s plan of localising commercial sex to certain areas regulated the growth of the industry, meaning authorities could monitor the health of most sex workers and suppress the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. However, the presence of social media has made it difficult for the government to control the proliferation of these activities. And, with them, the transmission of chronic and deadly diseases.

For people who live with an HIV-positive partner, this has had a startling impact. Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group, AWARE, recently released a rare study which found that 57.6% of women who were diagnosed with HIV were married. Nearly half of these women believed that they had acquired this infection from their partners.

Unseen risks

These shocking statistics shed light on the vulnerabilities these women face. Ms Tan, Head of Advocacy and Research at AWARE, explains, “Some women faced verbal or physical abuse when trying to avoid unprotected sex with their husbands through condom use”. These women are unable to negotiate condom use, facing serious risks of being infected with a sexually-transmitted disease and the fear of stigma in their society.

But instead of leaving their partners, some women have chosen to stay on due to social and economic reasons. This is especially so for foreigners who are married to Singapore men and have relocated to live with them. Dr Yap, a pastoral advisor to the Free Community Church highlights, “Foreign wives on social visit passes are not allowed to work and are wholly dependent on their husbands for financial support, making it hard to afford expensive medication”. It is not just about the finances which make them stay with their spouses. It is also the maternal anxiety of being separated from their children when their visas expire.

And Singapore is not just a hotspot for the sex trade. It is also one of Asia’s main destinations for trafficked foreign women thanks to its lucrative opportunities. Most of these women come from less developed countries like Thailand and they see migration as the best solution for them to be financially independent. However, these women are often duped by the promise of making quick money, only to be forced into sexual servitude.

Hidden abuse

The other worrying factor is that almost all trafficked victims who were forced to work in the sex industry had experienced some form of abuse. One Singapore member of parliament, Mr Yam, tells of a Bangladeshi sex worker who ended up servicing ten men on weekdays and up to 45 on weekends. And of a woman with a good singing voice who came to Singapore to be an entertainer but was stripped and confined in a cold room until she agreed to be a prostitute.

Stories of trafficking victims are numerous, but trafficking figures remain vague due to the illegal nature of this crime. However, in 2012, it was reported that police had handled 52 sex trafficking reports, a significant increase from 43 reports the year before. In 2010, Singapore slipped into the watchlist of countries which had a large number of trafficking victims which have failed to show willing to combat the situation.

These figures show there is an urgent need for better policies to protect innocent spouses from the effects of unwanted sexually transmitted diseases and victims of sex trafficking. As AWARE spokeswoman, Ms Tan, emphasises, “More public education is needed to promote inclusion of women living with HIV in the family, healthcare settings, the workplace and generally in the community.” In this, the removal of social stigma is a crucial step in allowing them to thrive in a safe and supportive environment.

There is also a need for more effective measures to crack down on online vice activity. Although there have been recent changes to the Women’s Charter, s146A, which penalises those who operate or maintain websites which offer sexual services or allow prostitutes to advertise, it is still hard to detect online pimping.

Widening reach

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin underlines, “The rise of online media has allowed vice syndicates to take their business online to widen their reach to clients while hiding behind the anonymity of the internet. This makes it challenging for the police to prevent and detect criminal groups conducting such a business.

However, the government has stepped up its response towards Singapore’s sex trafficking scene. In 2015 the government passed its first anti-trafficking law, the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, which heavily penalises all forms of human trafficking. Its long-term effect remains to be seen.

The government has also extended assistance to victims which goes further than ever before, including a toll-free 24-hour hotline with translation services so women can seek help. Another big step is the promise that trafficking victims will not be treated as illegal immigrants.

Ms Chhoa-Howard, a research analyst at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, hails this present effort as a “marked change from the past,” saying there are “encouraging signs that Singapore is increasing its recognition of victims rights.” But despite these marked improvements, more needs to be done.

Poverty is a key factor propelling many from less developed economies to migrate to wealthier nations with hopes of a better life. The lack of employment opportunities arising from gender discrimination is also a reason why women, in particular, make the journey. And that their destination is sadly so far from the one they dream of.