Public Morality in Sex Spaces > Vanessa Ho

Public Morality in Sex Spaces
Vanessa Ho


As a small country with limited natural resources, Singapore is heavily reliant on foreign direct investment, foreign talent and global trade. This is the narrative that we have come to be familiar with. Such reliance has made it necessary for the city-state to be seen as ‘clean’, both physically and morally, and to maintain this image, the government has poured in large sums of money and effort to ensure certain “moral standards” are upheld. This essay argues that the laws and practices surrounding sex work not only reflect state morality, but also impact negatively on the fundamental human rights of sex workers. On one hand, the state is of the pragmatic opinion that sex work is a ‘necessary evil’ but, on the other, faces public pressure to maintain the squeaky clean image of Singapore, thus resulting in policies and practices which shape sex spaces in Singapore.

Such views often ignore that the fact that sex spaces have historically existed in Singapore in order to cater to the large population of male labourers. For example, the late 18th and early 19th century saw the emergence of a community of sex workers catering to the needs of the population of male coolies. This essay explores the notion of ‘necessary evil’ in the sex space. It explains the role of the sex worker and highlights the state’s policies on sex work and the ritualistic performance of public morality. It will conclude with a closer look at one sex space, Desker Road, and how this space behaves in response to regulations.

‘Necessary Evil’: Sex Workers and Sex Spaces

There are two primary reasons why sex workers in Singapore are deemed a ‘necessary evil’. Firstly, they are seen as necessary in order to cater to the large population of male foreign workers in the city-state who work mainly in the construction industry. The low economic status of these foreign workers makes them undesirable to Singaporean women. As a result, they are treated as hypersexualised and dehumanised economic digits. It is common knowledge that where there are foreign worker dormitories, there will be sex workers present. Secondly, allowing commercial sex is believed to prevent Singaporean women from being subjected to harassment or rape. This belief is borne from the fact that the large majority of ‘legal’ sex workers in Singapore are foreigners.

By my estimate almost all licensed sex workers in Singapore are foreigners.[1] I have only met and heard of four Singaporean yellow card holders, and they are all post-operative transgender sex workers.[2]  These ‘legal’ sex workers sign an agreement with the anti-vice police that they will never be able to return to Singapore again once they terminate or complete their contractual obligations (personal phone conversation with ICA official, 2013). This suggests that these sex workers are no longer welcome once they have been ‘used’.

Naturally, other vice activities like drug abuse and petty crime help to reinforce the notion of sex workers as immoral and deviant. However, they are also deemed ‘immoral’ because they cater to ‘deviant’ sexual desires which fall outside the conventional norms of heterosexuality, monogamy, and reproductive sex. Here, the sex space is not just a space for commercial sex but one for ‘deviant’ desires to manifest. For example, sex workers are often constructed as part of a dichotomy of archetypes such as Whore-Madonna or Good Girl-Bad Girl as discussed in feminist literature. Simply put, the ‘good girl’ is socially constructed as sexually conservative, chaste, faithful and prudent while sex workers are poster girls for the ‘bad girl’ who is sexually promiscuous and accepts money instead of marriage proposals for sex. Sex workers provide services that the ‘good wife’ does not. Apart from providing oral sex and penetrative sexual services, sex workers also offer a variety of other services such as bondage and domination, sadism and masochism (BDSM). Many transgender sex workers also meet male customers who have cross-dressing fantasies. These customers may pay to perform oral sex instead of receiving it. While many of these men do not identify themselves as homosexual, their presence may indicate latent homosexuality[3] and deviant sexualities in Singapore.

Performing Public Morality in Sex Spaces

There are several clauses in the Singapore law that criminalises sex work, but the most utilised one is that for soliciting in a public space.[4] As mentioned above, while owning a brothel is a criminal offence under the Women’s Charter, a number of brothels are given licenses to operate. Women who work in these brothels enjoy immunity from police raids. There is no equivalent of such immunity for streetwalkers—they are, by default, criminals. Such discrimination, in effect, contributes to the image of Singapore as a ‘clean’ city by pushing sex workers off the streets and behind closed doors.

Nevertheless, such regulations have limited effect. Sex workers—local and foreign—standing by the streets are still a common site in different sex spaces, thus underlining the ineffectiveness of such regulations. Many migrant sex workers come on social visit passes which enable them to stay in Singapore as a tourist for a period of between two weeks and two months. In light of the more liberal immigration policies adopted by the state, the previously Singaporean and Malaysian majority of sex workers have been overtaken by those from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These women do not come with the intention of working in a brothel where a significant portion of their earnings would be held by their employers, but rather, of soliciting on the streets. This increasing number of streetwalkers has been flagged several times in Parliament, and citizens have written petitions about the situation, resulting in greater public pressure on the state to act on these women. The state responds by conducting performances of public morality – raids.

Raids are performances of public morality for the consumption of conservative Singaporeans. With the flashing lights and the screaming of sirens, uniformed and plain clothed police officers running around, women scrambling into taxis or away from the area, a gathering crowd, and the arrival of media crews, raids can be very spectacular performances indeed. They enable Singaporeans, in a very visual manner, to see how their taxes are channelled to good use and how civil servants are doing their job tackling the problem of sex work. Raids are almost always reported in the mainstream newspapers, and more often than not, trumpet the number of women caught in their headlines.[5] The women photographed are, invariably, in tight miniskirts, with their hands over their eyes in shame, and led in single file up a police van. They are objects without faces.

However, it is evident that raids are not effective. The women still converge on sex spaces to ply their trade. Unlicensed brothel owners simply send for a different group of women willing to come to Singapore, and there are plenty. As for independent sex workers, many return to tell their friends back home about economic opportunities in Singapore so that even though they are banned from re-entry, their friends may come.[6]

Raids are performances that do not resolve the issue. In fact, they serve no other purpose other than to offer performances of public morality. They are mere response mechanisms either in the form of scheduled raids or when there are public complaints about sex workers. Such performances not only deny sex workers their source of income but also provide an opportunity for police officers to treat them with less than humane treatment. In other parts of the world it has been documented how raids are an opportunity for police officers to rape and/or torture sex workers.

Desker Road and Rowell Road

“It’s almost like when the police step into a red light district, they acquire an added sense of power, and they behave in ways that they would never behave when faced with a non-sex worker.”

Illegal sex worker to Author in Desker Road, 2012

“A young woman like you should not be here at this time. This place is very dangerous.”

Private conversation with a passer-by in Desker Road, 2013

Desker Road is one of the oldest surviving red light districts in Singapore. It is situated in the heart of Little India and is just steps away from the giant supermarket Mustafa. The most active sex space is, however, not Desker Road itself, but the back alley between Desker Road and Rowell Road. Numerous licensed brothels line this alley, together with sex shops and vendors selling sex enhancement drugs. What is more interesting is the row of illegal brothels just adjacent to these licensed brothels. These illegal brothels are facing Rowell Road, and are significantly more visible to the passer-bys than the licensed ones. As a result, the women working in these brothels are also subjected to the law on soliciting, despite them working indoors.

Rowell Road is a pretty spectacular red light district. Not only because of the women who line the stairwells behind grill-doors, or the groups of gawking men who have no respect for road safety, but also because of the level of policing that this area faces. In addition to security officers who walk around in groups on the lookout for parking offenders and litterbugs, Rowell Road is constantly policed by patrol cars, plain-clothed policemen, anti-vice police, and civilian informants. Patrol cars often drive through Rowell Road multiple times a day, sometimes twice an hour. The unspoken rule is that whenever a patrol car drives by, the unlicensed brothels are to close their doors as a sign of respect to the officers. The presence of plain clothed policemen is signalled also by the closed doors of the brothels, and the relative silence in the area. Civilian informants are generally Indian nationals or Bangladeshis men in the area who are paid $50 to tip off the police when they see brothel doors opening.

Rowell Road is an excellent example of how the state polices sex work and sexuality. These practices have created a sex space what most Singaporeans regard as dangerous through inference from the heightened police presence. Rowell Road is now only a space where Indian nationals and Bangladeshis hang out, and where tourists ride through on hired trishaws. The designation of Desker and Rowell Road as a red light district—through policies and practice—has created an enclosure where deviant sexualities are allowed to play out, and where public morality may be occasionally performed. This designation of Desker and Rowell Road as a clearly defined sex space also serves to restrict the movement of the women, many of whom live within an arm’s length from their workplace. Those who live far away take a taxi over to Rowell, rather than public transport. They are well hidden from mainstream society.

Desker and Rowell Roads are a place and space where sex workers dream of greater things. Some dream of having enough money for a full sex reassignment surgery. Others dream of a good life for their parents, and yet others dream of doing their job with as little obstruction as possible. However, the state and public morality will not allow this.


Public morality is a circular exercise. Policies that regulate morality are deemed to be for public interests, and hence, enforcement must also be performed publicly for legitimacy. The sex industry is an example of a form of deviance that, while ‘necessary’ to protect the ‘morality’ of Singaporean women, is immoral and, as a result, has to be actively contained and policed. This contradiction is enshrined in both policy and practice—while there are designated red light districts with the existence of licensed brothels, these areas are also heavily policed through raids. Such practices demonstrate how sex workers are treated as pawns in this game of morality. They are denied any form of respect, and are ostracised from the rest of society. Their freedom of movement is curtailed, and the spaces they work in are not safe for their emotional and mental well-being. Globalisation has provided new economic opportunities for many people around the world. Singapore has become both a transit and a destination country for many sex workers due to the strength of our economy. Yet, public morality stands in the way and violates the fundamental human rights of many who simply yearn for a better life for themselves.

Vanessa Ho is the Programme Coordinator of Project X, an organisation that advocates sex workers’ rights in Singapore.

[1] While owning a brothel is illegal in Singapore under the Women’s Charter, a number of sex workers are issued licenses to work in brothels that are endorsed by the anti-vice police. These women are given a yellow card and are subject to monthly medical check-ups. They are attached to the brothel and are not allowed to work anywhere else whilst on contract. In order to qualify for the yellow card, one must be between the ages of 21 and 35, must not be Muslim or Malay, and must be “female” on their identification cards.

[2] Many biologically female Singaporean sex workers are escorts from online agencies. This is beyond the scope of Project X’s work and this essay.

[3] In my opinion, the existence of Section 377a of the Penal Code contributes greatly to this.

[4] Miscellaneous Offences Act, Section 19: “Every person who in any public road or public place persistently loiters or solicits for the purpose of prostitution or for any other immoral purpose shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 and, in the case of a second or subsequent conviction, to a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both.”

[5] See Project X’s forthcoming media archive.

[6] Illegal migrant sex workers are deported immediately and banned from entering Singapore from between three and five years.

2 thoughts on “Public Morality in Sex Spaces > Vanessa Ho”

  1. Perhaps you did not mean but through this essay, the impression is given that only male foreign workers patronise prostitutes in Singapore or that they form the bulk of men who patronise prostitutes in Singapore.

    Well, local men and expatriates also patronise prostitutes, don’t they?

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