Social Visits and Special Passes: Carceral Spaces of Migrant Sexual Labour in Singapore > Sallie Yea

Social Visits and Special Passes: Carceral Spaces of Migrant Sexual Labour in Singapore
Sallie Yea


The relationship between sex and space has been a subject of increasing interest by geographers of late. In Singapore, the normative sexual spaces – officially or unofficially – include Geylang, Orchard Towers on Orchard Road, Desker Road and Joo Chiat Road. Such spaces may be spatially regulated through local council zoning, health, and criminal justice provisions, all of which enable the spatial management of this threatening sexual population. These spaces contain deviant sexual laboring and help contribute to the place identity of those districts as migrant sexual labourers work on the street, in regulated or in unregulated brothels.

What is less understood, however, are the spatial trajectories of migrant ‘sexual labourers’, a term that I prefer because it represents a position outside the dichotomy between prostitution as forced and ‘sex work’ as legitimate work, who operate beyond conventional prostitution districts and their encounters with the state. In such cases, these migrant sexual labourers experience what I label collectively as ‘open incarceration’ in which migrant sexual labourers are no longer as clearly contained as they may have previously been in particular districts. These trajectories can be understood as deriving from, and responsive to, the regimes that govern migrant sex work in Singapore.

Migrant Sexual Labourers Encounters with the State in Singapore

Prior to 2010, the Singapore government responded to the presence of migrant sexual labourers through two policy strands that did not always fit comfortably with each other. On the one hand, prostitution is considered illegal if it involves a minor (under 18 years), or if it involves a woman not acting under her own volition (that is, if a pimp is involved in arranging and benefitting from a woman’s prostitution) (Penal Code of Singapore).

On the other, prostitution is ‘tolerated’, largely because of the supposed ‘threats’ posed to Singaporean female sexual integrity by the 900,000 male migrant workmen working in Singapore as temporary labour migrants in low skilled and poorly remunerated work, such as in the construction sector. As one informant recounted to me, “When I saw the police conduct a raid on a bar in Orchard Towers I asked one of the policeman why they let the women in to Singapore and then they just arrest them and send them back home. The policeman responded that if they don’t let the foreign prostitutes in the migrant workmen would go after our own women” (personal communication, 10 May 2010). Certainly, the fear that foreign workers would threaten Singaporean women’s sexuality is an undercurrent to the punitive regimes that govern migrant sexual labourers in Singapore. In my view, the government manages the conflicting pressures – to punish or to ‘turn a blind eye’ – by engaging in selective monitoring and regulation of migrant sexual labourers through raids and nightly patrols of known sex districts.

Post-2010 however, the situation changed slightly as migrant sexual labourers became scrutinized for their possible claims to redress as ‘victims of trafficking’. This partitioning of migrant sexual labourers into those who are ‘deserving victims’ and those who are ‘criminal offenders’ was significant because it affected a (partial) change in the trajectories of migrant sexual labourers post-encounter with the state. In particular, ‘victims’ are held in Singapore for the purposes of investigation of their case, usually in migrant worker shelters, whilst migrant sex workers are deported, eventually. Migrant sex workers who are not deemed to be ‘victims of trafficking’ can be subject to imprisonment for various offences (soliciting, working without a valid working visa, overstaying a visa, amongst others), or can be held in Singapore for the purposes of investigation – either she is investigated and may have to appear in court, or she is charged and must be fined and subjected to deportation, but only once she raises the money for her air ticket to her home country. It is to these trajectories generated as a result of encounters with the State that we now turn.

Carceral (Im)mobilities and Survival Sex of Migrant Sexual Labourers in Singapore

Women who are ‘caught’ by the police or immigration authorities for prostitution are not all dealt with in the same way by the State in Singapore. In broad terms, the women fall into three groups, each of which have different spatial trajectories of open or confined incarceration in Singapore attached to them. First are women who are deemed victims of trafficking.  In these cases, women are normally placed in a shelter or government-run dormitory for the duration of a police investigation. The majority of these ‘victims’ are minors (under 18 years of age) because there is little ambiguity in identifying minors as victims of trafficking (though see Yea forthcoming a). Second are women who are placed on a Special Pass by authorities, released into the community and instructed to raise the funds necessary for their air ticket (and possibly fine) to facilitate their deportation from Singapore. Finally, there are women who are confined in prisons in Singapore, having been charged and convicted of a vice-related matter. The first and second groups are of particular interest here since they more readily conform to an open incarceration situation than those confined in prison, and remain in Singapore on a Special Pass visa. I wish to briefly recount the experiences of a few of these women here.

Julie and her friends

The following excerpt from my field note (26 January 2010) illustrate the trajectories of open incarceration of some Filipina women in my research:

Julie sat quietly texting to her “Singaporean friends” whilst I talked with the other women in her group who had come to meet with me to discuss their situation in Singapore. It was late afternoon and from their make-up, jewellery, and tight-fitting jeans I knew they would soon be off to look for customers as “freelancers” in one or two of the pubs in Orchard Towers where they already knew the bar manager, using the only resource they now had available to them in Singapore; namely their sexual labour. It was hard to broach the topic openly though, as they had already received assistance from the Philippines Embassy in Singapore. (Re)entering prostitution voluntarily might dilute their status as nationals in distress and so an open declaration to me could, in their minds, compromise the willingness of the Embassy to continue assisting them. Eventually though, I simply asked Julie directly, “Julie, are you seeing customers now?”, with the assurance that what she told me about this was between us. “Sallie, how can I survive here if I don’t do that? You know I am stuck in Singapore and no one is helping me; I have to help myself. I need to send money home but I can’t even afford to eat. Of course I have no choice but to do prostitution”. The five left me to make their way to Orchard Road, all still absorbing in their texting, trying to set up “dates” or free dinners from “boyfriends” or regular customers for the coming night.

Julie’s admission articulates precisely the key theme of this paper; namely, the circumstances of migrant women in Singapore’s multifarious sex and nightlife industries who encounter police or immigration authorities. Although many of these women are deported quickly, others, like the five introduced above, effectively become “stuck” in Singapore as they await involvement in police investigations. Sometimes these investigations can take months and, for some of the women I came to know, their sojourn in limbo extended for more than a year.[i] During this time, police confiscate the passport of the woman concerned and release her from police custody with only a piece of paper called a Special Pass and the contact details of the police officer in charge of her case. The five in Julie’s group had all been in Singapore for five months in this situation.

Mary-Ann and Rica

I imagine Mary-Ann, whom I met in early 2011, being released from the police station with her Special Pass in her hand, her mobile phone, the clothes she is wearing and whatever money she has in her wallet at the time. I feel her thinking where she is going to go now, where she is going to sleep that night, how she can buy her next meal. I see the anxiety, on her face, over her children back in the Philippines whom she had continually been promising, but failing to deliver remittances. Her mind whirls with possibilities and problems. Her first step is to contact one of her workmates and at least one – and possibly more – of her former customers.

Mary-Ann and Rica were staying at an Australian “friend”’s house when I first met them. “He’s a customer in the pub, but not a bad customer”, Mary-Ann tells me. In the house they stay in the maid’s room because the Australian guy does not have a maid. They cook and clean as if they were domestic helpers in Singapore. But their position in the house is not so assured and in a few days they must leave and look for another place to stay. They contacted the Australian customer because he was kind to them in the pub and knew that their situations were not good. Mary-Ann still keeps the numbers of six of the regular customers she had from the pub and calls them up to ask for a “dinner date” or if they have any spare money they can give her. She knows eventually they will probably stop doing her favours unless they “get something in return” but she hopes her case will be resolved by that time.[ii]

Rica did not like the pub work at all and refused to keep contact with some of the customers the way Mary-Ann has. As we sit together chatting in a cafe in Lucky Plaza she keeps texting and then finally receives a phone call from someone. Speaking English she excitedly coos down the line, “I’m here. You come up to the cafe on the third floor and you’ll see me…. I know, first time to meet is exciting”. She quickly explains that she has been emailing a Singaporean guy and they arranged a “date” for dinner that night. She’s never met him before and when he shows up I’m not so convinced that he is interested in helping her out. She assures me that it will be okay, but I make sure she still has my number as the couple say goodbye and she saunters off to her next free meal and possibly some “gift” of money from her blind date.

When Mary-Ann and Rica finally need to leave their Australian friend’s house they think they will “jump” to a Filipina that Rica knows who is a domestic in Singapore. Rica has already phoned her friend to ask permission from the “ma’am” to stay there for a few days. After that they will try another Filipina they know, but they hope they can be cleared to leave Singapore before then.

Julie and the others in her group who were introduced above chose a different path to Mary-Ann and Rica to cope with their in-betweeness in Singapore. Julie tells me that they are all sharing an apartment with twelve “timers”[iii] in an outlying suburb of eastern Singapore. They each pay SGD 15 a day for their space in one of three bedrooms and put in a few dollars each day to buy some food, which one of the women cooks. They take a taxi to the place where they think they can find customers each night. Cindy is the only exception. She has a Filipino seafarer boyfriend who gives her money but can’t provide her with a place to stay. She promises him that she won’t see customers like the others in her group, but she must continually justify this to him whenever they meet.

The above fragments of women’s strategies for maneuvering their situations reveal that networks – of friends and compatriots, boyfriends and customers, former managers and bosses – are an important resource for women in their efforts to reduce their vulnerability during their sojourns “in between” in Singapore. Such networks can also help women to achieve the one goal that is denied to them in the context of a shelter, namely to secure money to send back to their families. This was indeed the key site of anxiety for all the women in my study who, like Julie, Mary-Ann and Rica, were mostly single mothers and the sole breadwinners of their families (see also Yea 2013b).


I have explored the trajectories of post- encounter of migrant women working as sexual labourers in Singapore. Most of the women I met (re)entered prostitution voluntarily in order to either make enough money to buy an air ticket home or to survive whilst they awaited police proceedings or investigations, or waited for their case to be resolved, becoming in-between people in Singapore, occupying spaces of legality and illegality simultaneously. The Singapore State’s responses to migrant sexual labourers are central to the creation and maintenance of these geographies. We cannot so easily understand the relationship between space and (deviant) sexuality by simply looking at the ways prostitution districts emerge as privileged spaces of containment. There are other spatialities to this relationship between sexual labour and space. In this case, they are characterised by clandestine movements that can be understood more in terms of networks of customers, bar owners and managers, and friends where more fluid sexual liaisons that both emerge from, but also transcend, clear client-sexual labourer relationships develop.

On reflection, it appears that the State in Singapore is implicated in the production of subjects (vulnerable women who return to prostitution or open-ended intimate relationships with customers under circumstances of constrained choice) and spaces (the clandestine geographies that emerge from these women’s maneuverings in Singapore). The implication of the State is crystalised through the singular action of conferring a Special Pass.

Sallie Yea is Assistant Professor at Humanities and Social Science Education (HSSE), National Institute of Education.


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David Howell, D. Beckingham and F. Moore 2008. ‘Managed zones for sex workers in Liverpool: contemporary proposals, Victorian parallels’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33 (2): 233-250.

Phil Hubbard 1997. ‘Red light districts and toleration zones: geographies of female street prostitution in England and Wales’, Area 29 (2): 129-40.

-1998. ‘Community action and the displacement of street prostitution: evidence from British cities’, Geoforum 29 (3): 269-286.

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National Population and Talent Division 2013.A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore: Population White Paper. January. Singapore: Government of Singapore.

Sallie Yea forthcoming a. ‘Trafficked enough? Classifying Victims and Chastizing Migrants in Singapore’. Paper submitted to Geoforum (1 April 2013).

-forthcoming b. ‘”Singapore is my Prison”: Carceral Spaces of Exploited Migrant Workmen’. Paper presented at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, Los Angeles 9-14 April, 2013.

-2013a.Social Visits and Special Passes: Vulnerabilities and Exploitation of Migrant Women in Singapore’s Sex and Nightlife Entertainment Sector. Singapore: Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.

-2013b.‘Economies of Emotion: Remittance and the Transnational Geographies of Shame for Filipina Women in Singapore’, Development and Change (in press).

Vivianne Zelizer 2007. The Purchase of Intimacy. New York: Princeton University Press.

[i] A representative from the Philippines Embassy related to me that some women that have been assisted by the Embassy remain in Singapore on Special Passes for up to two years (personal communication, 11 June 2010).

[ii] This pattern of asking ex-customers for favours is an example of the blurring of clear distinctions of intimate sexual/ romantic relationships and transacted sexual relations in the context of prostitution. Vivianne Zelizer (2007) has suggested that, in the contemporary period, it is no longer tenable to clearly separate such spheres of intimacy.

[iii] A timer is the term used to describe Filipinas who are professional sex workers or hostesses and have been to Singapore (and possibly other countries) many times for such work. Timers are mostly always cognizant of the key aspects of their work inSingapore.

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