Glowing neon lights signal the brothels that line the street. When the doors swing open, glimpses of women can be seen inside sitting on massage chairs, waiting. On the street a mix of dialects and languages fill the cigarette polluted air; from Hokkien and Mandarin to Vietnamese and English. A colourful array of sex enhancement drugs is sold on styrofoam boxes along the bumpy footpath. An eager customer approaches a seller. “This one powerful?” he asks. The salesman responds confidently whilst rolling a cigarette: “Very powerful!” Sex shops are on also on display, and men huddle outside karaoke bars filled with hostesses. This is Singapore’s only red-light district. This is Geylang.
During the first COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020, brothels in Geylang switched off their neon lights. The initial lockdown measures eased in June of that year. However, the Singaporean government implemented two further lockdowns in 2021. Most of the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in April this year. Although brothels are now re-opening for business, online sex work has become more prominent. Whilst the industry has been shaped by the pandemic, conservative attitudes and ambiguous laws continue to affect sex workers in Singapore. Prostitution is legal under the regulation of the government; however, most sex workers operate illegally. In a society where the topic of sex remains largely taboo, sex workers face a range of significant issues.
According to Singapore’s only sex worker rights organisation, Project X, workers in regulated brothels must attend regular medical checks and have a ‘yellow card.’ The ‘yellow card’ system has many requirements. To be registered you must be from one of five nationalities: Singaporean, Malaysian, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai. You must also be between the ages of 21 to 35. Migrant sex workers will face a life-time travel ban when their two-year visa expires. While sex work is legal, there are many laws criminalising the actual activity. Managing an unregistered brothel, ‘pimping,’ or publicly soliciting for sex is prohibited. This legislation falls under the Women’s Charter of 1961.
Project X claims there are roughly 10,000 sex workers in Singapore. However, less than 10 per cent are legally registered. Project X human right’s defender Sherry Sherqueshaa has been a street-based sex worker since she was 20. She says some sex workers do not meet the requirements for a ‘yellow card’, while others will work illegally to avoid splitting their income with the government. She says unregistered sex workers are at higher risk of abuse
“At Project X, we recognise physical, emotional, and monetary abuse,” she says. “After any incidents or abuse happens to migrant sex workers, they tend to only keep it to themselves. They live with it in fear of making a report, because if they do, they might have to disclose where they got their clients from and how it happened. This would risk them being sent back to their country.”
Dr Rayner Tan agrees. A socio-behavioural researcher at the National University of Singapore, he works closely with unregistered sex workers to address the social and health issues that make this group vulnerable.
“These sex workers work as freelancers,” he says. “Since they’re working alone, they are also susceptible to violence which I believe would occur more on a one-to-one basis. Because they are operating in a space that is deemed illicit by local law enforcement, it’s hard to also make sure they are doing it safely. That’s where a lot of the risks form for migrant sex workers.”
Tan believes the pandemic has amplified the health issues within this group. After talking to sex workers, he learnt many were having sex in riskier places such as outdoors or in cars. This made it harder to prevent assault and the transmission of sexual diseases. Tan believes compounding these issues is the lack of clarity around the legal rights of un-registered sex workers. He firmly states: “There is a lack of this protection in spite of these risks.”
Protecting sex workers during the pandemic was also a core priority for Project X. The organisation’s office is filled with an eclectic range of posters. A group of barbie dolls are on display at the entrance holding signs with sex worker positive messages. Sherqueshaa says her team worked extremely hard during lockdowns.
“When COVID struck Singapore, sex workers really suffered a lot,” she says. “They are in a community that is often forgotten by people around, in this case the government. In Singapore, the government provides grants and funding to each individual, especially those who are facing a decrease in income. But for sex workers, we don’t have any form of receipts or accounting for our sex work.”
Tan also believes sex workers were often excluded from COVID-19 support schemes in Singapore. The government provided two main grants for individuals, the Temporary Relief Fund and The Courage Fund.
“The government was giving out stimulus packages or financial assistant packages for individuals,” he says. “While some sex workers could access them, I think a lot of them were reluctant to do so because they were afraid of getting ‘outed’ as sex workers.”
This fear of being ‘outed’ is rooted in sex work being generally a taboo topic. Tan thinks there is a link between Singapore’s lack of comprehensive sexual education and attitudes towards sex workers. According to the Ministry of Education, the Singaporean curriculum teaches pre-marital abstinence, sexual disease prevention and the consequences of casual sex. Tan firmly believes the education system shapes the experiences of sex workers.
“It is interesting right because I guess without sex none of us would be here, but we all see it in a very ‘no I shouldn’t talk about it’ kind of light,” he says. “In that sense, when we discuss sex work and the definition of ‘obscenity,’ that’s where some of these values or stigmatised views bleed into law.”
As a Muslim transgender sex worker, Sherqueshaa has been at the receiving end of conservative backlash. The 31-year-old sits upright and brushes her dark hair behind her ear. Her experience as a street-based sex worker for more than a decade has given her a sense of confidence. She has learnt to not question herself when it comes to her religion and sex work.
“When it comes to faith and my profession, I balance the two very well,” she says. “People may think it contradicts and I should give up on one, but I will not.
Sherqueshaa has learnt how to navigate through Singaporean society as she believes the law will not change anytime soon. When it comes to decriminalisation, she says: “It’s a far-fetched hope.” Tan argues decriminalisation should be considered in government policy.
“When you decriminalise, you are able to provide the right services and public health interventions for sex workers,” he says. “They [sex workers] don’t just benefit from it, but the entire society and the entire population benefits because this also protects the partners of sex workers.”
The criminalisation of sex work also extends to the online realm. The Films Act of 1981 prohibits the creation, distribution, or possession of ‘obscene’ content. As the streets emptied during restrictions, Sherqueshaa says there was an unexpected rise in social media platforms for sex work, in particular, the subscription service called ‘Only Fans.’ This platform allows subscribers to chat with and tip sex workers online. Sherqueshaa explains how such platforms became a place of work for many sex workers during the pandemic.
“Having to be at home, how and where do sex workers continue to make a living?” she says. “By having only fans, sex workers improvised themselves. They learnt new skills and they learnt how to do cam recording. These are the efforts made by sex workers to continue to make a living through sex work.”
Although some sex workers were able to shift online, laws continue to restrict the industry. Behind the coloured lingerie of online sex workers, is a harsh reality. In Singapore, the maximum penalty for first time offenders creating ‘obscene’ material is a A$43,096 fine and 2 years imprisonment. But what defines ‘obscene?’
This goes to the heart of lawyer Kirpal Singh’s recent case. Singh represented OnlyFans content creator Titus Low who was fined A$3240 and sentenced to three weeks in jail for posting nude photos and videos. Low has a significant social media presence. A quick scroll of his Instagram feed shows an ‘influencer’ lifestyle, amongst the pictures are shirtless and semi-nude photos. Singh explains Low was arrested after his OnlyFans content got leaked online and appeared on a 12-year-old’s phone. He pushes his glasses onto the bridge of his nose and begins discussing the case.
“Recently, there was a girl from Myanmar who was sentenced and he [Titus] was the second in the world to be sentenced for OnlyFans content,” he says. “It’s a bit of a grey area to some extent. A lot of platforms such as OnlyFans allow for pseudo pornographic material to be posted online.
For Singapore-based online sex worker Tammy Tay, this so called ‘grey area’ is raising concerns. She started an OnlyFans account to support herself during the pandemic. Tay combs her fingers through her ashy blonde hair. Clad in a baggy jumper, she looks different to her online profile, where she is often pictured in delicate lingerie and colourful bikinis. Tay wants the law to be more specific so she can avoid breaches. Her current strategy to avoid legal issues is to blur our any explicit imagery.
“Hearing about Titus, I think it’s really unfair,” she says. “When the law says ‘no obscene materials’ what is obscene? How do you define obscene?”
Singh says other content creators reached out to him for legal advice. Although Low was the first Singaporean to be jailed, Singh says this shows the government are prepared to enforce the laws.
“I think this might be a wakeup call for people dealing with obscene material, for example, OnlyFans content,” he says. “There is a possibility of them being charged if they operate in Singapore. They may want to move to more lenient countries and do the same thing, but in Singapore it is an offence.”
This is not possible for Tay, who runs two beauty salons in Singapore. The 32-year-old says creating content has significantly helped to pay off her business loans. Her office is quaint and polished, decorated simply with a framed sign captioned: ‘Filters are great, but great skin is better.’ Her beauty salons are her pride and joy.
“We are in this space because we do need the money,” she says. “If we were to get in trouble with the law, finding a lawyer would take a lot of money from us. I find it to be very scary for myself. I’m so afraid of breaking the law. I want it to be clear, but it’s not.”
Although the pandemic has changed the sex industry in Singapore, the government’s approach remains the same. Tan believes the law plays a significant role in shaping attitudes and values within society.
“If the law leads, people would also start to see things in a different light,” he says. “The work that sex workers do, from speaking to them, is not easy. I think sometimes we let the ‘sex’ part colour our views of individuals first. If we can look past that, there would be a greater understanding for sex workers.”
The 2022 Curtin Journalism Singapore Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.