The changing face of vice in Geylang

Online vice is on the rise and the authorities have changed the laws to combat it.

Changes to the Women's Charter kicked in on July 1 and they include a new section, 146A, which targets those who operate or maintain websites which offer sexual services or allow prostitutes to advertise.

Those convicted can be fined up to $10,000 or jailed for up to five years, or both.

Section 146 was also tweaked to make clear that it is an offence for a person to live on or receive various forms of gratification in return for helping in the prostitution of another person.

The changes are a response to how the Internet has affected the world's oldest industry - the sex trade.

HIDDEN CRIME

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.

'' MR TAN CHUAN-JIN, Minister for Social and Family Development.

Instead of having highly visible red-light districts, the shift online has made prostitution a more hidden and discreet business.

It means prostitutes no longer need middlemen - agencies and pimps - to source for clients or to provide a venue.

And many have decided to have a go at it alone.

Singapore is no exception. Over the past few years, websites where women post advertisements to solicit for paid sex have sprung up.

These women operate out of Housing Board or private flats, and the advertisements are grouped according to where they are located - north, south, east, west or central Singapore.

Some websites also have a special section for Geylang. The Sunday Times found at least 60 women using condominium units in the area for prostitution.

Clients can browse the websites by the women's location, age, bust size, height, types of sexual services offered, or how much they cost.

The women's "business" addresses are not listed on the websites.

Customers can call or text to find out the rough location. The exact address is revealed only when the client reaches the area.

The police have, in the past, raided HDB flats in areas such as Woodlands, Jurong West and Ang Mo Kio that were being used for prostitution.

In Parliament earlier this year, during the second reading of the Women's Charter amendment Bill, Mr Alex Yam, an MP in the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, asked how the law would deal with sites that are hosted abroad.

"A simple Google search will reveal that there are many such sites but there are no provisions under Section 146 for this," he noted.

Ireland, for instance, banned the advertising of sexual services in 1994. However, it has had limited impact as the websites simply moved abroad.

In his speech, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin acknowledged the online vice problem and the challenges it posed.

He said: "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.

"Sexual services at hotels and residences arranged by vice syndicates using new technologies also affect the public's sense of safety and security."

Such friction has already surfaced in Geylang.

Last year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said that some parts of the red-light district in Geylang will be rezoned for "commercial/institution" uses to halt the development of more homes in the area.

"This is to minimise the issues arising from incompatibility of uses, and friction between residential and non-residential uses in the area," the URA had said then.

IT manager Henry Goh, 43, said that more condominium and shoebox units in Geylang are being used for vice.

"Two to three years ago, there was one unit on my floor using it for such purposes but now, there are three on my floor alone," said Mr Goh, who lives at Viento, a condominium in Lorong 30.

"It is obvious. Seven to eight different men visit the unit at different times at night. So I just make sure I lock my doors."

Mr Adhi, 32, an engineer who lives at Smart Suites, off Lorong 27, said he finds it disturbing when strange men call on the intercom at night.

"We have to keep saying that it's the wrong number."

He added, highlighting his concern: "It is not safe as we have a four-year-old daughter."

Ms Vanessa Ho, 28, director of sex workers' rights group Project X, said stepped-up police patrols in areas such as Geylang in the past few years have resulted in more sex business being transacted online.

She said: "This makes it harder for us to reach out to support them in terms of their safety or health, and the changes in law further stigmatise them and give their customers more leverage to threaten or abuse them behind closed doors."

Project X started an outreach programme two years ago for escorts who ply their trade online, mostly to inform migrant sex workers of the support services it provides.

It is also in contact with a small group of local freelancers, who are mainly students and professionals.

Meanwhile, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman said that the police take a pragmatic approach to prostitution, which focuses on confining vice activities within traditional red-light areas.

He said: "Enforcement action is also taken to ensure that organised groups do not gain a foothold through such activities, and that no person is forced into prostitution or exploited."


Prostitutes turning to less visible avenues to ply trade


Smart Suites, one of the condominiums in Geylang where prostitutes advertising online are operating from. MHA said the police will take action against owners of residential apartments used by vice workers. PHOTO: ST FILE

Geylang's brothels and streetwalkers are the most obvious signs of its notoriety as a red-light district, but the sex trade there is expanding into areas less visible.

The Sunday Times found at least 60 prostitutes from China advertising their services online and operating in condominiums and apartments in Geylang.

The advertisements were on at least 10 websites.

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'Internet posting is like a job ad'


Sex workers used to be a common sight in Geylang (above) as they worked in brothels or plied the streets under the watchful eye of pimps. But the rise of the Internet has led to a new group of Geylang prostitutes - freelancers, who rent apartments both within and outside the traditional red-light districts and use the Internet to look for customers. PHOTO: ST FILE

Like most 19-year-old Singaporeans, Samantha (not her real name) is smartphone- and Internet-savvy.

During the day, she uses the Internet to do research for her school work - she is pursuing a business diploma in a private institution.

But at night, she turns to the Internet to meet clients.

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Govt boosts law to fight online vice


Posed photo of a man watching online sex sites and forums. ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW

The Ministry of Home Affairs told The Sunday Times that it expects online vice to rise, given the increasing access to the Internet, but it has put more teeth into the law with new additions that will help the police to fight the problem.

"The trend has been driven by the emergence of specialist websites, apps and other Internet technologies, which have enabled vice syndicates and sex workers to reach a wider audience, hide behind the anonymity afforded by the Internet and conduct vice activities discreetly," a ministry spokesman said.

"This presents some challenges for the police (who are working) to prevent and detect criminal groups conducting such illicit activities."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 10, 2016, with the headline 'Modern tech shakes up world's oldest profession'. Print Edition | Subscribe