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Chasing vice out of the HDB heartland

Vice syndicates are going beyond unlicensed massage parlours to offer paid sex in HDB flats. The encroachment of sex-for-sale into the heartland, and the easy access to such bookings online, makes for a troublesome mix.


The Housing Board heartland that houses most of Singapore's residents is now also becoming home to the sex trade.

Still, changes to the Massage Establishments Bill passed in Parliament last month, including higher fines for illegal activities, give the authorities more clout to crack down on the scourge. However, the community needs to do its bit to help.

Just how serious is the problem? One indication is that over the last five years, police have arrested 790 people for abetting vice activities such as operating illegal brothels, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said on Nov 6 in a written reply to a parliamentary question on prosecutions involving illegal brothels.

About 12 per cent, or 94, of the offenders were involved in illegal brothels in HDB flats.

Police declined to provide details to The Straits Times on the number of 24-hour massage parlours in HDB estates or how many have been busted for vice activities.

However, those in the know say that more vice joints masquerading as massage parlours are sprouting up in residential areas, as police enforcement continues to target traditional vice areas around Geylang and city centre areas.

As the sex trade moves online, some operators are setting up shop in HDB flats, where rent is cheaper and customers are easy to come by, as some "clients" may shun garish red-light districts but think nothing of going to a convenient HDB flat for paid sex.

The move of sex workers into residential areas, especially HDB flats, is part of a proliferation of vice activity in Singapore.


Since August, the police, working with other government agencies, have arrested more than 300 people suspected of vice activities at entertainment outlets, hotels and residential areas, including massage parlours. In the last three years, dozens of "spas" - some a front for sex-for-sale - have started popping up in Lavender Street, Balestier Road and Jalan Besar.

More worryingly, though, vice activities are multiplying in the HDB heartland, with some blatantly operating right under the nose of families residing there.

Online chatter seems to suggest that massage parlours, 24-hour spas, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinics - or whatever they pretend to be - have become the discreet go-to places for men seeking sex.

Despite several reports showing these establishments to be fronts for paid sex, these seedy businesses have continued to mushroom.

Small fines appear to have done little to deter people from providing illegal services that pay handsomely.

Take the case of a man who has been fined repeatedly for running unlicensed massage establishments: he was first fined $7,000 in February last year; in September that year, he was fined $6,000; and two months later, he was slapped with a $3,000 fine.

His father is a registered TCM practitioner and as such, may have been acting as the fall guy - or tua pek kong in local parlance. He was fined a hefty $24,000 in June this year after pleading guilty to more than 50 charges.

A policy allowing massage establishments to operate 24 hours may have also worsened the vice problem, especially in HDB estates.

Figures show a 40 per cent hike in the number of unlicensed massage establishments detected by police between 2013 and last year.

There were about 300 such errant operators found last year, with 7 per cent operating in HDB properties and 40 per cent engaging in vice-related offences.

Not surprisingly, genuine massage centres protested that their reputation has been tarnished by unlicensed massage parlours.

Currently, there are about 1,200 licensed massage establishments in residential and non-residential areas. Roughly a quarter are located in HDB estates.


But illegal massage parlours are in for a tougher time, with a suite of changes to the Massage Establishments Bill passed on Nov 6.

For example, a person operating an unlicensed massage establishment can now be fined up to $10,000 and jailed up to two years. Repeat offenders face a maximum fine of $20,000 and up to five years' jail.

It was acknowledged that the law, which previously capped a fine at $1,000, was "grossly insufficient" compared with the profits vice operators stand to make, said Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo in Parliament.

Massage outlets in HDB estates will be barred from operating round the clock. These outlets can now operate only from 6am to 11pm as part of tighter operating conditions which apply to licences granted or renewed since August this year.

The new rules will be fully implemented for all licensees within HDB estates after the amended law comes into force.

They add to other laws that deal with vice in the heartland and in cyberspace.

Flat owners who knowingly rent out their properties for vice activities can be fined or disqualified from buying another HDB flat, for example.

Last year, the Women's Charter was amended, making it an offence for anybody here to run any website or other remote communication services offering sexual services for payment.

The changes send a much-needed and strong signal of action to crack down on illegal massage establishments which often operate as if they are legitimate businesses.


But the challenge for the authorities is staying ahead of - or at least catching up with - vice syndicates that are proving nimble in evading the law.

There are two areas that require continued attention and action from the authorities.

First, the threat of vice encroaching further into residential areas is real. This is because, even though massage establishments face tighter restrictions, vice operators are setting up shop in HDB flats.

Vice activities could go underground and exist closer to home when the spotlight is on them.

In September, The Straits Times reported on a brothel being operated out of a four-room flat in Jurong West.

From the outside, there was no indication that sex was being offered. Neighbours were clueless. When they found out, they were aghast at the foreign women's audacity in running a brothel and giving massage services to men just next door to where children and families live.

Exactly how many "freelancers" or vice syndicates have penetrated the heartland is unknown, but it sends a chill when one sex website alone advertises its working girls based on residential districts like Paya Lebar, Jurong West, Serangoon and Hougang.

The brothel in Jurong West was traced by ST through the same sex website - which makes cyberspace another problem area.

Vice syndicates have, since a decade ago, made use of technology to attract clients online in order to make it harder for the authorities to track them.

Without a traditional place of business, vice operators appear less visible, especially when online bookings are made on "members only" websites or through apps.

On one website, where hundreds of foreign women post online sexual and massage services, some are already offering house calls.

In the digital age, the challenge for the authorities remains the dismantling of virtual vice networks which frequently change their IP addresses.

Taken together, the increased marketing reach of vice operators through cyberspace, alongside the furtive cover offered by HDB flats, could make the vice problem harder to track and tackle.

To discourage vice from invading the residential areas, the community needs to call upon the old kampung spirit where neighbours used to take pains to help one another and to get to know newcomers to the estate. These days, neighbours could also keep an eye out for any suspicious activity that needs to be drawn to the police's attention.

All this would make syndicates nervous about venturing into the heartland, and certainly discourage strangers from plying vice in corridors outside the very doors of neighbouring, law-biding Singaporean families.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2017, with the headline Chasing vice out of the HDB heartland. Subscribe