In a land where you’re not allowed to chew gum and littering is a crime taken seriously, it seems odd that prostitution was, and still is, legal. I signed up for a tour of Singapore’s Red Light District offered on Friday nights and wandered the back alleys of Chinatown where I spied a few working girls and learned so much about the history of the sex trade in Singapore that it was hard to make sense of it all. Perhaps I’d better start with some of the more historical facts and then move forward.
Not surprisingly, as Singapore developed as a free port, the world’s oldest profession grew along with it. Poor families sold their daughters into the sex trade. Girls who were outcast by their families turned to brothels as a means of survival. Some had no idea what their fates would be. It’s the same sad story everywhere. But add to that Singapore’s booming opium trade. Some of the girls were known as “flower girls,” meaning that they supplied their customers with opium as well as sex. It’s not hard to imagine that many of these girls partook of the opium, too.
There used to be 18 brothels in the Chinatown area. You would see red lanterns outside the doors of working girls, signifying that they were “busy.” Even today, you can see red-numeraled addresses on the doors that marked dens of ill repute. You just need to know where to look for them. Only 3 brothels remain in the red light district, where prostitution is still legal. But the red light district seems only vaguely defined: the Geylang area, Kreta Ayer, and a few back alley roads. I can’t help but wonder whether the red light district could more easily be defined as anywhere that you find prostitutes?
Maybe that wouldn’t work. The red light district prostitutes have to be at least 18 years old and carry yellow cards that certify that they’ve gotten health checks. I wonder how many men ask to see those? What is nice (if nice is the right word) is that it’s illegal for anyone else to make money off of a woman who has sex for money. So it sounds like pimps are out. These women are keeping all the money they make. BUT (because nothing’s ever easy), they’re not allowed to solicit sex. Rules, rules, rules.
Also, Malay men are kept away from the red light district brothels (or so our tour guide said) because many of the girls cross the border from Malaysia to work and their families are probably unaware. Malay or not, men may want to be a little cautious when they “visit” these girls and make sure they put an adequate number of parking coupons on their dashboards. The parking lots in the red light district rent spots by the half hour and the ever-efficient Singapore version of meter maids frequently check for offenses. Tickets are mailed to the offender’s home with a description of when and where they committed their parking offense. Uh oh! Better hope the wives don’t get to the mailbox first!
So, sin in Singapore is basically legal, but there are a couple of exceptions. First, oral sex is only allowed if it is done as foreplay for intercourse. I’m not sure who’s checking this. And it is illegal for two men to have sex, but not two women. Apparently, the Queen in charge during the making of these laws did not think that two women could have sex, so she didn’t rule against it.
Sex in Singapore is complicated. That’s what I surmised from my tour through Chinatown’s busy streets and back alleys. It’s legal, as long as you follow all the rules. And I guess it was okay to light up and smoke some opium afterward, but don’t even think about chewing gum.