S’porean lady dedicates life to helping sex workers despite pushback from parents & govt authorities
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
The Naysayers’ Book Club, published in 2018 by Epigram, is a collection of stories of Singaporeans who for various reasons brand themselves or are branded as “naysayers”.
The book, which you can buy a copy of here, explores the individual roles they play in civil society, as well as their brushes with the law and authorities.
It is written by Simon Vincent, a freelance writer and multimedia journalist.
One of the Singaporeans featured in the book is Vanessa Ho, the Executive Director of Project X, a sex workers’ rights group that hopes to foster a fair and safe sex industry in Singapore, and also a society that respects sex workers.
Despite numerous challenges from her family and the authorities, Ho has grown the organisation from a small group of volunteers to one where there are three paid staff and a team of over 60 volunteers.
We reproduce excerpts from her story here:
By Simon Vincent
The community worker: Vanessa Ho
Vanessa Ho is counting with her fingers the number of years she has been in charge of the sex workers’ rights group Project X.
“I started in 2011. Is that five years? 2011, ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16.” She looks up, engrossed in her mental sums, before surmising—“Okay, it’s been a long time.”
It has been more than five years, actually.
She was only 23 when she first took up the niche cause. It is an endeavour that is complicated by ambiguous laws and contentious social and political boundaries.
Finding funds to run Project X
Once, she reveals, she was given an oblique warning from a government official regarding her work. Nevertheless, she has a chipper way of going about her activism.
Project X’s first fundraiser, flaunting the playful title Popping the Cherry, launched in early 2017. The goal, as stated on the group’s crowdfunding page, is over S$10,000. The amount is not a lot, according to Ho.
“We wanted to test the waters — and this is probably a very bad way to test the waters — to see exactly how invested people are in us as a movement. It’s for us to measure how far we have come. I hate doing crowdfunding. I hate doing fundraising dinners. Because I know that we’re not that palatable a cause yet, so to speak.
We don’t trade in sad stories, poverty porn — that kind of stuff — and we keep our cases very private and confidential. We don’t share a lot, but we go out with a message that sex workers are human beings too and we are here to provide support to this community that nobody else is providing support to, or at least the kind of support that we provide.”
Going beyond just giving condoms and lubricants
The group distributes free condoms and lubricants to sex workers.
As the “More than just condoms” slogan on its logo indicates, though, the group aims to go beyond reproductive health measures. Project X is about empowering sex workers.
“There are people out there who say, ‘Okay, I can help you, but you quit sex work first.’ If you open any social work handbook, that’s the number one thing to never ever do. So we try to go in from a very non-judgemental point of view.”
Project X was founded in 2008 by the social worker Wong Yock Leng, who saw that there was a gap in services for sex workers. She, along with other volunteers, walked the streets of the Geylang red-light district to reach out to them and learn of their concerns.
Since Ho took over in 2011, the group has amped up its community-building efforts, creating programmes like art workshops, yoga sessions and financial literacy talks.
Underpinning Project X’s emphasis on sex workers’ rights is its partnership with the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office to provide them legal advice. In 2016, Project X also partnered with Singapore Management University students to study attitudes towards condom use by the clients of sex workers.
Challenges in running the project
For all of Project X’s work, Ho’s suspicion about its general “palatability” seems to be true.
A week and a half into the fundraiser, the group has brought in just over S$800, worse than what she had expected.
She can get that same amount from one person just by “talking” and “really persuading them”, she says. (The final tally, after more than a month ended up over S$4,000, less than half the intended amount.)
The money has not come from organic means.
“We’ve planted some donors” — this is one of her many candid admissions. “The first one was me, because you need to get the ball rolling… Then my partner donated. And then a friend donated. Everyone who donated, we kind of know.”
Project X is not in dire straits, though, because it does not “have a massive operational cost”. The condoms they distribute are partly sponsored by Ok. Condoms, and running workshops, Ho says, does not cost too much money.
Besides her and one other full-time worker, there are two part-time staff members. “So human resource cost is biggest because we are the ones who talk to people and do the work.”
Operating out of Ho’s home in Little India
Much of that work happens here, in this old house in Little India.
This space, which doubles as Project X’s community centre and Ho’s home, has character — to use that all-encompassing term for quaint locales.
A vestige of the colonial era, it is protected by conservation rules. Features of the house, including the zinc roof and the open balcony in the living room, are not to be modified under the agreements of the lease.
Lining the walls on one side are a DVD shelf and cupboards plastered with activist slogans like “I am a trans ally” and “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”.
Stocked in them are zines featuring artwork by sex workers, pamphlets on sexual health and condoms. In the centre is a long worktable and on the other side is the kitchen.
In one corner, Vanessa is seated on a sofa. Accompanying her are pillows in the shape of the poop emoji and an iced gem biscuit. The sprawling eclecticism matches Ho’s spontaneous musings on finding her feet in Singapore.
Parents questioned her career choices
Ho’s father is a businessman and her mother a systems analyst. For them, her career choices were alarming.
“I was on papa-mama’s scholarship. They paid for my education overseas. So they clearly invested a f-tonne of money, right? At that time, it was 1 to 3, not 1 to 2.” She is referring to the pound’s exchange rate to the Singapore dollar.
“My education fees were expensive. So they were like, ‘Oh my god, I spend all this money on your education and you come out and do charity work? Where is the return?’ Education is an investment, right, from the point of view of very typical, traditional Chinese families?”
She curls her index finger and her thumb to make the zero sign. “But kosong,” she says. “No return at all. So they are f-ing pissed off.”
It was not just the lack of gloating rights that concerned her parents, though. They were afraid.
Secretly continued her activism despite father’s disapproval
Besides working at Post-Museum, Ho had also volunteered for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).
The group and another migrant workers’ rights organisation, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), had applied for a licence to conduct a vehicle procession to symbolise the danger migrant workers face when they are packed in the open decks of lorries.
The licence was denied.
“Migrant Workers are Humans, not Cargo” was supposed to be emblazoned on the protest lorry. Ho utters the slogan verbatim. She remembers it “very clearly” because of the reports on transport deaths of foreign workers in 2010.
When news of the rejection came out, Ho’s father barred her from working at HOME. She continued, though, secretly.
Her father’s fear, Ho explains, comes from seeing the arrest of the alleged Marxist dissidents in 1987 and the defamation suits that bankrupted the opposition politician Chee Soon Juan in the 2000s.
Ho’s father did not want her to be arrested as well, and, as Ho says, he “blackmailed” her.
“He was like, ‘Your brother hasn’t gone to university. You already had your university chances overseas. Don’t sabo your brother. He’s still not there yet.'” He did not want Ho to tarnish her brother’s name.
When Ho joined Project X, she did not tell her parents that she had found a permanent job. They were placated when she clinched a part-time job as an associate lecturer in SIM University (since renamed Singapore University of Social Sciences), conducting modules on film and gender.
“So that paid me f-ing well. And so that shut them up for a while,” she says, before correcting herself. “Actually, it didn’t. They were like, ‘Why don’t you do it full time? Don’t do it part time.’”
Garnered quite a bit of media attention
Her parents now know quite well that she is working for Project X. She has appeared in the newspapers, The Straits Times and Today, after all.
Being in the limelight of the mainstream media, and not just the alternative media, has somewhat validated her work in the eyes of her parents.
“So they chilled out a little bit, in that sense, but my dad is still trying to get me out of the country. So he’s like, ‘I cannot change this woman. She’s not going to work for a bank for the rest of her life. Maybe I should just pay for her PhD, so that she will get out of this country and stop creating trouble here.’”
Given the somewhat contentious nature of her work, is Ho surprised by the mainstream media attention? “Yes and no.”
The increase in media coverage was partly thanks to Ideas Incubator, an advertising and market consultancy agency that volunteered to write press releases for Project X.
One press release about the apparent rise of abuse among sex workers caught the media’s attention in June 2016. Through its online Abuser Alert submission platform, Project X received 72 reports of abuse in 2015, nearly double the 40 reports in 2014 and much higher than the 10 in 2013.
“All kinds of media responded to say they are interested in doing some article,” says Ho. “But then at the end of the day, I was not so surprised any more because there was a bunch of reportage that was just crap. Like The New Paper’s reportage was rubbish. Wanbao’s coverage was stupid. I felt like burning the paper.”
The New Paper and Lianhe Wanbao are tabloids, the former in English and the latter in Chinese. Both of their reports tended to focus on the sensational aspects of the abuse cases.
Ho singles out Today‘s report as “beautiful”. She appreciates The Straits Times‘ coverage as well, though she does not think it was as in-depth as Today‘s.
There is a silver lining even to the “trash coverage” by the tabloids, she says. The high readership of these papers gives publicity to Project X’s cause and sensitises sex clients to the dangers of abusing the workers.
Whenever Ho sees demeaning stories of sex workers or nonconsensual photographs of them, which could compromise their privacy and safety, she will flag her concerns to editors.
Sometimes she will publicly shame the offending publications, too.
Hoping to improve awareness on marginalised communities
Her efforts seem to have paid off. Overall, she says, the media’s coverage of sex work has improved.
“I would like to attribute some of that change to the work that Project X does… When I first started, the newspapers were horrible. They were writing horrible articles about trans people. They were writing horrible articles about sex workers.”
Among the most marginalised in the sex work community, and in larger society, are transgender people.
Recently, though, Ho says, she is “starting to see positive portrayals of trans people in the mainstream newspapers”. One of which is of Sherry Sherqueshaa by The Straits Times in January 2017.
She left the sex trade and joined Project X in 2014 as a youth programme coordinator. She is now a researcher and writer in the group. The newspaper highlighted her overcoming prejudice and her current efforts in advancing the rights of sex workers.
One other benefit of the media limelight is Ho’s legitimisation in front of sex workers. “It reassures them that I am not a scam.”
The personal and traumatic stories of underage sex workers she meets
In her line of work, Ho hears a range of stories.
Those that have weighed heavily on her mind are of underage sex workers.
“I think it’s very scary. The fact is that Singapore has moved on. But the fact remains that there are a bunch of people that are left behind up until today. I mean, I don’t see, any more, fourteen-year-olds on the street, which is always a good thing. But it’s not such a distant past that these women started sex work.
I’ll give you an example. Someone I know, she’s 18 years old. So when she’s 14 years old, she started. That’s four years ago, right? That’s not too long ago. Someone I know is 26, and she started when she was 14. And that’s 12 years ago.”
The stories she has come across seem to be quite personal and traumatic, like sex workers who grow up in impoverished families and those who are abused by their boyfriends or pimped out by them.
Learning to keep a professional distance
Does she ever find it hard not to get too personally involved?
“Oh, absolutely,” she says solemnly. “I think I had a breakdown about… two to three years ago… and that was when I sought help. I didn’t just crash and burn. I went for counselling. I spoke to friends who are more experienced. And it helped me to refine the way I engage with the community.”
She points out, though, that “professional distance” does not “mean that you have to be alienated”. It is perhaps because of this acute awareness of the needs of sex workers that she would like one of them to eventually replace her.
“There are tonnes of passionate people out there who can very easily take over the job that I am doing right now. But what is the point of passing the baton on to another non-sex-worker? I think it’s more powerful if I can pass it on to a sex worker, who can then advocate for their community.
Since day one, when I joined Project X, I always saw myself as a stepping stone to building up the organisation, to training up the community, to providing resources to the community, such that they can take charge of their own movement. It’s not my movement.”
She relates a story of a sex worker who had shown a newspaper picture of Ho to her friends and said, “This is the person who helped me.”
“I mean, that is quite nice.” She reminisces before seeming to wake herself up. “I mean, not quite nice. It was awesome that she did that.”
Top photo composite image, photos via Instagram @projectx.sg