“Where do you think it’ll be?” I asked my colleague Juan, as we found ourselves in the back of a police van.
“I’m guessing Marsiling or Yishun,” he replied.
We were on the way to cover a police raid of two illegal brothels in residential areas but hadn’t been told of the location.
The police, understandably, were keeping mum on where the raid was taking place.
Vice in the heartlands
The operation was part of a crackdown on vice in the heartlands — a follow-on from a spate of 107 arrests that were made between August 27 and September 27 this year.
At the time, police had released a statement to remind the public that HDB flats were meant only for residential purposes.
“The use of flats for vice activities is strictly prohibited,” the statement said.
“It’d be crazy if it was in your estate,” I joked to Juan, as the van zipped down the expressway.
Yet, with each turn after we exited the SLE and headed towards Woodlands, my jest inched closer to reality.
“Oh sh*t, you’re kidding me,” Juan exclaimed as we took one final turn into an HDB estate. “That’s where I live.”
There we were, sitting in a van at the foot of a HDB block just opposite the block where Juan lived.
Vice in the heartlands is real.
Inside the brothel
In the van, we were briefed about what to expect. The illegal brothel was in the midst of being raided, and once that had been completed, the media would be let in.
We were told not to take photos of the women’s or the officers' faces, and to expect to see paraphernalia related to sex work in the flat.
Before long, the raid was completed and we were led to its location.
Having been beaten by the rest of the media into the flat, I found myself crowded out of the room where the alleged sex workers were being held.
As I peered over the shoulders of the media throng, I could just about see two women who were commanding the attention of the cameras.
The sterile and calloused atmosphere in the room was underscored by an orchestra of rapidly firing camera shutters.
Backing away from the huddle and out of the room, I took a minute to observe my surroundings.
There were racks of towels and bedsheets drying in the living room, where with different tenants there might have been couches and a television.
A dining table with an assortment of packet drinks, bug spray, and tissues, along with a glass cabinet curiously filled with a random collection of figurines gave the place some semblance of a home.
Other than that, the musky smell, dim lighting, and dirty floors would have made the flat a depressing place to live.
Around the flat were homemade signs — strips of paper with Chinese words written on it.
They seemed to be addressed mainly to the women staying in the house and consisted of reminders to keep the noise levels down, or not to bring outsiders into the flat.
On the door of the flat were the house rules:
Reminder: In order to make this a comfortable living space, please observe the following
1. Please lock the door whenever you come in or go out
2. Please lower the volume when you are talking on the phone and watching TV
3. Try to adjust the volume down to a level that will not disturb anyone else
4. Change into a clean pair of slippers whenever you enter the house
5. Please inform us if you are bringing a stranger into the house.
We forbid any outsiders from entering the house
In the corner was confirmation of where the musky smell originated from: a makeshift ashtray — really a plastic water bottle — filled with cigarettes.
Once the others cleared out of the bedroom, I headed back in.
Neatly arranged on the bed were condoms, four smartphones, a tissue box, and what looked like a bottle of lubricant.
At the end of the bed sat two women, facing away from the entrance of the room, heads bowed.
The scene was set up perfectly for a photo opportunity.
A police officer stood in the room overseeing the proceedings, making sure that the media did not take photos of the women’s faces.
One of the women was clad only in a towel, and I wondered if she had literally been caught in the act as the police raided the illegal brothel.
A lace nightgown hanging from a hook on her wardrobe was perhaps what she was wearing prior to disrobing.
It must have been a humiliating experience for both the women — backs to the media, hearing the barrage of camera shutters and seeing flashes go off.
What must have been going through their minds in those moments?
Was it contempt for the people who were about to plaster photos of them across the national media? Or were they too preoccupied worrying about the impending consequences of their arrests?
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them, as I heard the shutter of my own camera fire in their direction.
It could be happening right under your nose
Outside the flat, Juan and I regrouped to gather our thoughts.
As we stood in the corridor and looked outwards, we could see his own HDB block, maybe not more than 20m away.
It was surreal.
“Did you know this was here?” I asked, rather redundantly.
Did the owners of the flat know? We weren’t told.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Police Deculan Goh told us that homeowners, tenants, and even property agents who were found to be consciously letting out their premises for vice activities will be prosecuted.
It is, by the way, an offence for property owners to not do their due diligence on prospective tenants.
This would include performing identity checks to ensure that tenants are really who they say they are, and conducting face-to-face interviews.
“Police will spare no efforts to curb such illegal vice activities,” he warned.
Parliamentary amendments to the Women's Charter Bill passed just this week reinforced the point.
Under the new law, an owner who rents out a place or a tenant who sublets one that is used as a brothel will be held criminally liable unless he or she can show that at the time of entering into the letting of the place he or she had no knowledge and could not with reasonable diligence have ascertained that the place was to be used as a brothel.
Soon after we left the raided flat, the media gathered around a nondescript white van.
We were told that the women were going to be taken away in the van, and the reporters and photographers accordingly braced themselves to capture the moment.
Led by police officers while handcuffed and hiding their faces, the women made their way to the van. Behind them, the orchestra was back in full swing — “click, click, click”.
Inside the van, the women buried their heads into their knees as photographers surrounded them from all angles.
It was also then that I observed the futility of the van's tinted windows, which were no match for powerful professional flash photography.
As the vehicle made its escape from the media circus, I took a moment to ponder the lives of the women.
How did they end up in Singapore? And what had led to them deciding that sex work was something they wanted to do? Was that even something they had a choice about?
Could it have been poverty and a slick talker's promise of a better life in a modern, more developed country?
It also begged the question: how much agency did they actually have leading up to the point that police busted the doors of their illegal brothel?
And what would happen to them from here on out?
It's not hard to imagine that a swift deportation may leave them with a gaping hole in their pocket — courtesy of the huge agent fee they might have had to pay to come here to work in the first place.
What of the humiliation of being put on display and photographed in this manner?
Once the excitement of seeing the arrest and raid died down, I could no longer hide from feelings I ignored previously.
I would have felt sorry for animals at the Singapore Zoo if they were subjected to the trigger happiness exhibited by the media.
And I was part of it.
But before I could swallow my thoughts, we were loaded back into a van, heading for the location of the next raid.
The next flat
At the next location, things were very much the same, except the flat was much larger and on the ground floor.
While children outside engaged in different games and sports, inside, four women huddled together sitting on the edge of a bed.
A police officer walked into the room and asked the women in Chinese how many of them were in Singapore for the first time.
All of them bar one raised their hands.
The rooms in this flat were also far more dimly lit, courtesy of black plastic bags and a hasty spray paint job performed on the lights.
“For ambience,” said one reporter.
Strewn across beds were condoms, birth control pills, and other pills described as sexual-performance-enhancing.
A growing trend
As these four women were led away by police, I was struck by how close all this was happening to everything and everyone else in the estate.
Police later revealed that the six women arrested that day were between the ages of 25 and 45.
It seems they are part of a growing trend of vice moving into residential areas, with Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling saying on Nov. 4 in Parliament that "pop-up brothels" in residential areas were on the rise.
And certainly, we have seen for ourselves how two separate houses that had seemed so inconspicuous from the outside were home to illegal vice activities.
"I must have walked past this place so many times," Juan later said to me, still in amazement.
He'd never thought twice about what went on behind its covered windows.
So yes, for me (and probably both of us, to be honest), this entire experience was remarkably unsettling.
Did it have to be done this way? Did the items have to be arranged neatly on the bed like that behind them? Could the police officer not have allowed the lady the chance to just put on her nightgown before letting all the media in to take photos?
But as much as I'd felt uncomfortable to be capturing the shame of these women in pictures and now in words, I also see the necessity of it.
Awareness needs to be brought to the public about what might be happening right in their neighbourhoods.
While it might sound cliché, we really do share the responsibility of preventing the exploitation of women and the proliferation of illegal vice activities — from homeowners doing their due diligence on their tenants to neighbours having greater vigilance over what is going on around them.
I guess one of my biggest takeaways from this entire experience is the fact that vice in Singapore is no longer an obscure thing tucked away in Geylang that we can ignore — the reality is that it has invaded what we otherwise would've perceived as our sanctuaries of residence and recreation.
And a question that may follow is: does it bother us, under whose noses all this is happening, enough to take the effort to do something about this phenomenon?
The most telling thing I can't help but remember is my memory of the fact that from inside the apartment, we could still hear the sounds of kids outside playing basketball and running around a playground.
As I said, vice in the heartlands is real.
Top image by Andrew Koay
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