We meet her on a humid afternoon, in a shelter for abused domestic helpers. It’s not exactly the right place for her, but she has no choice really. Let’s just call her T. Her story isn’t so unusual. She was lured from her home country to Johor Baru more than a year ago. By a man who promised her work in a karaoke bar.
She only realized when she arrived that the job involved having sex with countless men every day. She says she received very little pay, and was locked up most of the time. The first chance she could, she fled, across the border, to Singapore. An acquaintance told her she didn’t have a hope in the world of finding proper employment here. She felt she had to go home with some money, so she agreed to work in a jungle brothel.
Yes, jungle brothels exist in Singapore. They’re usually makeshift tents situated in heavily wooded areas next to industrial estates. The general clientele – migrant workers living in nearby dormitories. T made so much money during her first stint in that brothel, she returned again and again, entering the country each time on a tourist visa.
She was caught oh her fourth visit. By a uniformed person who told her he’d let he off in exchange for free sex. She agreed. He took the bribe. Then, his colleagues returned to pick her up. She spent two days in a police station. Didn’t say a word about being unfairly treated. It was only when she met people from her embassy that the truth came out. They told her she had to lodge a complaint. The uniformed man had broken the law. She would be doing the government a favour.
She agreed to speak up. It became a corruption case. Public prosecutors told her that instead of being deported straightaway, she would have to stay in Singapore to testify. No one knew where to put her – seems there are no shelters specifically for sex workers in this country. Which is why she ended up in a home for abused maids.
T is tired when we meet her. But she’s incredibly forthcoming. Doesn’t mince her words. “I working fucking.” She’s picked up some English in her time here.
It’s clear she’s not ashamed of her job. She’s doing it for her family – her mother, her brother, her baby boy. But her voice breaks when she talks about how she was cheated. She hated Johor Baru. They lied to her, worked her round the clock, made her have sex with men who refused to use condoms, withheld her pay, and kept her locked up.
And that’s when you realize why she’s angry – it’s not about the job. It’s about autonomy. The ability to say yes or no to a client. The right to demand safer, if not safe sex.
The uniformed man who subsequently violated her took away that choice, and then he backtracked on his promise. He thought he had the right to take advantage of her.
“Why he think like that? That not right.”
No it’s not.
The case is being investigated. But meantime, T’s paying the price. She’s been living in the shelter for several months now. She’s not allowed to work. Can’t send money home. Can’t see her family. She’s at her wits ends. Doesn’t know what she’s going to do next. No one from the prosecutor’s office has bothered to look into her welfare, no one’s offered to let her see a counsellor. The kindest people she’s met in Singapore are staff members at the shelter. But even they say, they’re not trained to deal with sex abuse cases.
She shows us her diary. It’s filled with words and phrases picked up at English classes taught at the shelter. She could barely string two sentences together when she first arrived. Now, she’s far less isolated. She smiles when you tell her you’re impressed. And then you realize she’d gladly trade all the English lessons in the world for the right to go home now.
She writes down her son’s name on your notepade.
“I miss him.”
It’s clear she almost wishes she never spoke up.