NSWP member organisation Project X have urged people to “scrutinise and seriously question the visual representation of sex workers in Singaporean mainstream media.” The call comes following several high profile raids on sex workers' workplaces in recent months, and subsequent stigmatising media coverage of the events. In a post on their Facebook page, Project X describe the media coverage as a “method of shaming” which “not only dehumanises the women in question, it also turns the matter into a one-sided conversation in which sex workers are ridiculed, talked about and talked at.”
In May, a 6.5 hour long overnight raid on a hotel in Singapore resulted in 24 people arrested under suspicion they were working as sex workers. Many of those arrested were migrant women from Thailand. One of them women was a transgender woman.
Under the Women’s Charter anyone who knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of another person’s sex work faces up to five years' jail and a fine of up to S$10,000. New stricter amendments to the Women’s Charter came into force in mid-2016, with the intention of allowing law enforcement to “crack down” on sex work given the shift to greater reliance on online advertising.
The same penalties apply to anyone convicted of being the tenant, occupier or person in charge of a brothel.
The raid began at midnight and lasted until 6:30am, with 36 officers from Central Division and the Criminal Investigation Department reportedly searching 70 rooms in the four-story hotel on Jalan Besar. Condoms and lubricant were seized during the raid.
There have been several high profile raids in Singapore this year. In March, 26 women were arrested on Orchard Rd for “vice related activities.” In April, 2 separate high profile raids were conducted. In one case, 10 men and 3 women were arrested in forested areas along Kaki Bukit for “vice activities.” Later in April, a string of raids conducted over three days lead to at least 6 women, reportedly from China and Vietnam, being arrested. According to reports, condoms were seized. Condoms were used as evidence of sex work. Earlier in May, 4 women from Russia and Uzbekistan were arrested under suspicion of sex work with the police in this case reportedly seizing “13 mobile phones, four laptops, a tablet computer, [and] condoms.” Many media outlets have used photographs taken of individuals arrested during the raids to accompany their reports, despite the ethical issues this presents, and the clear attempts made by individuals to shield their faces and protect their identity.
The use of condoms as evidence has also drawn criticism from sex workers and their supporters. There is evidence of the harms of policy approaches which criminalise sex work, and in particular the unique harms presented when criminalisation is accompanied by the use of condoms as evidence. This includes the recent 2016 The Asia Catalyst report, The Condom Quandary: A Survey of the Impact of Law Enforcement Practices on Effective HIV Prevention among Male, Female, and Transgender Sex Workers in China, which documented how relevant laws and law enforcement practices in China negatively impact the ability of sex workers to access and carry condoms, as well as access to HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health services. Other reports have also demonstrated the myriad of harmful impacts such approaches have had on sex workers, including reports such as How Policing Practices Put Sex Workers and HIV Services at Risk in Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Zimbabwe
Unsurprisingly, Project X has also reported similarly negative impacts in Singapore, especially on migrant sex workers who are currently being disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for raids.
Last year, a spokesman from Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman was quoted explaining to Strait Times that the police take a pragmatic approach to sex work, which focuses on confining vice activities within traditional red-light areas. The spokesman said: "enforcement action is also taken to ensure that organised groups do not gain a foothold through such activities, and that no person is forced into prostitution or exploited."
It is not clear how the current policing could be seen as a way to prevent people entering sex work, nor as an approach to prevent exploitation in the industry. Rather, this focus on police raids, stigmatising media coverage, and seizing of condoms and lube leaves sex workers vulnerable to further human rights violations. As Project X have pointed out, “it’s not just in Singapore that police use condoms as evidence of sex work. Sex workers globally need our support to end this harmful practice.”