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Ronald Loh and Isabelle Liew
The New Paper
17 July 2017
At 10pm last Friday, Geylang was bustling. People streamed in and out of eateries, a crowd flocked to the Sheng Siong supermarket at Lorong 15 and durian-lovers were handling and sniffing the thorny fruit.
Yet a regular of the area, who wanted to be known only as Tim, actually described the scene as "sterile" - he feels that today's Geylang is a pale shadow of its colourful past.
Tim, who has lived near Geylang for the last 30 years, remembers a time when crowds thronged the area, eating the food and drinking at the bars, while many also made the trek to the licensed brothels there.
Others just gathered at Geylang to gawk at the many scantily-clad freelance prostitutes in body-hugging outfits prowling the streets.
Said Tim: "Much of that has disappeared. Greater policing efforts in the area have driven many of the streetwalkers away, and online."
Prostitution is legal in Singapore, but it is an offence to solicit in public.
Pointing to an open-air carpark between Lorongs 21 and 23, Tim said: "This area used to be lined with freelance prostitutes hungry for customers, to the point they would grab your arm when you walk past.
"Now, you only see a few of them occasionally."
The New Paper visited the area over two nights last week and spotted nine women touting their services during the time, which Tim said was a far cry from five years ago.
Many who live in the area are grateful, though, happy that the seedier side of Geylang is slowly disappearing.
Even the licensed brothels, which are marked by red lanterns hanging outside the units, appear to have been affected, as a row of abandoned and shuttered brothels were seen along Lorong 18.
Brothels have to be licensed by the police, and licensed prostitutes in these brothels have to go for regular health checks, said criminal lawyer Josephus Tan, who volunteers at the Law Society's trial clinics to reach out to sex workers.
The price for commercial sex usually ranges between $50 and $300, and the sex workers are mostly from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.
Tim says most of them are here on tourist visas and do not stay for more than three months.
Mona (not her real name) is a streetwalker from Singapore.
Now in her mid-30s, she says that when she started 10 years ago, she had up to four clients a night. Now, she can go four days at Geylang with no business.
She said: "Some clients know it is hard for streetwalkers to get business now, and they think we are in desperate need of money.
"They will bargain - ask for $30 for 45 minutes or $50 for an hour - and request to not use condoms. But I turn them down."
Besides tougher policing of prostitution, Mona says the alcohol ban introduced in 2015, two years after the riot that broke out in Little India, has had an adverse effect on the crowds at Geylang.
"No one wants to come all the way to Geylang just to see sex workers, they also want to drink and have fun.
"Now, if they just want to find girls, they can go online," she said.
In March, during a six-day multi-agency joint operation, the police arrested 87 people in Geylang for various offences. Those arrested included 32 women for vice-related offences committed in residential units.
An apparel shopkeeper who wanted to be known only as Mr Ding said: "Since 2014, we have seen a lot more police officers in the area, both uniformed and in plain clothes.
"They clamped down hard on those women working the streets."
Mona added that back in 2012, she had to run from the police at least once a week.
"To be a streetwalker, you must know how to sprint. Once, I fell when the police were chasing me. But I was lucky that the policeman decided to chase another streetwalker," she said.
The tension was evident when TNP approached a group of scantily-clad women loitering at Lorong 24, as they almost immediately scattered while shouting in Thai.
Miss Vanessa Ho, project director for sex workers rights' group Project X, noted that MP Fatimah Lateefhad asked in Parliament in April 2014 for greater enforcement action for the vice-related problems in Geylang.
"Raids became increasingly common. Together with the rise of the Internet, sex workers and their facilitators then decided not to be subject to raids by moving online," Miss Ho said.
Shopkeepers in Geylang told TNP that business has declined.
Mr Ding, 42, who has been operating in Geylang for eight years, said business has decreased by 30 per cent to 40 per cent since 2014, while a mobile phone shopkeeper and a provision shop owner cited dips of 30 per cent.
A Lorong 12 coffee shop manager said his business has gone down by half.
Gesturing at his prata joint, he said: "Just look, it is a Friday night. Three, four years ago, it would be a full house. Now, we are barely half full."
Mr Ding said: "I know the police are doing their job, but if only they could be more lenient. Fewer girls out there means fewer customers coming to Geylang for us too.
"I actually have to hope that the red-light district picks up again. If not, we may have to consider shifting our business somewhere else."