Singapore Sting

Originally published in October 2004.

Sara-Ann is a twenty-something Singaporean. Well-off and well-educated, she has more opportunity to dabble in various jobs and projects than most. She does modelling on the side, whilst studying sociology and literature at the local polytechnic campus.

We met at a lavish corporate function drawn to each other through common detachment. She is a glamorous hostess and I’m there with an industry friend. As two young women, we stand out of the crowd of middle-aged expats and we struck up an animated conversation. She was quick to offer finely honed insights on the seamier side of Singaporean culture and she’s upfront about her purpose there.

“You’re only there to be at their function to beautify the place,” she says, “you’re a model, you’re being paid to be there, you’re meat”.

At events like these, the guests like to have their photographs taken with the girls brandishing the sponsor’s logo like a beauty-queen, on a satin-sash across their torsos.

As they pose together in front of the camera, it’s what goes on behind that made Sara’s skin crawl. “Oh god, they had their hands all over me,” she says, “you just have to smile and hope that it’s going to be over in two seconds.”

The Western expatriate community is strong in Singapore. With one of Asia’s most competitive economies, cashed up corporates fly foreign executives in to augment their management structure.

Many of the “incomers” use a stint in Singapore to gain experience and move up a rung on the corporate ladder. They travel without baggage and adopt a working-holiday mentality. They earn good money and this doesn’t go unnoticed by some local girls.

“There are black sheep everywhere, no matter where you go and there are people who have kind of contributed to the stereotype that Singaporean women are easy.”

“They’re called SPGs. Sarong Party Girls,” explains Sara. “Usually they’re tanned girls, with long straight hair, flicking it around like they are from some shampoo ad or something.”

“They practically hunt down expatriate men and it works for them.”

Amongst the expats themselves, the legend of ‘Four Floors’ is quickly recounted to me.

Ross is an Aussie recruiter and James is an IT executive from New Zealand. They tell me about the popular shopping centre on Orchard Avenue, the city’s main shopping strip.

By day, the mall sells women’s clothing. At street level are the chain stores and mass-market fashions. As you travel up the escalators you reach the more exclusive boutiques.

As sunset though, the venue offers more than clothing off the rack. Just like daytime sales, in the evening you can also choose the quality of merchandise by how far up you travel. From mainstream to exclusive, four floors of whores.

The Singaporean government is technically a democracy. The government is elected by the people, but there are not many candidates to contest the incumbents. In the last presidential election, only one candidate was declared eligible. The government is formed from the Peoples Action Party which is loosely described as having an authoritarian stance. Until this year, chewing gum was illegal.

The government acknowledge the great boost to the economy that is provided by an expatriate community and provides certain incentives to companies wishing to employ foreign ‘talent’. An expedited visa procedure, for example.

Foreign ‘labour’ on the other hand, doesn’t get cut such a sweet deal.

“Their contracts are totally different from foreign talent even though they are under the same foreign labour rules, these people actually have a clause where any time they infringe on anything, they’re out,” Sara says. “They can be deported at the drop of a hat.”

She tells me about a group of Indian stonemasons who had arranged a two-year contract in Singapore to practice their craft. After finishing work on one project, they were sent home by their contractors.

“They paid so much money to come out, do their work, to be sent back without even getting their money back, nothing.’

“You can give any stupid excuse like, they are stealing things or something, and just send them back.”

In situations like these, it would be understandable that the sub-contractors are not happy to return home and may kick up a bit of fuss. But that doesn’t matter because there is a separate departures terminal for foreign labour – away from the tourists and the talent.

“There is extra security where the foreign labour goes in and out, so that the people cannot run away and come back into Singapore. Once they go in, they are actually escorted by police and their work permits are taken away from them. Their passports are not with them until they get onto the plane.”

“In Singapore it’s the same. Usually they get the employers to keep the passports so they cannot run away.”

And that isn’t the only liberty that employers take over their foreign labour.

Maids are a part of life for wealthy Singaporeans and foreigners alike – one in seven households has a maid. All condos are built with maids quarters – usually attached to the kitchen in a part of the house with no air-conditioning.

As well as surrendering their passports, the Indonesian and Filipino maids are effectively bonded to their employers who are considered responsible for them in every way. This creates a situation some employers work to their utmost advantage.

Indonesian maids are cheap and desperate. Many do not get days off. On top of that, there are documented cases of severe and sadistic abuse of maids. The New Straits Times talks of cases where women were made to eat shit. Literally. One lady-of-the-house cut off her maid’s nipples and scalded her with boiling water.

For this reason there is a very high rate of suicide amongst foreign domestic staff. In a period of two years in 2000-2001, there were 36 suicides of Indonesian and Filipino maids, while 29 Indians took their own lives.

The value of human life certainly seems to come cheaper in Singapore than elsewhere, if not the cost of living.

In 2003 it was judged to perform the highest number of executions per capita. There are no official figures but it’s believed it could be as many as 70 per year, mainly for drug offences.

Taking the perspective of sociologist-in-training, Sara-Ann sums up her society in a neat phrase.

“We call it the gilded cage,” she explains, “it’s golden on the outside, but everyone is very restricted in what they do. Singapore is brilliant in concealing everything.”

But there’s certainly no gloss on that appraisal.

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