Singapore

Heartland brothels make residents see red

From the outside, the four-room Housing Board flat in Jurong West Street 61 looked innocuous enough, except for the constant stream of men who flock there.

Residents said that for the last one year, the rented unit has housed a number of foreign women, and some were shocked to learn that it operates as a brothel.

Despite a number of raids in the area, such brothels keep returning, attracted by low rents and the belief that they are less likely to be detected there.

MPs in Pioneer and West Coast are calling for more enforcement action after receiving feedback from residents, who complained that brothels have emerged in HDB flats in the area.

Pioneer MP Cedric Foo said he has received such feedback about suspected vice activity in his ward.

"Such undesirable activities should not be tolerated and I hope the police and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority can do more to stop them," he added.

The unit in Jurong West Street 61 falls under his ward.

Delivery driver Jasman Samad, 48, who lives below the unit, said: "With all these strangers about, I'm very concerned about the safety of my family. The authorities should do something."

The Straits Times visited the unit recently after first becoming aware of it from an online listing. The unit is in a block about five minutes from Pioneer MRT station. Arrangements to visit had to be made through mobile text messages.

Inside the unit were four scantily clad women, all of whom spoke with accents that suggested they were from China. One of the women, identified only by her online moniker Leaf, claimed she and her housemates were from China. They were here on social visit passes or tourist visas.

"We have many customers every day and have all sorts of services. But we will be leaving in two days' time," she said, adding that other women may take their place.

Over a span of two hours, ST spotted at least five men who looked to be between the ages of 20 and 60 entering the unit.

While most residents in that block said they were unaware of the illicit activities in the unit, they said they have heard of other brothels operating in HDB flats in the area.

This year alone, the police raided two brothels in Jurong West. Raids in the area go as far back as 2014, when a Jurong West flat was also used as a brothel.

Over a span of two hours, The Straits Times spotted at least five men who looked to be between the ages of 20 and 60 entering the unit, which is in an HDB block about five minutes from Pioneer MRT station.

Mr Patrick Tay, an MP for West Coast GRC, told ST that those hawking sexual services could be exploiting low rents for HDB flats in the area. He added: "(These) operators may decide to move to the heartland, thinking they will go undetected there."

Such brothels have also been detected in Serangoon, Yishun, Ang Mo Kio and Sembawang, and were raided in anti-vice operations this year.

Mr Tay, a former policeman and a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said he encountered one such case during his weekly house visits in Jurong West a few months ago.

Residents had voiced safety concerns and complained about the negative influence of the tenants.

Ms Vanessa Ho, director of sex workers' rights group Project X, believes increased police raids on unlicensed brothels in Geylang could have resulted in businesses moving to public housing.

"We know a handful of sex workers who work out of HDB flats, and I estimate that there must be hundreds of such brothels," she said.

However, it has become harder for Project X, which seeks to empower and educate sex workers, to reach out to such workers as many do not respond out of fear that they would get caught by the authorities.

There is also a specific demand for brothels within HDB units as customers prefer to visit them because of convenience, said Ms Ho.

"They don't have to go all the way to Geylang. The location is more private and discreet and they are less likely to bump into someone they know," she said.

While the police did not provide statistics on the number of vice activities detected in public housing, enforcement action since January shows at least 82 women have been arrested for suspected involvement in vice activities within residential areas and units.

Meanwhile, both MPs are calling on residents to alert the authorities if they suspect an HDB unit is being used as a brothel. Mr Tay also suggested having a dedicated police hotline for residents to report suspected vice activities.

A spokesman for HDB said the use of HDB flats for vice activities is strictly prohibited, and that it takes a serious view of the misuse of flats. "We will not hesitate to take stern action against flat owners who misuse their flats, including imposition of fines and/or compulsory acquisition of the flat and/or debarment from buying another HDB flat."

ST checks show the Jurong West flat belongs to a Singaporean couple.

A police spokesman said it will spare no effort in clamping down on online vice activities, and advised home owners to ensure that tenants do not carry out vice activities in their units.

Unlicensed brothel operators can be given a maximum fine of $10,000 and/or up to five years' imprisonment. Any person who knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of the prostitution of another person can be jailed for up to five years and fined up to $10,000.

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