SINGAPORE/BANGKOK: The women step onto the stage at this Thai disco in central Singapore.
They form a neat line. Their posture is good. They stand straight, with their eyes hopefully scanning the crowd before them. Some have sashes around them. They are beauty queens for the night.
But unlike beauty queens, these women are expressionless. They even seem bored.
The sashes are not so much a celebration of their beauty or personality. These pink and blue bands determine how much money they could earn this evening.
Then come the laser pointers. Narrow beams of green light pierce through the smoky bowels of the disco. The lasers land squarely on the girls, on their tight dresses that end above the knee. This is when the women show some emotion. A reluctant smile. A hesitant nod.
Behind the laser beams and holding on to the pointers are the “mamasans”, and for the girls on stage, the mamasans are their key to an even larger taking for the evening.
These mamasan are often much older women. They roam the disco with piles of sashes draped around their shoulders. “This one?” they ask the customers, pointing at the women on stage with their lasers.
They cajole the men for tips that will buy them company with the girls. It is also a public display of wealth and largesse: Who can spend the most on gifts in the club?
Some customers laugh the mamasan off. Others oblige with a tip, from S$50 all the way into the thousands. Each tip triggers a pseudo celebration. Firecrackers ignite. The male emcee roars in approval. Confetti rains down.
Fifty dollars earns the women a pink sash. Those who receive larger amounts get a royal silver cape. Some get tiaras. The luckier ones cover their mouths and walk with a spring in their step. They return to the line beside their counterparts, some still expressionless and unadorned.
As a timer on stage ticks down, the emcee warns customers the girls are stepping off soon. The countdown stops. Those with sashes, capes and tiaras search for their endorsers. Their time and attention have been bought for the night.
This particular disco – no bigger than a quarter of a football field – is almost full this evening, with at least 50 mainly male customers standing around rows of tiny tables in front of the stage. No-smoking signs plaster the wall, but customers are lighting up anyway. The speakers blare gaudy beats that thump in sync with the flashing lights so loud that it is almost impossible to hear the emcee.
There are at least 100 girls at work, circling the tables and chatting with customers over drinking games and rounds of beer and whiskey. There is laughing and teasing, and some girls hug customers or sit on their laps.
This intimate company does not come cheap. The cheapest option on the menu is S$278 for three towers of beer. It goes all the way up to S$4,888 for 12 bottles of Cordon Bleu. Money talks here.
Some of the men are clearly drunk. As drinks dry up, requests grow for more tips. Some women appear angry, as they get less than what was agreed.
Whether the customers realise it or not, many of the girls working tonight – and every night – are doing so illegally.
At this club in Singapore, a Thai woman tells us her name. She goes by “Ah”, and says she is 28 years old. She is in Singapore as a tourist, and had been in the country for only two days.
Ah has blue jeans on, with a sleeveless top. She is shy, and speaks haltingly in English. She tells us she will return to her insurance job in Bangkok after her time in Singapore is up, hopefully with with an envelope full of cash from her gig in Singapore.
The scene in this Thai disco is not unique, and neither is Ah.
Along with others, they have slipped in through the country’s immigration regulations to the discos’ dark floors and bright lights.
“MY HEART WAS RACING”
Bow* was 20 years old when she first embarked on an overseas trip to Singapore in 2009. She had done some promotional work already, selling drinks and cigarettes in Thai clubs in Bangkok when friends told her about the opportunities that existed in “gentlemen’s clubs” overseas.
It was an adventure, she said, and a way to make “easy money” while studying at university in Bangkok.
Speaking to CNA in Bangkok, Bow adds that “some people work because they need money to support their families. Some people want to have brand name stuff. For me, I worked because I earned my own money and supported myself.”
Over the next decade, Bow entered Singapore to work nine times. She never got a visa for her trips, simply entering as a tourist and taking advantage of the 30 days of visa-free entry that Thai nationals are entitled to.
With each trip came work and work and cash.
Bow stayed for strategically calculated periods of time, always less than a month, to maximise her earnings and avoid unwanted scrutiny from local authorities.
“If you stay 28 days, the passport doesn’t look good,” she said, adding that she would often work for around 20 days instead.
This is a common practice among the Thai women who travel to Singapore every month to ply their trade in dozens of nightclubs that illegally employ them.
Namwan*, 29 and Fon*, 28 are two friends from Bangkok who have also travelled to Singapore for club work. Both of them are currently active on the club circuit in a variety of locations, including Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
They spoke to CNA in a busy mall in Bangkok. The pair are back working in their regular day jobs, each building their own businesses they have been able to expand with money earned overseas.
They say that entering Singapore is the most difficult of any. The early trips were particularly stressful.
“The first time I went to Singapore. I had just graduated. And I was young. I wanted to try out new things. I didn’t have a job back then and I barely had any money,” Namwan said.
“When I went there I was excited. My heart was racing. I was even praying. When I got in, I felt very relieved.”
They explained that they needed to research their trips, prepare fake itineraries and time their travel around major events in Singapore. “For example, I’d go to a music concert or Ultra Singapore festival while I was there. After I finished with my travelling plan, I went straight to work,” Fon said.
“You have to be aware (at the airport). Your senses will tell you what to say. For me, I was escorted into the immigration office every time but I could get through because I planned my travel along with my work. They asked about my travel plan but I had everything booked. For the first three nights, I usually stayed in a hotel and paid with my own money,” she said.
The women said they were very careful about their use of social media while in Singapore, ensuring that no photos of their work or environment are made public.
“I learn things from friends. But you cannot remember everything or imitate what other people do. You do your own thing to survive.”
“YOU CANNOT BE FAT OR UGLY OR DARK”
Women like Bow, Namwan and Fon are being actively and openly recruited online, mostly by Thai and Singapore agents on social media. The advertisements stress the ease of the process, the extras included like free accommodation, food and flights and, most of all, the money to be made.
The possible earnings for a short stint in Singapore are significant. Most venues offer various target-based earning models, whereby the more drinks – or other items like flowers or crowns – are purchased by customers, the more money each woman can make.
The earnings promised by the agents vary, but women can mostly expect to earn between 65 and 90 per cent of the sales they make. At one venue, selling S$180 worth of drinks would net a worker S$150. The venues do not pay any salaries to their short-term workers, rather incentivising them to push customers to spend as much as possible. The women are typically paid in cash in Singapore at the end of their working stint. They do not have signed contracts.
“Work hard to drink, be diligent, serve and work hard and you will surely take at least THB30,000 (S$1,325) back home,” one advertisement online promises. Those who work for 26 days consecutively will also have their flight paid for from Bangkok.
Bow says she was once able to make at least THB100,000 (S$4,400) in two to three weeks of work, while other girls were pulling in double that. But in recent years, competition has grown, making it tougher for the women to guarantee their earnings.
“Years ago, there were Thai clubs and Singaporeans liked Thai women but now they are moving on to Koreans and Vietnamese. It’s hard when there are a lot of girls because, for example, the club has 10 tables but there are 50 to 60 girls. The chance of making money is less,” she said.
The housing provided for the women is just as crowded as the clubs. The female workers are accommodated in apartments that have been converted into dormitories, the women explained to CNA, with up to 20 people sleeping in each. Simple meals, like canned fish and cup noodles are provided for free.
With the increasing diversity of workers, racial undertones exist. The recruitment process is laced with the same objectification that occurs in the clubs themselves.
“Very beautiful to beautiful. You cannot be fat or ugly or dark. You have to know how to do makeup and dress up, be confident and love working, as in servicing people,” one agent advertised on social media.
The women who apply are advised to send “cute photos” and “a video of you doing a full turn, full body”, as well as their chest measurements, weight, height and skin colour.
Racist language is also used by some venues in their Facebook advertisements targeting customers. Thai women were seen referred to as “fresh tom yum goong” and Vietnamese women as “spring rolls” in multiple postings by a Singapore venue.
All the women we speak to tell us they find it highly offensive.
It hints at the type of work environment that exists in this twilight world. Even if the club scene is relatively safe and abuse-free in Singapore, the women are still required to work under tough conditions.
“I PRETENDED TO BE DRUNK”
Being a successful and high earning night entertainer relies on patience, charm and good fortune, the women say. Picking the right customer can be the difference between a big windfall or a night of missed opportunities.
The job is exhausting. For up to 28 consecutive days, the women are expected to work shifts that do not finish until 3am or 4am. They consume copious amounts of alcohol every night, plied by customers looking to lubricate the flirtatious conversation that bounces around these venues.
“Sometimes I just pretended to be drunk so I didn’t have to drink more,” Bow said.
“Some pubs mix water with beer so it’s fine to drink for me. Sometimes I pretended I drank, then walked to another table as if I was greeting a customer but I actually went to the toilet to spit it out.
“This is how I took care of myself. If I was too drunk then there’s a chance some customer might take me out without my consent.”
When it comes to sex, the women say that those working the clubs are generally against being solicited.
They say some clubs have rules about entertaining customers outside the venue, but not all of them do. They acknowledge that some Thais do come to Singapore for prostitution.
“Every place has good and bad customers. The good thing is Singaporean customers treat you like friends,” Fon said.
THE SINGAPORE BLACKLIST
Singapore authorities, however, are less likely to be welcoming to those entering the country under false pretenses.
“Singapore takes a multi-pronged approach to detect and prosecute foreigners who enter and commit offences in Singapore, such as working illegally in entertainment outlets or engaging in vice activities,” the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and Singapore Police Force (SPF) told CNA in a joint statement.
“As part of the security clearance process, ICA officers, who are trained to detect tell-tale indicators of suspicious travellers, may also conduct additional interviews or checks where necessary,” the statement continued.
“SPF officers conduct regular enforcement operations on public entertainment and massage establishments, to clamp down on illegal activities.”
On Jul 15, the police announced in a release that it had conducted enforcement operations a day earlier against massage establishments and public entertainment outlets along Jalan Besar and Chinatown.
Public entertainment outlets include bars, nightclubs, discotheques and KTV lounges.
Specifically, it found that one public entertainment outlet contravened public entertainment licensing conditions, adding that 16 women aged between 19 and 42 were arrested for offences under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, while a 42-year-old woman was arrested for an offence under the Immigration Act.
It did not specify what these offences were.
“Actions will be taken against the operators for flouting the rules and regulations under the Massage Establishment Act and the Public Entertainment Act,” the police stated.
On their part, Fon and Namwan said that they had never witnessed an immigration-related raid during their many trips to Singapore.
“They just came to check about people smoking and cigarettes,” Fon said. “When they came, I went up to hide in the fire exit. They did not arrest anybody. I just wanted to be on the safe side,” Namwan said.
But it does not mean Singaporean authorities are turning a blind eye to the practice, even if the venues are operating in plain sight in the middle of some of the country’s best known nightlife districts.
“We take a serious view against anyone found breaking the law and will continue to take a tough enforcement stance against such activities. Foreigners who have committed offences in Singapore will be dealt with by the relevant agencies. Thereafter, they may be repatriated to their home countries and barred from entering Singapore,” the joint statement read.
Bow herself is an example of someone who was found out and sent back to Thailand.
After a run-in with Singapore immigration officials, she is now “blacklisted” from the country, she says. Her last interrogation was one she could not explain her way out of.
“When you are called into the immigration office, it doesn’t matter if you can answer their questions or not, or how reasonable you are. When you are there, it’s about luck,” she said.
“It was around an hour or more. They asked me about my trip. They checked my phone to see where I went. Checked how much money I had. Some people successfully pass this office call. But I was blacklisted.”
Still, recruiting agents guarantee safe passage.
Especially for first-timers to Singapore, who are more likely to use agents, these middle-men promise cash loans to to facilitate their passage through Singapore immigration.
They also say they have representatives ready to personally accompany women on buses across the border from Malaysia.
“I have a tour guide that will take care of you,” said one agent. “You don’t need a visa. You only need your passport and you can travel right away.”
“Everybody that went there could get through. If you can speak the language then you don’t have to be scared. The agent will take care of everything. Relax. You don’t have to be stressed,” another agent says in a message.
Despite these assurances, the four women know that Singapore is the most difficult country in the region to enter, and Thais have now gained a regional reputation that is making immigration tougher to navigate in other countries.
Thailand’s Department of Employment has stepped up efforts at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to screen Thais going overseas to work illegally. Their main priority now is South Korea, to which more than 100 people are denied entry every day. The Thai government is also attempting to block related job adverts, which can easily be found on platforms like Facebook and Line.
They know what what they do is illegal. But the women who come to Singapore still want to be treated with respect.
For many, the country is a special place where they have made friends, experienced new things and contributed to the local economy. “The first time I went to Singapore, I barely knew anybody. Singapore is now like my second home,” Fon said.
“Girls working in night clubs aren’t all bad and aren’t all easy,” said Bow. “We have our own dignity.”
*Names of interviewees have been changed at their request to protect their identities.
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat.