At a pre-school on the ground floor of an HDB block in Hougang Avenue 10, parents picked up their children under the watchful eye of several teachers.
This innocent picture belied the fact that just one floor above, in a maisonette unit with covered up windows, a suspected brothel was conducting brisk business at the same time.
During a stakeout by Yahoo News Singapore on 28 September, at least six men were seen entering and leaving the corner unit from 4pm to 8pm. These “customers” appeared to be aged between 20 and 50.
The two-storey corner unit had its windows on both floors covered the whole time with curtains and black trash bags. Visitors were seen taking the stairs up from the ground floor and making a quick turn to the right towards the flat in question. While the flat’s front gate was left open the whole time, its main door would be quickly shut after a man entered.
These observations were made during an investigation carried out by Yahoo News Singapore over the past three weeks on suspected brothels operating in several heartland areas.
In addition to the Hougang flat, such activities also appeared to be taking place at HDB units in Choa Chu Kang and Sembawang. At least five suspected prostitutes were observed to be working inside these flats over the period.
Looking for love online
The probe into these heartland vice operations came following a check by this reporter on a number of websites advertising sexual and other services in Singapore. These sites showed hundreds of listings for such services, which would be provided mostly by women from China.
Posing as a potential customer, this reporter contacted some of the women involved in these operations via text messages and phone calls. However, no financial transactions took place over the course of the investigation, nor did this reporter meet any of the women in person.
Claiming to be aged between 20 and 35, the women offered services such as showering together, massage and sex. Photos of the women and their contact numbers were also posted on the sites. Each session was priced at between $80 and $150 for an hour, while overnight sessions would cost between $300 and $400.
On some of the listings, anonymous commenters left feedback on the women’s services including how well they performed certain sexual acts and the quality of their “GFE” – short for “girlfriend experience”.
This reporter contacted one of the women on 28 September to set up an appointment and was provided with an incomplete address of her flat in Hougang. The woman gave instructions to contact her only after reaching the bus stop in front of her block.
At the bus stop, the reporter then received a phone call from the woman, who told the reporter to take a staircase up to the second level and walk towards “the flat at the corner with a white door”. No unit number was specified.
A similar modus operandi was seen in effect at the Choa Chu Kang and Sembawang operations.
An incomplete address would be given to the customer, after which he would be asked to stand in a certain spot so that the women can discreetly identify him from their windows. Once the visual confirmation is made, the man would then be provided with more specific directions to the flats – all of which were corner units.
On multiple occasions, this reporter was instructed to take a lift to a different level and then take the stairs to the right floor in an effort to avoid raising the suspicions of others living in the block.
Business at the flat on Choa Chu Kang North 6 seemed brisk on the afternoon of 22 September as this reporter was told to wait 30 minutes by one of the women, who said that she was still serving a customer. From 4pm to 8pm, five different men were spotted entering and leaving a 12th-floor unit.
On 27 September, this reporter also observed three men entering and leaving a 14th-floor flat at Canberra Road between 3pm and 7pm. The men spent between 30 minutes and one hour each inside the flat.
When this reporter contacted the woman who allegedly worked out of the Canberra flat, she said that she was serving a customer and offered her “sister” instead. The “sister” then contacted this reporter to provide directions to the flat.
Yahoo News Singapore returned to the Hougang flat on 5 October and observed five men entering and leaving the unit between 4pm and 6.30pm. On more than one occasion, a dark-haired Chinese-looking woman stood in front of the unit’s doorway and seemed to be looking out for the men.
At one point, a man who appeared to be in his 20s entered the flat and soon left with another dark-haired woman. Once they reached the ground floor, they split up, with the man driving off in a blue Honda Civic and the woman leaving on foot.
Among the “customers” observed that same day was a middle-aged Chinese man in a white long-sleeved shirt and black pants who was spotted at about 6pm loitering at the bus stop just below the flat in question.
As he paced back and forth while checking his phone, he would repeatedly look up at the windows of the second-floor flat. Within a few minutes the man received a phone call and was seen making his way to the flat.
War on vice
The investigation by Yahoo News Singapore comes amid a number of recent police crackdowns on prostitution in HDB residential areas.
In a media release on 9 October, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) said 142 women and five men had been arrested in an islandwide anti-vice operation which covered 50 locations including “hotels and residential units at Bukit Timah, Choa Chu Kang, Serangoon Road, Tiong Bahru, Yishun, Woodlands, Thomson, Balestier Road, Hougang, Geylang, Tampines and Jurong West”.
In addition, police had arrested 64 women and six men for such vice activities in 14 residential areas from July to September, according to SPF media releases. These arrests were made in Punggol, Serangoon North, Kovan, Hougang, Sembawang, Geylang, Paya Lebar, Balestier, Whampoa, Lavender, Marine Parade, Havelock Road, Cairnhill and Yishun.
It is unclear if any of the flats mentioned in this article were affected by the latest police raids.
The operations conducted at all three flats investigated by Yahoo News Singapore appeared to be discrete affairs, as seen by the choice of corner units, the covering of windows and the precautions taken in directing customers to the flats.
The business was conducted in such a surreptitious way that neighbours this reporter spoke to had barely any idea of what was going on in their own block. Of the three residents interviewed at the Hougang block, all of them were unaware of vice-related activities taking place just metres away from their homes.
Two of the neighbours mentioned that they recalled seeing a “Chinese” woman entering and leaving the flat although they did not interact with her. The flat in question was also being rented out, they added.
Mr and Mrs Goh, an elderly couple who have lived at the block for over 20 years, said that the flat had been rented to different people over the last few years after its owner moved out to stay with her daughter and son-in-law.
Jason Tan, who has been living at the block for the last six years, said that he had seen different men entering and leaving the flat, but he did not suspect anything as he thought they were tenants.
When told that the occupants inside the flat could be involved in vice activities, Tan, a 39-year-old operations officer, said, “Of course I’m surprised by this, although Singapore does have this problem.”