Working-class Singaporeans travel to Indonesia’s Riau Islands in search of a fantasy built around sex.
Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons
A Batam bar
Karimun, Batam and Bintan are the main islands in the Riau Archipelago, located just kilometres from Singapore and Malaysia. The northern part of Bintan and some parts of Batam attract middle-class Singaporeans and Europeans in search of sun, sand and pampering. But many Singaporean tourists who come to the islands are working-class men in search of sex.
Bargain-basement prices in the islands allow these men to escape from the grinding reality of life for the Singaporean working poor. Indonesian sex workers charge about the same for a whole night as Singaporean sex workers charge for an hour. Other luxuries, like seafood and entertainment, are much more affordable too.
According to popular wisdom, these men come to the islands to ‘live like kings’. For some, it’s enough that the sex is cheap and plentiful. But others come in search not just of sexual gratification, but in search of intimacy and a sense of power.
The sex trade
The sex industry in the islands relies heavily on its Singaporean clients. Over a million Singaporeans visited the Riau Islands in 2004, many of them looking for sex. According to an NGO survey, almost half of all sex workers’ clients are from Singapore. Newspapers report that there are around 20,000 sex workers in Batam alone, which is probably a gross exaggeration. But there are several thousand. In 2004 one NGO in Batam had over 3500 sex workers on its books. An NGO in Tanjung Balai Karimun dealt with almost 1000 women in the same year.
Indonesia’s national criminal code does not prohibit sex work, although it is illegal to participate in the trade of women and girls or underage males, or to earn a profit from prostitution. In the absence of national criminal laws, provincial and sub-district governments have introduced a range of regulations to monitor and restrict the sale of sexual services.
Most local authorities tolerate semi-legal brothel complexes (lokalisasi) modelled on centres established by the Dutch colonial government. But the local authorities refuse to formalise the industry, preferring instead to profit from its illegal status. Every month prostitution bosses have to pay off local government officials, the police, the navy, and the army with money and women if they want to stay in business. According to some reports, the navy is also directly involved in running a number of the brothels.
Sex work also occurs on the streets and in unofficial brothels, bars and karaoke lounges. Western expatriates prefer the bar scene, while Singaporeans and Malaysians prefer the karaoke lounges. A party drug and dance scene that caters to a younger lower middle class group of Singaporeans has emerged alongside these venues. The bars and karaoke lounges are replete with full-time sex workers as well as women who have sex with the men they meet in discos. These women may sometimes receive payment in the form of cash, although often the exchange is less tangible and involves drugs, meals, and other gifts.
Booms and busts
The sex tourists who frequent the karaoke bars and discos make a major contribution to the local economy of the islands, providing jobs not just for sex workers, but for motorcycle taxi-drivers, hotel staff, hawkers and workers in countless other service industry occupations. Incomes in these associated industries are cyclical, reflecting the influx of tourists during peak periods like weekends and public holidays, and the reduction in sex tourist numbers during quiet times like Ramadan and Chinese New Year. They also follow the booms and busts of the industry as a whole.
While the industry is not very stable, many people recognise the economic benefit that the sex tourists have brought, not only to those directly involved but to the community as a whole, and especially to the economically marginal. But after regional autonomy was introduced in 1999, local lobby groups opposed to prostitution, drugs and gambling developed more leverage with elected officials and administrative policy-makers. In Tanjung Balai Karimun, for example, local religious groups lobbied successfully to have a major brothel complex closed down. These kinds of campaigns played a part in the dramatic shrinkage of the industry after a boom in 2001. But they are less important than a range of external factors that have led to a drop in demand.
Bargain-basement prices in the islands allow these men to escape from the grinding reality of life for the Singaporean working poor.
The sex tourism boom ended when the Singapore economy experienced a downturn in 2002. There were significant job losses in many industries, leaving potential sex tourists with a lot less disposable income. The SARS epidemic of 2003 also had a significant impact on their ability to travel. The local Singapore sex industry has also witnessed a transformation, with large numbers of Vietnamese and Chinese nationals working as illegal sex workers on short-term tourists passes. The diversification of the Singapore industry has led to a shift in local price structures and reduced the ‘push factors’ that led men to cross the border into Indonesia.
The sex industry in the islands then experienced an even more dramatic downturn in the second half of 2005 after Sutanto, the new Indonesian national Head of Police, issued an edict that gambling was no longer to be tolerated. The sex industry, which had been closely tied to gambling, was badly affected. With the exception of floating casinos (charter boats that organise gambling on board), much of the gambling industry has been shut down. The Singapore government’s plan to open a number of local casinos further threatens the symbiotic link between gambling and sex across the border.
Fulfilling the fantasy
Hotels help create the fantasy
The importance of gambling to the sex industry demonstrates the complex set of factors that drive cross-border sex tourism. While good exchange rates and the low comparative cost of sex fuel demand, the attraction of the islands is more than economic. By crossing the border, Singaporean working class men acquire much purchasing power, which allows them to fulfil their fantasy of being a towkay (boss).
In Singapore, they might be a taxi-driver or a day-labourer, struggling to make ends meet. But in the islands, they can afford to drink expensive liquor and eat as much seafood as they like. At home their time is filled by work, or spent cooped up in a government flat. In Batam, Tanjung Pinang and Karimun, they gamble, sing karaoke, stay in hotels – and they do it all in the company of a young Indonesian woman.
Hotels play a central role in this fantasy as sites of sexual service. The men prefer to take the sex workers to a hotel than go to a lokalisasi, because hotels provide greater privacy and serve to normalise the relationship. A brothel environment implies that the woman is a prostitute, whereas in a hotel she could easily be a girlfriend. These girlfriends are sexually available all the time, they provide pampering services such as massages and baths, and they look after their ‘boyfriends’ by dressing them and and even spoon-feeding them. Sex is a given in these exchanges, but it plays a secondary role in these ‘weekend romances’.
Sometimes these romance fantasies extend beyond the weekend. Some Singaporean men find that their marginal economic position in Singapore makes it difficult for them to find marriage partners at home. If they are married, their wives’ access to education and paid employment challenges traditional views of women’s roles. Long-term relationships and marriages with Indonesian women provide opportunities for a different kind of intimacy.
Having a wife in the Riau islands offers working-class Singaporeans a chance to prolong the fantasy of living ‘like a king’. Even on their meagre working-class incomes they can afford to set their ‘wives’ up in a comfortable home, far superior to their own in Singapore. Life might be hard at home, but they know they can escape – even if just for a few days at a time – when they manage to get time off to cross the border and visit their wives or lovers. ii
Michele Ford (email@example.com) teaches about social activism in Southeast Asia at the University of Sydney, where she runs the Department of Indonesian Studies.
Lenore Lyons (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Social Transformation Studies at the University of Wollongong.