February 2005

Vietnam's house of virgins




On that Sunday itself, I sent off this letter to the editor of forum page of The Straits Times. It has not been published. There can be any number of reasons; I won't speculate here.

What it's about is quite obvious from the substance of my letter.

I refer to the story 'Vietnam's house of virgins', in the Sunday Times, 30 January 2005. From my observation, this is the third time that your newspaper has run big features on brides for sale. The first was on 8 June 2003, when you ran a story about Vietnamese brides, available from $13,000 to $22,000. The second time was on 7 Nov 2004, when Kalimantan brides were said to be available for $9,888.  In all cases, the stories were featured prominently, complete with photographs, but narry a word of dissent. 

All of the stories stressed how obedient the foreign females would be, but the latest one has sunk to new depths. It highlights up in the headlines that the women had to undergo virginity tests. 

What values is your newspaper trying to propagate? The mindset behind this business is that of male superiority and female subordination, to the extent that wives can be chosen by a male from a line-up of females in a matter of minutes, or at most, 3 days. Worse yet, there is the commoditisation of the female to the point where if she is not a virgin, she is considered sullied and unsaleable. 

How is the entire process different from the days when white plantation owners would go to town to buy some slaves from the newly docked ship from Africa? 

If anyone thinks that just because it is labelled "marriage" then there is something sanctified about it, he should consider that under Singapore law, there is no such thing as marital rape. It is not a crime if the husband forces himself upon his wife against her will. At what point does marriage segue into sexual slavery? This is especially pertinent if the marriage starts off with a high degree of power disparity. 

Is your newspaper trying to serve the national agenda of promoting marriage and the birth rate? This business of foreign brides is fraught with moral questions, and it is unbecoming of a serious newspaper to highlight this route without a word of criticism. 

If we are so desperate for more population, why don't we just open our doors wide to immigration by, say, 200,000 bright, hardworking, young Vietnamese? That is surely a more effective solution than conniving in sexist degradation that at best yields a few hundred babies. Or is mass immigration too threatening to the dominance of our majority race? Would we rather sell our soul to the devil than undermine our own priviledges?

* * * * *

My point was well substantiated by The Straits Times themselves just a week later on 7 Feb 2005, when they did a similar story exactly the way I said they should. I will take it as a mea culpa.

Actually there were two articles on 7 Feb, one headlined "Korean men look abroad for wives", and the other, "Filipinas hoping for better life find exploitation instead".

The first story featured Kim Jae Yon, a 36-year-old tailor, who recently found an Uzbek wife. It reported that "women from his own country had been put off by his average looks, average secondary school education and humble monthly salary of 1.2 million won (S$2,000)".

The number of international marriages in South Korea soared to 19,214 in 2003 from 11,017 the year before - an increase of 74 per cent - according to official statistics. Today, about 8 out of every 100 marriages involves a foreign spouse. About 70% of those involve ethnic-Korean brides from China, "while the rest are mainly from Vietnam, Thailand and Uzbekistan."

The process of finding a foreign bride is similar to the business of Vietnamese brides featured by the Sunday Times (30 Jan).

From the 7 Feb Korean story, 

Besides daily newspaper adverts by matchmaking agencies, there are notices offering marriage packages stuck on lamp posts and subway station notice boards.

Mr Kim called a number on one of them and then paid out about 14 million won for air tickets, documentation and a wedding ceremony.

After viewing photographs of prospective spouses, he flew to Uzbekistan, one of the former Soviet Union's poorer countries, to make his pick. He deemed the cost - two years' earnings - a bargain even though it wiped out his entire savings.

The motives are also similar.

The foreign brides, usually village women in their early 20s, are balm to the wounded egos of South Korean men.

'My wife is appreciative of me and does not mind my humble background.

'She is contented as long as there is food and shelter,' Mr Kim said.

Or so he would like to believe.

* * * * *

On the same page, below the Korean story , was the Filipina story. The opening line was, 

They thought becoming mail-order brides to South Koreans was their ticket to an affluent and comfortable life....[snip]

But little did they know that a few months after the lavish weddings, the women would be divorced and forced to work in nightclubs or factories just to survive.

A little further on, 

'It's sexual exploitation and they are using the marriage, which turns out to be fake, to exploit our women,' said Mr Romulo Asis, head of the National Bureau of Investigation's (NBI) Anti-Human Trafficking Division.

He estimates that more than 200 women in the Philippines were victimised in the past two years by syndicates luring them to become mail-order brides to South Koreans.

'It's a huge problem that is difficult to crack because, for many poor Filipinos, marrying a foreigner is the short cut to going abroad and, hopefully, getting rich,' said Mr Asis.

And the same sorry tale of quickie decisions:

'There is no more courtship. The mass weddings take place a day after the South Koreans arrive in Manila or sometimes on the day of their arrival,' he said.

The Filipina mail-order brides are provided wedding gowns and shopping money, while their parents get cash gifts of 20,000 pesos.

At least in the old days, they were more honest. They called it the "bride price". They knew they were buying humans.

* * * * *

Why is it that the Straits Times can highlight both sides of the tale when it comes to Koreans and Filipinas, but when it comes to Singaporeans, only the purchasers' side of the story is told?

Perhaps when it comes to marrying Singaporeans after posing seductively in a line-up for 3 minutes, the marriages all go wonderfully well and there is no downside. That's why there is nothing for the Sunday Times to report. Sure, and the moon is made of cheese.

Or perhaps, indeed, some of the bought marriages of Singaporeans don't work, but if no one comes to the Straits Times with such a story, how do we expect our newspaper to run it?

To be quite honest, such a scenario is quite possible, though this theory of relying on offered sources does suggest that the reason the Sunday Times keep running these "brides-for-sale" stories (three times, so far, remember?) is simply because the syndicates ask the Straits Times to help boost their business.

But why doesn't the Straits Times then go out to look for an accompanying "downside" story, in order to give balanced coverage? Immediately, the term "investigative journalism" comes to mind. 

Some time back, Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng excoriated the Straits Times for "crusading journalism", when the newspaper reported on some cock-up involving the police force. After that, the media learnt their lesson and no longer go out sniffing for stories that make Singaporeans, especially those with government jobs, look bad. Thus, it's not likely that we'll see any reporter go looking for spousal abuse and major disappointment on the part of quickie foreign wives. "Balanced journalism" is trumped by the need to preserve heterosexual Singaporean male egos.

However, balanced journalism is alive and well when it comes to homosexuality. Everytime the media touches on the gay issue, they know the Media Development Authority's guidelines. Always find someone to say something bad or disapproving of homosexuality, never mind if the the guy's opinion is nothing more than prejudice, contrary to well-established facts. (It's as if when the newspaper does any story about Indian cultural traditions, they MUST find some one to say bigotted things about Indians, to "balance" the story.) If your article is all positive about gays, you'll get a rap from the MDA. You may even lose your publication licence altogether. (See the stories Manazine rapped (again) and Formula 17 banned)

What a wonderful country we live in!

Yawning Bread 





The earlier articles about quickie brides can be found here:

Vietnamese brides 8 June 2003
Prostitution is not illegal in Singapore (Kalimantan brides story can be seen in the sidebar) 7 Nov 2002

There is really no need to archive this latest set of stories about Vietnamese virgins. The gist of it is the same as the earlier stories.