Yawning Bread. September 2006

CNA: Fifty-dollar men




I am sure ChannelNewsAsia (CNA) jumped at it when the story idea came to them. It had a double yucks factor: Indians and homosexual prostitution.

The furthest things from all that (Chinese) Singaporeans consider good.


First, I'll give you a brief description of the 20-minute television documentary, and then I will discuss why it is so pathetically bad.

Aired on Monday, 4 September, this episode of CNA's "Get Real!" documentary had Diana Ser, the presenter, saying that someone gave CNA the tip-off that some Indian foreign workers provided sexual services for $50. Thus the program was called the "Fifty-dollar men".

The camera crew first went to Little India (the ethnic quarter in Singapore where Indians and Bangladeshis consider their own) in the day and asked shopkeepers and street vendors whether they were aware of such a trade. All but one didn't have a clue.

Moving on to night filming, She said the TV crew monitored the area in front of Mustafa's along Serangoon Road secretly (from an upstairs window probably) for 7 nights. The first night, they didn't see anything at all.

The second night, they wired up a decoy called Sam and sent him out among the thousands of men loitering in the area. He managed to get into contact with a "late-twenties" guy from Punjab and the program replayed the short conversation they had in which the price was bargained down from $50 to $45. Other than that, there was apparently no discussion about what services would be offered in exchange for this amount. In any case, the guy hardly spoke any English. The price agreed, Sam brought the guy to a hotel room where the TV crew was waiting. Naturally, as soon as the poor guy saw the crew, he ran off. But more than that, he ran back to his friends and acquaintances and blew Sam's cover. So that spelt the end of the undercover job.

(Does this tell you something about the production crew's competence?)

The crew tried to interview some other guys they saw loitering around the vicinity but everybody turned them down except for one. And even then, the conversation they had with him (through a translator) was hardly informative. It just confirmed that sex was being traded.

Likewise Diana Ser's attempts to interview some johns (mostly Chinese, she said) were unsuccessful except for one guy, "Benny". He explained that the Indian workers often did this for extra money (how informative!) so that they can "pay rent" or "buy handphones, jewelry", and "and maybe they can get a girl", that is, buy a female hooker.

Diana Ser called it a "disturbing finding." Why it was disturbing, she didn't say.


The documentary, "Fifty-dollar men" in the Get Real! series was aired on Monday, 4 September 2006 at 8.35 pm on Singapore's ChannelNewsAsia.

It took care to pixelate the faces of all non-crew individuals and interviewees.


Other parts of the voice-over explained that many of these foreign workers earned just S$20 (about US$13) a day. That's $600 a month, if they work 7 days a week. If they work overtime, they may get $2 a day more. Yet, these guys - often in the shipbuilding or construction industries - would have paid agents as much as $10,000 to secure a job in Singapore, often selling the family farm to raise the money.

To compound the problem, many of them, fresh on arrival from India or Bangladesh would discover that the salaries promised them had been exaggerated by their agents. They would be earning less than they had thought. If that's not bad enough, some employers fail to pay salaries on time; 3-month delays are not uncommon. Others simply lay off the workers midway through the contract. How are these guys, not just to survive, but to make back what they had to pay upfront to the agents?

Then the voice-over said that what they are doing is illegal. Foreign workers cannot hold any "job" other than what is specified in their Work Permit. Moreover, soliciting is illegal too, though prostitution, it reminded viewers, was not. End of discussion.

* * * * *

And that is why the quality is poor. The discussion was shallow and left many issues untouched. The mention of low pay and delayed wages almost begged for a more in-depth analysis of how such a situation - evidently with a lot of misrepresentation between employers and agents on the one side and workers on the other - is allowed to persist.

It was not as if the program was short of time. It had superfluous bits about a Sikh temple providing newspapers "from home" so that foreign workers could keep in touch with happenings in India. What's that got to do with anything?

Nor did merely proclaiming that this and that was against the law aid discussion either. Any thinking person would have wanted to examine how justifiable such laws are, especially in view of the context described in the documentary. Likewise, any intelligent person would find it slightly absurd that prostitution was legal but soliciting was not. Does that make any sense? Can one say that opening a Chinese restaurant is legal but marketing it is not? It cried out for a debate.

Unfortunately, critical analysis along these lines would likely lead to an interrogation of the policies and behaviour of the state and state-favoured persons (i.e. employers). So it's no surprise that CNA didn't want to go there.

As for the trading of sex itself, any self-respecting documentary would want to include a segment where the pros and cons are debated. The producer should have found someone who could give good sound-bites (and entertainment value) decrying such disgusting immorality. At the same time, those views should be opposed by someone else defending the freedom to sell sex.

Ooops. How can wholesome television include views that defend the freedom to sell sex? 

Since that is out of the question, the choice that the producers would have been left with was either to include the moralisers without counter-argument, or not to have an argument at all.

To their credit, CNA chose not to adopt a moralistic tone. But this left them with no debate at all about the issue of sex for sale. I'll grant that it's not entirely their fault, but more the fault of our government for imposing such policies ("Content must not promote homosexuality!") on media companies.

* * * * *

This is one small program, but it illustrates the problems that Singapore has in trying to be a creative hub. Given the censorious climate, people hold back whenever they think they're dealing with a "sensitive" subject. Today, it's a TV documentary about male prostitution, tomorrow it may be a feature film about political skullduggery, the day after, perhaps someone wants to launch an online magazine (based in Singapore) with investigative reporting about money laundering through the banks of neighbouring countries ("Cannot! It will hurt our relations with fellow ASEAN countries!")

And so we produce mediocre work, because we are entangled in rules and sensitivities. Yet we tell ourselves, we need a creative wing to our economy in the post-industrial world. Our creative products must meet world standards and be marketable around the world. Yeah. Time to get real.

Yawning Bread 


At the end of the documentary, Diana Ser wanted to make the point that it was quite unacceptable for men to be soliciting for sex right in front of a busy shopping centre. That "it takes place openly is cause for disquiet," she said.

Then she looked to the decoy Sam to support her point. Sam agreed that it was "going on right in the open public," with "families, kids walking around, running around."

But he added, "Nobody noticed it. Only if you stand there and watch."

Which suggested that it causes no disquiet at all. It's only a problem for outsiders who want to imagine it to be a problem out of their own moral crusade.

The discussion is thus disjointed. No editor worth his salt would have passed such work. See what I mean by quality issues?