I love Geylang… and it has nothing to do with sex

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Geylang Lorong 24 road sign

By Tang Li

Geylang Lorong 24 road signI know it’s not politically correct to admit it … but I love Geylang, Singapore’s red-light district. Geylang stands out as an example of how to contain and control the worst in human kind into a workable system. What’s more remarkable about Geylang is the fact that it exists and flourishes in a country that once banned tourists with long hair.

Geylang owes its existence to Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In his biography, From Third World to First, Mr Lee stated quite clearly that trying to eradicate the business would be futile and it was better to have the business out in the open where the state could manage it. This has allowed Singapore to contain the vice trade in a manner that was best described by a friend as being “keeping the unclean things clean”.

What makes Geylang work? Well, for a start, it could be the fact that everyone in the system seems to know the basic rules. As long as the basic rules are maintained, everyone is allowed to do business as usual.

There is a police presence in Geylang. Visit the area on any given night and one will inevitably find a police van parked in one corner and one will also see a couple of policemen walking or driving around. Plainclothes policemen from the anti-vice department are also known to mingle around the area once in a while.

Whenever the police are there, the operators of illegal gambling tables and DVD salesmen make themselves scarce. The girls who normally ply their trade on the streets sit by the coffee shop until the police walk away.

The basic rule in Geylang is that disputes must be resolved without violence. Violence brings in the police and that’s bad for everyone’s business.

Geylang womenThe second rule that’s kept Geylang going is the fact that prostitution is not illegal in Singapore. As long as a woman is of an age where she can provide consent, there’s nothing to stop her from working as a prostitute. Theoretically this means that prostitutes and those who deal with prostitutes are governed by the same laws as everyone else. Unlike the situation in many American cities, prostitutes are not placed in a situation where they are fearful of going to the law if they need to.

Other than these two facts, people are allowed to do what they want to do. While sex and gambling are the main pillars,  Geylang is an entrepreneurial hive. The place is filled with small shops that support the needs of the residents.

Food stalls are prominent. Connoisseurs in search of hawker food can look forward to Geylang’s beef kway teow and bean curd.

Geylang is also filled with places where one can pick up good deals on computers and phones.

Those who visit Geylang are mainly foreigners. They need to stay in touch with friends and family back home. Shops to provide them with everything from phones, tablets, phone cards to cheap phone calls have sprung up.

What I have said here is just a teaser. Many more activities go on there. It deserves a deeper study that can include entrepreneurship, survival instincts, foodie haunts and, of course, how Singapore has managed to control the area with that famous light touch.