When I arrived in the Joo Chiat area my first night in Singapore, I was a bit skeptical about the neighborhood and considered moving the next day. Even though it was early in the evening, men sat in sidewalk cafes and restaurants eating, drinking and smoking. They lingered in the doorsteps of brightly lit karaoke bars and overtly leered at those passing by. There were also heaps of fine, young things (all Vietnamese I noticed) trolling the area trying to earn an extra buck or two.
Needless to say, this environment surprised me a bit because I hadn’t read anything about this in the reviews of the hostel. Although I know the sex and gambling trade are widely available in most countries, somehow I just wasn’t expecting it to be so blatant. I hadn’t really experienced any of this in my travels up until this point, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to now. But, don’t get me wrong though. I wasn’t afraid to travel alone as a single woman. Nor did I feel threatened to walk outside at night. I just contemplated whether I wanted to spend my vacation surrounded by such an environment when there are obviously other neighborhoods that I could live in.
But, despite the somewhat dodgy scene, I decided to stick it out and see what the area had to offer. What made me stay was the upfront attitude of the hostel’s receptionist when I checked in. He quickly made it a point to discuss the prostitution and gambling going on outside. He said that although prostitution is legal in designated areas of the city, this did not include the surrounding area. However, the problem was difficult to manage because so many foreign girls arrived in Singapore every day and the legal process of deportation could not keep up with new arrivals.
After sightseeing in Singapore for a few days, I understood how enticing the city would be to someone from a neighboring country that can only be described as poor in comparison. Singapore seemed extremely prosperous, industrious and developed. Their dollar was strong compared to other nearby currencies. By working in the city (legally and illegally, I assume), one could potentially earn a bit more than one could in his or her own country. More wages mean a better life in Singapore and at home for one’s family. Because filial piety is highly valued in many Asian societies, it doesn’t surprise me that young people come to Singapore and do whatever they can to send money home.
Of course, this does not mean that I support the prostitution and gambling industries in Singapore. I simply understand why they continue to exist (as they do everywhere). It made me realize how intertwined the southeast Asian countries really are, whether they want to be or not. If one country advances, it is only natural for foreigners to migrate toward prosperity with the hopes of cashing in on some of that success. This may inhibit the country’s growth and economic revitalization though because of the new problems that the immigrants are creating. But, in a roundabout way, the immigrants’ countries are also benefiting and slowly making their way toward a thriving economy due to the money that is being sent home. In the long run, this can only help stimulate the growth of southeast Asia in general. But is this the best way for the entire region to proceed? Only time will tell.