Illicit trade takes a beating during coronavirus outbreak

Illicit trade takes a beating during coronavirus outbreak
Two sex workers sitting near a licensed brothel in Lorong 16 Geylang at about 10pm last Thursday. This part of Geylang, known for licensed prostitution, was a virtual ghost town as the women waited for more than two hours without getting any clients. Project X Singapore, an organisation which looks out for the welfare and rights of sex workers here, said at least 25 people in the sex and entertainment industries have contacted the organisation for help.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

For more than two hours, the three women sat patiently on discoloured plastic chairs a few metres apart, dolling up their faces as cars drove past.

A handful of men walking along Lorong 16 Geylang did not stop, despite the women giving them knowing smiles.

The trio were the only sex workers spotted at 10pm last Thursday in an area known for its licensed brothels.

But this part of Geylang has now turned into a ghost town, The Straits Times observed.

Following a March 26 order by the authorities to close down entertainment outlets till April 30, as one of the measures to contain the spread of Covid-19, licensed brothels have also been affected.

Where pimps used to stand outside the brothels that dot Geylang Lorongs 16 to 20, now there are locked gates and unlit red lanterns.

The coronavirus, which has so far claimed six lives and infected more than 1,100 people here, has explicitly changed the landscape of this red light district and ailed various vice trades.

This is set to continue with the elevated safe distancing measures announced last Friday, which are meant to be a circuit breaker to stem the spread of local transmission.

Sex workers

It is a busy time for Project X Singapore, an organisation which looks out for the welfare and rights of sex workers. Spokesman Vanessa Ho said at least 25 people in the sex and entertainment industries have contacted the organisation for help.

Ms Ho told ST: "Some of them are taking courses to upgrade. We're helping them sign up with the SkillsFuture programme and asking them to go to social service offices to seek help. We're just trying to see how we can lift people up."

Among the concerns of sex workers and bar hostesses, most of whom are migrant workers, are the loss of income and being unable to find alternative jobs or pay their rent.

Contraband cigarettes

The wily illegal cigarette touts in areas such as Geylang, Woodlands Road and Bukit Panjang have also become harder to spot now.

Those familiar with the illicit trade attributed their disappearance to the current lockdowns in neighbouring countries, which have resulted in a supply shortage.

One of them, who gave his name as "John", used to smuggle duty-unpaid cigarettes till the law caught up with him. He told ST that prices for contraband cigarettes have shot up between 30 and 50 per cent since the Covid-19 outbreak.

He said: "Two months ago, a carton of contraband 'kretek' cigarettes in Singapore cost $60 to $65. Right now... the price has gone up to $90 or $100 per carton."

A market analyst for the tobacco industry and a source in law enforcement, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, concurred that contraband cigarette activities have been less rampant lately.

The analyst told ST: "Most of the peddlers come to Singapore on social visit passes. You don't see them because they have returned home and are not allowed to return here due to travel restrictions."

Last year, 2.9 million packets of duty-unpaid cigarettes were seized by the authorities, compared with 2.4 million packets in 2018. In the same period, 6,920 persons were caught buying contraband cigarettes - roughly 800 more than the year before.

According to John, most of Singapore's illegal cigarettes originate from Indonesia, where each carton costs about $25. By the time several middlemen are paid off, each carton is sold here for $65, earning distributors like him a profit margin of $10.

"Most big syndicates can deliver 1,000 cartons a shipment," John, who is in his 30s, said. "So that's a profit of $10,000."

Electronic cigarettes, which are illegal in Singapore, are in short supply too. SG Vape, an online supplier, said in its Telegram group chat it would resume its deliveries only after Malaysia reopens its borders.

It sent an update on March 25 that "if we are unable to send you during this (lockdown) period, the order will only proceed after 15th April".

Malaysia has closed its borders till April 14.


Anecdotal evidence suggests there is a current dearth of illicit drugs here. Mr Bruce Mathieu, a former drug abuser who now gives motivational speeches, pointed to the overnight unavailability of heroin.

Mr Mathieu, 50, told ST: "The market was previously $30 for a straw of heroin. Now, I don't even know if you can find any. Heroin abusers will keep (their drugs) for themselves and not sell because they're unsure when the drought will end."

Overseas, some governments and non-governmental organisations have raised concerns that abusers would stockpile drugs and substitute them with other drugs when supplies run dry.


Global police body Interpol told ST the Covid-19 pandemic has had a knock-on effect on both the demand and supply of drugs. With the closure of bars and clubs here and increased social isolation measures, demand for party drugs would ostensibly fall.

The prices of most drugs, however, are likely to increase in the short term, said Interpol. Its spokesman added: "Interpol has already seen evidence of this price increase." (see other report)

Crystal meth or Ice, has also increased in price recently, said Mr Tim York, a recovering meth abuser. A gram of Ice, which cost $100 two months ago, is now roughly $130, he said.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has also warned that due to the high prevalence of chronic medical conditions among abusers, "many will be at particular risk of serious respiratory illness if they get infected with Covid-19".

Singapore's Central Narcotics Bureau said it is keeping an eye on the situation. Its spokesman told ST: "CNB continues to monitor the drug situation closely and enforce our drug laws, even in the current Covid-19 situation. CNB will not hesitate to investigate and take action if any drug activities are detected."

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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