Behind closed doors, as Project X’s intern, Kethlyn shares her thoughts.


For the longest time, I had been dreading the completion of the last task that had been
assigned to me – writing a personal reflection on my 3 months as Project X’s intern. I use the
term ‘dread’ for many reasons; 1) I hopped onto the internship wagon with many questions in my
bag. While I got most of them answered by the staff, volunteers and other stakeholders, I also
picked up more questions along the way, and I felt that I needed more time to get to the answers.
With more time, however, came more problems and questions. It was like opening a can of
worms; 2) the two topics that will be covered in this piece were two of which that tugged at my
heartstrings the most – I was dissatisfied with the position on the procedures and solutions, and
the naïve me wanted to buy more time to see if there was any possibility for change, and 3)
completing this last task would also mean that I was officially done with all my tasks as an
intern, and it feels… bittersweet.

Throughout the 3 months of internship, I was given the opportunity to meet, communicate with,
interview and help a diverse array of amazing people. Many of them were kind enough to invite
me into their lives to share their heartbreaking, and/or inspirational life journeys, and it was
through these conversations that I had with them, that I found out so much more about the sex
work industry, the challenges and the unsolved issues that the sex workers face, as well as their
coping mechanisms. I have spent many days slamming the keys on my laptop in frustration,
searching for solutions in the law, making phone calls to seek help, only to be questioned
unnecessarily, hung up on, or be told “this has always been the position, there is nothing else we
can do”.

Nothing else we can do?

Why? If access to justice is the basic principle to the rule of law, then why does it seem as
though we are so far behind in applying this principle?

I once accompanied a transgender sex worker to the police station to file for assault, and was
both surprised and taken aback when the officer kept harping on why she was in a red light
district, and what was she working as. I could not help but ask the officer why this was
relevant to her filing for assault. “Oh this is just protocol”, was what he replied. Sure, I
understand the protocol, but would a fisherman’s case of assault be filed differently from a yoga
instructor’s case of assault? Would it matter if she was unemployed or working in one of the Big
4s? Asking not once, not twice but more than three times about her occupation and reason for
being in a red light district made me annoyed, and I cannot imagine the fear, annoyance, and
humiliation by the person who was there to file for the report. It is the unnecessary scrutiny that
makes people nervous about coming forward, for fear that the victim will also become a criminal
under the eyes of the law.

Think of the individual as a piece of onion, who can get access to justice only if, every other
layer of them is not against the laws of Singapore. I could be wrong, but almost every other case
that comes through Project X seems to be that way. Is there really nothing else we can do?

I could go on and on about the 1001 unique cases that stream through our doors, but we would
probably end up with page after page of my ranting. As such, I have forced myself to choose two
topics that have impacted me during my internship, as part of my farewell article.

Gender profiling

When I first joined Project X, I was informed about 2 cases in which both individuals, who are
transgender women, were stopped by the immigration officers at the airport. Their handbag,
luggage, and handphones were checked by the officers. Both of them were told that this was
“normal procedures” and were not informed about anything else. While one of them was
released by midday, the other individual was not as fortunate as she was held back in the airport
for 10 hours. She was also asked invasive questions like “have you had your penis cut”, and was
eventually deported back to her country without any information or opportunity to explain

Section 3 of the Immigration Act authorizes the Controller and such number of immigration
officers to carry out the provisions of the Act. And Section 8 of the same Act labels migrant sex
workers as “prohibited immigrants”. However, nothing in the Act mentions anything about
gender profiling. When I rang up ICA, no one could reveal to me on what the procedures for
gender profiling were.

However, in an American article, (http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/america-
tonight/america-tonight- blog/2013/10/16/rise-in-
transgenderharassmentviolencebypolicelinkedtoprofiling.html), Andrea Ritchie, a US attorney
said that while people are aware of racial profiling, many are not familiar with how gender is
really central to policing in the United States. That includes expectations in terms of how women
are supposed to look, how men are supposed to look. How men and women are supposed to act.
When people look or act queer or gender nonconforming, the police often read that as a disorder
and they perceive that person as already disorderly, as already suspicious, as already prone to

Dean Spade, a lawyer and founder of Sylvia Rivera Law Project, agrees and says “that’s part of
what policing is – is this kind of generalized suspicion. Does something look out of place? And
transgender people are often that thing that looks out of place”.

Transgender people in America experience 3 times as much police violence as non-transgender
individuals and 48% of these transgender people who are victims of hate crimes, reported
receiving mistreatment from the police when they went to seek help.

The same numbers cannot be applied to the transgender community in Singapore due to the
difference in demographics. However, one then seeks to inquire the procedures that immigrations
officers abide by to profile someone under Section 8(3)(e) and (f) of the Immigration Act. So if I
were an effeminate male who enjoys cross-dressing, does that make me a sex worker? Is the
gender on the passport, dress sense, and physical features of an individual the only criteria to
raising alarm bells? Will the transgender community forever be at the losing end for “sticking
out” too much? Do they deserve to be humiliated and interrogated for choosing to express
themselves differently? Are we saying that these are the consequences that they have to deal with forever, on top of the confusion, pain, and suffering they are already going through with their own body and transition?

On top of that, why is sex work even a crime?

If these procedures are carried out to ensure that women are not being trafficked in as sex
workers, surely one would think that the pimps are not that naïve so as to encourage the women
to dress in a way that makes them stand out?

It bothers me.

Mental health

Back in Law School, a bunch of friends and I started up a Mental Health Ground Up Initiative
because we realized that a lot of our peers, including ourselves, were stressed out and/or burned
out, and we did not know how to regulate. As such, the Initiative was born to provide everyone
with resources and avenues to seek help.

Mental wellness is a really important topic to me, as I have lost many friends who have
surrendered to the monsters in their head. Because of the stigma from society, many of my
friends devised their own coping mechanism which was not all too successful. Many of them
wound up withdrawing from their loved ones, hiding away their struggles and pain and
eventually taking their life when it was all too much to bear.

It saddened me to find out that many of the transgender women I interviewed were either sad,
depressed or suicidal at some point in their life. And many of them did not seek help.

“Why did you not go for counselling or seek help from the institute?”

“But I’m not mad, why should I go to a mental health institute?”

A survey (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55061cd3e4b0953c7cbdb2c9/t/582fcd8d46c3c4d86172d3
pdf), conducted by T Project revealed that while transgender people face a higher risk of depression and suicide ideation than cisgender heterosexuals, many of the transgender people do not seek professional help as
they fear discrimination from the mental health providers. In addition, some do not fully
understand mental health services in Singapore or hold misconceptions about them. As such,
they avoid seeking help.

Out of the 41 transgender people surveyed by The T Project, 37 reported that they did not seek
professional help for depression or suicide ideation/attempts, while only 2 did so. The top
reasons included a lack of knowledge of where to do so and what treatments are like. Fear and uncertainty about how they would be treated, the costs involved, and legal issues also played large roles. A small number of these respondents reported drug and alcohol use as coping mechanisms. 4 used alcohol, 2 used drugs, and 3 used both.

Out of the former group who did not seek professional help, 16 respondents (43%) reported that
they did not find such help applicable to their experiences. The other 57% gave a variety of
reasons for not seeking help. 15 out of these 21 respondents considered such mental health issues
as part and parcel of being a transgender person.

I hope that this misconception changes over time. Many of the mental health issues do not care
about your age, race, the color of skin, gender, or financial status. Mental health issues do not
discriminate, and anyone going through any of it should never walk alone. Or have to deal with
them, alone. Close to 300 million people worldwide, of all ages, have depression (South African
Federation for Mental Health).

You are not alone.

Rightly summed up by Shawn ‘The Clown’ Crahan (from Slipknot) when discussing Linkin
Park’s Chester Bennington’s mental health issues, (http://www.nme.com/news/music/slipknots-
clown-importance- mental-health- death-chester- bennington-chris- cornell-2119055), he says:

“What people need to know is that there are beautiful, wonderful people in the world who
have empathy and work with the human condition,” he continued. “They understand what
being ‘sick’ is. It’s not a human being’s fault to have chemical imbalances. We’re just
scared. The people who you think are the most solid are often the most hurt. That can be
hard to wrap your head around.


“As the world grows and technology grows, it’s getting harder to communicate and for
kids to socialize. We need to take behavioral health recovery seriously.


“We all have flaws,” he told NME. “Some people have astigmatism in their eyes, some
people have ulcers, this is the same thing. You could have anxiety, depression, OCD,
ADD, paranoia, anything. It’s mental health – it’s not a hard thing to wrap your head
around. Don’t be scared. These physical and mental attributes can be helped by
wonderful people who dedicate their lives to helping others”.

As a cisgender, I may never fully understand all that a transgender person may go through.
However, I can only hope that one in need of help receives the love and support from the
community and from the society. There are people who are willing to help you

I hopped onto the internship wagon with a heart full of passion, and a bag full of
questions, but I leave Project X with a duffel bag spilling with more questions, and a myriad of
emotions, mostly sadness and anger at how the laws and procedures impact or rather, disrupt or
limit the sex work industry as well as the transgender community. More needs to done, and I
hope that there will be more people to help the community out.

Apart from that, I also leave this internship with a happy heart, having had met, befriended and
confided in many of the amazing people at Project X.

Many have asked if choosing to not intern at a Law Firm this semester was a “wasted
opportunity”. I’d say this internship was far from a wasted opportunity. In fact, I urge
prospective and current students, especially from Law School, to try their hand at helping out in
an NGO. Be it as an intern, a volunteer, a translator, or a legal researcher. The experience will
most definitely be an eye-opener as you find out how the law affects the community, and you
find ways to help these people to understand the law and what is going on, and seek solutions
without a hefty price.

Without the comfort of the four walls of the court, and the statutes behind your back, you will be
pushed out of your comfort zone as you place yourself in their shoes to solve issues that they
face on a daily basis. It was one heck of a rollercoaster ride for me, one which I will never trade
for, and I am sure it will be a fun ride for you too.

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Call our Helpline at +65 9060 9906

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Vanessa Ho

Executive Director | [email protected]

Executive Director
[email protected]

Vanessa has been full-time with Project X since 2011, and as a result, has had many opportunities to meet and connect with sex workers in Singapore and around the world. Under her leadership, the organisation has grown from a small group of volunteers to one where there are three paid staff and a team of over 60 volunteers. Correspondingly, she has increased the annual operating budget of the organization five times, and is now recognized as the leading organization that empowers and assists women in the sex industry.

Vanessa has written and spoken extensively about sex work, human trafficking, rape culture, and LGBTQ rights in Singapore. She believes that if people can speak about sex, gender and sexuality in open and in non-judgmental ways, society will become a safer place for everyone.

Vanessa holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Warwick, and a Masters Degree in Gender, Society and Representation from University College London.