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Two Thai women travel from Bangkok to Singapore leading opposite lives

 

Tuesday 7th October 2014 4:13pm

Thai women forging a path to success in Singapore

New studies suggest that more Thai women are not only marrying Singaporean men but are also finding employment in the city state. But not all are so fortunate.

On a plane taking the 90 minute journey from Bangkok to Singapore are two Thai women. One is living the dream while another is living a nightmare that may soon become a living hell.

Srithorn, a young, vibrant and attractive Thai woman is 27 years of age. She is a graduate from Thammasat University. On a Monday evening in February she is heading for her condominium on in the central area of Singapore. Tomorrow she will be at work in the Asian headquarters of one of the world's leading technology companies based in Singapore. She has worked for this company for one and half years and has already received a promotion in addition to advanced management training courses. Her future is bright.

Doi is a 32 year old Thai woman from Khon Kaen province in Thailand. She is also attractive but perhaps not as vibrant. In fact she is a little over weight. She also first lived in Singapore eighteen months ago and she is also heading for work in the centre of Singapore except Doi's prospects do not look so good right now. She is apprehensive that on arrival at Singapore's Changi airport she may even be refused entry. She has traveled from her home in Khon Khaen to Singapore on a one ticket with money borrowed from friends. On the day before she left, she took her three year old son to her mother in a nearby village. Her budget for her one week trip is a meagre 7,000 baht and she must make that from working in Singapore's underworld vice trade over the coming nine or ten days plus her expenses and the price of a ticket home.

Thai women opting for marriage to Singaporeans

Officially Singapore is home to over 40,000 Thai immigrants, many of them who are Thai women married to Singaporean men. Many are happy, some not so happy but all face challenges adjusting to the culture and lifestyle in Singapore which is very different from that in Thailand.

'Many Thai women looking for foreign husbands opt to travel to Singapore since they can get there without a visa, many women think that getting to a foreign country is half the battle to finding a foreign husband, it's really a big mistake' says Carla Boonkong, a magazine writer in Bangkok who has become an expert on Thai women marrying foreigners around the world.

She says that one of the key reasons that Thai women should avoid traveling to Singapore 'on spec' is that any violations of Singapore's immigration requirements may make it very difficult for any Thai Woman who later meets a Singaporean man to get residency or citizenship in the country. 'I advise any Thai women interested in meeting a foreign partner to use internet dating sites and form a good relationships online before meeting a foreigner in person, this also applies to Singaporean men.

Some Thai woman think Singapore is their only option

Carla tells us that many Thai women think that Singapore is there only option because of the visa issue. 'This is is another mistake, I have spoken to Thai women from poor backgrounds and with debts that think that their debts are a reason why they may not be successful in obtaining a visa in a foreign country. Of course some Thai women really want to live in Singapore but there are pros and cons.'

Background to Thai women seeking Singaporean men

Singapore is a relatively short distance from Thailand but both countries are quite different. Singapore is a very new country being essentially a city state that was founded in 1965 after failing to reach terms for autonomy with Malaysia when the British, the former colonial masters, departed. The country's development since then has been described as a miracle and has transformed Singapore into one of Asia's most developed economies second only to Hong Kong. This achievement was only possible through the introduction of strict policies which drive the city state's economy supported by a narrowly focused and rigorous education system.

Thailand, on the other hand has never been colonised and while it has transformed itself economically, it has a completely different culture and has not reached the same level of wealth and development as the city state to the south. 'Thailand still has a massive poverty problem and is underdeveloped compared to Singapore, to compare the two is like comparing chalk with cheese. I have lived and worked in both countries as an expatriate. Personally I like Thailand better but tell that to a Thai women from the rural north east with no means to scratch an income,' says an American expat in Bangkok.

While many Thai men have sought work in Singapore the work has up to recently been limited to lower paid labour. However higher levels of education in Thailand and globalisation have recently been offering more opportunities to well educated and english speaking Thais.

Thai women as wives to Singaporean men

Thai women are marrying Singaporean men in increasing numbers but there has been an overlap between the vice industry and women who marry men in Singapore. An international study completed in 2012 based on over 100 interviews of Thai women who had Singaporean husbands or life partners found that 45% had worked or been involved in the vice trade. But this is also changing. 'Singapore is developing as a hub for the internet in Asia and many Thai women from established universities are finding well paid jobs in the city state if they have a good command of English. This is more and more the case. Many Young Thai women have a superb work ethic and very outward manner in dealing with people,' says Carla Boonkong. 'So with the internet and online dating, it is now quite normal for Thai women to be dating Singaporean men, as well as this, we see more Singaporean women focus on their careers, yes. But for many Thai women it is also a good idea to meet a Singaporean man.'

Benefits for Thai women of marrying a Singaporean man:

  • Singapore is a relatively wealthy country. Although many Singaporean men do not earn western style salaries, they earn a lot more than men working in Thailand. There are also some very wealthy men (and women in Singapore) with more millionaires per capita than any other country in the world.
  • Singapore, while it is very much a more controlled culture and living environment, offers security to those who work hard and within the country's laws. To some Thai women, coming from a background of deprivation, this can seem very attractive. Singapore offers a flexible immigration system whereby a Thai woman marrying a Singaporean man may eventually achieve Singaporean citizenship provided she demonstrates an ability to contribute to Singaporean society and has a good clean record.
  • Most Singaporean men because of the Singaporean culture since its foundation are more responsible than many poorer Thai men although this may seem like a stereotype.
  • Unlike most foreign countries Singapore is a short distance from Thailand and air fares are cheap particularly with discount airlines. 'There is a more of an opportunity for a change of heart although it is very easy for some Thai women to get caught up with the vice scene,' says Carla Boonkong.

Singaporean women shunning marriage

One of the key reasons for the upsurge in Singaporean men finding marriage with Thai women is the alarming drop off in the number of Singaporean women getting married. 'Many Singaporean women are not interested in marriage now,' says Pen (35), a Thai woman who is married to a Singaporean man and has been living in Thailand for the last eight years. 'My husband says that they have become very 'hi so', they are only interested in a wealthy man who can buy them a luxury lifestyle.'

Pen's comments may be a little prejudiced but there is some substance. There has been a rise also in Singaporean women marrying foreign men but nothing akin to the upsurge of Singaporean men seeking foreign brides, many of them Thai women. Recent figures in Singapore now suggest that 33% of all marriages involving Singaporean men have been to foreign wives including Thai women who are the favorite marriage partners. The same figures also show an increase in Singaporean women seeking foreign partners with a rise to 6.9% of marriages in Singapore.

Marriage rates in decline among women in Singapore

The economic miracle of the state of Singapore has been based on a well oiled education system and an emphasis on the productivity of the city state. This has developed into a complex social structure in Singapore which has resulted in more women achieving higher levels of education and employment. In recent years, growing numbers of women in Singapore have simply opted to go it alone particularly those with higher levels of education and income. Figures show that over 30% of Singaporean women aged 30-34 are now single while 26.7% of Singaporean women aged 40-44 have never been married or in a relationship. 'The same trend emerged in Germany in the late 1950's and 1960's when women living in agricultural regions opted out of marriage preferring a working career,' says James Morris, a journalist in Bangkok who has written about Thai women in Europe when asked to comment. 'This was the start of the trend where German men came to Thailand seeking Thai women,' he adds.

Affluent Singaporean men opt for Thai women

A man is murdered in Bangkok. The murderer is a Singaporean man seen running from the upmarket condominium after stabbing his victim whom he has found in bed with his Thai girlfriend. It's a story that highlights a growing trend among wealthy Singaporean men who seek out Thai girlfriends as opposed to Singaporean women. 'Singapore is now a very wealthy place and there are many men who have high disposable income who are not that interested in settling for the usual compact of marriage to a Singaporean woman,' says Carla Boonkong. 'One of the reasons is the increasing attractiveness of Thai women to affluent and eligible Singaporean men.'

The Thai girlfriend experience arrives in Singapore

'Many fairly attractive Thai women exist on the fringes in Bangkok's vice scene as girlfriends to wealthier men, many of them will take a trip to Singapore whether with a boyfriend or farang from abroad and develop contacts in the city state,' says Carla Boonkong. She says that there is a well established link between those operating in the vice trade in organising Thai women for visits to Japan, Hong Kong and of course Singapore. 'Of course many young Thai women develop friendships of their own and will travel to Singapore on spec or when an opportunity emerges.'

Prostitution is legal in Singapore and it is a relatively safe place. 'Many attractive Thai women see Singapore as an opportunity particularly with the internet and things like this. But it would be very wrong to assume all Thai women marrying Singaporeans are involved in this. In fact it is less so these days than before. Also there are lots of Thai women working in Singapore now and very successful in good careers and jobs and the internet dating, so now Thailand is more open, you see.'

Introducing the Thai coyote woman in Singapore

In the centre of Singapore there are are number of entertainment complexes and nightclub venues where Thai women work either as freelance prostitutes, gogo dancers or coyote dancers. Thai coyote dancers are a concept that emerged in Bangkok in the 1990's being strikingly attractive Thai women who can dance and are often not involved directly in the sex trade. 'I was a coyote dancer,' says Nantakarn Supitayaporn who now manages a modelling agency in Bangkok. 'I met my first Singaporean boyfriend there.' she says.

Thai women and sex for sale in Singapore

A good number of Thai women from all backgrounds travel to Singapore to take part in a sophisticated sex trade that exists in the city state. Some work in massage parlours, others freelance from the streets of Geylang to call girl agencies. Some are also looking for a Singaporean husband. A 2012 study of Thai women married to Singaporean men showed that 45% had links to the sex industry prior to meeting their husband. The sample was too low to suggest that this is a general of overlap but it has been suggested anecdotally that there is a distinctive overlap between the sex industry and Thai women opting for Singaporean husbands which has waned as Thai women forge new opportunities.

'I think Singapore is often the first answer for desperate Thai women who want to get out of Thailand and this is why this association is more pronounced among Thai men opting for foreign husbands who chose Singapore, and you know this stigma is also one of the problems that Thai women face so I am glad that it is declining year by year,' says Carla Boonkong.

Social media debate: Thai women in Singapore

John Choy is Singaporean man who has recently taken part on a huge social media argument about the attractiveness of Thai women working as coyote dancers to Singaporean men. In it he observes that:

  • Many attractive Thai coyote dancers find themselves inundated with offers often from affluent and successful Singaporean men.
  • Singaporean men have developed a wider interest in Thai women; 'I have been attacked by very eloquent and stinging Singaporean women for my humble but sincere comments but I do believe that many Singaporean men have found an interest in Thai women for a variety of reasons, they are more gentle and feminine I think.'
  • 'Singaporean women are less interested in dating men in Singapore these days unless they are of the very wealthy kind and if the Singaporean women is wealthy than the gentlemen must be even more wealthy and so on, it's like that, it's a money game on and on like that.'
  • Singaporean women are less interested in the traditional family concept or role of women in the city state as wealth and education levels grow. Choy also claims that Singaporean women have grown more demanding of men: 'It has become a bit of a bore listening to the same conversation with women in Singapore, frankly it's usually a list of criticisms, what I should dress like, what I should say and how I should live. It's become really boring. Thai women are so different, a lot more accepting.'

John has been dating Thai women he has met in Singapore but he has not yet found a marriage partner. He is now using internet dating to find a marriage partner from Thailand. 'This is my second month online and I already have met many Thai women online but it would be a lot easier to meet one already living here with residency status,' he laughs. 'I have many good prospects online but I want to find someone special, perhaps I will visit Thailand soon.'

Singaporean women only doing what is natural

Carla Boonkong observes: 'The statistics support this actually. But it is wrong to criticise Singaporean women who have flourished in the Singaporean economy and risen through education and hard work. I admire them. I think it is very natural for any woman to want to marry up, you know. I think it is just that Singaporean women no longer wish to be submissive wives. It's the same trend that we have seen in developed countries and increasingly in Asia. Did you know that Korean women in their twenties now have higher employment and remuneration levels than Korean men? Things are on the move for women in Asia and men must either get on board with it or get out of the way.'

While many women in Singapore appear to be shunning marriage, many highly eligible Singaporean men are also opting not to get married. The growing rates of divorce and the breakdown of the 'cultural script' in modern society has brought about this change. Many are opting instead for exotic Thai girlfriends.

Singaporean young men talk about Thai women

'I have seen men in Singapore spend vast sums of money on these women and often they are unsuccessful,' says John Choy.

While wealthier and more eligible Singaporean men are chasing beautiful Thai girlfriends, many less well off Singaporean men are finding it difficult to find a partner. 35% of Singaporean men in their 20-30s from lower socioeconomic groups cannot find a marriage partner. According to John Choy, many are looking to Thai women as future wives or marriage partner. He also explains that Thai women are very attractive to Singaporean men.

He explains that Thai women are better girlfriends for the following reasons:

  • 'They are more friendly and raise a man's self esteem, women in Singapore have become a bit materialistic and they are very serious, I guess you could say Thai women are just a bit softer and more fun.'
  • Thai girls have exotic looks and are very beautiful: 'There are many kinds of Thai women in Singapore from dark skinned but very friendly Thai women from Isaan to light skin Thai women who look Chinese and even some Thai women who look like caucasians.'
  • John describes the accent of Thai women as 'adorable and delightful'. 'It helps that they smile a lot and are really very playful. And most Thai women can work very hard, they are streetwise but can be so nice.'
  • John says that the Thai women he has met in Singapore have all been so polite and thoughtful in very remarkable ways. 'They will hold you when you are worried like a hug from behind, it's such a great feeling. They can make a man feel very special. In comparison to Singaporean women, the difference is just so obvious. I am Singaporean and I appreciate that Singaporean women are very capable and ambitious, all that and I know there are some great Singaporean women out there but for a younger man trying to make his way, I think a steady Thai woman is a good option now in Singapore for a guy like me. Of course I still haven't found one to stay with me but I'm not ready yet. But I am thinking like this.'

Thai wife in Singapore

Pen is thirty five years of age, Originally from Loei province in Northern Thailand she met her Singaporean husband online with a Thai Dating site. 'I wanted to find a younger man, one night I met Derek on the website. I had a cousin who was married to a Singaporean man and I suggested I visit Singapore to her,' she says. Pen's trip to the city state was a life changing experience.

'I had only been outside Thailand once before and that was Cambodia. I remember how modern and clean it looked, it was exciting,' she says. Pen had made up her mind to marry a foreign husband and already had discussed plans with foreigners on the Thai dating site to meet her in Thailand. 'I met Derek in an old cafe bar in the centre of Singapore. It was very pleasant and my cousin came with me. But he promised to ring me and even on our first meeting, there were plans for me to come and live with him in Singapore.'

Challenges facing Thai women marrying Singaporean men

Pen (35) came to Singapore within 4 months of meeting her husband and was married. She then began the process of negotiating her visa and citizenship status with the Singaporean authorities. Her husband earned a below par salary and Pen was encouraged by many, even those at the Immigration office at Singapore that it would help her case if she and her husband had a child. But Pen opted instead to find a job even though she lived at home with her husband and his mother and was expected also to take care of the home. 'I think I am fortunate, I know some Thai women who have given up and gone back to live in Thailand but I think this is a pretty good place to make a life.' Pen accepts that there are many challenges faces Thai Women integrating into Singapore and Singaporean families:

  • 'The law in Singapore is so strict,' Pen says. She means that the city state has strict regulations that must be observed. She agrees with Carla Boonkong's advice to Thai women not to come to Singapore on spec in case visa or immigration issues. 'When I first came I found that it was very expensive and even at first I feel like my husband did not trust me with the money part but now I take charge of our finances,' she says. 'For the first six months we only went out three or four times. I was afraid to go out alone in case I was asked what I was doing and my English was not good.'
  • Pen learned English from dictionaries and some books she brought with her from Thailand.' My husband laughs at this but I used my books when talking with him and when I watch the television.' she says. One of the key challenges facing Thai women in Singapore is to speak English. 'Singapore was once a famous English colony and the imprint of Britain is still felt there,' says Carla Boonkong in Bangkok. 'I often feel when I visit Singapore that I could be in a city in the UK with lots of ethnic minorities but the standard of English and its value as a currency is important in Singapore.' Now Pen, the Thai wife who lives in Singapore, speaks English well. She attributes this to her job where she deals with people everyday.
  • Pen decided to seek a job after visiting a large fashion shop one day in the centre of Singapore and seeing that they had Thai customers. 'I was thinking about my husband and our money, I also thought that I could show his family that Thai women can work and know about business. I was surprised that the manager said ok. My husband was worried a little but I am not afraid to work and I can take care of my family here in Singapore and I meet many people at work. Pen's advice to Thai women is to seek out employment in Singapore as Singaporeans are hard working and respect those who can contribute. She is currently expecting their first child and she plans to continue working.

Some Thai women are not so lucky in Singapore

The Thai women that travel nightly on flights into Singapore on a ticket paid for by loan from friends or loan sharks and who have to make a profit by selling their bodies on a short term visa are perhaps less fortunate than the Thai women who come to Singapore to find new lives and eventually to become Singaporean citizens and Singaporean mothers.

Pen thinks Singapore is 'pretty good place' for Thai Women. They can access it quickly from Thailand and it's a short flight or trip home if things go wrong. For those willing to work and play by the rules it offers relative comfort and security compared to the deprivation and lack of opportunity in Thailand.

For beautiful Thai women with Singaporean boyfriends, Singapore is a city of opportunity if not an exciting and vibrant life but this is hardly so for the thousands of Thai women working in massage parlours, brothels and on the streets of Singapore's red light district. These Thai women are living lives of desperation in a very alien culture. Most commentators now accept that many Thai women entering the vice trade are doing so voluntarily but there are other forces such as debt and responsibilities that drive them to take the regular trips to work the red light venues in Singapore. There are even a few who are stuck in the clutches of human traffickers, others have fallen foul of visa requirements or fallen into debt in Singapore. But there are even more sinister prospects than this.

The Forest brothels of Singapore

A recent expose on Thailand 's leading English speaking newspaper the Bangkok Post spoke of Thai women working in illicit, unregulated but apparently tolerated open air brothels in the forests surrounding Singapore. These 'establishments' cater for the hundreds of thousands of foreign contract labour including Indians, Bangladeshi and Thais. The report detailed Thai women being forced into sexual acts with as many as twenty customers a night under roughly constructed tarpaulin shelters and washing themselves with bottles of water. It is openly acknowledged that such venues exist in Singapore.

'The Singaporean State has been very successful economically and in fairness many citizens of Singapore have benefited from Singaporean government policy but this requires compromise and certain laissez faire approach to situations like this,' says Carla Boonkong. 'Even here it is not clear whether many of the Thai women are voluntarily taking part or not.'

Srithorn's career in Singapore

Srithorn 27 from Bangkok is a young Thai woman who began working in Singapore eighteen months ago. She is a business graduate from the respected Thammasat University in Thailand. Her family in Thailand is middle class but they are not wealthy. 'My family sacrificed to send me through university in Thailand and I was fortunate to find this job,' she says.

Her salary is Sg$50,000 per annum which is nearly three times what she could be earning in Thailand even after years of service. She also benefits from a small apartment at a reasonable price organised through her company in Singapore. Srithorn works hard, saves her money and returns home to Thailand once a month for a long weekend. 'I am very happy here, I earn good money and I am learning from the great experience.'

Even while saving money, Srithorn allows herself to go once a week and has a boyfriend who is Thai. 'My boyfriend also has a good job here working in a smaller internet service business, he earns more than I do, so we have a good life. Srithorn's ultimate dream would be to work in Great Britain or in the USA before returning back to Thailand. 'I want to see the world and get more experience, learn new things but for this I must work hard but also to enjoy some good times,' she says. Srithorn and her boyfriend can be seen on at least one weekend night enjoying the night spots in Singapore and socialising with friends, many who are also from Thailand.

'There are more educated young Thai men and women now living and working in Singapore but these are the lucky few working for international companies often linked to the internet,' says Carla Boonkong.

Internet is opening doors for Thai women in Singapore

Not all Thai women can be as fortunate as Srithiorn but Singapore is still the destination closest to Thailand for Thai women looking for a new life and new opportunities. One constant and growing viable option for Thai women is marriage to a Singaporean man or finding a life partner in the city state where large numbers of Singaporean men are finding it difficult to find a love partner. The key to this is the internet. 'What emerges from all this is that Thai women should establish friendships in Singapore before traveling there. The short distance and low priced air fares should be no problem for a Singaporean men to afford so there is also the possibility that the men can visit Thailand,' says carla Boonkong. This is what is happening of course but there are reasons why more thai women are not taking the Singapore option.

Reasons why Thai women might not opt for Singapore

  • Visa/ Residency and Citizenship requirements: The laws in Singapore are strict but they are actually quite reasonable once those applying are honest, straight forward and patient. Some Thai women may not fit these criteria. Even if they are, the visa/ residency regime places Thai women marrying Singaporean men in the control of their Singaporean partners.
  • Cultural Differences: Singaporean families follow to a large extent a Chinese Confucian model where obedience and service is required from Thai women marrying into more old fashioned families. This is quite different from Thailand where loyalty and care is given to the woman's family as a token of appreciation.
  • Lifestyle: Singapore is designed around the concept of the city state as an economic powerhouse. There is a very strong worth ethic in Singapore. The lifestyle in Thailand is decidedly more laid back even where there is employment with a lot of interaction between people. Pen puts in better: 'Most Thai women can work harder than anyone in Singapore, it is not this but in Singapore everybody is so serious and keep to themselves. There is a lighter mood in my country even if people have very little and often many debt too.'
  • Other foreign countries: Many Thai women are now active on international Thai dating sites with as many as 25% of Thai women from key age groups joining international Thai dating sites to explore the concept of finding an international dating partner. Many will meet Thai men, many will find international friendships online but quite a few go on to marry foreign men in western Countries. The numbers of new communities in Australia, America and Europe created by Thai women marrying and migrating to western countries is striking. Many Thai women see wealthier western countries as a more attractive option to Singapore but there is evidence that this may be changing: 'Singapore is underrated I think, it's near to Thailand and the economic opportunities are there for Thai women who can speak English, this is not always the way in the western countries,' says Carla Boonkong. 'Even though it is such a short distance, there is a reticence, I don't know.. it's seen as challenging. I think many Thai women have developed a sort of wanderlust about the idea of living in Australia, America or Europe or something like that. But as I say it is changing as word of mouth spreads. I think more Thai women are opting for Singapore than before.'
  • Stereotyping: Research by academics in 2012 involving an analysis of 55 lengthy interviews with Thai wives in Singapore from 2006 to 2012 found that most women reported a strong prejudice or stereotyping of Thai women among Singaporeans linking them to the sex industry. 'I am lucky I have got on well with my husband's family but I have experienced this from others and I know many Thai women married to Singaporean men who have been looked down upon by their husband's families in direct and indirect ways. It is the biggest problem for Thai women in Singapore I think,' says Pen who has now been married happily in Singapore for seven years. In this respect Singapore is very like the United Kingdom where the tendency to stereotype Thai women, even a very tolerant and supportive society, is seen as one of the greatest challenges.

The future is bright for Thai women in Singapore

As more Singaporean men contemplate dating and marrying Thai women, there will be a greater level of understanding. Pen thinks that more Thai women should opt for Singapore: 'A lot of people complain about Singapore veen western foreigners but for thai women like me it is a great place to live. Thai women who work hard have nothing to fear in Singapore once they can find a supportive partner, get to speak a little English and learn about the laws. You know all this is not easy and that is why they say Thai women are the toughest women in Singapore and this is true.'

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Thai women finding marriage with Singaporean men in Singapore
More Thai women are liiving in Singapore as working executives and among a growing number of Thai women marrying Singaporean men. Some are thriving in Singapore but others are less fortunate.
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