Last year, my best friend from university moved to Singapore. It was a move that none of us were expecting: she had been raised in an Asian family, but in western Europe; she had been to university in London for the previous four years, and spoken about finding a job in the UK; and dammit, Singapore was just too far away for an impromptu cocktail at midnight. We had all graduated with high hopes for our futures, straight into a recession, and her solution had been to start looking for jobs elsewhere. Very much elsewhere. When she told us that she had signed a two year contract to work in a prestigious neuroscience lab in Singapore, I was happy for her but also devastated – after all, this was the girl who had chased my cheating ex-boyfriend out of our flat in our second year of uni, muttering ominously on her way about ‘killing him dead’, and then made me a cup of tea and listened patiently to me crying about the bastard for the next six months. In other words, she was the best mate that everybody needs and a lucky few of us have. And now she was talking about finding out about her Asian roots, starting off her career on a good foot, and trying something new while she was young. It all sounded so annoyingly, characteristically sorted.
So we both put on our Adult Faces and she set off into a brave new world. The time difference between the UK and Singapore – eight hours – made regular contact difficult. We had a few Skype conversations which would stretch on for hours while we were both free (at one point I carried my laptop into the bathroom and shaved my legs while continuing a conversation about boyfriends. I hope she knows that, because she’s definitely reading this right now.) By far the easiest method of contact, however, was provided by the genius of WhatsApp, the app that allows free ‘text’ messaging using an internet connection. It meant that I could send her photos of the concrete sky and the pouring rain at 6am as I waited for a coach in England, while she sent me the view of the sunny Singapore skyline out of her office window. See? Lovely.
She got herself an amazing apartment, in a neighbourhood where everyone owned a swimming pool. She started speaking the Singaporean-English dialect Singlish, which charmingly refers to white people as ‘red devils’ (ang moh.) And then she met a guy. He was a German expat in his mid-twenties; she had a thing for lederhosen (seriously.) It was a match made in heaven. She lost her virginity to him, when I wasn’t even there to discuss it with her over a cup of tea, and WhatsApped me about it the next day. She asked me the sorts of things that she said she couldn’t ask her Singaporean friends, whose culture was so much more conservative than the UK. The first time we had an explicitly sexual conversation, she said she’d forgotten that people even talked about this kind of thing at all. ‘This country is so socially repressive,’ she said, ‘it does stuff to your head. I’d forgotten that we spoke about stuff like this all the time in London.’
What happened from thereon in is what made me realise exactly how socially repressive Singapore is. And it made me angry. As one of the world’s leading financial centres, with some of the strongest currency in the world as well as one of the most diverse urban populations, it’s a powerfully positioned state. A lot of people in the UK have heard the ‘five lashings for a packet of chewing gum’ rumours, and state-sponsored corporal punishment does still exist for what we might consider fairly minor transgressions. Capital punishment certainly exists; it had the highest per-capita execution rate in the world during a five year period in the nineties. When I last visited, three years ago, everyone on the plane was handed a slip of paper that said ‘DEATH TO ALL DRUG-TAKERS IN SINGAPORE’ in capitalised red letters.
What they don’t tell you about so explicitly is the punishment that you have for being a woman in control of her own body – and neither my friend nor I knew this, until she decided to go on the Pill. Now, Singapore usually applies an extra tax to certain commodities which the government considers ‘sinful’ – appropriately enough, it’s known as the ‘sin tax’. This means that things like alcohol and cigarettes are immediately rendered prohibitively expensive. Alongside this state-controlled marketing of ‘sinful’ goods is a compulsory private healthcare system which usually means that your job provides you with adequate cover. And it was in the small print of this that we found out a ‘sin tax’ basically applies to hormonal contraception, too.
The first I heard of any of this was an awakening buzz from my WhatsApp at 4am – nowadays a common occurrence, thanks to the aforementioned time difference. ‘You didn’t tell me how much I’d have to go through to get the Pill!’ was the message. ‘I’ve been here for six hours. The whole thing is so humiliating, I think I’m just going to go home.’ It turned out that my friend had gone to get the Pill (a recommendation from myself, thus immediately ensuring that I felt horribly guilty), much to the protestations of her Singaporean friends. They had warned her not to go to the sexual health clinics, because they aren’t covered by insurance and cost far too much. And they also warned her that once she arrived at the usual health clinic to request the Pill, she’d be put through so much bother that it wouldn’t seem worth it in the end.
What had followed had been a day of needless embarrassment and judgment. She’d been asked very personal questions that had no medical bearing on her compatibility with the Pill, including a pointed one about her marital status. She’d been immediately internally examined, given numerous blood tests, and then sent to a hospital for an ultrasound. There, she’d been internally examined again and had spent ‘hours’ on the examination table as different doctors went in and out of the room taking pictures of her uterus. At no point had she been told why any of this was happening, beyond that it was ‘normal protocol for the Pill’. She said they were curt, unfriendly, and never spoke to her unless she asked repeatedly for information. When she was then told that they wanted to do a transvaginal ultrasound – despite the fact that nothing medically out of the ordinary had been found in any of their previous tests – she refused and left. I suggested she go to a different clinic; she told me that she couldn’t face going through the same ordeal again. She felt saddened and violated.
A couple of days later, she spoke to the clinic, who told her that they would provide her with the Pill at a cost of just over $140, therefore basically proving that there was no necessity for the transvaginal ultrasound they had demanded (and she had refused) in the first place. The Pill is not covered by health insurance, so it would be $140 out of her own pocket. They’d already made her pay up for the tests that she hadn’t wanted or needed (consider that in the UK, an assessment for the Pill includes calculation of your BMI and a blood pressure band.) This is the same health insurance that does cover cosmetic breast augmentation.
She went to a different doctor a week later, and this time round, told her that she was engaged. ‘I got a totally opposite reaction,’ she told me. ‘They were friendly to me and smiled. The woman said it was no problem. I still had to pay, but suddenly all the social barriers were lifted. What’s so strange is that the stark difference between the way they’d acted at the clinic beforehand, and the way the other doctor acted, made me genuinely think that I should just get engaged to avoid more judgment and bad treatment. That thought seriously crossed my mind.’
Her experience at the clinic was not a unique one: it was the reason that her female Singaporean friends had already warned her off. In a country where the trains always run on time and immigration to its warm streets is actively encouraged because of their plummeting birth rate, the social punishment for accessing contraception is surprising. Take-up of the Pill is extremely low, and condoms are highly priced and often displayed at the front of shop counters, which my friend said made a lot of people ‘too ashamed’ to pick them up anyway. The Singaporean stance seems to be that if you’re having non-procreative sex – especially if you’re a woman, and even more especially if you’re a woman who’s not engaged or married – then all semblances of privacy or discretion will be stripped away. Considering that those raised in Singapore are from a highly conservative community, this sort of humiliation is anecdotally enough to prevent most young people from having pre-marital sex at all. At the very least, it’s enough to prevent them from having protected pre-marital sex, which is even more concerning.
Does the story have a happy ending? On an individual level, it does in a way, but at around $140 per three-month Pill pack, and $20 for a pack of five condoms, it’s questionable how long my friend and her peers can keep up their ‘sinful’ habit of enjoying safe sex anyway. And her latest WhatsApp message betrays how weary that day of examination and embarrassment had made her: ‘This country is destroying me.’ What started out as an adventure can turn into a nightmare of bodily invasion with one intelligent, personal decision.
The hidden cost of being a woman can be high in Singapore. And unlike chewing gum or the price of beer, it’s a tax that nobody’s talking about.