What's your flavour?
Finding sex in Malaysia, a Muslim country no less, is as easy as finding nasi lemak at your local food market. Heck, it finds you. Just as food vendors heckle at customers to stop and eat at their stalls, pimps barter with any male passerby to spend a night of fantasy and pleasure with their girls. I was walking alongside Jake, a male group member, when a pimp swooped in like a hawk, pulled him aside and scribbled down a number to call for a night of fun. It happened so quickly that I didn't even realize that Jake was missing! Mild, medium, hot? As crude as it may sound, a man can find a woman of any ethnicity, any size, and frankly, any age to his satisfaction. He can have her in costume or stripped down naked and tied to a four-post bed. Sex trafficking in countries like Malaysia proliferates because of the fundamental belief that women and girls are expendable. Men are rulers and women are to be ruled. Women are at greater risk for being abused, trafficked, and coerced into slavery because they are undervalued or not valued at all.
Kuala Lumpur is the industrial hub of Malaysia. It boasts high rises while shanties and run down houses hide in the background. Our male group members asked a taxi driver to take them to a club where they could find pretty girls. The taxi driver took them to the 14th floor of a commercial bank building where there was a lively dance club. Behind the club there was a secret bar, and behind the bar was a brothel owned by a renowned law enforcement personnel. How do you fight such corruption?
According to unofficial estimates, there are around 150,000 prostitutes in Malaysia. Areas like Petaling Street, Jalan Alor, and Jalan Bukit Bintang are among the infamous red-light hotspots for prostitutes to ply their trade2. Our group stayed at the Nova Hotel on Jalan Alor. I noticed many girls walk in and out of the hotel in heavily layered make-up and no-so-layered clothing. When I payed closer attention, the same girls would enter and exit the hotel at different times of the day with different immodest outfits. At times they would leave the hotel swinging off the arms of an obviously foreign male. Disguised as masseuses, over 130 prostitutes service this hotel and its male patrons. Most of these prostitutes are from Vietnam. Vietnamese nationals, next to the Chinese, make up the second largest proportion of prostitutes in Malaysia2. Because Vietnam is in such close proximity to Kuala Lumpur, the influx of Vietnamese workers is quite astounding. On the other hand, there were virtually no Vietnamese nationals in Kota Kinabalu, which is located in East Malaysia. There, one can find many Indonesian and Filipino workers. It was very interesting for me to actually see how geography dictates how and where people are displaced and trafficked.
The guys went to the Beach Club in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Here is an excerpt from a trip advisor review of the place, " If you want good looking hookers, here is the place to go! If you want to meet real girls, are not looking for a hooker, and don't want to see drunk old men trying to get laid don't go here!". The guys were also directed to the Thai Club when they asked where they could find prostitutes. Within five minutes of their arrival, police raided the club and arrested over four dozen prostitutes and herded them into trucks like cattle. They asked the "dancers" for their passports. Those who had passports with multiple entry/exit stamps into Malaysia were assumed to be illegal foreign workers and/ or prostitutes.
Where else can you find sex in Malaysia? Massage parlours, discos, pubs, and private houses are also used for illegal commercial sex activities. Father Martino ventured down a deserted side street behind a commercial mall where he spotted a sole flashing sign that reads, "Spa". When he entered the "spa", he was asked, "Do you want sex, or do you want a massage?". They sure get straight to the point! While undercover, Father Martino met a young Vietnamese girl who was 19 years old. I will call her Ngoc, a very common Vietnamese name. At the tender age of 11, Ngoc was raped by her father. If not over and above villainous already, her father also invited his brutish friends to have a piece of her. For three long years she endured beyond unimaginable rape, torture, and emotional turmoil. At 14 years old, her father proceeded to make a deal with his "friends" to sell her to Malaysia to work as a waitress at a restaurant. He knew very well that his daughter would not serve as a waitress when she reached her destination. At first, Ngoc did in fact work as a server in various restaurants. However, she was unable to pay the high debt imposed on her by the traffickers from serving tables. She had no choice but to enter the lucrative sex trade industry. Ngoc has been selling her body for the last four and a half years to hungry men who are two, three, and four times her age.
Ngoc's story is especially meaningful to me, because I always argue what "choice" really means. Many people believe that girls and women "choose" the life of prostitution, and while it is true that most girls like Ngoc are not kidnapped into the industry, to frame their actions as choice is at best misleading. Sure, Ngoc chose to sell her body. To know her story is to know that while she acted in response to her individual, environmental, and societal factors - but this should not be necessarily be defined as choice. Webster's Dictionary describes the act of choosing as "to select from a number of possible alternatives; decide on and pick out". Like Rachel Lloyd in her book, "Girls like Us", I believe that in order for a choice to be a legitimate construct, you have to believe that a) you actually have possible alternatives; and b) you also have the capacity to weight these alternatives against one another and decide on the best avenue. Commercially sexually exploited and trafficked girls have neither. Their choices are limited by their age, their family, their circumstances, and their inability to weigh one bad situation against another, given their developmental and emotional immaturity. Therefore, the issue of choice has to be framed in three ways: age and age-appropriate responsibility, the type of choice, and the context of choice. Ngoc, disadvantaged with little education and skills, had no better alternative than to sell her body to survive in a foreign country. I would not say that she had a choice. I would also argue the same for mature women who are not constrained by emotional and developmental maturity. Poverty and lack of education are undeniably the roots of prostitution for the majority of women. To choose between prostitution or starving on the street is merely opting for the lesser of two evils and not a true choice by any definition.
After 4 short days in Malaysia, Father Martino and I said our goodbyes to the mission group to travel to Laos for an undercover trip. While we were in Laos, Ngoc continued to communicate with Father Martino, thinking that he was a good customer. He tuned me in on their phone conversations and text messages. Ngoc often referred to her work like any other job. "I'm going to work now", she would say. She normalized prostitution as work, yet her family in Vietnam still thinks that she is a waitress. Father Martino asked her, "If you consider this your job, then why do you hide it from your family?" She had no answer. Father has a charismatic way of provoking self reflection without it coming off as preaching, especially when he is undercover.
In a phone conversation, I heard Father Martino say to Ngoc, "I hope you understand that I feel uncomfortable being with you knowing that you've been with other men". Ngoc was quiet for a little while and then said, "Do you know how ashamed I am of myself when I am with you?" Father then asked, "Don't you feel ashamed when you are with other men?" She replied, "No, they are animals. You are a man, not an animal".
In contrast to the other men that have used her, Father Martino respected her body and shared his stories of struggle with her. He was honest about all aspects of his life except for the fact that he is a priest that rescues victims of sex trafficking. He shared with her about the love of his life, about his struggles with homelessness and poverty, and about how proud he is that he overcame his hardships. In doing so, I believe that Father Martino broke the cycle of perpetual self degradation, low self esteem, and perceived low self worth that she was used to for almost half of her life. He challenged her to respect herself and made her think of her potential. In the end, Ngoc told Father Martino that she bought a ticket home to Vietnam for the end of January and was determined to learn trades like hair styling to support her future. What a difference one can make by just showing someone respect! Ngoc is the first victim that OBV Malaysia has helped. OBV will help support her travel expenses, her skills training, her medical and psychological care, and all aspects of her reintegration into society. I am so inspired by Father Martino's work, his dedication, and his unconventional methods that yield the same result - freeing women and children from sex slavery.
Below is a reflection written by OBV's president, Dr. John Nguyen, about his contact with Ngoc. He writes with humility, honesty, and shares how he is inspired by Father Martino and One Body Village and why he continues to support its work to fight human trafficking. Often, issues of trafficking and sexual exploitation resonates with females like myself. I can appreciate the sympathy that Dr. Nguyen holds for victims of sex trafficking, because he is a father himself. As a father, one would surely want to protect the dignity and honour of his children.
Where are you now, “Ngoc”?
Although I had been in Kuala Lumpur with the Mission Trip team, I never met “Ngoc” while we were there. I just overheard others talk about “Fr. Martino’s latest daughter” while leaving the hotel for the airport. I was not surprised! Knowing Fr. Martino since he was still a young seminarian and following him throughout the establishment of One Body Village, I understood how he was able to select “the right girl” for his mission, and how he could save them; however, I could not follow his steps during the Mission Trip. I am too old for this kind of work!
It was 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon in Vietnam. Fr. Martino just began an all hands meeting to discuss about OBV plans for the following years, and he took the opportunity to inform staffs about “Ngoc”, the “latest daughter”, who had just decided to leave her despicable life in Malaysia, and return to Vietnam for a better and more meaningful life in Vietnam with her “good man”. Fr. Martino invited all staffs to go with him to the “Tân Sân Nhất” International Airport (SGN) to pick her up, and took her along to the Catholic church of Hanoi in Xom Moi, where he would be preaching that night; and then, she would recognize who her “good man” really was...
Fr. Martino’s cellular phone abruptly range before he could finish the invitation. He looked surprised... frowned... and carefully checked out the caller ID before turning on the speaker so that all staffs could hear the conversation in Vietnamese:
- Em bị trễ chuyến bay! Em ngồi đúng cửa chờ máy bay rồi mà không thấy chuyến bay của em! Em đợi hoài, đợi hoài... Em hỏi người chung quanh thì họ nói chuyến bay của em đã bay rồi anh ơi! (Oh dear! I am late for my flight! I sit at the right gate; however, I cannot find my flight number! I have been waiting, waiting, and waiting... I ask other people and they said that my flight had already left!)
We all heard a sweet and worried voice through the speaker phone, and recognized that was “Ngoc”, the girl Fr. Martino just talked about. He turned off the speaker phone and talked with her, still in Vietnamese:
- Em tìm một nhân viên sân bay và đưa phone cho họ, anh sẽ nói chuyện với họ. (Go look for an airline agent, give her the phone, and I will talk to her.)
Fr. Martino talked with someone in English for a while, and finally told staffs in the room that she would return on the next available flight.
We all breathed a sigh of relief, and Fr. Martino continued the meeting. However, the phone rang again, and...
- Anh ơi, họ dắt em ra khỏi cửa hải quan để làm thủ tục cho chuyến bay kế tiếp... Bây giờ làm sao em quay trở vô? Vì mỗi lần em qua cửa hải quan.. em chỉ có một cửa quen thôi! (Oh dear! They took me out of the customs to fill out procedures for the next flight... Now, how do I get back in? Anytime I have to pass the custom, they always arranged for me to go through a “friendly” gate!)
Fr. Martino continued to talk with “Ngoc” on the phone, walked her through some steps to do.. and finally reassure everyone, “all right, she had passed the customs and waiting for her next flight. And instead of taking her with us to the church, he would pick her up after the sermon.”
One night in Saigon, after a big party with a group of young people who would like to know more about OBV Mission and opportunities to get involved, Fr. Martino asked me to join him for a quick drive on the way back to the office. I was wrong! Instead of going back to the office, he told the cab driver to take us along Saigon River and look for a girl who had called him right before we left the restaurant. I was told that we were going to meet “Ngoc”, the girl he met in Kuala Lumpur and convinced her to go back to Vietnam to restart a new life, and OBV would support her with arrangements for her to get vocational training and a “better” job. In a short drive while we were wandering along different streets to look for this “street girl”, Fr. Martino told to me not to call him “father”, just being one of his “old” friends, a business partner, etc...
After few phone calls asking the girl where she was, Fr. Martino directed the cab driver to stop on a not-so-bright street... and I was totally shocked to see a girl waiting there. Fr. Martino pointed the finger toward her and told me that was the girl! I had a strange feeling about this girl at first sight and I was somehow scared. She was really a hot girl! I looked at her again from the distance and decided not to accompany Fr. Martino. He laughed at me; however, I was still scared and decided not to leave the cab. I told him that I saw enough, and I had been away from my wife for weeks, I could not handle the situation of “being-so-closed” with a hot girl, who had very good experience how to get any man she liked. I was just an old man but... who knows! I “pushed” Fr. Martino out of the cab and told the driver to take me back to the office.
Fr. Martino came back to the office the next morning looking exhausted! Nobody dared to ask him what happened; however, one of the OBV children blamed me for leaving him “out there” by himself! Later... We learned that Fr. Martino had no sleep that night because he has been giving counseling and drawing the map for his “newest daughter” to restart a new life. We had to leave the city that day for other activities, and Fr. Martino had made arrangements for “Ngoc” to begin next steps after the Vietnamese New Year.
I forgot all about Ngoc until early March 2015. Fr. Martino had returned to the United States in early February, and I had been so busy with other OBV works in Southeast Asia. One day, I got a phone call from Fr. Martino speaking in a very deep and sorrowful voice asking me to pray for him and for our newest daughter from Malaysia because she was in prison! She was caught for beating up her own father to revenge... because it was her father, who had raped her since she was 11 years old, allowed his friends to do the same thing to her, and then “sold” her to Malaysia when she was 14 years old!!!
I cannot explain in words how a father could actually do that to his own daughter! However, I have learned of other similar situations while working with Fr. Martino and OBV in Southeast Asia, and that’s why I have been supporting The Mission from its beginning, and agreed to be the first OBV President right after my early retirement from National Geographic. There are still hundreds of children forced into sex slavery, and “Ngoc” is just a typical one that OBV has rescued. What can we do? Should we become A VOICE for them?
Somewhere out there, I still hear the voice of our beloved Pope Saint John Paul II... “If it’s not you, then who? If it’s not now, then when?”
- John Duy-An Nguyen