Smoky bars line the otherwise quiet walkways of Chinese and Muslim dominated Labuan island off the cost of the Eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.
The ocean breeze inspires a second round of tigers, the negligeably priced beer of the region, as a large outdoor table of tourists staying at “Uncle Jack’s,” wait in anticipation for their meal. A door opens to the nearby Havana Lounge, and a man walks out. The bar’s boisterous atmosphere fills the walkway for a few seconds. Uncle Jack shows his excitement over “The pretty lady,” and waves to a woman who stands in the doorway. She first waves to the man, presumably a satisfied customer, and briefly surveys the strangers outside, waving back to Uncle Jack, before cheekily closing the door again.
Working under the pseudonym Angelina Julie, she is a prostitue at the tropical themed Havana Lounge. She is originally from the Philippines, working in Labuan to save money to send back to her home. Her English isn’t bad, her demeanor is upbeat – cheerful even, and she has a hell of a sharp memory when it comes to faces.
The Havana Lounge features a dimly lit rendition of something tropical, complete with a pool table, and large mural on the back wall, with the subject being a large scantily clad woman in front of a beach paradise. Ms. Julie and the other girls sit at a table off to the side, occasionally getting up to help serve drinks or wander over to the bar. They are all heavily made up, all wear western nightclub attire, and many of them sit on their chairs looking bored.
The phenomenon enables itself, with the southern edge of the Philippines a meager one hour boat ride from Sabah. These Muslim dominated areas in the Philippines are hard hit by terrorism and a lack of governmental support. In a 2009 report, the United States condemned Malaysia as one of the worst countries for human trafficking, particularly for propagating the system by failing to take appropriate measures to shut it down. However, wielding the arm of Islam – as Malaysia, also a Muslim nation must reciprocate to fellow Muslims in need, there is little hesitation in the matter, and boats into Malaysia are readily available.
Some NGOs have speculated that the numbers of illegal immigrants in Sabah are up to 2 million, which would comprise two thirds of the state’s population. Reports have surfaced, proclaiming that the fee to get into or out of Malaysia by boat is 450 Malaysia Ringits (approximately 145 USD), for illegal immigration purposes.
A further look at Ms. Julie’s facebook page gives evidence of an Islamic upbringing, “Selamat hari raya……….”, wishing everyone a happy Ramadan. Her posts are mainly in Filipino, interspersed with upbeat English song lyrics, and reflecting a propensity for super Mario Star Scrable.
When asked about whether any Malay girls could be found in such circumstances, Uncle Jack scoffs, fiercely shaking his head, absolutely not. He then walks over to one of the girls, coming back minutes later gleefully exclaiming, “I’ve got her number!”☼