At 27, Vanessa Ho is an important activist in Singapore. Not only did she bring transnational feminist movement SlutWalk to Singapore, she’s also the coordinator of Project X, an advocacy group dedicated to de-stigmatizing sex workers and protecting their rights. Here, the Aware Young Activist of the Year tells Rebecca Wong about her inspiration, her biggest detractors and her love for furry felines.

  • By Rebecca Wong
  • | Sep 19, 2014

I was born in an exciting year, in 1987 during the Marxist conspiracy where many civil society activists were suspected as Marxists and detained. There was definitely a trauma in my parent’s generation.

I remember this incident in secondary school where one of my group members wanted to print a fifty page document on single sides of a paper, and I was pissed off. I'm rather environmentally conscious about things and was like, “Hello, a piece of paper has two sides right? What is the other side for!”

When you are young you have all these ideas and you don’t know what they are or how to articulate them. So going through school and studying overseas helped me articulate and develop some of the opinions and beliefs that I had.

My parents definitely expected me to make more money to live well in this society. I mean, how much is a car or a house here?

The largest obstacle in organizing Slutwalk was of course the public’s perceptions.  People were saying that it was a western movement and not applicable to Singapore. So a lot of the work we did was to contextualize the issues to give evidence that they were relevant locally.

I have no work-life balance. My typical day involves rolling out of bed, checking emails, doing paper work and reporting, going down to the ground at places like Geylang for about three hours and noting down stuff that occurred—the good and bad things—then continuing work at home.

Economics was a useless degree for me. It was a horrible, traumatic part of my education, with no application to my post-university life. It did help train my mind to think linearly, but when I did my masters in arts, I realized that there was a different way of thinking.

The most surprising thing I found out when starting Project X was how many Singaporean transgender sex workers there are. People tend to forget that sex workers are not just from foreign countries. We really had to search for Singaporeans.

My biggest inspirations are the sex workers themselves. Once I leave the red light district I’m surrounded by politics. But when I talk to sex workers it is invigorating because they share their stories—or we can just chat about the sky and the moon.

I think we’ve turned to conservatism. In the past, people saw prostitution as a necessary trade. Now it’s viewed more as a black and white morality issue.

I can talk forever about art. Many of our ideals, worries and traumas are reflected in it. It provides an outlet and is empowering and cathartic for some people, if not all.

Art is a powerful avenue for educating the public and letting sex workers tell their stories. So hopefully people will see beyond the surface rather than mistakenly associating them with dirtiness and diseases.

I'm arrogant sometimes because I feel like nobody else understands the issues I advocate for. I can be stubborn and come across saying things that put others down. It might not be intentional but that is the effect, so I might need to work on that.

The biggest detractors of my work are women whose marriages have failed because their husbands engaged sex workers. There are also people living in Geylang who complained about sex workers living and working around their homes.

Success comes from short-term achievements, like when people ask for help and we give them what they need. For example, if we manage to secure a lawyer for someone, that’s a success.

My biggest regret is being undiplomatic and untactful.  You burn a lot of bridges with that and it also means you do not acknowledge another person’s views.

Ignorant people make me angry. When people who face discrimination in their lives discriminate other people, like a gay person who is racist.

My cats make me happy. Animal therapy is a legitimate thing, and I also watch cat videos to unwind and relax.