News Coverage of Foreign Sex Workers in Malaysia: A Critical Analysis

Puspalata C. Suppiah, Surinderpal Kaur, Nalini Arumugam, Alice Shanthi



The growing concern over the influx of foreign women in Malaysia as sex workers, has continually gained the attention of the local media particularly the mainstream newspapers. The media, despite playing an instrumental role in bringing about social transformation, has the ability to portray the foreign women in a positive way or to discriminate against them. This study, based on qualitative analysis, represents an attempt to study a social problem particularly in the way that foreign women in sex work have been represented in Malaysia by the mainstream English-language newspapers. The analytical tools of the discourse-historical approach (DHA) are employed in the analysis of the news articles. In particular, the argumentation strategy in the DHA demonstrates that a number of topoi (i.e., the topoi of control, number, threat, and victimisation) have been employed to represent foreign sex workers in the media. Investigation of the newspaper extracts from New Straits Times and The Star generally revealed that the media have portrayed foreign women in sex work in the offender orientation frame more so than as victims. Furthermore, foreign sex workers are also positioned negatively because of their illegal migrant status, making them doubly discriminated against. Such representations directly impact the women’s lives, leading to further discrimination on the basis of their trade and illegal migrant status, denying them a voice and depriving them of their legal rights. The paper concludes by discussing the contributions of the research and emphasises the need for social justice for these marginalised women.  



discourse-historical approach; sex work; foreign women; argumentation strategy; topoi

Full Text:



Adib, N. A. M., Hussin, Z. H. & Ahmad, Y. (2018). Social pattern of homeless women who work as prostitutes in Kuala Lumpur City Centre. International Journal for Studies on Children, Women, Elderly and Disabled. Vol. 3, 85-90.

Andrijasevic, R. (2010). The cross-border migration. In R. Andrijasevic (Ed.), Migration, Agency and Citizenship in Sex Trafficking (pp. 26-56). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Audit Bureau of Circulations. (2016). Circulation figures: Newspapers – West Malaysia. Retrieved from

Balfour, R. & Allen, J. (2014). A review of the literature on sex workers and social exclusion. London, UK: University College London (UCL), Institute of Health Equity.

Bell, K. J. (2009). A feminist's argument on how sex work can benefit women. Inquiries Journal, 1(11).

Berg, B. (2004). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Bolte, S. & Keong, Y. C. (2014). The refugee swap deal in Malaysian online news reports: Ideology and representation. GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies. Vol. 14(2), 1-12

Comte, J. (2014). Decriminalization of sex work: Feminist discourses in light of research. Sexuality & Culture. Vol. 18(1), 196-217.

Croteau, D. R. & Hoynes, W. D. (2002). Media/Society: Industries, Images and Audiences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Curtis, R. (2012). Sex trafficking: How the media portrays victims and reflects legislation. (Masters Thesis). Iowa State University. Iowa, United States. Retrieved from

Davis, J. (2004). Off the Streets: Tackling Homelessness among Female Street-based Sex Workers. London: Shelter.

DiBennardo, R. A. (2018). Ideal victims and monstrous offenders: How the news media represent sexual predators. Socius. Vol. 4, 1-20.

Edgell, S., Gottfried, H. & Granter, E. (2015). The Sage Handbook of the sociology of work and employment. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical Discourse Analysis. The critical study of language. London: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and Power (2nd ed.). London: Longman.

Freedom House. (2017). Freedom of the press index 2017: Press freedom’s dark horizon. Retrieved from

Griffiths, J. A. & Nesdale, D. (2006). In-group and out-group attitudes of ethnic majority and minority children. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. Vol. 30, 735-749.

Happer, C. & Philo, G. (2013). The role of the media in the construction of public belief and social change. Journal of Social and Political Psychology. Vol. 1(1), 321-336.

Holmes, S. M. & Castañeda, H. (2016). Representing the “European refugee crisis” in Germany and beyond. American Ethnologist. Vol. 43(1), 12-24.

Hugo, G. J. (2017). Population mobility and prostitution in Southeast Asia. Moussons. Recherche en Sciences Humaines sur l’Asie du Sud-Est. Vol. 29, 19-39.

Hynes, M. (2015). Sex work and the law in South Africa, Sweden and New Zealand: An evidence based argument for decriminalization. The Journal of Global Health. May 1, 2015. Retrieved from

Jacob, R. (2008). Characteristics and coping patterns of young adult prostitute mothers in Kuala Lumpur, and factors contributing to their involvement (Doctoral dissertation). Universiti Putra Malaysia, Malaysia. Retrieved from

Jeal, N. & Salisbury, C. (2013). Protecting the health of sex workers: Will the real agenda please stand up. Postgraduate Medical Journal. Vol. 89(1053), 369-370.

Jenita, K. (2012). Legalising prostitution in Malaysia. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Retrieved from

Kasim, A. & Sani, M. A. M. (2016). The 2013 general elections in Malaysia: An analysis of online news portals. Kasetsart Journal of Social Sciences. Vol. 37(2), 119-125.

Koskinen, S., Salminen, L. & Leino-Kilpi, H. (2014). Media portrayal of older people as illustrated in Finnish newspapers. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being. Vol. 9, 10.3402/qhw.v9.25304.

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J. (2017). Sex work and mental health: A study of women in the Netherlands. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Vol. 46, 1843–1856.

Krzyżanowski, M. (2010). The Discursive Construction of European Identities: a Multi-level Approach to Discourse and Identity in the Transforming European Union. Bern: Peter Lang.

Lim, Lin Lean. (1998). The economic and social basis of prostitution in Southeast Asia. In Lin Lean Lim (Ed.), The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Basis of Prostitution in Southeast Asia (pp. 1–28). Geneva: International Labour Office.

Lukman, Z. M. (2009). Childhood abuse among children involved in prostitution in Malaysia. The Social Sciences. Vol. 4, 567–572.

Michael, S. (2014). Human trafficking in Malaysia: The response of the Malaysian government. Malaysian Journal of International Relations. Vol. 2, 106-129.

Misman, N., Adnan, H. M., Firdaus, A. S. & Ahmad, C. M. (2017). Foreign nationals as offenders and victims in Malaysian crime news. In SHS Web of Conferences, 33, p. 00028). EDP Sciences.

Monto, M. A. (2014). Prostitution, sex work, and violence: Lessons from the Cambodian context. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Vol. 15(1), 73-84.

Nasir, R., Zamani, Z. A., Ismail, R., Yusooff, F. & Khairuddin, R. (2010). Self-esteem and cognitive distortion among women involved in prostitution in Malaysia. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences. Vol. 5, 1939-1944.

Natrah, N. (2015). Self-other representation of sex workers in Malaysia. (Masters Thesis). University of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Retrieved from

Pelinka, A. & Wodak, R. (2002). Dreck am Stecken. Politik der Ausgrenzung. Vienna: Czernin Verlag.

Prostitution in Malaysia: A Taboo Subject That Is Surprisingly Big Business (2014, October 10). Malaysian Digest. Retrieved from

Puidokienė, D. (2012). Covert codes of women in prostitution: Pathways for recovering roots after trauma interface. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Lapland. Rovaniemi, Finland. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/HP/Downloads/Puidokiene_actaE_110pdfA.pdf

Ramachandran, S. & Ngeow, Y. (1990). The prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among prostitutes in Malaysia. Sexually Transmitted Infections. Vol. 66, 334-336.

Ramayal, G. (2013, September). Organised crime: Governments initiatives, laws and investigation of human trafficking in person and smuggling of migrants in Malaysia. Paper presented at International Conference on Trafficking for World Youth Foundation, September 3-7, 2013. Retrieved from

Reisigl, M. & Wodak, R. (2009). The discourse-historical approach (DHA). In R. Wodak and M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (pp. 87-121). London: Sage.

Reisigl, M. & Wodak, R. (2001). Discourse and Discrimination. London: Routledge.

Rohim, N.Z.A.A. & Ahmad, Y. (2017). Factors contributing to women trafficking in Malaysia: Perspectives from policy maker, implementers & non-governmental organization. Journal of Administrative Science Special Edition: Socio-Economic Issue. Vol. 14(3).

Sallmann, J. (2010). Living with stigma: Women’s experiences of prostitution and substance use. Affilia. Vol. 25(2), 146-159.

Santos, B. S., Gomes, C. & Duarte, M. (2010). The sexual trafficking of women: Representations of illegality and victimisation. RCCS Annual Review. Vol. 2, 1-25.

Soderlund, G. (2005). Running from the rescuers: New U.S. crusaders against sex trafficking and the rhetoric of abolition. NWSA Journal. Vol. 17(3), 64-87.

United States Department of State (2016). Trafficking in Persons Report - Malaysia, 30 June 2016. Retrieved from

van Dijk, T. A. (2002). Discourse and racism. In D. Goldberg & J. Solomos (Eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies (pp.145–159). Oxford: Blackwell.

van Leeuwen, T. (2009). Discourse as the recontextualization of social practice: A guide. In R. Wodak and M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (pp. 144-161). London: SAGE.

Wahab, S., Tan, S. M. K., Marimuthu, S., Razali, R. & Muhamad, N. A. (2013). Young female survivors of sexual abuse in Malaysia and depression: What factors are associated with better outcome? Asia‐Pacific Psychiatry. Vol. 5, 95-102.

Weitzer, R. (2018). Resistance to sex work stigma. Sexualities. Vol. 21(5-6), 717-729.

Why Kuala Lumpur Could Become The Sex Capital of Asia? (2015, December 1). The Coverage. Retrieved from

Wodak, R. (2001). The discourse-historical approach. In R. Wodak & M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (pp. 63-94). London: Sage.

Wodak, R. & Boukala, S. (2015). (Supra) national identity and language: Rethinking national and European migration policies and the linguistic integration of migrants. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. Vol. 35, 253-273.

Wodak, R. & Meyer, M. (2009). Critical discourse analysis: History, agenda, theory and methodology. In R. Wodak & M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (pp. 1-33). London: Sage.

Wodak, R. & van Dijk, T. A. (eds.). (2000). Racism at the Top. Klagenfurt: Drava.

Wok, S. & Mohamed, S. (2017). Internet and social media in Malaysia: Development, challenges and potentials. In B. Peña Acuña (Ed.), The Evolution of Media Communication. InTech.



  • There are currently no refbacks.




eISSN : 2550-2131

ISSN : 1675-8021