KUALA LUMPUR: “How do you get them to give you money? It’s my third date and he hasn’t given me anything or money.”
This was a question left by a “sugar baby” on a forum powered by TheSugarBook – a Malaysia-based website that was set up in 2016.
The dating platform allows individuals “who enjoy the finer things in life” to meet men or women whose financial resources “have to be sufficient enough to pamper (their) sugar baby”.
With the tagline “Where Romance Meets Finance”, TheSugarBook’s set up has raised more than a few eyebrows.
This week, it caught the attention of parliamentarians in Singapore – TheSugarBook’s second largest market with about 30,000 users. That’s 29 to 30 per cent of its entire user base compared to the 40 to 42 per cent from Malaysia.
Singapore’s Members of Parliament feared the site was demeaning to women, with transactions “fundamentally imbalanced, in favour of older and wealthier people”. There were also concerns that young people may be exposed to the risk of being exploited or abused.
“WE CANNOT DENY THAT THIS EXISTS IN OUR CULTURE”
TheSugarBook, however, argued that it is giving women a choice to be upfront about what they want – and that this concept is nothing new.
“In every wedding, Chinese (or) Malay, there’s dowries, there’s always some monetary exchange,” spokeswoman Jessica Ong told Channel NewsAsia in an interview.
“And also when you bring a boy home to your mum, she asks: ‘Does he have a job, can he take care of you, what assets does he have?, is he capable of taking care of you?’ – even though you’re fully capable of taking care of yourself … So we’re really just building on that framework.”
“Being able to be so upfront about the commodity or economics of a relationship may be shunned or a taboo to some, but we cannot deny that this exists in our culture,” Ms Ong added.
TheSugarBook said its website caters to practical wants, based on research which showed that money was a key factor for many women pursuing relationships.
Their model of stating financial expectations from the get-go could even help avoid divorces, suggested Ms Ong, citing the 2016 Prudential Relationship Index that showed money as a major source of arguments for couples in Singapore.
“If money is the second reason contributing to (arguments between couples in Singapore), we would like to provide a platform where right from the beginning people can be honest and transparent about what they want,” she said.
In fact, the company said it hopes to be able to foster real relationships through the site that could lead to marriage, family or long lasting relationships – something it said sets it apart from the likes of Ashley Madison.
In 2013, Ashley Madison was banned in Singapore for explicitly advocating infidelity.
A check by Channel NewsAsia, however, found that TheSugarBook users are able to select an option indicating their relationship status – including “Married But Looking” – when setting up their profiles.
Aside from physical traits, “sugar babies” are also able to indicate their lifestyle expectations: negotiable, minimal, practical, moderate, substantial or high.
They are also able to seek out men and women according to their net worth and annual income.
WHO’S USING THE SITE?
“I’m 24 and a broke student.”
This is one of the stories shared on the TheSugarBook forum – and an example of someone from a key demographic for the site.
While TheSugarBook said it does not have exact figures for student members, it does have a “Student Programme” – what it calls “the modern way to avoid student loan debt”.
The programme allows people to sign up with their university’s email addresses or show proof of enrolment to access free premium membership.
In January, Malaysia’s Higher Education Ministry said it was looking into whether action should be taken, advising students to use “legal and proper ways” to finance their education, as reported by The Star.
A ministry spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia the case was still open.
Similar concerns were raised in Singapore’s Parliament this week, with fears that the site “exposed (users) to risk of being exploited and abused”. Police there have been told to keep tabs on the website too and take enforcement action should there be any solicitation.
TheSugarBook, however, said there has been no cause for concern so far – apart from the occasional multi-level marketer – adding that it cannot control what happens off the website.
“Of course we understand the concern and we are more than willing to work with authorities if there any suspicious or vice activities,” said Ms Ong.
“However, we have very strict procedures to address these issues internally first … We are not an agency, we do not facilitate any matchmaking services so we are actually not conducting anything that warrants being looked into by authorities.”
MISCONCEPTIONS OF USERS
Ms Ong also believes there is a misconception about who is on the site.
She said most of the 60 to 65 per cent of their users who are women are “intelligent and capable” with full-time jobs, all with different ideas of the amount of support they want.
“Something that may be luxurious to you might be just quite simple to somebody else, so are we supposed to judge them for that?”
On the other hand, many of the “Sugar Daddies” are C-suite entrepreneurs. They have “spent their entire 20s working on their careers and now they’re in their 30s and they don’t know how to date”, she said.
“Do we condemn them for being successful?” said Ms Ong.
“Do we judge them for being able to spend? It’s not an elitist issue, it’s an idea of accepting people (for) who they are and what they want to do with their lives.”
Statistics may also challenge some stereotypes.
While it is estimated about 70 per cent of the mostly-female users are seeking, rather than providing financial support, more men are signing up to be “sugar babies” rather than “sugar daddies” in Singapore.
“(There are more men) who want to be financially taken care of by women,” said Ms Ong.
“They’re looking for, if we have to put a label on it, cougars.”
Despite its own “controversial” label, TheSugarBook is looking ahead.
Aside from Malaysia and Singapore, it already has members from the Philippines, the UK, US, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and “various parts of Europe and South America”.
It will be focusing efforts next on expanding in Thailand, Hong Kong and China – and should there be issues there too, Ms Ong said the company is prepared.
“We understand the concerns our platform will trigger in different countries we operate in due to its controversial nature.
“We will work with the authorities to address any questions and concerns raised as the community’s understanding of our platform is of utmost importance to us,” she added.