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TheSugarBook: Keep a close eye or close one eye?

A long, long time ago, two reporters came up to me to say that they had come across a gay bar and felt that this should be reported. I asked if there were children involved. They said no, and that, in fact, it only allowed in males above 21. I asked if there was drug use on the premises, they said they couldn’t tell but probably not. I asked why they thought we should publish the story. They said “people must know’’, “there’s a gay bar!’’, “maybe got hanky-panky’’.

My reply was that they were adults who knew what they were getting into. There were also other such bars so this isn’t the first. Publishing such a story would only raise the hackles of some segments of the population, who would demand that it be closed down. The authorities, reacting to the force of public opinion, might just do so. In any case, don’t they suppose the authorities knew of the existence of the bar?

My approach was a live-and-let-live one. If there was no criminal activity involved, why do we see the need to highlight a bar for homosexuals and push the authorities into a corner to do something about it? Do we want the authorities to start policing what consenting adults can or cannot do in private?

Another time, another reporter came up to me to report that a certain couple was intending to hold an orgy in their HDB flat, and had advertised online for participants. I asked what he was intending to do – go undercover? Report the orgy as news? Or report the fact that they used the internet to ask for participants? He’s a young man, like the other two, and I suppose for young people just out of school, such activities just seem too outrageously delicious not to be reported.

I nixed the story because I said the couple can do whatever they want in their own flats and if he intended to go “undercover’’, he should watch out for underage sex. There’s no need for a report on the orgy itself. These are things that some adults do, I said while feeling very, very old. Let them be. Do we want a Singapore hemmed in by moral rules imposed from the outside or let the individuals police their own ethics, if this was indeed an ethical issue?

Those are editorial judgments I made and I daresay there will be those who say that such participants should be named and shamed, and such activities, outlawed.

Morals are such a tricky subject. And I know well enough the power of the media to create excitement and agitation by highlighting happenings that, for some people, are downright immoral. I take the view that we must let society evolve at its own pace and let adults be guided by their own conscience, religious or moral standards.

Not many know, for example, that there are licensed brothels here, which is a nod to the lascivious nature of Man. But they do their business quietly, out of public sight – unlike streetwalkers who do open solicitation, which is disallowed. We, to put it colloquially, just close one eye.

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When do we require the authorities to step in and draw a line?

When public animus is clear, like when heartlanders appeared to have reacted strongly to having sexy films in the neighbourhood cinemas in the late 80s, as deciphered from a vote swing away from the People’s Action Party. This paved the way for the introduction of restricted (artistic) films and a more nuanced film classification system. There was no total ban on the films. People of age can still watch such shows, but no longer in neighbourhood cinemas.

The reason for my long preamble: the parliamentary discussion on TheSugarBook, an app that matches young women who want to paired with older men – and vice versa. The terms Sugar Daddy and Sugar Baby leave people in no doubt that money is involved somehow – a more comfortable lifestyle for the young woman provided by the older man, who may or may not be married. It is a private transaction, even if morally dubious.

Unlike other sites offering similar “partnerships’’ which operate in deep, dark corners of the web, the Malaysia-based site is very “in-your-face’’. For example, the site says that “TheSugarBook is made up of a large quantity of students in colleges and universities. These sugar babies often benefit from the mentorship, generous allowances, exotic vacations and shopping sprees across the globe.’’

This is not something I condone. A Sugar Baby who trades her affections and attentions (even if those are the only commodities) for a Prada bag and good restaurant meals? Go buy your own bag, baby! Why be a “kept woman’’ in this day and age?

Yes, I am being judgmental. I agree with the G that such sites “commoditise and devalue” relationships, encouraging young women to “demean their self-worth”.

But that is my view, which I won’t impose on others. Nor would I insist that my standard should be the community’s standard.

The question is whether we should expect official intervention.

Recall that in 2013, there was a public outcry over the Canada-based dating site, Ashley Madison. The G  banned it, because it “aggressively promotes and facilitates extramarital affairs and has declared that it will specifically target Singaporeans’’ The site was added to its list of “a limited number of sites as a symbolic statement of the types of content which the community is opposed to”.

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Said the then Media Development Authority: “It is against the public interest to allow Ashley Madison to promote its website in flagrant disregard of our family values and public morality. We will therefore not allow Ashley Madison to operate in Singapore and have worked with the Internet Service Providers to block access to the site.”

Note that there are ways to get around the ban. The site was hacked in 2015 and 32 million users had their details exposed. The New Paper combed through the data and found 4,751 e-mail addresses with the  “.sg” suffix — which indicates a Singapore domain address.

You can say that a ban doesn’t work – so why have it?  Or you can say that the G shouldn’t even have tried policing morals because these are consenting adults. I take the view, however, that the G simply has to do something in response to public opinion and also because of its position on the primacy of the family. It would be hypocritical not to take some kind of action although we can debate till the cows come home about the appropriate course.

No one can argue that Ashley Madison encourages marital fidelity.  I think if Ashley Madison wasn’t so “in your face’’ and honest about its target audience, it might well have gone under the radar, like so many extra-marital flings.

The G didn’t talk about banning TheSugarBook in Parliament. It stated its “collective” point of view – and it is entitled to it. I don’t think that this amounts to  “moral policing’’. There is no action being proposed to stop this willing-buyer-willing-seller practice.

According to Minister Desmond Lee, the police will keep “a close eye’’ on the website, as well as the individuals who use its services. “For instance, if there is any procurement of sexual services for payment, the police will take enforcement action under the Women’s Charter, including possibly against the website and its owner,” he added.

In other words, so long as there is no crime committed, it’s accessible. (The site, by the way, has an age limit.)

I think it is a reasonable official position to take.

My question is: why do the MPs see the need to bring the matter to Parliament? I don’t think the public outcry was anything like that for Ashley Madison which thumbs its nose at the institution of marriage.  If the G moves to ban the site, it would have to start doing the same for other sites where money is exchanged for “companionship’’, or be accused of double standards.

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Now, it is NOT banned. And congratulations to the politicians who have succeeded in drawing even more attention to it.

Sometimes, it is better to live and let live.








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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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