Sugarbook, the controversial online dating platform, was recently banned by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, followed by the arrest of its 34-year-old founder in Kuala Lumpur.
This clampdown was prompted primarily by the concern expressed recently by Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Ahmad Marzuk Shaary about what he considers as immoral activities between so-called sugar babies and sugar daddies, which need to be stopped.
It was also triggered by the dating platform’s report that there was a 40% spike of people registering with the dating website in recent times, particularly university students who are looking for money to cover tuition costs, etc.
There are also the many police reports that have been lodged, making it a hot-button case.
While there are certain quarters who doubted the veracity of a report that alleged that a large number of students involved came from 10 public and private universities, the issue requires unpacking.
For one thing, the concept of sugar dating itself is contentious. Its proponents argue that such romantic liaisons are acceptable as they are by mutual consent – that is, the interests of the sugar babies and sugar daddies are mutual. Some sugar babies also insist that it is a different lifestyle they consciously choose in their pursuit of happiness and material comfort through long-term relationships.
The opponents, on the other hand, contend that such adult encounters are a glorified form of prostitution, as they often involve sex in exchange for financial support and gifts, and hence morally questionable. Their concern is also about sugar babies, particularly young women, potentially subject to exploitation by older and often richer men, who may not have any compunction in treating their transitory companions as mere sex objects.
Be that as it may, the social context over the past few years, particularly after the coronavirus reached our country, should prod us to consider several dimensions to the issue at hand.
While this is in no way condoning such an adult arrangement or ‘sugaring’, we would argue that the approach to this problem needs to be nuanced to enable us to understand the complexity of the issue. In other words, if we are serious about addressing this controversial issue, it is important that we don’t mistake a symptom for its ailment – and as a result, offer a wrong diagnosis and medicine.
A person may go into this kind of relationship because he or she is on the rebound, after having left an unfaithful partner. Or the person may be a product of a broken home, in search of elusive love.
Yet there are also cases in which young women in particular are compelled by other circumstances to take the plunge. Financial difficulties arising from their parents’ retrenchment or the students’ inability to seek part-time jobs as a result of a prolonged movement control order may have forced them to take a path they would normally regard as distasteful, if not morally offensive. Indeed, the current sluggish economy has given rise to economic hardships, especially to vulnerable people.
This issue should also be examined in its wider social context. Societal values have obviously shifted over the years. Material wealth and ostentatious lifestyles seem to have captured the imagination of many people, including the young, thus the search for an easier and faster route to material comfort.
Not too long ago, Malaysians were made to bear witness to an extreme example of high-life existence, that is, the possession of many expensive branded handbags and items from overseas shopping binges by the well-heeled, who could serve as a role model for those who fancy this kind of lifestyle.
With neoliberal economics also affecting, for instance, healthcare and education, we shouldn’t be surprised if even “love” is reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold.
Moreover, with the high price of neoliberal education, especially private education, many families are in debt or have to dip into savings to finance their children’s education, leaving their children cash-strapped. The pandemic could have made things even worse.
There is also the factor of an increasing economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our society over the years, which also affects university students from poor backgrounds. Some of the poor and those without ‘connections’ may not have equal access to the nation’s resources. Just look at, for instance, the enormous salaries of the heads of government-linked companies compared to those of the rank and file. The gap is obscene.
To be sure, the pandemic has caused extreme hardship to so many people so that, for example, a mother not too long ago had to shoplift a cake, sausages and a Kool Fever kit from a hypermarket for her children because she had no money to buy basic things. She wouldn’t have done that if she had a choice.
Treating the symptom would not only be short-sighted, but can also be morally indefensible. – The Malaysian Insight