Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said in Parliament on Monday that the police will keep a "close eye" on dating platforms such as TheSugarBook, as well as those who use its services. Money-for-love online dating platform TheSugarBook claims to have about 30,000 members in Singapore.
Lee said that such platforms "commoditise and devalue relationships under the cover of a mutually beneficial arrangement". He added that relationships have become transactional and money and gifts are exchanged for companionship and "other" services.
When questioned by MPs Seah Kian Peng and Tin Pei Ling, the minister noted that the police will take enforcement action under the Women's Charter, including possibly against the website and its owners for sexual services in lieu of payment.
However, the biggest concern is that the site targets teenagers and young people who are in their early 20s while they are still students at polytechnics or universities.
"Not only do such sites encourage them to demean their own sense of self-worth, they also expose them to the risk of being exploited and abused," Lee told Channel NewsAsia. "These transactions are fundamentally imbalanced, in favour of older and wealthier people."
In response to a supplementary question, Lee said that there is the need to strike the "right balance" between giving people the freedom to make moral choices, and protecting them by acting as a regulator to curb such sites. He also noted the example of extra-marital dating site Ashley Madison that was banned in 2013 by then-Media Development Authority (MDA) in Singapore.
"MDA acted decisively to ban the site, because it explicitly advocated, through its portal, extramarital affairs and infidelity ... That ran right up against our core values on protecting the family, so we acted decisively there," Lee said.
"But the online realm is very broad, and there are many aspects that are very troubling. Blocking and banning every such site isn't the most enduring way to protect Singaporeans from such risks."
Lee further highlighted that although they are collectively objecting to such websites, the more effective and enduring solution lies in increasing the awareness of young people to such dangers. This will help them to exercise discretion and good judgement when navigating the online world.
According to Lee, students in MOE schools are taught to establish boundaries for personal safety, discern risks and exercise sound judgement when going onto online platforms and managing relationships, both online and offline. "At the same time, parents play a critical role in guiding their children and helping them to stay away from undesirable online content," he added.
"At the end of the day, while we recognise that these websites undermine families and society, our best defence is for society, communities and our families to reinforce values that anchor us so that we do not succumb to such influences."