Dogged by accusations of misogyny and promoting unhealthy relationship dynamics, ‘sugar dating’ platform founder Darren Chan claims he is a mere businessman trying to cash in on a pervasive market segment. He makes his case in an exclusive interview with Options

SINGAPORE (May 13): Sugarbook is a website and mobile app platform established on the concept of “sugar dating”. The term is loosely used to describe relationships in which financial support is exchanged for romantic companionship, which may or may not involve sex. In the sugar dating world, more financially able individuals often provide cash, gifts or lifestyle funding support for their dependent counterparts, who are in turn expected to reciprocate with their time and affections.

Being someone who considers herself more or less financially independent, I am not too sure of how to feel about signing up for Sugarbook, or what has been dubbed by the media as a money-for-love dating platform. It is my first attempt at posing online as a sugar mommy, the female equivalent of a sugar daddy.

The registration page is initially a piece of cake. It requires me to fill in my annual income, education and lifestyle habits — a task that I breeze through with a mixture of truth and make-believe. I balk, however, when I am asked to write a minimum of 50 words each in the “About me” and “What I’m looking for” sections. What would a sugar mommy typically say to cross the hurdle of profile moderation? “Cougar with a decent rack. I like young boys I cannot lie,” I type, cringing inwardly. “If you’re young and good-looking, I guess you’ll do,” is my answer to the next field. 

Completing the entry form grants me access to a thumbnail montage of prospective matches. The majority are fronted by selfies of portly middle-aged men, while some have only partial shots to keep their facial features a mystery. One profile features what appears to be a pre-wedding photo of the groom, while another uses a stock photo image, the site’s watermark plastered across the image of an attractive Asian man. “I may be rich but you’ll have to earn [my money] from me,” is one user’s description of himself. “Looking for a sugar mommy to supplement my income,” declares another baby-faced male in his 30s. 

My actions of digital voyeurism come days after a rather impromptu encounter with Darren Chan, the widely profiled Malaysian who founded Sugarbook (formerly branded as The SugarBook). Following a brief online correspondence with his communications consultant, Nicole, I find myself scrambling to lock down a suitable venue for our meeting in the middle of my press trip in Kuala Lumpur, where Sugarbook’s office also happens to be. 

Chan is more than 15 minutes late for our rendezvous at the lobby of the Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur, where I am staying for the weekend, although Nicole has arrived right on the dot. It does not take much effort to recognise him when he finally makes an appearance, dressed smartly in a grey slim-fitting suit matched with a black woven clutch. He sports a light shadow of facial hair as he does in all of the pictures I have found of him online. Citing traffic, he apologises earnestly but calmly over a firm handshake.

Up on the 38th floor at the hotel’s club lounge, I am slightly taken aback when he requests to record our conversation with his mobile device. A sense of painful self-consciousness further descends upon me as Nicole begins hovering around us with her phone to shoot video footage of our interview without much of an explanation. As I momentarily struggle to come to terms with the situation, it occurs to me that Chan might be doing this because he has been burnt before — an unsurprising scenario, given the controversial nature of his business.

While Canadian extramarital dating portal Ashley Madison is banned in Singapore, Sugarbook remains relatively untouched by the city state’s censorship laws. Yet, the government is clearly not a fan.

During a Parliament session in February last year, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee announced that local police intended to “keep a close eye” on the platform and its users, adding that the government collectively objects to sites such as Sugarbook, as they were deemed to commoditise and devalue relationships. Lee’s disapproval of such sites stems from the view that this transactional form of dating, which is generally in favour of “older and wealthier people” or sugar daddies, encourages women to demean their sense of self-worth, in his words. 

“Young women, for instance, may feel pressured to comply with [the men’s] wishes or demands, and risk physical or sexual harm if they reject them,” he added. 

With sugar dating typically involving young women and, on the other end of the spectrum, older men, this concept is naturally likened to prostitution and the gendered risks associated with the trade like homicide, financial scams, rape and abuse. 

Despite its detractors in Singapore and beyond, it looks like Sugarbook is here to stay. According to Chan, about 15%, or some 45,000, of the platform’s estimated 300,000 users are based in Singapore, ranking it as the third-largest user base after the US (20%) and Malaysia (42%).

Sugarbook recently secured an undisclosed six-figure sum of funds from an angel investor in Hong Kong, the first since its platform’s inception in 2017. Chan, who turns 32 this year, says he is also in the midst of expanding his business operations to Hong Kong, as he sees an “amazing market” there.

He tells Options more:

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Penang, a small town in Malaysia. Then I went to Melbourne to further my studies at the age of 17 or 18, and lived there for nine years. That’s also where I made some female friends in university who happened to be sugar babies. They told me they found their sugar daddies through word-of-mouth, and I thought to myself: If we had a Facebook for sugar babies and daddies, that could work. But as I continued my studies, I did not pursue the idea until after I came back to Malaysia and funded a start-up called Gigfairy [an online musician-booking platform]. After Gigfairy was acquired in 2010, I began thinking: Malaysia has a very conservative culture, and yet you and I know [sugar dating] exists everywhere. Why not try to build a dating platform for it?

What is your current relationship status?

I’ve been in a stable, happy relationship for about 3½ years now. I met Charmaine at a friend’s birthday party while I was still with Gigfairy. She’s 10 years younger than I am so you can call her my sugar baby, but I call her my girlfriend or my partner. She is also extremely supportive of Sugarbook. I actually got some inspiration from Charmaine as well, mainly because most of her friends regard me as her sugar daddy.

Why would Charmaine’s friends regard you as her sugar daddy?

I’m not sure if I qualify as a sugar daddy, but if I do, I see it as a privilege. I was brought up as a gentleman and was traditionally taught to always provide for my partners. If I’m considered a sugar daddy in that sense, so be it. Based on my values and culture, [as the man in the relationship,] I would never ask a woman to pay. I believe women should just enjoy the good life without having to worry about everything.

Would this belief apply even after marriage?

Yes. I wouldn’t expect my future wife, or would-be wife, to pay for anything at all. This value was ingrained in me as I was growing up, mainly because I was from a very traditional family, where my father was the one who was always providing for my family. My mother is a housewife. She has never had to worry about anything to do with income or financials. She’s leading a very lovely life, and that’s the privilege women should have should they choose to.

What do you think feminists would have to say about these patriarchal views? 

Feminism literally means having equal rights [with] men. This brings me back to what I said, that women must be allowed to choose. If they choose to pay, by all means [go ahead]. But I would rather provide for women and allow them to just be themselves without having to do or worry about anything. At Sugarbook, we champion gender equality and we want to empower women by giving them this platform: the capacity and the ability to choose freely [if they want to be financially self-sufficient or supported].

In a lot of third world countries, there are a lot of women who do not have this freedom to choose. They can’t choose who they want to be in a relationship with, who they want to have kids or families with, and if they do, they will be judged by their families or relatives. Sugarbook provides them with this platform to choose if they want to be with one person for their looks, or for their money, or simply to provide them with security.

What is your Singapore user base generally like?

Let’s start with the men. The sugar daddies are mainly 30 to 50 years old and in the business/legal sectors. Their annual income ranges from $80,000 to $150,000. Sugar babies in Singapore fall in the age range of 18 to 40; many of them are single mothers, divorcees and students.

We had this sugar baby in her early 30s, a divorced single mother. She’d gone on platforms like Tinder and Match only to find that men were just [messaging her with the objective of] getting into her pants. What happens when they find out she’s a mother of two? Most of them didn’t want the excess baggage. She came on Sugarbook just to try her luck because she saw our advertisement somewhere or read about us. Today, a man whom she met on Sugarbook is not only providing for her [financially], but also her two kids as well.

How did you know about this?

We like to keep in touch with our sugar babies. Not so much with the sugar daddies, as a lot of them don’t want to be known, but we maintain contact with the sugar babies to provide them with advice on what to do and what not to do, and teach them dining etiquette and whatnot. We have a very close relationship with all of them. This is the core of Sugarbook — it’s not just about connecting people but also guiding them, teaching them. A lot of sugar babies come from rural areas and are seeking to enjoy a better life.

Are there any criteria for being a sugar baby or parent?

At Sugarbook, we have the option of Standard, Premium and Diamond membership [for sugar daddies/mommies]. Now, Diamond membership is something very special, as it was requested by the affluent members of our society, including politicians, celebrities and business owners. They are typically charged about US$200 [$270] a month. Diamond member profiles attract 20 times more sugar babies, as they show the sugar babies you have what it takes to be a sugar daddy, and that you are the ultimate sugar daddy.

Standard membership costs sugar daddies US$30 to US$50, depending on the location, for a subscription that covers periods from seven days to a month or six months. Anyone can sign up as a sugar daddy for free. But, to talk to a [prospective sugar baby,] you will have to pay a premium. Anyone can come on [to the platform] to be a sugar baby. It’s free, you do not have to pay; but if you want to pay, just to show that you are sincerely looking for a partner, yes, you can pay a US$5-to-US$7 premium.

Let me add that prices aside, not everybody can be a sugar daddy. Having money and a big bank account is just the tip of the iceberg [sic]. Sugar daddies must have a big, influential network of friends and be very willing to impart knowledge or share experiences with their sugar babies. Not many people can do this.

So, do you believe in putting a price tag on love?

I’ve met plenty of people who would like to argue that money is not everything, and that money can’t buy love or happiness. But neither can poverty. If it wasn’t for money, we wouldn’t be here in this five-star luxury hotel [having this interview].

Theoretically speaking, money can’t buy you love, but it can buy the experiences leading up to love — for example, the nice clothes or the nice dress, or the nice wine that you have over an elegant dinner, or the luxury car. Such are experiences leading up to the emotion of love. Now, that, money can buy. So, I guess it’s safe to say money can’t buy you love, but money does make it easier for us to fall in love. 

Have the Singapore authorities done anything to make good on their word of keeping ‘a close eye’ on your business, as far as you know?

Singapore has very strict laws and regulations, and we respect that. Yes, the government of Singapore has their eyes on us, but I think that’s a good thing in the sense that it keeps us on our toes. It forces us to work three times, five times as hard to weed out all the bad apples on our platform. The fact that we are still here, operating as a legitimate company, is proof that Sugarbook does not condone any form of adult content, nudity, pornography or any other sort of illegal activities.

Why do you think the government  has yet to ban Sugarbook on moral grounds, like Ashley Madison was?

Well, let’s hope that won’t happen. Ashley Madison’s vision and mine are completely different. Their platform encourages infidelity; their tagline reads ‘Life is short, have an affair’. That is offensive, and that is not what Sugarbook is about, as we champion honest and transparent relationships. This core fundamental of Sugarbook is what separates us from Ashley Madison.

What about the option for users to list themselves as ‘Married but looking’? 

You see, Sugarbook is actually the only dating platform that encourages our members to list your marital status. I think that’s a good thing. For us, it’s always about honesty. If you are married, tell us that you’re married. If you have kids, be proud [that you do, and say it]. It will save you and your prospective partners a lot of time, and that’s the one thing money cannot buy. But, ultimately, I believe that if you’re married, you shouldn’t even be on [a dating platform], let alone Sugarbook.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.