Singapore hosted an array of concerts, after-parties and events for race aficionados and revellers alike during the Formula One weekend last week. But one controversial gathering almost stole the show from the annual sporting event.

A sugar daddy convention, dubbed “The Fast Lane” and supported by Malaysian “sugar dating” app Sugarbook, was held during the five-day F1-themed Sky Grande Prix promotional event at the Grand Hyatt hotel.

The party brought together sugar baby and sugar daddy wannabes from the city state and from as far afield as the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and even New York.

But the bash inevitably irked officials in Singapore, where the Sugarbook app remains contentious. Sugar dating is a type of relationship in which older, wealthy men or women – the sugar daddy or mummy – spend an extravagant amount on a lover, girlfriend or boyfriend, known as the sugar baby, in exchange for companionship that typically includes sex.

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The Singapore Tourism Board, trying to distance itself from the controversial website, stopped marketing the party after having initially included it in its F1 promotion campaign, not knowing Sugarbook was a sponsor of Sky Grande Prix.

This is not the first time one of the company’s events has faced resistance. A similar event in Kuala Lumpur in April had to switch venues after one of the city’s posh entertainment outlets, which first agreed to host it, called it off.

“At first, [the tourism board] were OK with sponsoring the whole event, then the media frenzy happened and they wanted to pull out,” said Darren Chan, the app founder and chief executive. “I totally understand because [the tourism board] have to do what’s best for the country. If I [were the tourism board] and if I thought the brand was controversial, I would have [made] the same decision. But we are here to have a good time, no hanky-panky, nothing to worry about.”

ALL NIGHT LONG

The lavish party went on despite the setback. Dozens of well-dressed people packed the venue – a sort of lounge, bar and nightclub – as a DJ played popular dance music all night. At the back of the lounge, there was a blackjack table, with a “fund me daddy” sign, where guests tried their luck with fake S$100 (US$73) notes. Bartenders were kept on their toes at all hours, serving alcohol to partygoers who were crowding the bar.

Men were on the lookout for potential sugar babies, as were women for sugar daddies, although they might have had a hard time chatting over the loud music.

News of the tourism board pulling out of the party indirectly promoted the event, at least in Simon’s case. The 33-year-old Asian-American from New York was in Singapore on a business trip and decided to join the party in the small hours, when most guests had already left.

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“I know the party from the news that the tourism board took the event out [from the F1 weekend’s parties list],” Simon, a fast-talking investor with a focus on tech companies, told This Week in Asia. “I’m based in New York but I’m here [in Singapore] once a month, so I was hoping to find sugar babies from outside the US, like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or the Philippines.”

Had Simon come earlier, he might have been able to fulfil that wish. Mika, an aspiring sugar baby who left around midnight, came all the way from Manila after her friends at home told her about the party. Mika, who came with a girlfriend, said she was a little overwhelmed as she was new to the game.

“It’s my first time coming to parties like this … I don’t really like it because I don’t make a lot of friends,” said Mika, a brace-wearing, plump woman in her early 20s. “And I don’t think [the men] here like girls like me, they want sexy girls.”

While Mika may be a beginner, she was far from clueless about sugar dating. One of her friends in Manila, also in her 20s, is a sugar baby to a 74-year-old married man, and she is pregnant. “Her daddy helps her financially, like paying for her rent”, said Mika, adding that she, too, would like to be pampered by an older man.

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Sugar daddies do offer that perk. Simon, who has had a couple of sugar babies he met through a sugar-dating platform called SeekingArrangement, said he gave his former sugar babies a “few hundred dollars” each time they met, a set-up known as pay-per-meet. He had also bought expensive items for them such as handbags or boots.

“I wouldn’t mind paying for a monthly allowance or vacation [for my sugar babies], but it depends on how they are performing in everything, [either] in bed or in the relationship,” Simon said.

Married men with time and money to spend could also be found at the party. John, a 34-year-old dapper-looking executive, is an aspiring sugar daddy despite having been married for a year to his “hot and pretty” wife. The Malaysian national, who works in Singapore, said that he is a member of both Sugarbook and SeekingArrangement, and is able to access the apps every now and then as he travels a lot for work.

“I like playing around but I don’t really fancy the working girls,” John said.

A COUSIN OF PROSTITUTION?

Critics say sugar dating is akin to prostitution and the lopsided power dynamics in the relationship could lead to psychological and health problems for sugar babies. These include low self-esteem and suicidal tendencies when relationships turn sour, and the inability to see future relationships as anything more than transactional. In some cases, vulnerable young women are also at risk of sexual assaults.

This week, an international manhunt is under way for an American named Cody Wilson, a key figure in the debate surrounding 3D-printed guns in the United States. He allegedly paid a 16-year-old girl US$500 for sex after they met through SugarDaddyMeet, another sugar-dating website.

In February, a 45-year-old married man in Singapore was sent to prison after a court found him guilty of having sex with a 15-year-old girl whom he had met on SeekingArrangement.

Chan begs to differ from the critics, saying sugar babies are not escorts and that his website, boasting 200,000 members, is empowering women.

“[Hiring] escorts is a business transaction, whereas for sugar babies, they are not forced to sleep with anybody at all,” Chan said. “We believe that we try our best to empower women. In many parts of the world, they don’t have the luxury to choose who they want to be in a relationship with, without being shamed by it.”

Chan said he will bring the sugar daddy meet-up to Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Hong Kong, where he also plans to open an office by the end of this year.

While the yield from the app’s expansion plans remains to be seen, the sugar-dating lifestyle in Asia is most likely here to stay, despite the authorities’ opposition, if John’s example is anything to go by.

“All guys are like [me]. My wife is very hot but guys are always looking for excitement to feel dominant,” John said. “In every masculine guy, there’s always this sense of achievement when you have a sugar baby.”