“To be honest, I’m just stuck. I don’t know why society is like this.”
Lai Wee Kiat desperately wants me to understand how gravely maligned he feels. Over the course of our 90 minute conversation, the 28-year-old founder of SgInstaBabes repeatedly emphasises that his now-infamous Patreon never intended to objectify women, least of all those who were a part of SgInstaBabes.
When he first conceived the idea for Patreon, he merely wanted to give fans of SgInstaBabes access to the girls, along with a chance to get to know these girls for their “personality” and “sense of humour”. In the same way that some clubs have their own party girls who entertain customers, the Patreon was designed to transform SgInstaBabes from an online collection of pretty Singaporean girls into real life meet-and-greet sessions.
Prices were pegged to these activities, such as observing SgInstaBabes photoshoots and partying with the girls on a yacht. The Patreon was advertised using photos of the girls in skimpy outfits. They resembled objects that the public could purchase.
Yet Wee Kiat insists that both SgInstaBabes and its Patreon do not sexualise these girls. Remember, the intention was to sell their “personality”.
His intentions are undeniably questionable. Founded in January 2015, SgInstaBabes has gained national notoriety for being a community of scantily clad, conventionally attractive Singaporean girls, termed by many as ‘xiao mei meis’. Usually in their mid teens to early twenties, these girls tend to be Chinese and petite.
As such, they receive an inordinate amount of lewd male attention, despite being neither models nor influencers.
Throughout our conversation, Wee Kiat emphasises that everyone in SgInstaBabes feels like family. He takes care of the girls, ensuring they feel safe all the time, and never forces them to do anything they are uncomfortable with. He claims that he hasn’t received any complaints about the male photographers from the girls.
It was eventually revealed that he never sought permission to use some of the girls’ photos. Perhaps he thought being “family” meant not having to ask.
With a straight face, Wee Kiat adds that his mistake, if any, is that the Patreon didn’t show off “more personality”. He claims that the girls of SgInstaBabes have fun during their “non-sexual” photoshoots, dancing, laughing, and generally enjoying their time on set. However, it remains anyone’s guess why this “personality” had to be reflected through various states of undress.
If he could relaunch the Patreon, he would leave no doubt that it was created so that people could “enjoy the social [aspect] and humour” of the SgInstaBabes platform.
Cry me a river. For a business graduate, he doesn’t seem to know shit about branding.
Wee Kiat shares, “I did a poll on IG Stories to see how many people wanted to join our shoots and party with us. There were at least 1,000 responses for each. And I thought, hey, if that’s what our audience wants …”
He’s not wrong. SgInstaBabes is popular because it reinvents the quintessential men’s magazine by foregrounding the most sensational part of it (i.e. sex appeal) on a visual and more accessible medium. It allows us to consume women’s bodies by passively scrolling through their feeds, like flipping through a magazine.
We mindlessly ‘like’ these suggestive photos without thinking too much about the platform’s significance in shaping the way we view women. Today, this open and shameless consumption has become normalised.
One such text read, “To be honest, me and [another girl from SgInstaBabes] really support taking the [SgInstaBabes Instagram account offline for now] and continuing with the Patreon. But with the amount of people disapproving within the group, we didn’t speak up since all of them didn’t want it. But we support it. I know it’s hard to make money from whatever we’re doing.”
I wasn’t able to speak with any of the girls who supported the Patreon, but I looked at the texts from them on Wee Kiat’s phone. None of these girls had robust reasons for supporting the Patreon, beyond thinking detractors were just jumping on the bandwagon to criticise it.
Along the same vein, the former SgInstaBabes girls I spoke to appeared to have less of an issue with the Patreon than with Wee Kiat’s use of their photos without their consent.
This is where the lines get blurred.
Annabelle, 19, initially strongly objected to the Patreon idea, yet kept quiet once Wee Kiat told her some girls were supportive. She told him to remove solo photos of her that had been used on the Patreon, but didn’t mention the group photos; she assumed the girls in those photos had given consent.
Another girl, Vivian, 20, didn’t say anything about the Patreon when Wee Kiat first broached the subject, because the rest of the group appeared fine with the idea. She assumed there wouldn’t be any issue, and only objected after she discovered he had used her photos without her consent. Then she quit the group.
Both Annabelle and Vivian are firmly against the Patreon now. Annabelle reiterates that she had expressed to Wee Kiat concern for the girls involved, especially if there were underaged ones. Vivian now thinks the whole idea was “despicable”.
Wee Kiat’s unsavoury history doesn’t help either, having been known to recruit underage girls to SgInstaBabes. He admits that he knowingly sought out “one member” who was 15 when she joined. According to him, there is nothing wrong if the girl consents to being part of SgInstaBabes, the male photographer is okay with it, the shoot happens in a group outdoors, and there’s no physical touching involved.
I make it clear that it’s still inappropriate, and he expresses what appears to be genuine surprise at my stance.
When we allow our male friends to get away with rating a woman’s looks, when we brush aside depraved remarks about a woman’s appearance as mere jokes, and when we wonder how a woman can be considered an influencer/celebrity/model if she’s ‘not pretty enough’, we feed the culture that enabled SgInstaBabes in the first place.
The unfortunate Patreon just held up a mirror to our behaviour. We are all implicated in this mess.
While many of us might disapprove of the SgInstaBabes Patreon, this rage has been mostly directed at Wee Kiat, not the culture that laid the foundation for such an idea in the first place. We don’t see anything wrong with sexualising women, because we don’t think our ‘admiration’ of the female body is predatory. But innocent appreciation can quickly turn into objectification.
With SgInstaBabes, the provocative photos of girls who are barely legal encourage lecherous men to leave thirsty comments. Filtered through an additional layer of social media, this attention doesn’t feel so disconcerting. As a result, these girls continue posting their photos, making it appear that they’re ‘asking for’ unwanted attention.
Some argue that these girls are simply empowered, by not allowing society’s expectations of women to hold them to certain ideals.
But I want to make this clear: these girls are young, therefore few of them realise the implications of their actions. They cannot be empowered if they don’t understand what they’re fighting for; they cannot be empowered if they don’t get to decide for themselves what this empowerment looks like.
The empowerment that men like Wee Kiat preach is a marketing spiel that peddles self-consciousness, not self-confidence. He unconvincingly posits that all girls just want validation and attention (from social media) to boost their self-esteem, which the largely male audience of SgInstaBabes can provide.
Essentially, a platform like SgInstaBabes implies that girls are unworthy until a man considers them beautiful/pretty/hot/fuckable.
“Those who know me personally know I’m a nice guy,” he says.
I’m thrown by his cloying need to inform me of something that should be readily apparent if it were true. I sense an eagerness to please that might register as ‘friendliness’ to less discerning girls.
More than that, his statement is also wholly disingenuous.
His checkered past raises several red flags, which don’t bring to mind a “nice” person. For instance, he was accused of molesting one of the SgInstaBabes girls last year, even though charges were eventually dropped.
Neither is “nice” the first word I would use to describe myself if I were a grown man managing a platform perceived to sexualise teenage girls who don’t know any better. It’s not what I’d use to convince someone if there were screenshots showing that I prey on underage girls.
After being wilfully blind to the irony that his platform for ‘female empowerment’ only reinforces harmful narratives about how women should view their bodies, Wee Kiat doesn’t get to be the white knight who saves the day.
Still, he truly believes he’s the good guy. He points out the “hypocritical” nature of the public’s reaction to the Patreon, referring to the way Singaporeans get fired up about SgInstaBabes while frequently objectifying women on more explicit platforms such as Tumblr softporn sites.
He wants to know why there’s a bigger uproar around SgInstaBabes when the content on these Tumblr sites is often far more explicit.
“Do you think Singapore has a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ culture?” he asks.
“Just because majority do something, they don’t want to be the minority. So they don’t actually feel that SgInstaBabes is selling off girls. They are simply buying into the idea that Xiaxue and Dee Kosh put out about me.”
Perhaps it is precisely because his reputation has been dragged through the mud by the two public figures that Wee Kiat sees himself as a maverick and non-conformist. This is despite the fact that his views are the furthest thing from radical. There is nothing more basic than capitalising on the tired notion that sex sells.
He informs me that if the Patreon and SgInstaBabes were revived, he would ensure that a female takes over to resolve all doubt that it’s a clean business. His earnestness frustrates me, not least because he still doesn’t get it after more than an hour.
He may never get it.
In the end, clueless to the fact that female empowerment is a woman’s prerogative, Wee Kiat is just another man telling women what they should do with their bodies.
There is nothing “nice” about that.