SINGAPORE - A former bodybuilder has come under fire after he offered access to a group of teenage girls in exchange for monthly payments of up to $5,000.
Depending on the amount pledged, subscribers are promised photos of the girls - known as SgInstaBabes on social media - in revealing outfits such as bikinis, and would be able to join them on private yacht parties in return.
This was part of a controversial membership programme launched by the group's founder, Mr Lai Wee Kiat, last week on the website Patreon. It has since drawn sharp criticism from the public for its similarities to social escort services.
Some netizens have also questioned the age of the girls involved and whether the programme would put them at risk of sexual harassment and exploitation.
Following the backlash, the group's Instagram page has been shut down, although the Patreon campaign is still up.
Lawyers The Straits Times spoke to said that while the membership programme is not illegal if the girls are 16 years old and above, the events organised for subscribers could put the girls at risk of sexual grooming and exploitation.
This is because subscribers to the membership programme may have the impression that the girls "have consented to being there and to all acts that can potentially follow suit", said lawyer Gloria James-Civetta.
When contacted by ST, Mr Lai said the programme, which has 90 members currently, is not a social escort service.
Instead, he said that there is "nothing sleazy about it" and "there is nothing beyond partying and fun".
"It's sad that the public can only think that the only purpose of these benefits are sexualisation and objectification," said Mr Lai, 28, a Malaysian.
He said that the youngest girl who has taken part in photoshoots which he helps organise was 14 years old.
The oldest member of the 30-strong group is 24 years old.
"I think photoshoots are to bring out the beauty of people... no matter how young they are," he said. "It's very normal for girls to do photoshoots... I guess the general public just doesn't understand that it's an art form."
Nevertheless, he added that under the membership programme, the minimum age for photoshoots would be set at 16 years old, while only girls 18 and above would participate in the parties.
He added that the events under the membership programme would also be held in groups.
Following the backlash, some of the girls featured on the site are distancing themselves from the membership programme.
Some told ST that they were unaware their photos from previous photoshoots facilitated by Mr Lai would be used on the site to promote the membership programme.
One of them included a 14-year-old girl, who said she "knew nothing" about the membership programme before it was launched.
The Secondary 3 student, who declined to be named, added that she was "upset" when she found out that her bikini photos were used on the site without her permission.
The photos have since been removed after her father contacted Mr Lai and requested that they be taken down, she said.
Former SgInstaBabes member Vivian Ang, 20, told ST said she had felt pressured to agree to the use of her photos on Patreon because the other girls had agreed to it. She added that she "wasn't aware about how (her) photos will be shared" with those who sign up for the membership.
The photos, which featured Ms Ang and three other girls in lingerie, were promised to subscribers who pledged at least $10 a month under the membership programme.
They were taken in July during a photoshoot faciliated by Mr Lai for a clothing brand so that the promotional photos could be posted on her personal Instagram account, in return for clothes and $80 cash, said Ms Ang.
"I was actually very taken aback (when I found out), but at that point in time, I felt like I couldn't do anything about it," said the Singapore Polytechnic graduate who is currently taking a gap year.
She added that she was not aware beforehand of the promises of private parties under the membership programme.
"I think it's ridiculous. I wouldn't be comfortable doing it and I don't think any of the girls would be," she added.
Ms Ang said that she quit SgInstaBabes on Monday, after the controversy began.
The photos of her from the lingerie photoshoot have also since been taken down from the Patreon site.
When asked if he would be continuing with the membership programme, Mr Lai said he has yet to decide.
However, he said that he would no longer be managing SgInstaBabes.