Heart candy. Photo: Creative Commons, Barb Steinacker.

Last year, I received two wedding invitations from Malaysian couples who met through online dating. Maybe it is because I live in the reel world of romcoms where people meet through delightful and unlikely circumstances, but until then, I did not realise that Malaysians are so into online dating.

But we are, apparently. If you’re so inclined, there are several options for online dating in Malaysia, depending on how you want to approach it: from huge websites like OKCupid and Match.com to those which are targeted at Asian markets like Asian Dating and Date in Asia. There’s even a MalaysianCupid.

For those on the move, there are also apps like Blendr and Grindr which combine your phone’s GPS location with social networking. This way, you can log on and search for other users in the vicinity to see if you have common interest or well, needs. The latest of these is Tinder, an app where you can quickly decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to someone based on their photos and not much else.

Click me, baby, one more time

I was curious enough to give online dating a try. But I was very uncomfortable about using any application that revealed my location. So I decided that OkCupid was my best bet. The site uses a complex algorithm to assign a match percentage for two people based on how they answer questions regarding lifestyle, dating, sex, family, relationship, among other criteria.

I chose a moniker inspired by a character from my favourite movie, uploaded a smiley picture of myself, answered at least 80 questions. I even mentioned that my talents include the ability to sing along to every N’Sync and Spice Girls’ song.

 

I sat back and waited for a barrage of funny, interesting, creepy and cheesy messages.  I was not disappointed.

 

Then I sat back and waited for a barrage of funny, interesting, creepy and cheesy messages.  I was not disappointed.

They ranged from lazy (“Hi!”), slightly lazy (“Hi, how are you?”), creepy (“I want to lick your luminous skin”) and sad (“I am a good man, but I cannot find love. Are you the answer to my loneliness?”). As I sieved through my messages and looked at their profiles, I found myself floundering in this new world of online dating. Should I have used my real picture? How much real information should I divulge? Is it even safe to meet up with someone?

I decided to seek out Alice for some sage advice since she is more familiar with the nuances of online dating. Alice has a very transparent approach to online dating. She uses a picture that clearly shows her face and a moniker that is very close to real name.

“I am not embarrassed about online dating, so I don’t care if my friends and family find my profile. After all, the energy and impression you channel determines the feedback you get.  Although, I find that I am particular about photos. I will only respond to people who have clear photos of themselves and not a picture of sunset or their back. I mean, if I’m putting it all out there, I want to meet someone who does the same,” she tells me.

 

“I hate half naked or suggestive photos. It’s a huge turn off because it’s narcissistic and maybe a little insecure.”

 

“I hate half naked or suggestive photos. It’s a huge turn off because it’s narcissistic and maybe a little insecure. I am attracted to people with passion for things so I like pictures of people at a concert or playing sports. It shows that they have varied interests. ”

There was some truth to Alice’s logic. As I browsed through the messages and the suggested matches from OKCupid, I found myself becoming genuinely interested in people who seemed to have a myriad of interests similar to mine – the movie buffs, travelers, music fans, photographers. These are people I could imagine having a conversation with over coffee. That’s how I found myself meeting Ashok for brunch a few days later.

Ashok recently moved to Malaysia where he works long hours on weekdays and takes photographs on weekends. Since he is new in this country, he is looking for networks and friendships more than romance, which took the pressure from being on a date. In fact, since we both work in business consulting, we could trade horror stories of demanding clients.  He told me about his adventures in finding an apartment in KL, I told him where he could find excellent Chinese food in Brickfields. We argued about who would win in a fight: zombies or vampires.

 

Scrolling through someone’s profile is the equivalent of a first date.

 

I realised that such pleasant dates could be fairly common, if people use the dating website wisely.  In online dating, people describe their lifestyle, interests and even love for obscure Icelandic music bands, so scrolling through someone’s profile is the equivalent of a first date.  You meet in real life to see if all that common interest and match percentage can translate to actual chemistry.

Still, I was skeptical about romance being a mathematical formula until I spoke to Lesly who has become a strong advocate for online dating. Lesly started using OkCupid four years ago and met his now-girlfriend through the site.

“I wanted to meet women, but was too lazy. I was also tired of meeting the same kind of women – the 9-5 corporate types who strived to be just normal or ordinary. I wanted OkCupid to do the work for me. So, I answered hundreds of questions to get more accurate result and it kind of worked. My girlfriend and I had a 90% match percentage. On our first date, we went for a hike in FRIM, so I knew she was outdoorsy at least!”

Matchmaker, matchmaker…

While sites like OkCupid and apps like Tinder give the user full control of their profiles and whom you want to meet, there are also companies like the very successful Lunch Actually and newly launched LunchDate that cater to single, busy professionals. These services involve ‘dating consultants’ who charge you a fee to do all the pre-screening and matching based on your requirements.

LunchDate specifically arranges dates for Malaysians of Indian ethnicity. According to their website, you should approach them if you’re “single and can’t seem to find that right person and age is catching up.” In other words, your well-meaning match making aunties just went digital.

 

LunchDate specifically arranges dates for Malaysians of Indian ethnicity. In other words, your well-meaning match making aunties just went digital.

 

When I went for the LunchDate’s pre sign-up interview, the manager looked at my shorts, tattooed shoulders and professional business card and gushed about how I was so modern. In fact, they knew just the candidate for me: a nice doctor from a good family who was looking to meet forward thinking women.

“We will arrange the logistics for your first meet up and only give each other your phone numbers on the day. If you guys like each other, continue to stay in touch. If not, oh well.”

I quickly decided this manner of match making was not for me. The odds of success (being limited to one, filtered racial group) seemed too low. Also, I did not like it when I lost control over who I met and how or when I communicated with them. I much preferred it when I could read the long essays people wrote about themselves, snort at some of the funny details and then agonize whether I should initiate contact.

Tinder seemed like the total opposite of LunchDate. The popular app uses your existing data from Facebook and GPS location to link you with other users. You’re required to have five to six profile pictures, age, a very short bio and nothing more. Your viewing of other users’ profiles is anonymous. If two people say “yes” to each other’s pictures, they can start messaging each other. In other words, Tinder works on the assumption that physical attraction is paramount. Every else is just noise.

I gave Tinder a cursory try. Which means, I downloaded the application and flipped through the many users, casually stamping a NOPE or YES on their pictures. However, when there was a mutual “like”, I had a problem; I had no idea how to initiate conversation since I knew close to nothing about them. I quickly abandoned Tinder for the same reason I walked out of LunchDate: I needed information about people, and the lack of it bothered me.

Despite more misses than hits, the experience of online dating has debunked my preconceived notions. I used to think of it as the last refuge of the lonely and those seeking for love. But many people have signed up as a time-effective way to look for fun dates, new friends or casual hook ups. It is far more practical than walking up to a beautiful stranger and asking them out, no matter what romcoms tell you.

With the range of options out there, digital dating has many more dimensions than before. As more and more young people use these services, the stigma is falling away.

As for me, I haven’t followed up on another date with Ashok. But for now, my OkCupid account remains active.

Names of interviewees have been changed.