A Straits Times story on a Vietnamese bride service in Singapore has drawn criticism from a Vietnamese diplomat and international journalists for treating the issue with indifference and even encouraging the practice.
An October 24 Straits Times article with the headline "Vietnam brides: Agency slashes fees" reported that the Vietnam Brides International Matchmaker company was charging half-price for Singaporean men seeking Vietnamese spouses, attributing the discount to the global financial crisis.
According to the story, Mark Lin of Vietnam Brides International Matchmaker was charging SG$4,000 to fix up potential Singaporean husbands with potential Vietnamese brides.
Three Vietnamese women had been hanging around at the agency for weeks waiting for husbands, the article said. "Business has never been so bad - not even during the SARS outbreak in 2003," the article quoted Lin as saying.
Many readers say that by not criticizing the practice of overseas matchmaking, which many see as akin to human trafficking, the article had in fact condoned it.
Many have said that by using the price cut as the headline, the article was serving as advertising for the business.
A journalist from a leading international news agency recently wrote to Thanh Nien: "It's horrible to see them [Vietnamese would-be brides] "˜discounted' like they are a sack of rice or a pair of shoes."
"Unfortunately, money talks loudly and overrides social and moral considerations. Since I really love the Vietnamese people, it hurt me to see the article," the journalist said.
"I felt bad for the women they featured. I guess there must be mixed feelings in Vietnam about this issue, on one hand, I would like to think that some of the ladies find love and a better life in Singapore, but I know Vietnamese are a very proud culture (and have many good reasons to be proud)."
Speaking with a Thanh Nien correspondent on a recent Singapore trip, former deputy head of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Ton Nu Thi Ninh said she was stunned to see such a respected newspaper running a very insensitive story on a very sensitive topic.
Ninh said that even though transnational marriage brokerage services between Singaporean men and foreign women were legal in Singapore, she said the practice "sold" women into marriage.
In Vietnam, individuals and organizations are forbidden to carry out marriage brokerages.
Though only non-profit women's associations can establish marriage support centers and marriage consultation services, the Vietnamese Ministry of Justice has recommended that the government legalize marriage brokering so central authorities could oversee and control the matchmaking.
Ninh said the article had simply cashed in on gullible women, especially the three mentioned in the article, who were all pictured without their faces blurred.
Such articles in Vietnam always blur the women's faces.
The Straits Times' reporter Theresa Tan, who wrote the article, said in an email to Thanh Nien that she did indeed consider the fact that Singaporean men pay a marriage broker to find Vietnamese brides a social problem.
"That's why we report on such issues," she said.
She said the paper was under no obligation to change the names or blur the faces of the girls involved as they had all agreed to the article.
The Vietnamese government is now considering proposals to clamp down on illegal marriage brokering after several high-profile cases this year and last.
Authorities are also considering revising Vietnam's laws on marrying foreigners.
The Straits Times is a Singapore-based daily newspaper.
Reported by Thuc Minh