Singapore succeeds at managing everything - except dating
By Seth Mydans Published: April 29, 2008
SINGAPORE: It was like a college mixer, a classroom full of young men and women seeking a recipe for romance.
They had assembled for the first class of "Love Relations for Life: A Journey of Romance, Love and Sexuality."
There was giggling and banter among the students, but that was all part of the course material as their teacher, Suki Tong, led them into the basics of dating, falling in love and staying together.
The course, which is in its second year at two polytechnic institutes, is the latest of many, mostly futile, campaigns by the government to get its citizens to mate and multiply. Its popularity last year has led to talk of expansion through the higher education system.
"We want to tell students: Don't wait until you have built up your career," Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, minister of state for community development, youth and sports, said at a news conference last month. "Sometimes, it is too late, especially for girls."
The courses are an extension of government matchmaking programs that try to address the twin challenges embodied in a falling birthrate: Too few people are having babies and too few of those who are belong to what Singapore considers the genetically desirable educated elite.
For 25 years, the mating rituals organized by the government - tea dances, wine tasting, cooking classes, cruises, screenings of romantic movies - have been among the country's least-successful social engineering programs.
Last year Singapore's fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.24 children per woman of childbearing age, one of the lowest in the world and the 28th year in a row it has stayed below the rate of 2.5 children needed to maintain the population.
But even a replacement-level rate would not be enough for today's planners. The government recently announced that it was aiming to increase the population by 40 percent over the next half century, to 6.5 million from the current 4.5 million.
"Teaching our youth in school how to fall in love" is a good solution, wrote Andy Ho, a senior writer at The Straits Times, a government-friendly newspaper that does its best to help out in Singapore's many campaigns.
In 1991, for example, when the government began offering cash bonuses to couples with more than two children, the newspaper printed tips for having sex in the back seat of a car, including directions to some of the "darkest, most secluded and most romantic spots" for parking.
It suggested covering the windows with newspapers for privacy.
Singapore is a topiary nation, constantly trimming and pruning itself into shapes that it believes improve on nature.
As the modern world weakens traditional family ties, for example, families are given financial incentives to care for their elderly parents - or taken to court for neglecting them.
Singapore is known for its campaigns to get residents to be polite, to smile, to be tidy, to speak proper English and not to chew gum.
In 1984, the country's master planner, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, declared that too few of the country's most eligible women - the ones with college degrees - were marrying and having children.
He set up the Social Development Unit to address the problem and since then the government has been Singapore's principal matchmaker.
In addition to its tea dances and moonlight cruises, the agency also acts as a lonely hearts adviser, with an online counselor named Dr. Love and a menu of boy-meets-girl suggestions on its Web site, www.lovebyte.org.sg.
"Guys, girls notice everything!" the Web site offers in one of its dating tips. "Comb your hair differently and they notice. Change your watch and they notice! Skipped your morning shower and sprayed on deodorant to cover the smell - they notice! What does this mean? Well, bathe regularly, change something about yourself, be observant and compliment the lady."
Lee himself acknowledged how silly some of this may seem.
"Never mind the hullabaloo in the press - all the foreign correspondents writing that a crackpot government is trying to interfere in people's lives," he said when he inaugurated the Social Development Unit.
"If we continue to reproduce ourselves in this lopsided way we will be unable to maintain our present standards," he said.
In other words, said Annie Chan, director of a matchmaking agency, "Our government wants smart ladies to meet smart guys to get smart children."
But in Singapore it is impossible to get very far from thoughts of money and the workplace. These guys may have other things on their minds besides romance and babies.
"Some people say if you're a smart guy you should marry a smart woman who can help you with your finances and career," said Chan, whose agency is called Club2040 and who has worked under contract for the Social Development Unit.
Singaporeans quite seriously describe their society as being driven by a local concept called "kiasu," a desire not so much to get ahead as, rather, not to lose out. That concept might be applied, for example, to a person who pushes ahead of everybody else to get into an elevator.
This single-mindedness, in life as in elevators, seems to leave little room for social graces or for romance or procreation. "The E.Q. here can be appalling," said Chan, referring to an "emotional quotient" of social skills.
But even while working on the solution, Chan seems to be part of the problem. She is 39 and has been married for four years, but said she does not have the time or energy to have children.
"Me and my husband are both busy now running our own businesses," she said. "When he's back home he's tired out, and I bring home work to do. At the end of the day, business does interfere."
It is a lot to ask of a college course to break attitudes like this. Three 20-year-old graduates from last year's inaugural course at Singapore Polytechnic still seemed imbued more with "kiasu" than romance.
Despite everything their teachers had told them about multitasking work and love, none was in a relationship. And nothing they had heard in class seemed to have dented their stereotypes about the opposite sex.
"I'm not open to relationships in school," said Wei Shan Koh, a former student who works as a teacher's aide. "Boys in school are not my cup of tea. They are male chauvinist pigs. They're annoying and childish. And they won't give in to you. They're just not mature."
Another former student, Tian Xi Tang, was quick to respond.
"I think girls' ideas are a bit childish, or you might say girlie," said Tian, who hopes to become an engineer. "It's a matter of pride. Guys are more outspoken. We don't like a girl to be more outspoken."
Kamal Prakash, who hopes to be a lecturer in mathematics, gave voice to what appears to be the common theme here, both among young people and their elders.
"I am not interested now in love relations because I want to continue my studies," he said. "If I concentrate on love relations, I won't be able to concentrate on my studies."