February 12, 2003
All aboard the 'Love Boat'
Singapore's birth rate falls to a new low in 2002
THE Singapore government, anxious to remedy a worsening baby shortage, has launched a fresh campaign to encourage people to fall in love, get married and start families.
The month-long "Romancing Singapore" campaign run by government agencies and private business is timed to coincide with Valentine's Day celebrations. It features dances, concerts, drive-in movies and other activities aimed at putting people "in the right mood for love".
In a tightly regulated city-state known for its "social engineering" programmes, romance is but one of the aspects of daily life in which the government feels an obligation to show people how to do things.
Dr Wei Siang Yu, a self-styled "sex guru" who provides fertility advice to childless couples, said Singaporeans find it difficult to show their inner feelings because society is too competitive and the population density so high.
"You're not supposed to be soft. Everything is supposed to be regimented," he told AFP. "Family ties are very strong and most young people move out only when they get married. So how am I going to have sex? How am I going to bring a girl home?"
The government has been playing matchmaker since 1984 when growing numbers of single professionals and increasingly smaller family units prompted the establishment of a dating agency called the Social Development Unit (SDU).
The SDU matches Singaporeans with university degrees who have little time -- or simply don't know how -- to find a romantic partner. Another agency, the Social Development Service (SDS), caters to singles with no tertiary education.
In April 2001, the government launched a programme encouraging couples to have two or more children by offering a "baby bonus" package of financial and educational incentives.
Despite these initiatives, the fertility level has fallen below the rate needed for the natural replacement of the population, making Singapore increasingly dependent on foreign labour and raising the spectre of a "graying" population and higher social welfare costs.
The number of births in Singapore fell to a 14-year low of 40,800 in 2002. Couples blamed the prolonged economic slump in the city-state, including a severe recession in 2001, for the slide.
Singles in Singapore however, are not relying on the government alone. They sign up with online dating websites like www.singaporecupid.com.
Sharmila Su, a 24-year-old businesswoman, received nearly 5000 hits on her webpage of biographical data after five months with SingaporeCupid.
She finally withdrew after being stalked by three men after she was featured in a local paper as part of a growing trend of singles who go online to meet partners.
Singles who prefer the conventional face-to-face dates on the other hand, have an eight-page dating guide titled, "When Boy Meets Girl! The Chemistry Guide" which was produced by the SDU last year.
"Smiling is a great way to break the ice but dont grin like a Cheshire cat the whole time," it says.
"A date is very similar to a job interview. You have to sell yourself," it continues. "People are drawn to good listeners. But don't just sit there passively, engage whomever you are with," it says.
To put these guides into practice, singles attend activities planned by Premier Club, which has been organising dining, travelling and exercise sessions for the SDU's 20,000 members since April 2001.
The club organised a pre-Valentines Day lunch at a defunct lighthouse transformed into a restaurant.
Participants were served stylish but simple dishes so as not to distract them from their dates, an article in the clubs quarterly magazine said.
The club has also put together events like "Speed Dating" and "Blind Dates" which provide singles with the opportunity to meet new people who share their predicament.
In speed dating, couples have seven minutes to get to know each other before they move on to the next person. So far Premier has held 130 sessions and about three out of four singles leave with at least one match every meeting.
A participant in her early 30s dated three men she met through the game and gave it the thumbs up for eliminating the usual preliminaries.
"Some of these first impressions that I had were quite accurate," she said.
She has also participated in "Zodiac Dates" in which singles with compatible horoscopes interact over tea, and joined a group trip to Malaysia, but she is still looking out for a permanent partner.
"I havent found Mr Right yet," she admitted.