Singaporeans told: Go forth and multiply

  Asia Times
February 22, 2003

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Singapore in the mood for love as baby shortage worsens

INGAPORE'S government is busy courting people to take romance seriously in order to the curb its low birth rate, but a good number of people are saying they wish the government would leave their individual lives alone.

This latest campaign, launched on Valentine's Day and called "Romancing Singapore", is designed to encourage unmarried Singaporeans to "mate and multiply".

The government-sponsored campaign for the whole of February - the latest in a series of social engineering drives to get its citizens behind government-set goals over the last two decades - includes dances, cruises, concerts, museum visits, romancing tips and other special events for couples.

Private sponsors are offering discounted candlelit dinners, spa packages and weekend getaways for couples.

"In this day and age, it is so easy for us to get totally immersed in our fast-paced lifestyles and neglect our relationships," says the festival's official website. "We hope to provide a climate for everyone to celebrate and cherish relationships."

The demographic trends in this Southeast Asian country of 4 million people stem from Singapore's success: over just a generation, the republic has transformed itself from a Third World to a First World economy, with lower birth rates and increasing numbers of professional men and women choosing to marry later - if at all.

Recent surveys show that Singapore's birth rate fell to a 14-year low of 40,800 births last year. Also, while marriages are down 2 percent from the averages of the 1980s and 1990s, the proportion of single people above 35 years has jumped from 18.7 percent to 30.3 percent in the last decade.

"I'm sick of the rosy picture painted of 'coupledom' and family life," said Ninart Lui, a law student at the National University of Singapore. "I suggest along with candlelit dinners under starry nights, the government also conduct classes telling families how to cope with prenatal depression and the benefits of finding the right assessment books or tutors" for children.

Surveys have found that many young women are put off from raising families because of the highly competitive education system here and the stress it imposes on the mother. This was the focus of a Singaporean film last year called I No Stupid, which became the biggest-ever box-office hit in the country.

But men are equally worried about the stress of raising a family in Singapore's competitive and high-cost environment. Many feel that this is not the correct time to ask people to produce more children.

"Lot of people are unsure of their future in the current climate with many losing their jobs. The government should provide incentives to the people if they want us to get married and raise children," said Paul Ramani, a polytechnic lecturer in his early 40s.

In an Internet survey done by the English-language Straits Times this month, seven out of 10 people said that the government must provide free medical and educational services for children if they are to be encouraged to have children. This, they said, is more important than more money or baby bonuses.

In its urge to reach First World standards, beginning in the early 1980s, Singaporeans were encouraged to get a tertiary education and develop professional careers. This, they have done in droves, especially women.

Today, many have now set aside marriage and raising a family, in order to have careers.

Recently, the Ministry of Community Development and Sports found in a survey of 1481 respondents that single women in their 30s are less interested in marriage than their male counterparts.

"The crux of the issue is that the psyche of women has changed," said Tan-Huang Shuo Mei, the director of the government matchmaking agency Social Development Unit (SDU).

She argues that the dating game has become more complex because Singaporean women no longer just want a good provider, while the men are still looking for a traditional wife and a mother.

Likewise, many young Singaporeans are simply too busy working and have no time to socialize, leading to the mushrooming of matchmaking agencies in recent years. The membership of the Social Development Unit, for instance, has grown to more than 20,000 people.

Singapore's economic progress, despite the current hard times, has also changed the priorities of many people. Young Singaporeans have developed a taste for foreign travel as a result of higher income levels, another reason why young people do not want to raise a family.

"I'd have to make sacrifices in terms of my freedom. We can't just pack up and go for a holiday when we feel like it, not till the children get older," said Jacqueline Chua, a 28-year-old married teacher with no children. "Even then, we can't go out in the evening because we'd have to help the children with schoolwork."

Reflecting on the results of the Straits Times Internet survey, reader David Tan Kok Kheng wrote in a letter to the newspaper: "Young couples are just giving excuses for not having babies. Many are not willing to give up their freedom and others their social life."

Government officials and sociologists also see other demographic implications for Singaporeans' increasing hesitance to have families.

In a country that lacks natural resources and depends almost entirely on its human resources for national income, 1 million of its 4 million population today are foreign workers.

This dependence on foreigners worries even the architect of modern Singapore, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has consistently warned in recent years that the country's future prosperity is at stake unless Singaporeans produce more children.

Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan explains that as Singapore's neighboring economies recover, the country's pool of foreign workers could dry up. "What will happen then?" she asked. "Not enough workers, lower productivity and the economy suffers ... not a happy thought."