Singapore searches for romance as birth rate falls

February 13, 2004

FRAGRANCES designed to boost fertility, rock climbing for couples, and a love boat river raft race advertised to "fan the flames of romance" from state-sponsored match-making to a "lover's challenge" foot race, Singapore is approaching Valentine's Day on Saturday, Feb 14, with unprecedented ardour this year, transforming the event into a year-long campaign to arrest the sliding birth rate.

Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set the mood last week, holding a traditional match-making event in front of thousands.

Standing on a wide red stage festooned with gold ribbons and yellow lights, a group of 10 women handpicked by Lee and his wife tossed red silk balls known as "xiu-qiu" to a pack of men, also selected by the Lees, in the hope of successful couplings.

"We are trying all ways," said Lee, son of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, citing government incentives to revitalise Singapore's libido and encourage families to make more babies.

In 1990, Singaporean women, on average, gave birth to 1.87 babies in a lifetime. That fell to 1.42 by 2001 and to 1.37 in 2002 - far below the 2.1 rate needed for a population to replace itself. Last year saw another drop to a record low.


As childless couples become more common - their proportion tripling since 1980 to six percent of the population - the latest answer is to make Valentine's Day every day.

A state-run "Romancing Singapore" campaign has a full-year calendar of events and gimmicks designed to revive the love life of a country ranked last for two straight years in a global survey of most sexually active nations by condom-maker Durex.

Couples can build makeshift rafts from bamboo or rubber tyres in a "Love Boat" river race or, holding hands, run up a 43-storey office tower in a "Lovers' Challenge."

Karaoke, drive-in movies, hotel discounts and "love meals" at restaurants are also part of the campaign, as are Singapore-made fragrances, a musk for men and a floral one for women, bottled and given away as "Romancing Singapore eau de parfum."

"Love is all around, all year round" reads an events program. A web site - offers tips on dating such as this for the "intellectual artsy man": "Discuss music, art and books with him to feed his creative juices or give him limited edition DVDs or collector series graphic novels, which he'll definitely appreciate."

Many Singaporeans, accustomed to the government's heavy hand in social engineering, welcome the new emphasis on romance.

Some question whether the strait-laced censors who routinely snip nudity from commercial movies, ban Playboy magazine and have kept the US hit TV series Sex and the City off air, should shoulder some of the blame.

"I think Romancing Singapore is good but if they want us to be on a par with other major countries they should let us watch Sex and the City or read magazines like Cosmopolitan," said 28-year-old marketing executive Tan Min Yee.

Cosmopolitan was famously banned in 1982 for allegedly promoting promiscuous values among women. Censors lifted the ban in September but the magazine has yet to go on sale.

Others explain the lack of babies by citing stress over the flagging economy. A National University of Singapore survey showed this was one reason why Singaporeans below the age of 40 had sex six times a month, far lower than many other societies.

"Sex is still taboo in the Singapore government, and that could rub off a bit," said Zap Chan, a 39-year-old hair stylist who is divorced with no children. "But I think the reason why a lot of people have stopped making babies is fear about the economy and jobs and the cost of raising children."

Many remember a "two is enough" government campaign nearly three decades ago to curb sizes of families.

"For some people that was drilled in very, very deep. It becomes hard to go beyond that even now," he said."