April 26, 2006
By Sara Webb
WHEN Clara Chng graduated from university, the Singapore government's matchmaking agency offered her a two-year free trial to find a husband.
Young, well-educated, and ethnic Chinese, Chng was a prime candidate for the Orwellian-sounding Social Development Unit, or SDU, set up in 1984 to help graduates find suitable spouses and reverse an alarming slump in city-state's fertility rate.
"I didn't meet anyone through work, and you never know if someone is married or single, and if he is hiding something from you," said Chng, 37. "But at SDU, the men are serious, they are not just fishing around."
Even so, she found the experience "stressful". As she approached 30, her counsellor urged her to hurry up because her chances of finding a husband would soon fade.
Some might find such government involvement in their marital prospects intrusive, but Singapore's ruling People's Action Party has often used financial incentives and other methods to influence its citizens' behaviour -- from who they marry and when, to how many children they have, and where they live.
For example, about 84 percent of Singaporeans live in apartments built by the government's public housing agency, which sells its properties according to strict race quotas.
The quotas --reflecting the overall population mix of 76 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 9 percent Indian, and 1 percent Eurasian -- are meant to prevent ghettos.
It was only recently that the agency relaxed its rules, in the face of a housing glut and complaints from singles, to allow unmarried Singaporeans to buy subsidised public housing.
But it's the ruling PAP's policies on marriage and babies, with their whiff of eugenics, that have proved most controversial.
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a firm believer in the inheritance of intelligence, sparked a furore in the early 1980s when he urged women graduates to marry graduate men and have more babies to boost Singapore's talent pool.
"Our brightest women were not marrying and would not be represented in the next generation. The implications were grave," Lee said in his memoirs.
With just 4.4 million people, Singapore cannot afford to see its population shrink as that could affect its labour market and talent pool, as well as the more sensitive issue of racial mix.
Like many developed countries, Singapore saw its birth rate decline as contraception and abortion became widely available, as more women entered the workforce, and following the success of an earlier PAP campaign that urged parents, particularly those with low incomes, to "Stop at Two".
The fertility rate, which was as high as six in the late 1950s, fell to 1.83 in 1990, and as low as 1.24 in 2004.
But broken down by race, the figures show the Chinese have the lowest fertility rate, at 1.07, while the Malays have the highest, at 2.1 percent -- implying that the proportion of Chinese and Malay could change.
Lee Kuan Yew's solution in the 1980s was to set up the SDU, and give graduate women with three children priority in securing places at the top nursery schools, an advantage in helping children get ahead at school, university and in the workplace.
BREEDING FOR SINGAPORE
The policies proved extremely unpopular. Women resented being urged to "breed" for Singapore, while the incentives were seen as favouring the majority Chinese -- who tended to be better educated with fewer children -- and discriminating against Malays, who had larger families and less educated women.
Lee was forced to scrap the priority schooling offer but the SDU -- which many Singaporeans jokingly say stands for "Single, Desperate, and Ugly," -- became a mainstay of government efforts to encourage graduates to marry and start a family.
Once famous for offering its graduates Club Med-style "love cruises", the SDU has turned to speed-dating and online services including an agony aunt called Dr Love ("Dear Dr Love, how do I know if a guy is interested in me ... Confused.).
Its website, www.lovebyte.org.sg, showcases bachelors and their interests with a personality of the week. "I am optimistic, outgoing and love sports ... I don't really like clubbing", said a recent hopeful.
"Meeting people and getting to know them takes time. This is like shopping for a partner," said Arthur Lim, who runs a hairdressing salon. One of 10 siblings, he is in no rush to have children.
"It's up to you how many children you choose to have."
Alarmed by the still plunging fertility rate, the PAP has increased its financial incentives to encourage bigger families, amounting to cash gifts of S$3000 (US$1889) for the first child and savings of up to S$18,000 each for the third and fourth child.
But even with an arsenal of rewards -- ranging from generous tax rebates, grants for each child, maid levy cuts, childcare benefits, as well as flexi-time and other maternity perks in the civil service -- getting people to breed on request isn't easy.
The city-state ranked 40th out of 41 countries in a survey on how frequently people have sex, according to the Durex Global Sex Survey published last December.
Chng, who met her husband Vincent Chien through the SDU and now has two children, says although money is an issue, it's not the only consideration.
"To me, that amount is not enough to raise a third kid. You already have to save a lot for their education, and if you want them to excel, there are extra costs," she said.
"Most of us work long hours. Those who go for a third or fourth
must really love children."