Seeking the Stork in Singapore

Increasingly worried that native Singaporeans could become extinct, the government has embarked on yet another phase of its decades-long crusade to tempt its recalcitrant citizens into making more babies.

Despite a slew of cash incentives and tax rebates, more paid leave for parents and protection for pregnant mothers, Singapore’s fertile couples are still stubbornly refusing to add to the population. That caused Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to devote a large segment of his annual National Day Rally speech on August 17 to announce another batch of programs to boost fertility.

“I think that we have to take a practical approach to this,” the prime minister said. “We’ll do more to help singles get married to the extent that we can. We have the SDU, we have the SDS – Social Development Unit, Social Development Service…I think we shouldn’t be so rigid. We should merge the two. Have one, more critical mass, more activities and hopefully more pairing ups, more weddings and more children.”

Now the government is offering to extend maternity leave from 12 weeks to 16, with an additional six days of paid parenting leave. A first-time “baby bonus” for new parents will be sweetened by an as-yet undetermined amount.

But Singapore’s young couples seem to view the government’s procreative prod with a jaundiced eye. The SDU was set up in 1984 to play Big Brother or Big Nanny by softly nudging Singaporeans towards romance, sex and babies. It famously began operating “Love Boat” cruises on weekends to put bashful males and females together in the 1980s.

This Valentine's Day, lovers who forked out US$140 got to dine at the Singapore Flyer, the world's tallest observation wheel, in an event billed as "Love in a Capsule." The Romancing Singapore campaign was launched in 2002 and has been managed by the private sector since 2005. In 2006 it launched the S$1 million (US$705,000) Partner Connection Fund to support dating agencies.

The island republic’s wags, unimpressed, said SDU stood for “Single, Desperate and Ugly.” The SDU also operates a website, Lovebyte (“A world of possibilities. Just a click away.”), that offers a mobile phone text message matchmaking service, as well as brochures advising that skin products are good investments and that bad breath turns people off. It offers speed dating.

It remains to be seen whether more will bite. And, the prime minister said in his address, maybe it’s because people don’t know how to meet prospective partners.

Sometimes, he said, “most dating agencies have more women than men, 60-40. That’s an encouragement for the men to sign up. But unfortunately, sometimes their social graces are not up to scratch. So the dating agency told me another story. They arranged for a guy to meet a date and the setting was a romantic dinner in a nice restaurant. The guy turned up in slippers. So he counseled the guy. The guy says, ‘that is me, I work in slippers, I walk in slippers, I come in slippers.’ So they talked to him, finally persuaded him to buy a pair of shoes, keep the shoes in his car. So before getting down at the date, he puts on his shoes, he meets, he goes for the date. And it worked.”

But not well enough. The CIA World Factbook ranks Singapore 209th of 222 countries for fertility, below Taiwan but above Hong Kong and Japan. Population growth is further marred by an increasing death rate.

Fretted the Straits Times, the daily newspaper that faithfully delivers up the government message: "The total fertility rate, that is the number of babies per married woman, has plunged below the replacement rate of 2.1 since 1975. The rate last year was 1.29, putting Singapore in the company of countries like Japan and Korea which also have dangerously low rates."

In the 1960s, having six children was common. But in the 1970s, the government grew concerned that the rapidly expanding population might strain social services like healthcare and cause widespread unemployment. So it launched its highly successful "Stop At Two" policy. Unfortunately, Singaporeans appeared to have stopped altogether. Even so, it remains the world’s second-most densely populated country after Monaco.

Some charge that there is a darker side to the SDU, that its policies are responses to the fear that a growing Malay population will overtake a shrinking Chinese one. An article in The Christian Science Monitor suggested that "to critics, the focus on 'educated' men and women today is merely a politically correct way of targeting the ethnic Chinese. In fact, in the early days of the SDU, the divergence in birth rates across racial and socioeconomic classes was a stated reason for taking action."

Ethnic Chinese constitute about 77 percent of the 4.6million population while Malays comprise 14 percent. Malays have the highest fertility rate at 2.1 percent – right at the replacement rate – but the Chinese have the lowest, at 1.07 percent. The island republic has about 1 million foreigners. Although most are domestic helpers and construction workers from India, the Philippines and Thailand, there are another 110,000-odd highly-educated expatriate professionals from across the world, particularly India and China as well as Europe and the US, Canada and Australia – many of them so-called “astronauts” – Singaporeans who migrated, got citizenship and came back. Partly because of immigration, the proportion of Indian citizens and permanent residents rose from 6.4% in 1980 to 9.0% in 2007.

In his address, however, the prime minister pointed out that the government birth-promotion agencies “are working on this, they’re doing a very good job. Now they’re catering to different markets, graduates, non-graduates. SDU graduates, SDS non-graduates.”