Singapore's Population Fairy Tale

As part of its never-ending effort to convince, cajole, command or beg Singaporeans to get married and have children, the country's National Family Council has launched Project Superglue, a grant scheme aimed at Singaporeans aged 13 to 31, inviting them to come up with innovative ideas to promote a "Family First mindset."

First up: The Singaporean Fairytale, a six-month campaign by four final-year students from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The students are adding a pro-family spin to 15 well-known fairy tales such as Three Little Pigs and Rapunzel, adding helpful tips on fertility and family living.

Singaporean officials for more than two decades have been searching for ways to increase the country's birthrate, an abrupt policy turnaround from the 1980s and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's "stop at two" campaign to discourage loyal citizens from having babies. The government may have believed that its social engineering programs were responsible for cutting the birthrate, but in all likelihood it probably had more to do with the pressures of urbanization.

Singapore's total fertility rate - the number of live births per woman of child-bearing age  has fallen to 1.2, among the lowest in the world. The government hopes to push that up to 1.4 although past efforts haven't worked. Falling birthrates largely reflect cultural patterns and urbanization, neither of which are really susceptible to the government urging couples to get down to it.

In the 1980s, for instance, the government's Social Development Unit, or SDU, sponsored get-to-know-you weekend cruises up the Malaysian coast for singles. Unfortunately Singaporeans immediately hooted that SDU stood for "Single, Desperate and Ugly." The idea wasn't a success.

The government has instead sought to take care of its population problems through massive immigration. As many as 50,000 new residents are welcomed into the island republic each year, with the government seeking to retain the original population mix of about 75 percent Chinese. That has led to serious strains in the resident population, many of whom resent the newcomers, who are blamed for taking jobs away from Singaporeans, raising the cost of living and disturbing the social order.

While undoubtedly well-intentioned, critics say both Project Superglue and The Singaporean Fairytale miss the mark and are yet another example of the government - and now college students  missing the point.

It is difficult to make couples want to have children. Demographers have long known that no one is going to have a baby just as a favor to their country. All that can be done is to remove the obstacles in the way of those who do, and respect the decision of those who don't.

Overcrowding, the high cost of housing and the frenetic pace of Singapore all conspire to keep people out of the sack and in the office. With 7,798 people per square kilometer, Singapore is the third most densely populated society on the planet after Macau and Monaco despite government attempts to expand the territory by importing sand from Indonesia and elsewhere.

The government is not going to be able to increase the birth rate if it refuses to look at the whole situation.Young Singaporean couples and families are constantly caught in a state of anxiety. Costs are rising as the island gets more and more crowded (and, looking at the recently passed Population White Paper, is set to get more crowded still).

There are now 50-year mortgages to help families pay for their astronomically priced flats, and you can pretty much forget about owning a car when the bidding for a Certificate of Entitlement hits a new high. Although inflation continues to increase, salaries and wages have not. The search for work is incredibly competitive, and there's a lack of security even after you find employment. There are issues related to unfair dismissals of pregnant women, which obviously makes one think twice about having a baby.

These are important factors that need to be addressed. But even then there is no guarantee that every young Singaporean will settle down and start a family. This is because there are just some people who don't want to have children. And these people are unlikely to change their minds simply because of a cunningly-inserted fertility tip in a fairytale.

That said, I do want to see how information on fertility has been inserted into the Three Little Pigs.

(Kirstin Han blogs regularly for Asian Correspondent. A version of this article appeared on that site.)