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Need a mate? In Singapore, ask the government

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 2002



SINGAPORE

Karen Ralls-Tan remembers a time when her dating prospects were bleak.

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"It was just hard to meet people," says the 31-year-old civil servant. "When I went out with my friends, we didn't meet that many men."

Her solution – turning to Singapore's largest dating service – was hardly odd for a busy young professional. Except for one thing: The same organization also happens to be the world's only government-run dating service.

Singapore's Social Development Unit (SDU) and programs like it have helped earn this tiny nation a reputation as the ultimate nanny state. Whether the evils of a local slang "Singlish" or the need to flush toilets after use, no social issue is too big or too small for government intervention.

"People actually think that the state knows best,'' says David Jones, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

According to the government, alarm over a low birthrate prompted the creation of the SDU in 1984.

But to many Singaporeans, the SDU's focus on "educated" singles is nothing short of social engineering: an effort to preserve the current racial balance between the city's Chinese majority and the Malays, who tend to be less educated.

The SDU provides subsidized mixers, trips, and computer matchmaking services to college-educated Singaporeans. It also runs seminars and campaigns on "marriage awareness."

The SDU's most recent innovation, however, is "speed dating," a year-old program that challenges singles to get to know each other in seven minutes or less – and, hopefully, exchange phone numbers.

With 25,000 current members, the SDU has had its share of success. About 3,600 members of the program married last year, Since its inception, the SDU says 50,000 Singaporeans have been married through its offices.

"The government isn't holding guns to people's heads – it recognizes that marriage is a deeply personal choice,'' says Pamela Pung, an SDU spokeswoman. "This is just a way of widening the circle of opportunities."

Ms. Ralls-Tan credits the SDU with helping her find her husband.

Four years after signing up for its computerized matchmaking service, a marriage adviser called her with "the perfect guy." They were married in 2000 and now have a 6-month-old girl.

"Without the SDU, we never would have met,'' says Ralls-Tan, laughing. "We're looking forward to more children. We'll have at least three."

Ethnicity is a sensitive topic

Currently, the average Singapore woman has 1.6 children – 2.1 is the rate demographers think Singapore needs to maintain its population without immigration.

But if the imbalance between taxpayers and retirees continues to grow, the government worries that the welfare system will be strained to the breaking point. On the other hand, the government fears that relying on immigration to close the gap will dilute a sense of nationalism in a city-state dwarfed by neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia.

The problem is often stated in terms of national security: Fewer marriages "impede efforts at nationbuilding and may even threaten the country's survival," says one SDU brochure.

Many Singaporeans, though, believe that the SDU's creation was prompted less by the overall drop in the birthrate than the relatively higher birthrate among the country's poorer Malay minority.

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