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Need a mate? In Singapore, ask the government

(Page 2 of 2)

The current racial balance – about 75 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay – is important to the government.

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Singapore's Chinese majority is one reason the state split from its confederation with Malaysia in 1965, following race riots. Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's founding father and architect of its social policies during his 20 years as prime minister, is closely identified with policies to promote Chinese culture.

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.

"If we continue to reproduce ourselves in this lopsided way we will be unable to maintain our present standards,'' Mr. Lee said in his national day speech in 1984, the year the SDU was created.

Later, in a 1990 speech, Lee said that the preference of educated men for less educated women was a national dilemma because it meant "50 percent of graduate girls will either marry down, marry foreigners, or stay unhappy."

As the economy has grown and educational and career opportunities have opened to women, many men have been taken aback by a new breed of independently wealthy and assertive women, the government says.

The response for many educated Singaporean men, officials say, was to seek out less educated brides at home, or find them in China, hoping that they will accept traditional gender roles.

"A lot of our single women today have their own jobs, their own careers, and they are demanding more," says the SDU's Ms. Pung. "That doesn't mean they should be doomed to being single."

One ethnic Malay graduate, who asked that his name not be used, sees it differently. "This is about social engineering, about maintaining the oligarchy.''

He says the SDU makes an implied judgment that only university-educated people should marry university-educated people, which reinforces barriers of race and class. In 1985, the government created a dating service for nongraduates, called the Social Development Service, partially in response to claims of discrimination.

An overprotective parent?

Over at Liquid, a neon-lit bar not far from the business district, the young singles seem less concerned about allegations of eugenics than exasperated by government paternalism.

Derisive laughter rises from the young hipsters reclining on a red velvet sofa when the unit is mentioned. "SDU – Single, Desperate and Ugly,'' says a thirty-something woman in a miniskirt and an open-backed shirt.

"Those guys are geeks – the government doesn't think we can do better on our own,'' says another young woman. "You kind of get fed up sometimes with all the hand-holding. We're grown-ups. And the government is not our parent."

As with an overprotective parent, many young people think the government is out of step with the times. It is easy to see why: The SDU's publications frequently read like advice for the lovelorn written by a bureaucrat.

For example, the SDU published a new brochure last month, called "The Chemistry Guide: When Boy Meets Girl,'' focusing on the overworked, the shy, and the "cosmetically challenged." The guide reminds hopeful singles that "Skin-care products are must-have investments" and "There's no bigger turnoff than a foul mouth, reeking with leftovers from lunch!"