Sunday, 19 September 2004
Sexing up Singapore By Michael S. Rose

Singapore’s impending population implosion is cause for alarm, but proposed solutions studiously neglect the underlying causes.

(SINGAPORE) -- “We need more babies!” That cri de coeur from Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has echoed through this spick and span financial center on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula for more than four years now. Yet the social engineers of this self-confessed nanny state have yet to realize exactly what this means. The same might be said of commentators—from both East and West—who have been observing the situation from afar.

The problem is Singapore’s sliding fertility rate, the average number of children born to each woman of child-bearing age. According to statistics for 2002, Singaporean women give birth to 1.37 babies in a lifetime, down from 1.87 in 1990. Since a replacement level of 2.1 is required to keep a country’s natural population stable, Goh Chok Tong elevated baby-making to a national priority. If the declining fertility rate continues, increasingly fewer people must support a growing elderly population, straining available resources for health care and other social services. Singapore is concerned about its fertility rate not only in terms of an impending economic crisis, but also in terms of a national security risk. In fact, Singapore recently introduced female soldiers as a way to fill a minimum number of spots in its armed forces.

As far back as the 1980’s the Singapore government has been attuned to its increasingly dire fertility stats. In 1984 it formed its Working Committee on Marriage and Procreation, an agency specifically charged with the task of stimulating fertility on the island. Its most notable achievement has been Singapore’s “baby bonus” packages: financial incentives to encourage couples to have two or more children. This is, by the way, a top-down reversal from the government’s 1970’s-era “Two is Enough” campaign designed to curb family size in the small nation.

In recent years the Committee’s work has included government-sponsored matchmaking efforts through its Social Development Unit (SDU, nicknamed by Singaporean cynics as “Single, Desperate, and Ugly”). Working in conjunction with Singapore’s Public Education Committee on Family, the SDU turned out a set of seventy recommendations designed to produce babies.

One is a yearlong jubilee called “Romancing Singapore.” Introduced last year as a month-long campaign designed to reinvigorate the love lives of Singaporeans, the government concluded that one month alone did not suffice. In fact, the festival was a smashing failure—at least when it came to producing babies. In 2003, this country of four million recorded its lowest number of births (37,633) in a quarter century. That’s down nearly 4,000 from the year before. The festival was re-inaugurated on Valentine’s Day this year and includes a calendar full of gimmicks to bring the sexes together in a family way.

Romancing Singapore has spawned state-sponsored matchmaking events such as rock climbing for couples, a love boat river race, and a vertical marathon called “lovers’ challenge” in which couples run up a 43-storey office tower. Private sponsors have made their own contributions: tango parties, spa packages and weekend getaways like a “love boat cruise” to a luxury resort replete with sex counselors, fertility seminars, therapeutic massages and a host of aphrodisiacs from which to choose. Even Pizza Hut offers a three-course “love meal” including a heart-shaped pizza.

Dr. Finian Tan, co-chair of the festival’s “task force,” told Radio Singapore International that one of the main efforts of the yearlong celebration is to make the country more “romantic.” Claire Chang, another task force co-chair, explained that the government is “teaching people how to love.” To that end, the SDU produced an official eight-page guidebook called “When Boy Meets Girl! The Chemistry Guide.” According to Seah Chiang Nee of The Malaysia Star, the book “teaches busy engineers and IT nerds how to court a girl, where to go, and what to do on a date.”

The rest of the world has certainly taken note that the government is treating its citizens as sexual imbeciles. International news outlets, however, have jumped to the conclusion that Singapore’s problem is that its people are not sexually active enough.

Every news report regarding Romancing Singapore, from Manila to New York, quoted the results of two sex studies to support this hypothesis, despite the fact that neither study claimed to account for Singapore’s low birth rate. The first was produced by the National University of Singapore. The coordinator of that study told Australia’s ABC radio that after surveying 1,000 Singaporeans about their sexual habits, he found that the frequency of sexual activity among his compatriots was “rather low.” For those age 40 and under, both married and single, Singaporeans average “only six times a month…far lower than many other societies.”

The other oft-cited survey used to support the low Singaporean libido hypothesis comes from condom manufacturer Durex, which claims to conduct an annual survey of the sexual habits of men and women in 34 nations. According to its 2003 study, Singapore ranked last for the second year in a row in the frequency with which men and women reported “having sex”—96 times per year, or eight times a month on average. (Hungary ranked first last year, by the way, averaging 152 rolls in the hay per annum).

Interpreting data from the two surveys in light of the Romancing Singapore campaign, The Manila Times concluded that Singaporeans, “worried about the economy and too stressed about jobs…have little drive to make love at the end of the day.” Again, the implication is that Singapore’s fertility woes are due primarily to a national libido problem. If so, Singaporeans need to get busier in the bedroom. Six or eight times a month just isn’t cutting it.

According to this logic, the Hungarians should have a much higher birth rate. Yet statistics prove the opposite. Hungary’s fertility rate is comparable to Singapore’s at 1.3. Bulgaria, Russia, and the Czech Republic, which scored the highest marks on the condom survey next to Hungary all have fertility rates equal to or lower than Singapore’s. In fact, Bulgaria has one of the world’s lowest at 1.1.

Thus, hopping into the sack as much as Eastern Europeans would seem to do doesn’t translate into more babies. After all, no one would seriously argue that the Italians have a libido problem. Even so, the Italian birthrate is also one of the lowest in the world at 1.2—again, lower than Singapore’s.

Dr. Wei Siang Yu, a flamboyant self-styled “sex guru” from Singapore, is one of those who believes the libidos of his countrymen need some stimulation. Yu, who calls himself “Dr. Love,” has his own solution to the ‘libido crisis.’ This spring he’s launching a midnight television series in which he conducts “bathtub tutorials” involving real-life couples. “We will teach couples how to massage each other in the bathtub,” he told Agence France. Without explaining how his tub massages will increase fertility, the Australian-educated doctor added that his tutorials will be “carried out with decency by a trained medical professional. We will not reveal the breast or groin…this is not pornography.”

Some in the West, however, believe that Singapore’s birth dearth may be due to a lack of pornography, or at least a lack of raciness and nudity in the national media. According to a report from Reuters, “Some question whether the strait-laced censors who routinely snip nudity from commercial movies, ban Playboy magazine and have kept the U.S. hit series Sex and the City off air should shoulder some of the blame.” To drive home the point, Reuters quoted a 28-year-old marketing executive as saying, “if they [Singapore’s government leaders] want to be on par with other major countries they should let us watch Sex and the City.”

Judging from fertility rates and marriage statistics, Singapore is already “on par” with other major countries. Mirroring the trend of European nations, the proportion of single people over 35 in Singapore has ballooned from 18.7% to 30.3% in the last decade, while the percentage of childless married couples, now 6%, has tripled in the past twenty years.

One only need look to Castro’s Cuba to understand that a society without legally-available pornography is capable of reproducing itself just fine. I doubt any sex survey will show that Cubans are short on libido.

Absent from the dozens of news reports about the birth dearth was any mention of contraception, abortion, or sterilization—the three methods commonly used to prevent the birth (or conception) of babies. Nor have Romancing Singapore’s task force representatives broached the subject; indeed, it seems this hasn’t even occurred to them.

It’s reasonable that Singapore wants to promote what it calls “romance”—something that is assumed will lead to true love, marriage, and then a few kids. But that assumption is flawed. More and more married couples in Singapore (as in most Western countries) are choosing not to have children. It’s absurd to reason that their unfruitful marriages are due to a lack of pornography and American television in their lives. It’s naďve to suggest that childless couples are having difficulty conceiving because they only have six bedroom encounters each month. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of human sexuality should understand that six or seven or eight times per month (over the course of a year) ought to suffice in circumstances natural.

Religiously observant Muslims and practicing Catholics don’t seem to have a fertility problem. It’s not because they’re watching Sex and the City or paging through Playboy. It’s not because they spend more time beneath the sheets than the Russians or the Hungarians. It’s not because they give and get massages in the bathtub. It’s not because they’re eating heart-shaped pizzas. It is because they are open to having babies—actually bearing and rearing children!

Might it be a bit foolish to think that “romance” or more frequent sexual activity is a serious solution to Singapore’s impending population implosion? The average Singaporean libido likely differs little from that of a Hungarian, a Bulgarian or a Russian. The underlying symptoms of the birth dearth are the same for each nation. The problem is contraception, abortion, and sterilization wrought by a mentality of suicidal selfishness.

In January, Singapore’s incoming prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, may have said it best. “We have to change people’s minds,” he exclaimed, “so they think of making babies as something that’s happy.” The prime minister may have said it a bit awkwardly, but at least he seems to recognize that it’s not Singapore’s libido that is the problem, it’s his country’s Western attitudes toward children and family that will eventually decimate the population if the sliding fertilities rates continue to tumble in free fall.

Michael S. Rose is author of several books including the New York Times bestseller Goodbye, Good Men. He is Exeutive Editor of

More International News
In 2002, Singaporean women give birth to 1.37 babies in a lifetime, down from 1.87 in 1990.

In 1984, Singapore formed an agency specifically charged with the task of stim- ulating fertility on the island.

In 2003, Singapore recorded its lowest number of births in a quarter century.
Romancing Singapore has spawned state-sponsored matchmaking events such as rock climbing for couples, a love boat river race, and a vertical marathon in which couples run up a 43-storey office tower.

Claire Chang, a Romancing Singapore task force co-chair, explained that the government is “teaching people how to love.”
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