SINGAPORE July 2001

Love, Singaporean Style

Faced with a graying population, a notoriously staid government has sanctioned an "All-Out Make-Out" campaign
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During a visit two years ago to Singapore, the famously straightlaced city-state I used to consider the most uptight place in Asia, I spent an evening at a beachfront bar called Sunset Bay. I was astonished at the scene I encountered. Hip young Singaporeans in leather pants swayed, individually and in pairs, to the music of a live reggae band. Baby-faced dot-commers with two mobile phones clipped to their belts tossed down pitchers of sangria. Newly acquainted couples nuzzled and later ambled amorously out into the night. From all appearances, Singaporeans had loosened up to the point of lust in the streets. Or maybe not. When I passed through Singapore last summer, the city was abuzz with talk about the latest fertility statistics. The country's birth rate had dropped from an average of 1.96 children per woman in 1988 to below 1.5 in 1999. The phenomenon seemed to have causes beyond the use of contraception: according to the local press, many couples were finding themselves too tired after the long Singaporean workday to have sex. Alarmed by the statistic, Singapore's government decided to act. On August 20 Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong took up the matter in a speech broadcast on radio and TV in honor of National Day, commemorating Singapore's emergence as an independent nation in 1965. "We must at least try to arrest the problem." Goh said. "Family adds warmth and meaning to our lives. Friends are important, but a family is indispensable." Goh announced that women would be given eight weeks of paid maternity leave after the birth of their third child (previously they were given paid leave only for their first and second children). He outlined a "baby bonus" plan, whereby the government would pay families up to the equivalent of about $5,000 in U.S. currency over six years for a second child and up to twice that for a third. The money would be earmarked for the children's educational needs. Singapore's government—a conservative, semi-authoritarian entity dominated since independence by the People's Action Party—has a long history of mounting enormous social-engineering campaigns. Previous crusades have included efforts to make Singaporeans flush public toilets, speak better English, and stop chewing gum. Some have had a decidedly puritanical bent: legislation over the years has eliminated the red-light district, banned most pornography, and made oral sex in certain circumstances a crime punishable by incarceration. Traditionally, after government leaders announce a campaign, the press—which has close ties to and is strongly infuenced by the state—trumpets the policy. So I wasn't surprised when, shortly after National Day, I picked up the country's normally stodgy flagship newspaper, The Straits Times, and came across a twelve-page special section on making babies.

The section was titled "Yes, Prime Minister! An All-Out Make-Out Guide." On one page was an article headlined "GET LUCKY SPOTS," which included tips on the best places in Singapore to have sex in a car (many married couples live with parents in cramped apartments where there is little privacy). On the opposite page a columnist exhorted Singaporean men to "rise to the occasion and do your country proud," and gave instructions on how to use newspaper and tape to cover car windows during automobile trysts. Another piece itemized the essential components of a "Make-out Kit": among other things, K-Y Jelly; Wet Ones, to "clean up, freshen up and mop up"; "favourite romantic/sexy CDs"; and "cushions, for extra padding, comfort and lift." (On the back of the insert was a full-page feature on Frankie Ong, an adult-toy salesman whose stock includes metal-studded underwear, French ticklers, and rubber "replicas of private parts.")

In the months since Goh's announcement and the attendant publicity in the press, the government has taken several steps to further the new policy. The Prime Minister has assembled and chaired several panels on fertility. The Ministry of Community Development and Sports has begun sponsoring seminars on marital sexual intimacy. The civil service has declared that newly wed employees will receive three days of paid leave, and the state-controlled Development Bank of Singapore has shortened its work week from six days to fve, presumably in part so that its employees will not be too tired to procreate.

Many industrialized nations have declining birth rates, of course, but Singapore has particular reasons for concern. The city-state is surrounded by large, volatile, and sometimes unfriendly countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia; a plummeting birth rate would shrink its army (which depends on universal conscription) and could make its borders diffcult to defend. In addition, James Clad, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Georgetown University, told me, "Singapore, and Singapore's government, refect demographic dominance by the ethnic Chinese of the island's 4.0 million population. If birth rates of the minority Malays and South Asians continue to outpace those of the Chinese, there could be important implications someday for the composition and character of the ruling People's Action Party."

This isn't the frst time that Singapore's government has tried to direct the childbearing of its citizens. In the 1960s and early 1970s, concerned about overpopulation, the state sponsored a family-planning program under the slogan "Two Is Enough." In the late 1980s, uncomfortably aware that the effort had been all too successful, it sought to raise the birth rate, but primarily among the well educated. At the same time, it adopted a series of measures, including drastically raising delivery fees in hospitals used by low-income parents, that were aimed at discouraging births among the rest of the population—measures that may help to explain the dilemma Singapore faces today.

Will the campaign work? Most people I asked don't think so. James Gomez, a Singaporean social activist, predicted in March that the new fertility-boosting measures probably won't be all that successful, because "people are very individualistic here"—a change from the frst two decades following independence, when the public generally cooperated with the government's various social-engineering initiatives. Singaporeans are also increasingly attracted to the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle—the main shopping thoroughfare, Orchard Road, is lined with high-end stores such as Gucci and Prada—and may be unwilling to incur the expenses of raising additional children, even with the "baby bonus" plan. Singaporeans "can afford to have more children, but it will condemn them to living in state-provided housing instead of a condo and taking the bus instead of owning a BMW," Amit Gilboa, an American banking analyst currently living in Singapore, told me. "It's that culture of success coming back to bite."

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Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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