Ministry of Love

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 August, 2008, 12:00am

Singaporeans are used to being told by their leaders what they can and cannot do. Being lectured is part and parcel of living the Singapore story. But limits have obviously been breached when a rather dull man bearing the title prime minister, who is married to a plain woman trained as an engineer, takes to the podium and starts giving tips about dating and how to go about making babies.

That is what Lee Hsien Loong did last Sunday during his annual National Day speech. In between talking about the economy and how to improve your lot in life, he delved into the nitty-gritty of how to find a mate if you're still living at home and have no life outside work, what to wear to dinner on a first date and the added value of presents when meeting your potential girlfriend's parents for the first time. There is a time and place for this sort of discussion - and this was definitely neither.

In fact, governments have no business delving into the private lives of their citizens. Determining who marries whom, and under what circumstances, and how many children they intend to have, if any, cannot be decided by anyone other than the people involved. Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, summed it up neatly for me on Wednesday. 'People should have the right to decide when and whether they have children and, if so, how many, without government intervention,' she said from her New York office. 'When governments do intervene, it backfires.'

There are any number of examples proving Ms Germain's point. China is struggling with the effects of its one-child policy. The gender imbalance it has created has hit some communities hard, and the 'me-generation' that has come about from one-child families is causing headaches. The Philippines' government is turning a deaf ear to the Catholic Church's preaching that having children is good and artificial birth control is bad; that is biting deep into the country's development prospects.

Singapore also well knows that population measures are troublesome. Mr Lee even pointed this out. In 1960, Singaporean women each gave birth to an average of six children, which officials at the time thought unsustainable, so they introduced a campaign with the slogan: 'Two is enough.' As the prime minister indicated, the policy was 'fabulously successful - too successful'; by the late 1980s, a new approach was deemed necessary: 'Three if you can afford it.' Again, it worked, but then economics kicked in, with the Asian financial crisis, and the birth rate started falling. In 2001, a baby bonus, comprising financial incentives to have children, was introduced - but it achieved little. So, in 2004, the government moved into the matchmaking game with a package of marriage and procreation measures. The birth rate has climbed marginally, to 1.29 per couple, but authorities are not happy: the population replenishment level is 2.1 and, unless this is met, Singapore will age and, presumably, one day disappear. Most other developed states face the same dilemma.

Despite the Singaporean government having failed to tailor-make the population, it is persisting with the charade. Proving how flawed the idea is, there was Mr Lee on Sunday at the National University of Singapore, being the ambassador of love, marriage, sex and babies. There could have been no bigger turn-off.

He advised, through anecdotes, that men should not wear slippers on dates; that having parents choose your spouse is not necessarily a bad idea (I personally would not even let my mother choose my clothes); and that putting careers before families is a big mistake. But there was also something sinister in his remarks - although English is Singapore's administrative language, he delivered his speech in Putonghua, seemingly aiming it at the 75.2 per cent of the population that is Chinese and presumably also, people in mainland China who just might happen to be listening.

Population-control policies do not work. Men and women will start relationships and families as they see fit. To intervene in what should be a natural process will - as Ms Germain rightly says and Singapore's example proves - backfire.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor