Singapore Tries to Help Its Educated Women Trade Spinsterhood for Motherhood

Times Staff Writer

"You can take the cowardly way out and say, 'Very touchy, leave it, let's think about it,' " said Lee Kuan Yew. But that's not his style.

Prime Minister Lee told his audience at a recent rally that despite the uproar over the Great Marriage Debate in 1983, his policies are working: He is finding husbands for women university graduates and, he says, assuring Singapore of more and better babies.

"Never mind the hullabaloo in the press--all the foreign correspondents writing that a crackpot government is trying to interfere in people's lives," he said. ". . . Every year that passes by is a year lost. And you don't take a decision and immediately have babies."

What concerns the prime minister is not only a declining birth rate in affluent Singapore, but, frankly, the quality of the breeding.

"We are born unequal and we have got to make the best of the lot," Lee insisted. "And whether it is fruit trees, whether it is race horses, whatever it is, this is the way nature works. It is the biochemistry, how it is transmitted."

At her office in the government Social Development Unit, a matchmaking service, deputy director Helen Wang stated the obvious: "The prime minister himself, I think, believes in genes. I think it's the environment" of a home that produces intelligent children.

Whatever the results of a union, Wang believes the government's policy of promoting marriage for educated women, which Lee first advocated in 1983, is a humanitarian one.

The problem is unusual, and perhaps peculiarly Asian. Men here like their mates to be submissive, Wang pointed out, so they tend to "marry down." That means a male university graduate will look for a wife who is less educated, and a lot of women graduates--presumably not submissive enough--face a life without a husband.

Government statistics prove the point. According to the 1980 census, 15% of women graduates 40 and older were still single, even though male graduates of that age group outnumbered women graduates four to one. In the younger the age groups, the figures were even more lopsided because the number of college-educated women has been increasing.

Of women graduates between the ages of 30 and 40, who were students at a time when there were three times as many men as women on campus, 24% remained single. Among other women over 40, 4% were unmarried, and 13% between the ages of 30 and 40 remained single.

Now, women have surpassed men in numbers on the National University of Singapore campus, so the problem is further aggravated. Lee said the government effort is holding back the tide, however. In 1983, he said, 37% of male graduates married women who were also graduates, while in the first six months of 1986, the figure was 49%.

Wang's Social Development Unit arranges workshops, outings, tea dances and other social events to bring unmarried graduates together. She said 250 participants in her activities have married, a small number, but she is satisfied considering the cultural barriers and the resentment of some women over what they see as government interference in personal matters.

"It's something people can do for themselves," a young woman office worker said.

Wang believes the problem begins with the parents, who are products of an earlier culture.

"They want their own daughters to go to university," she said. "We put a high priority on education." "But," she went on, "they don't want a graduate for a daughter-in-law; she might be aggressive and endanger their standing in the family."

On the Singapore University campus, other pressures come to bear. Women students are taking on Western ways.

"They study humanities and read a lot of romances," Wang said. "They want flowers on the first date. They're looking for Mr. Right. Meanwhile, the boys are trained in the hard sciences, and probably can't even talk."

These factors combine to leave a legion of unmarried women at the top of society, as their male contemporaries marry down, and a host of unmarried men at the bottom. In an Asian society, the two will never meet, and as the women pursue their careers, still waiting for Mr. Right, the biological clock keeps Prime Minister Lee from achieving the goal of more bright babies.

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