Singapore Plays Cupid--and It’s Paying Off

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The government’s matchmaking program has gone from wilted wallflower to belle of the ball.

Those who once called matrimonial planning by the Social Development Unit a refuge for the “single, desperate and ugly” now say it holds hope for the “single, desirable and unattached.”

Proof that official matchmaking has been accepted was provided last year, when participants in the program presented a display of ballroom dancing in a sports stadium as part of the annual National Day celebrations.

“We had no problems getting people to take part in the National Day parade,” said Susan Chan, deputy director of the agency. “Five years ago, it would have been impossible.”


Robert Ong and Sabrina Sim, who were married three years after meeting at a dance sponsored by the Social Development Unit, were among the performers.

“We’re proud of the SDU, the country, and wanted to give something back,” Ong said.

Eight years after the agency first played Cupid for bright, unmarried civil servants, officials say they are cheered by the matrimonial statistics.

Only 704 pairs of college graduates tied the knot in 1984, compared to 1,643 in 1991, Chan said.

“When I joined SDU five years back, some of my friends teased me about it,” said Dennis Teo, 30. “But then they realized that I got to meet lots of people and do interesting things.

“I remember, when it started, people used to make jokes about SDU being for the single, desperate and ugly. But now people say it is for the single, desirable and unattached.”

Lee Kwan Yew, then-prime minister, said in 1983 that this tiny nation might be doomed by a shrinking talent pool because too many educated women remained single and childless.


“Levels of competence will decline” because of it, Lee said. “Our economy will falter, the administration will suffer and society will decline.”

After the speech, Singapore switched from one of the world’s most effective birth-control programs, which encouraged families to have no more than two children each, to appeals for “three, more if you can afford it.”

Part of the problem was that young men preferred women less educated than they were and women wanted to marry upward.

“Despite the gloomy scenario painted by population census reports on the increasing numbers of singles, we are cheered by the fact that the numbers of graduate couples are increasing,” Chan said.

More than half of the men with college degrees now marry fellow graduates, compared to 38% in 1983.

The agency arranges dances, barbecues, group travel, computer courses and other events for its 13,000 members. Chan said all this helps educated men change their attitudes, as well as create opportunities for love to bloom.


“Their mind-set is slowly changing,” she said. “They are more accepting of an equal relationship between the sexes.”

Pragmatism also plays a part. “Many also feel the need to marry career women in order to have a dual-income family,” Chan said.

Officials say the next step is to persuade couples to marry younger and have children sooner. Although the number of marriages has risen, brides and grooms tend to be older.

There were 24,375 weddings among Singapore’s 3 million people in 1991, compared to about 20,000 a year in the mid-1980s.

The average age of those marrying in 1991 was 28.8 for men and 25.9 for women, up from 27.7 and 24.9 in 1985.

Because of the declining birth rate and charges of elitism, the matchmaking effort has been extended to groups other than college-educated civil servants.


The Social Development Section serves high school graduates and has 65,000.

“There is no pressure on people to get hitched,” said Lee Siew Yem, its director. “If they get lucky and meet the man or woman of their dreams, then good for them,”

“We have 25 to 30 activities every month, from grooming classes, karaoke sessions and tea dances to photography classes,” said David Chua, who runs the section.

Recently, it co-sponsored “Single,” a play in which Cynthia and Mark, two young, successful professionals, meet but fail to marry. In the last act, 30 years later, they sit in rocking chairs, lamenting what they missed.