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Catholic World News News Feature

Missing the Boat on the Birth Dearth May 01, 2004

“We need more babies!” That cri de coeur from Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has echoed through this spic-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 the desire for a larger population really 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 childbearing 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 2.3 is required to keep a country’s natural population stable, Goh Chok Tong has elevated baby-making to a national priority. If the fertility rate continues to decline, of course, an increasingly small number of young working 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 minimum personnel quotas for its armed forces.


Since as far back as the 1980s, the Singapore government has been attuned to the increasingly dire fertility problem. In 1984 it formed a Working Committee on Marriage and Procreation, an agency specifically charged with the task of stimulating fertility on the island. The agency's 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 complete reversal of the government’s “Two is Enough” campaign, designed in the 1970s to curb family size in the small nation.) In recent years the Working Committee’s work has included a government-sponsored matchmaking effort 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 70 recommendations designed to produce babies.

One proposal calls for a yearlong jubilee called “Romancing Singapore.” Initially introduced last year as a month-long campaign designed to reinvigorate the love lives of Singaporeans, the plan was expanded when the government concluded that one month alone did not suffice. In fact the month-long festival was a smashing failure—at least when it came to producing babies. In 2003, this country of 4 million recorded its lowest number of births (37,633) in a quarter-century—a drop of nearly 4,000 from 2002. The festival was re-inaugurated on Valentine’s Day this year and included 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-story 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-chairman 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-chairman, 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 Singapore's 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 that this reporter could find 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 even claimed to account for Singapore’s low birth rate.

The first of these studies was produced by the National University of Singapore. The coordinator of that effort 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-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 the firm's 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 getting the job done.

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 for sexual activity on the Durex 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 rates, at 1.1.

Thus, hopping into the sack as much as Eastern Europeans would seem to do (if the surveys can be trusted) does not immediately translate into having more babies. 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 believe that 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 is 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 Presse. 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 analysts in the West, however, apparently 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 US 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 want to be on par with other major countries they should let us watch Sex and the City.”

But 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 percent to 30.3 percent in the past decade, while the percentage of childless married couples, which now stands at 6 percent, 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. Again, I doubt that 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 arrival of babies. Nor have the task-force representatives of Romancing Singapore broached these subjects. Indeed, it seems never to have occurred to them that birth-control measures are responsible for controlling births.

It is reasonable that Singapore wants to promote what it calls “romance”—something that is assumed will lead to true love, marriage, and then a few children. But that assumption is flawed. More and more married couples in Singapore (as in most Western countries) are choosing not to have children. It is absurd to reason that their marriages are unfruitful because of the absence of pornography and American television shows from their lives. It is naïve to suggest that childless couples are having difficulty conceiving because they only have six (or is it eight?) bedroom encounters each month. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of human sexuality should understand that that level of sexual activity, maintained over the course of a year, should be ample to allow nature to take its course.

Religiously observant Muslims and practicing Catholics don’t seem to have a fertility problem. This is not because they are watching Sex and the City or paging through Playboy. It is not because they are by nature lustier than the Russians or the Hungarians. It is not because they give and get massages in the bathtub. 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 the average Hungarian, Bulgarian, or 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.

[AUTHOR ID] Michael S. Rose is author of several books including the New York Times bestseller Goodbye, Good Men. He is editor of