Being a resident in one of the world's most restrictively governed countries has its pros and cons. Big Brother may constantly be looking over your shoulder, but sometimes his constant attention makes the little things in life a lot easier. Like finding a date.
Citizens of Singapore, the former British colony on the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, have learned to live with laws and ordinances that cover virtually every aspect of their highly supervised lives. Undercover litter police hand out $500 fines for an errantly tossed soda can; failure to flush a public toilet carries a penalty of $250; and jaywalking at one of the city's tightly regulated intersections can land the offender in jail.
For 25 years, Prime Minister Lee Kuan-Yew, an omnipotent yet apparently incorruptible dictator, executed a thorough master plan to make Singapore one of Earth's greatest countries. The tiny city-state already boasts the world's busiest port, the tallest hotel, a top-rated commercial airline, and the cleanest streets of any major metropolis. For his swan song, his ultimate feat of national planning, Lee tried to make sure Singapore's best and brightest will have the brightest and best babies. The more the better. His hand-picked successor, Goh Chok Tong, is dutifully upholding Lee's matchmaking tradition.
Through the 1970s and early '80s, Singapore, like China, instituted strict family-planning measures. A few years ago—in, coincidentally, 1984, to be exact—the government decided its program had worked too well. Eligible young women were eschewing marriage in favor of careers, and those who were married were obediently avoiding conception. Lee figured the masses had better start having kids. But instead of simply distributing free copies of Penthouse—which, like The Asian Wall Street Journal, is strictly forbidden there—and packets of exotic Chinese aphrodisiacs, the guys in charge declared that while Singaporeans were at it, they might as well have Superkids. Thus, the Social Development Unit was, well, born.
Singapore's SDU, SDS (Social Development Section), and SPS (Social Promotion Section) are government programs that combine utopian social engineering principles straight out of Brave New World with participants from an Asian version of Revenge of the Nerds to make an often teased but frighteningly successful dating service—the world's only government-subsidized dating service.
For a modest processing fee—as little as $15—unwed Singaporeans may be entered in the government's computerized matchmaking data base, which, after analyzing the applicant's answers to a battery of personal questions, spits out a list of "compatible" dates.
But unlike the typical American dating service, which in nearly every other respect the SDU resembles, potential partners are segregated by a rating system that ensures the Alphas don't mix with the Betas. Thus, a college graduate may date only a college graduate; an "O" (ordinary) level guy may pursue only "O"-level gals; "N"s (normals) go with "N"s; "A"s (advanced) court "A"s; and lowly PSLEs (Primary School Learning Examination graduates, i.e., those who never made it through secondary school) must keep their mitts off any eligible babe with more education than they.
Not only does Singapore's SDU take much of the tiresome legwork out of a young man's quest for a spouse, it pays for his wooing as well. The government sponsors "social and educational activities" for its singles, ranging from dances and dinners to country outings. In other words, the government picks up the tab while prospective lovers have a good time: Those who consummate their courtship with marriage and children receive a variety of perquisites—including cash—to reward their fruitful relationship.
To date, the SDU boasts 1,129 weddings as a result of its generously funded matchmaking. Still, reports the Strait Times, Singapore's English-language daily newspaper, the SDU has been only partially successful in losing its image as the yenta service for the "single, desperate and ugly."
Rose, 24, who participated in SDU events for two years before meeting her boyfriend by more conventional methods—in a bar—says, "Most of the college graduates using the SDU are total losers who probably will never find a wife whether the government pays for their dates or not. Then you have another group: older guys, in their 30s, who abuse the system. They know they can meet a lot of girls for free, so they sign up, but they have no intention of getting married." The government recently imposed a five-year limit on SDU membership to discourage insincere wolves.
A spokesman for the Singapore Ministry of Finance, which funds the national dating service, says, "The SDU was greeted with skepticism and resentment initially. But now it is a fully accepted and successful institution." While many young Singaporeans might scoff at that assessment, it's safe to say there are probably several thousand single American guys who, sick and tired of calling various 900-number "love lines," wouldn't mind if Uncle Sam paid for their night on the town with a made-to-order date. Who said oppressive rule isn't any fun?
Michael Konik writes about travel for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, and New York Newsday.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Singapore: Studs".