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SINGAPORE — Karen Ralls-Tan remembers a time when her dating prospects were bleak.
"It was just hard to meet people," says the 31-year-old civil servant. "When I went out with my friends, we didn't meet that many men."
Her solution turning to Singapore's largest dating service was hardly odd for a busy young professional. Except for one thing: The same organization also happens to be the world's only government-run dating service.
Singapore's Social Development Unit (SDU) and programs like it have helped earn this tiny nation a reputation as the ultimate nanny state. Whether the evils of a local slang "Singlish" or the need to flush toilets after use, no social issue is too big or too small for government intervention.
"People actually think that the state knows best,'' says David Jones, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Tasmania in Australia.
According to the government, alarm over a low birthrate prompted the creation of the SDU in 1984.
But to many Singaporeans, the SDU's focus on "educated" singles is nothing short of social engineering: an effort to preserve the current racial balance between the city's Chinese majority and the Malays, who tend to be less educated.
The SDU provides subsidized mixers, trips, and computer matchmaking services to college-educated Singaporeans. It also runs seminars and campaigns on "marriage awareness."
The SDU's most recent innovation, however, is "speed dating," a year-old program that challenges singles to get to know each other in seven minutes or less and, hopefully, exchange phone numbers.
With 25,000 current members, the SDU has had its share of success. About 3,600 members of the program married last year, Since its inception, the SDU says 50,000 Singaporeans have been married through its offices.
"The government isn't holding guns to people's heads it recognizes that marriage is a deeply personal choice,'' says Pamela Pung, an SDU spokeswoman. "This is just a way of widening the circle of opportunities."
Ms. Ralls-Tan credits the SDU with helping her find her husband.
Four years after signing up for its computerized matchmaking service, a marriage adviser called her with "the perfect guy." They were married in 2000 and now have a 6-month-old girl.
"Without the SDU, we never would have met,'' says Ralls-Tan, laughing. "We're looking forward to more children. We'll have at least three."
Ethnicity is a sensitive topic
Currently, the average Singapore woman has 1.6 children 2.1 is the rate demographers think Singapore needs to maintain its population without immigration.
But if the imbalance between taxpayers and retirees continues to grow, the government worries that the welfare system will be strained to the breaking point. On the other hand, the government fears that relying on immigration to close the gap will dilute a sense of nationalism in a city-state dwarfed by neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia.
The problem is often stated in terms of national security: Fewer marriages "impede efforts at nationbuilding and may even threaten the country's survival," says one SDU brochure.
Many Singaporeans, though, believe that the SDU's creation was prompted less by the overall drop in the birthrate than the relatively higher birthrate among the country's poorer Malay minority.
The current racial balance about 75 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay is important to the government.
Singapore's Chinese majority is one reason the state split from its confederation with Malaysia in 1965, following race riots. Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's founding father and architect of its social policies during his 20 years as prime minister, is closely identified with policies to promote Chinese culture.
To critics, the focus on "educated" men and women today is merely a politically correct way of targeting the ethnic Chinese.
In fact, in the early days of the SDU, the divergence in birth rates across racial and socioeconomic classes was a stated reason for taking action.
"If we continue to reproduce ourselves in this lopsided way we will be unable to maintain our present standards,'' Mr. Lee said in his national day speech in 1984, the year the SDU was created.
Later, in a 1990 speech, Lee said that the preference of educated men for less educated women was a national dilemma because it meant "50 percent of graduate girls will either marry down, marry foreigners, or stay unhappy."
As the economy has grown and educational and career opportunities have opened to women, many men have been taken aback by a new breed of independently wealthy and assertive women, the government says.
The response for many educated Singaporean men, officials say, was to seek out less educated brides at home, or find them in China, hoping that they will accept traditional gender roles.
"A lot of our single women today have their own jobs, their own careers, and they are demanding more," says the SDU's Ms. Pung. "That doesn't mean they should be doomed to being single."
One ethnic Malay graduate, who asked that his name not be used, sees it differently. "This is about social engineering, about maintaining the oligarchy.''
He says the SDU makes an implied judgment that only university-educated people should marry university-educated people, which reinforces barriers of race and class. In 1985, the government created a dating service for nongraduates, called the Social Development Service, partially in response to claims of discrimination.
An overprotective parent?
Over at Liquid, a neon-lit bar not far from the business district, the young singles seem less concerned about allegations of eugenics than exasperated by government paternalism.
Derisive laughter rises from the young hipsters reclining on a red velvet sofa when the unit is mentioned. "SDU Single, Desperate and Ugly,'' says a thirty-something woman in a miniskirt and an open-backed shirt.
"Those guys are geeks the government doesn't think we can do better on our own,'' says another young woman. "You kind of get fed up sometimes with all the hand-holding. We're grown-ups. And the government is not our parent."
As with an overprotective parent, many young people think the government is out of step with the times. It is easy to see why: The SDU's publications frequently read like advice for the lovelorn written by a bureaucrat.
For example, the SDU published a new brochure last month, called "The Chemistry Guide: When Boy Meets Girl,'' focusing on the overworked, the shy, and the "cosmetically challenged." The guide reminds hopeful singles that "Skin-care products are must-have investments" and "There's no bigger turnoff than a foul mouth, reeking with leftovers from lunch!"