Propaganda & Procreation: The Stop at Two Posters

First Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew aptly pointed out that Singapore has “campaigns to do this, campaigns to do that”. Indeed, the country has had over 200 national initiatives in less than 40 years since its independence. This translates to a lot of posters, commercials, jingles, mascots, and slogans, most of which are nostalgic and rather chuckle-worthy on hindsight.

Its citizens are reminded to keep Singapore clean, be courteous, emerge as a Sar-Vivor, speak good English, display kindness like Singa the Lion, save my world, and be healthy 365. These advertisements all share a common aim of educating and eradicating social issues. Unsurprisingly, love and family planning also fall under the same umbrella.

This Valentine’s, let us take a romantic trip down memory lane and look at how the government envisioned an ideal Singapore family to be across the periods.

1966: Have Smaller Families

Recognising the problem of overpopulation, the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board (SFPPB) was formed. The series of messages pushed out were straightforward and simple: small families are better. They not only ‘live better’ and ‘enjoy better health’, but also have a ‘brighter future’. With the reduction in family size, members can also have ‘more to spend and eat’. All in all, small families are great and should be adopted nationwide.

These posters showcased a single or two children looking pleased alone or with one companion. They are either waving cash triumphantly, eating a drumstick, riding a sleek car, living with a roof over their heads, or radiating with happiness. Evidently, the children are leading better lives as part of a small family.

However, the exact number of children that an ideal family should have was not clear. How many kids should a family have in order to be considered a small family? If their grandparents had eight children, should they then have half of that to be considered a comparatively small family? More importantly, should the government even be intervening in such private matters to begin with?

1972: Stop at Two

Six years later, the national family planning campaign launched a notable message to get Singaporeans to stop at two children. Themed “Plan Wisely for a small, happy and healthy family”, the course of action that families are recommended to take is now obvious.

The plea rolled out politely in the beginning, getting Singaporeans to ‘please stop at two’. A friendly looking stork reminiscent of an image that you can get from today’s Microsoft clipart greeted the audience with a smile.

However, stopping at two was problematic for Singapore at that time. Given that traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian families all preferred boys over girls, it may be difficult for a parent to stop at two should they have two daughters. To address this, more posters were rolled out.

Like the previous posters, these advertisements are very direct in their positioning. Two girls can be seen looking happy, assuring parents that it is okay to have two girls, and that they will still have a ‘bright future’. The notion of a bright future, while vague, is consistently underscored in all the marketing collaterals. There was even advice for parents to wait a few years after their first child before conceiving the second.

Through the attempt to normalise the idea of having no sons to continue the family lineage, it is obvious that sexism was rampant in the 1970s. That being said, posters alone do not wield the power to change deep seated mind sets. As such, more pragmatic posters were rolled out to appeal to Singaporeans.

The focus was on resource scarcity. The more children a parent has, the more the children will demand. Assuming a high demand and limited resources, each child will receive less. It was simple economics which spoke to the masses.

The image of the two daughters from earlier posters was also reused, further assuring the public that it is okay to have two daughters so long as they have enough resources to excel. The image of a sad family with three children being sandwiched uncomfortably in a small home also highlighted, very visually, that perhaps two will genuinely be enough.

As a safeguard, fear-inducing tactics were also thrown into the mix.

In the poster, a man can be seen complaining, loudly with exclamation marks, that the house is ‘a mess!’ and that ‘this isn’t a home at all!’. The wife, who is busy managing two children as the man stands at the door doing nothing, seems visibly annoyed. She does a metaphorical eye roll and laments that she should not ‘have married so early’.

This poster curtly educates teenagers on the repercussions of an underprepared and subsequently unhappy marriage. This drives the teenage couple to, hopefully, rethink their ability to cope with parenthood and consider more factors prior to getting married.

The texts sprawled across the top and bottom of the poster adopted a threatening tone, possibly mimicking the teenagers’ parents’ stance. “Teenage marriage means rushing into problems”, a teenager may hear his or her parent say. “A happy marriage is worth waiting for.”

It seems like these sentiments have not changed much since the 1970s.

To ensure an overall positive tone, there were also posters on how children value add to a family. Fun family times were depicted to show how ‘life would be empty’ and devoid of happiness without children. After all, ‘family time is the best time’, but only if you have a maximum of two kids, of course.

This anti-natalist move was accompanied with the legalisation of abortion as well as financial incentives for sterilisation. Couples who opted for sterilisation after their second child were granted SGD10,000. Over time, the baby booming phase got severely curbed. It worked well, but perhaps a little too well. 

Over a span of two decades from 1965 to 1986, women in Singapore went from having an average of 4-5 children to only 1-2 children.

The campaign has backfired drastically.

1987: Have three or more, if you can afford it

In the 1980s, better-educated women started having fewer children. Realising that Singaporeans were not reproducing enough to replace themselves, the government rolled out a new campaign in 1987, encouraging parents to have three or more kids if their circumstances allow. However, the incentives were unfairly skewed towards the academically inclined.

Both social and financial incentives were introduced to encourage more graduate singles to settle down and have children. The Social Development Unit, for instance, was established to network graduate singles together. The Graduate Mothers’ Scheme also gave priority for primary school admissions for students whose parents are graduates. If a woman had at least five O-level passes, she can also get generous tax benefits if they had children.

This scheme is overtly problematic and contentious, to say the least. It blatantly promotes eugenics by selectively encouraging graduates, as opposed to non-graduates, to reproduce. This notion of ‘breeding’ the academically inclined is not only viewed to be highly controversial by the people. Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan recalled that a few Cabinet ministers, including himself, had non-graduate wives and were “not enthusiastic” about this initiative.

Nonetheless, Mr Lee Kuan Yew still believed strongly that, ‘occasionally, two grey horses produce a white horse, but very few. If you have two white horses, the chances are you breed white horses.’

Thankfully, after much public backlash, Singapore’s efforts at social engineering was cut back. Over time, the concept of having a small elite breed was let go. There were public programmes catered for parents and families in place, and a dedicated and confidential parent helpline also went live.

Financial incentives came pouring in in the form of the Baby Bonus Scheme, extended maternity and paternity leaves, and more. There was no longer a need to do well in school to be eligible. Seeing how women are delaying childbirth to a later age, with the median age for first time mothers being 30.6 years old, technologies such as egg freezing and governmental aid with adoption also came into place. During this period, the ideal family unit became completely reinvented.

Moving forward

The chronological development of family planning campaigns in Singapore from the 1960s showcased the societal needs and expectations at that time. It revealed what the country needed, and how the government intended to achieve it through its people. By moulding what constitutes an ideal family, the country is shaping public behaviour, family planning, and ultimately what love entails for its people. While the government intervention in private family planning matters is debatable, and its policies were lacking and biased in more ways than one, we can agree that the posters captured the zeitgeist of various time periods during our independence.

Love, for Singapore, is often discussed alongside pragmatism. It is difficult to avoid talking about the ring, where to BTO, career stability, and how many kids to have, just to list a few. At the end of the day, a nation is a sum of its people, and as a country with limited resources, we are perhaps the richest in ourselves.


Vanessa Ng


Images are all from the National Archives.

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