This piece contains explicit language.
“Can I please make you attend something stupid?”
I wake up, this is the first thing I see on my phone. I’m honestly not surprised, this is my friend who knows I love seeing the beauty in stupidity. But he’s got an urgency in his text, like it’s something I MUST attend.
“Have you heard of the SDU? The Social Development Unit?”
Ah. He also knows I’m single. And despite my status of mingling readiness being undecided, I’m curious as to what this could entail.
Not five days later, right in the middle of Valentine’s weekend, I entered an art and dance studio with nine other people and went on my first ever, and probably only, government-certified dating session. As it turns out, I wouldn’t call this event ‘stupid’ at all. That just isn’t the right term for it.
The more appropriate term would be what the fuck.
A History of Government-Organised Romance
Before I delve into my experience, I think you deserve a run-through of what you just read above. Not as to why I am single or why my friend really wanted me to attend this event (trust me, I don’t know why either), but rather on three important words: “Government-certified date”.
Anyone with a social studies textbook can remember all of Singapore’s family planning policies and strategies during the seventies, suggesting families limit their population growth wherever possible. If you remember your secondary school curriculum, you may remember how effective these measures were. They were too effective. By the 1980’s, though, things took a turn when Lee Kuan Yew noticed the potential problems of a rapidly decreasing workforce for the future, unable to sustain the development of the country.
More specifically, the government noted the problem was with university graduates, especially women, that were simply uninterested in relationships. Amongst a whole bevy of policies meant to reverse their previous stance on family planning, the Social Development Unit (or SDU) for short, was set up in 1984. They organised dating sessions, singles cruises, tea dances and the whole shebang to get Singaporeans to find their true love, their dream girl or guy, and hitch them up.
The government was playing Cupid, but their aim with their arrows of love was way off target.
For starters, the SDU was intended for university graduates only. Clearly, this didn’t sit down well. Mostly because of the elitist nature of hitching university graduates together with one another, essentially defining the barriers of love as one’s education level. The government responded by setting up the Social Development Sector and Social Promotion Sector in 1985 and 1990 respectively to cater to ‘O’ Level graduates and non-graduating members of society respectively, though this was still considered as active discrimination through one’s education level, where dates were separated if you passed your exams or not. In fact, if you look up the Wikipedia page for ‘eugenics’, Lee Kuan Yew has an isolated line of text all to himself.
However, the other major factor was that, well, not too many people cared.
Lots of Singaporeans felt they didn’t need a state-run Cupid to tell them to find love. Anyone who went to these sessions hosted by the SDU were branded, rather rudely, as ‘single, desperate and ugly’. If you needed Lee Kuan Yew to find your love, you were a punchline. I don’t think badly dubbed, awkwardly-acted advertisements like these helped, either.
Needing some input for seniors as to how the early days of the SDU was like, I asked a close, reliable source: my mother. No sooner did the letters S,D and U roll of my tongue, she recalled everything about it, going into rant mode about how it was a crazy social engineering project through the government actively setting up dates. She was later shocked when I told her the organisation is still up today.
Thank goodness I didn’t tell her I went to an SDU event, otherwise she’d have a heart attack.
Registering for the date
Yep, the SDU is still here in the present day. Despite all the criticism and miniscule turnouts in its first few years, there had been a consistent amount of attendees to its events throughout the years, and as such has continued to soldier on. They’ve had a few changes since they first started, though.
Firstly, they had given up on actually arranging dates and events, instead becoming a government body that supports the dating industry and promoting marriages. If you follow all of their guidelines and get accredited by them, you’re good to go. Secondly, they had gotten rid of all educational criteria by 2009 and rebranded themselves into the Social Development Network, or SDN for short. As a current university undergraduate, the second point was rather welcoming. I was free to explore what the SDN had to offer.
Handily, at this time of year, their ‘Spark Connections’ initiative was well underway, where a whole host of dating activities from multiple agencies are hosted on the SDN’s website for one to find love in. For anyone interested, it’s open until the 29th of March.
I hopped right into the ‘dating events’ tab, and rather mercifully, the event my friend suggested I attend – a tango dancing session – is fully booked. All 40 slots taken up. I was actually surprised. As I mentioned earlier, the SDU/SDN events weren’t total flops, like this record-breaking speed dating event masquerading as a masquerade ball back in 2013. But in today’s age of Tinder, Grindr and whatever other dating apps are available, the turnout was still surprising to me in 2020.
The next event we considered was a speed dating event, similar to the one in the video above, but with much less people. I was game for that as well, not to mention that this time, there were vacancies. I was all set to get my flirt on against the clock, but I was refused entry. How could that be?
I was too young.
I’m only 22 years old. This is just above the 21 year-old threshold that the SDN and most supported agencies set for these dating events, but for this particular event, I was still a bit too young. And then the panic attack began.
I’m only a university undergraduate. My facial hair could add years to my age looks-wise, but I am nowhere near their target audience. These events are meant for working adults. The most I’ve worked in my life is writing for this website in between assignments, unless you count National Service. What if everyone there is in their 30’s? I know there’s a 99.8% chance I’m not actually going to ask anyone out from these events (not because I’m ugly, but because I ain’t interested), but the potential age gap still lingered in my head.
After computing literally every possible scenario in my head, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and told my friend to do the right thing for my mental health.
I told him to sign me up for the next available dating event.
This particular event I signed up for was hosted by a dating agency that normally specialised their dating events centered around dancing. They were, in fact, the same agency that organized the tango session I was supposed to attend. Instead, with that taken up and speed dating out the window, I was signed up to an ‘Art Jam’.
I know jackshit about painting. The most I ever got into art was watching Bob Ross on Twitch and being dragged to art galleries with my parents. I failed Art in secondary school, and now, I’ve signed up for a three hour painting session with nine strangers, all of them probably older than me, for a government-backed dating event.
I should also mention, I’ve never been on a date before.
All of these factors brought up second, third and fourth thoughts as I stood outside the wooden doors at the entrance to the Dance Studio. All viable reasons to turn right around, back into Little India station, and cower my way back home. I knew I probably wasn’t going to get a date there. Heck, I figured the most likely outcome was that I’d forget all of them once I left the studio. So why was I afraid to enter?
Regardless, I made my way in and was promptly swept towards registration and payment (goodbye $48). With the additional step of temperature taking out of the way, I was led into the studio itself, where I saw all the nine other people who were taking part. Me included, there was a nice five-five split in girls and guys, and there was no same-sex dating option (no surprises there), so everything was nicely engineered.
Additionally, my fears of age gaps were realised when it came to the icebreakers. Though the facilitator told everyone to not mention their age for privacy reasons (for me, mercy), I could just sense the room. Though I’m a bad adjudicator of age based off of looks, most participants looked like they were pushing thirty, if not older. Only two others looked roughly within five years of me, and all of them were already in the workforce, either as engineers, teachers, IT personnel, you name it. I was the only one who was probably still studying. Nevertheless, I put on my grown-up impression for the icebreakers, and we got to the paint-date proper.
The format was that we’d split into five isolated, boy-meets-girl pairs to paint together for 45 minutes or more, after which the guys would have to rotate their pairings then paint together with another member of the opposite sex, then rotate once more. It all felt, rather disturbingly to me, like clockwork. More on that later.
For now, though, is the part you’ve all been waiting for: my dating experience.
The first person I was paired with was also painting for her first time, so lucky me, we were able to talk about our combined struggles of painting for the first time. I figured that was essentially the reason this dating event, along with most others featured by SDN, was focused around an activity, like dancing, karaoke, or painting. However, instead of such conversation arising organically, I felt like it was an obligation to talk. I signed up for a date event, I guess I have to talk to someone, otherwise it’d be a waste of $48 and three hours.
But hang on. Normally I love these kinds of events where I meet new people. I was heavily involved in orientation camps in university, and made some of my closest friends through those events. Whenever I meet someone new, be it online, through group work or co-curricular activities, it goes out quite well. So why the obligation? Why the hesitation?
I think it’s because these events are meant to fill a certain role in your life. In orientation camps, you can interact naturally with those you feel comfortable with throughout the camp. Additionally, you can dictate the role they play in your lives, from friend to study partner and so on. In these dating events, however, there’s that feeling that you need to form a relationship with the immediate partner you’re talking to. A romantic relationship, at that. Even though the words ‘date’, ‘partner’, ‘love’ or any other word hinting at romance was never thrown in during the briefing or throughout the session, we all knew what we signed up for. And that, when we sit one-on-one to paint together, it creates that tension that we’re forced to talk to the individual next to us, instead of finding someone to talk to naturally.
Which is why I wasn’t surprised when, moving on to the next person to paint with, there was dead silence between us. I estimate we had six lines of dialogue between each other. Otherwise, she was focused on her artwork, and I was focused on mine, which to be honest, was actually going quite well for someone who doubted their own artistic merit at drawing stick figures, let alone acrylic painting. The silence between us, though, created a whole heap of tension. And it wasn’t between us. I noticed most of the room was fairly silent, save for the first person I talked to and one other guy, who seemed to be the only two people willing to engage in conversation.
The rest of the room was quiet. I noticed one pairing that only talked once when their turn was up. Perhaps it was being in the situation where people are obliged to talk to only the person sitting next to them, and not around the room to find someone they’re comfortable with, that created the silence in being paired with someone uncomfortable Add in everything I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to see why the room was as silent as an examination hall.
At least, that was the case between paired couples. Outside of those couples, though, conversation was flying. You see, all the women at that event came with at least one friend. Every once in a while, one of them would break off from their pairing to chat with their friends across the room. It was peculiar to notice that, especially as most of the guys there, me included, attended the event by ourselves. Thinking about it for a while now, I think I might know why. We all came to this event thinking it would be a social event with the possibility of a date.
Some of us, likely the women, prioritised the words “social event”.
The rest of us, most likely the men, prioritised the word “possibility of a date”.
That includes me, even though, as I stated before, I wasn’t really looking for one. I wanted it to be a normal social event, but the words “possibility of a date” toyed with my head so much that I kept quiet in that second pairing. I know that saying gender differences engendered this issue is a really simplistic take on such a complex issue, but from that single session, that’s one of the only explanations I could come up with.
Mercifully, my third, and final, ‘date’ went much better than the previous one. In fact, I even remember her name: Pei Chen. The awkwardness from the previous ‘date’ disappeared. This could be due to her being one of the few that looked roughly in my age range (again, bad judge of age here), or maybe because we both finished painting early (hers because she was done, mine because I got bored), or maybe because I actually stopped caring about that bit about this event being a “possibility for a date”. Whatever it was, I finally maintained a semi-normal conversation with someone at this event without feeling a need to talk to them. And what I gathered from them was actually pretty different from what I personally felt.
Pei Chen’s first big point was about age. Remember, I’m only 22. I don’t have a lot of pressure to find love, save for that one aunt at family gatherings. I also don’t find it too necessary to hunt anyone down, keeping the age-old adage of ‘when it comes, it comes’ to heart.
However, everyone else in that room, Pei Chen included, were all in the workforce. They probably have more relatives than that singular aunt breathing down their necks, demanding a husband or a wife. Not to mention all the other social pressures, from the benefits of buying a flat for married families to how love is portrayed in media and society. And with every passing birthday, that pressure increases and increases. It’s no surprise most attendees are in their 30’s. That ever building pressure has forced them to find ways to find love, even if they don’t truly want to, just to get some pressure off their backs.
“Desperate”, they are not. “Pressured”, they are.
Additionally, she did not find the whole event awkward, unlike me. It became more comfortable over time. Maybe it was because she had a friend there who attended the event with her, so she had someone she knew beforehand to converse with. Maybe it was her painting her boat that made her at ease (to be honest, it was a great boat). But whatever awkward feeling she had when she arrived dissipated over time. I was curious to find out why.
However, the conversation instantly shriveled to a halt when we were handed feedback forms. And suddenly, I remembered why such an idea of going to a government-certified date was rather ridiculous in the first place.
Evaluating Your Date
“Singles you would like to know more (max. 5)”
That was the very first question on the feedback form. Alongside that was a contact card, where the facilitator told us we could write down whoever we wanted to contact, and they could help us handle it.
Remember how I said I felt the entire session was like clockwork? That’s exactly how I felt when I received this form. I felt like I was filling out a performance review.
Being a host for a date is weird. Especially if you’re a dating agency, making a living off of it. Doubly so if you’re one that had to follow regulations and procedures to get it officially certified by the government. I understand that the organisers are trying their best to facilitate interaction. Heck, they just contacted me about getting together for another session as I was writing this out. For a matter as personal and intimate as forming a relationship, it’s a hard thing to operate in as a business.
Which is the problem. I felt like I was just a client for their services. Not like I was building a relationship with another person, but rather they were servicing a relationship for me.
Some people definitely don’t find fault with it, especially if they desire a relationship but need some help. Heck, even I’m fine with Tinder, which essentially does the same thing as the SDN: providing a relationship service. Only thing is that there are two key differences.
The first one is that Tinder isn’t so intrusive. They don’t sit you down next to one person for up to an hour. You don’t just rotate among a few people that went to the same course as you, you swipe past multiple people, chat briefly with a few until you find one you’re comfortable with. They don’t become a middleman in your relationship. And they most definitely don’t ask you for a feedback form asking who you interacted with the best. At most, they ask for five stars on the App Store — smash that like button, whatever.
The second, though, is probably the most obvious. The SDN is a government initiative. As much as the organisers of the ‘Art Jam’ may be a private company, they are still regulated, certified and promoted by the SDN. Attending this date felt like I was just following the government’s role for me.
This certainly doesn’t help for anyone already under enough pressure, socially, to find a date. I personally find it alright if you go unmarried your whole life. Some others may not feel that way, and their voices can truly pervade one’s thoughts on relationships, be it on others or their own selves. It may force them to commit to something they may not feel comfortable with.
It doesn’t help when one of these voices is your government.