The Singaporean Fairytale: A Critical Reading, or, MAKE IT STOP I DON’T EVEN–

Fairy tales are usually read to kids and end happily ever after. But a group of students are using fairy tales to encourage dating and newly married couples to have kids earlier.

The Straits Times (11 Feb ’13)

My favourite part about this introduction is that it (unintentionally?) implies that these new “Singaporean fairytales” don’t end happily ever after — which, y’know, is probably the truth, but also probably not the angle they were gunning for.

When news of this project first hit my corner of the internet, my reaction was that of mild amusement. Given the incredulity of the idea that stories written by a bunch of students would actually do anything for the fertility rate, and the multitude of problems already inherent in conventional fairytales, I couldn’t take it seriously enough to muster more than a curiosity as to how the Three Little Pigs could be adapted for populationist propaganda.

Now the website is live, and my bemusement has turned into something far less benign.

Before any of you jump down my throat for going after a bunch of well-meaning undergrads, I’d like to say that of course I believe these students meant no malice by any of this, and that they’ve undeniably put a lot of effort into it. None of the criticism of their project should be read as an attack on them. But good intent does not magically erase the ability for words & actions to cause offence (and to be called out for it), and given the media attention & government funding this has gotten, this goes way beyond the scope of an ordinary school project. It’s fair game.

Okay? Okay. Now I give you:

[as objectively evaluated by this one very distressed Singaporean]


I’m going to start with pitching this at a pretty low level, because that seems to be the approach the website’s taking here too: sex will make you feel better, you guys.

Sex will make you feel better.

While I’m all for promoting more orgasms — especially for women — I feel that if you need to be told by an adult fairytale (and not even in the R21 sense of “adult”) that sex feels good, (a) you really shouldn’t be thinking of fertility or having babies just yet, and (b) the government has bigger problems re: public awareness than just fertility. (We do have pretty shitty sex education.)

This idea that lack of romance = lack of babies is ridiculous. If nothing else, I’d want to avoid bringing a child into the world based on idealised notions of coupledom, family & parenthood as far as possible: dinner plans can be romantic, but the decision to have a kid needs to be so much more than that. The belief that if only S’porean men (and specifically men, of course, because naturally the onus is on them to buy the roses) were more romantic, we’d all be queuing up to have their babies… no. We are not all just one lavender-scented bath away from being persuaded into motherhood. Someone’s even managed to make it a race issue.

Even if it were true that the declining birth rate is causally related to a decline in “romance,” is it really the role of a public campaign to try to reverse this? (Oh and trust me, non-S’porean folks reading this in disbelief, the government has tried. Oh how they’ve tried.)



The thing about this tale is that it actually touches on a core concern of S’poreans, regardless of their thoughts on having kids — i.e. absurd home prices — but then… ends with a parable about clubs and sperm-killing alcohol? I don’t. Yeah.

I did have in mind a mini-commentary about the infantilisation of men, sexual objectification of women (everyday sexism even in a drawing with three pigs, really?!), and the general assumption of the hedonism of my generation, but I can’t bring myself to dignify this with a properly critical response, because it is clearly just confused. Maybe it was all the alcohol.



Give me a man who likes big butts and I’ll give you two who don’t. While we’re at it I’ll give you three men who aren’t really arsed about women’s arses at all (boobs are great), four who like other men, and maybe five who like women for their– oh, I don’t know, personality and personal compatibility? This isn’t to say anything about the proportionality of men’s preferences but just… are we still at that stage where we’re allowing biologism to pass as fact? Are we still buying into the idea that people are just born a certain way and then stay that way forever & ever?

(I can’t find any studies verifying a correlation between big butts & human fertility, by the way. That Google search descended into horrific territory pretty quickly.)

I’m just gonna put it out there that as a woman, I, too, know nothing about “women.” I know things about specific women in my life most times, and even groups of women sometimes, but I struggle to find a pithy way to sum up all there is to say about eh, 3.5 billion people in the world or so.

Pro tip, Scarecrow: all you need to know about women is that they’re people.


#2 — ALICE

Thank you for the reminder that my development as a human being is still seen as of secondary importance to my biological fertility as a female. Oh us stupid, selfish women.

This “extended adolescence” that is talked of so dismissively here — this period of “[flying] around rash” and youthful foolishness and Thought Catalog — this is the start of people’s adult lives. It’s when women start to figure out who they are and what they want in their lives, whether they’re educating themselves or starting new careers or yes, starting a family. You don’t get to carelessly disregard this stage in our lives as an “extended adolescence.” It’s not aimless adolescent experimenting that will go away once we “settle down.”

And you know why it’s a recent phenomenon? Because not too long ago, women literally didn’t have the right to do any of this. Laws kept us out of schools and workplaces, patriarchal norms kept us home, and the lack of contraceptives kept us pregnant.

It’d be great for our fertility rate if we went back to that, wouldn’t it?

I deeply, deeply resent the juxtaposition of a woman’s holistic development to her cyclical child-bearing capacity, akin to reducing women’s lives to those animal life cycles we learn about in primary school. We’re not selfish teenagers simply ignoring this so-called “biological cost.” We’re recognising and asserting that our worth as people goes far beyond that.



Unlike Alice, this one isn’t even subtle about it:

“prized for her eggs”

“egg-making device”

Helpfully accompanied by facts about female infertility.

But it’s about biological fact!, you say. You can’t deny that women’s fertility declines with age.

Yes, true. But I also don’t have to use language to place value judgment (“rusty and old”) on the various stages of a woman’s life, or imply that her worth (“prized for her eggs”) is contingent on such. I also don’t have to focus exclusively on women.

But men are judged for their fertility too!

Yes, exactly that. We need to stop doing that.


I am, primarily, confused as to what this website aims to achieve. Sometimes I think they are too:

The “fairytales” (really just very, very brief sketches) don’t appear to have a core theme, and sometimes don’t seem like much more than a way to make a (cringeworthy, I’m sorry to say) joke or a half-hearted attempt to allude to some of the government’s attempts to boost fertility. They don’t effectively characterise — or satirise — anything, and certainly do very little to assuage the Very Real Concerns that people have about these Very Real Issues.

Stripping away the complexities of “what it takes to start, live and be a family,” I run into problems even if I try to boil it down to just talking about fertility, which is one of their stated aims.



    The section titled “Facts Explained,” which contains information about fertility, is probably the section of the site I find least problematic. It’s neatly & attractively organised, and doesn’t try to hide information behind any of that “fairytale” waffling. (Nevermind that the link between this page and the main fairytales bit is tenuous at best.)

    But sources are scarcely cited. Where did they get these statistics from?

    Most of the information sounds credible enough at face value but the earlier quip about men being attracted to big butts betrays a dangerous disregard for truth from a group that purports to educate the public, and careless mistakes do little to boost confidence:

    Moreover, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. The (unverifiable) facts are just stated, not explained; presented without context or understanding, it reads like a Twitter “fact” generator. Why is it that being underweight leads to lower sperm counts? How do we know what we know — empirical experiments, or theoretical understanding? Human biology, and the study thereof, is far more complex than this bullet list would have you believe. This is not the kind & quality of information you want people to be basing their life decisions on.



    It is possible to write scientifically & objectively without losing sight of humanity & sensitivity. In talking about humans, you cannot forget that you’re talking about people. If you really want to make fertility more accessible and relatable, you cannot talk about it like it’s divorced from people’s real bodies & lives.

    You can talk about bulls impregnating cows, maybe, but I’m gonna add this to the list of tips for Scarecrow: women don’t appreciate being described as “impregnated.” (Or actually, maybe not. Maybe you do. No judgment.) Let’s just take it that it takes more sensitivity to talk about human bodies than it does farm animals’, okay.

    Try this instead: “A 40-year-old man can take almost 2 years to conceive a child with a partner, as compared to 4.5 months for a 25-year-old man.

    (Rewriting that has made me realise there’s more problems with this “fact” than simply its tone: what does “can take [x time]” mean? Are these average figures, or medians, or bounded limits? “Scientific” writing is not synonymous with clarity or objectivity.)

    Another note on tone: the bias on this site is bleeding out of every possible corner.

    It does throw us a bone at the end — conceding that “starting a family is a personal choice” — but there is a very big difference between these two attitudes:

    “Here are two equally valid sides, and we’re going to tell you more about one side ’cause that’s the one we prefer but eventually it’s up to you.”

    “Here’s the right way and we’re going to tell you about it; if you decide not to do it it’s fine, but just don’t say we didn’t give you a choice.”

    No prizes for guessing which one this project’s clearly expressing.



    Fertility is not an inherently inaccessible concept to most: it’s taught in secondary school syllabi, and my little brother learnt about reproduction in kindergarten. But the team has got it right in identifying that fertility as practical knowledge — as applied to something as deeply personal & important as bringing a child into the world — requires more nuance and sensitivity than biology classes.

    But: fairytales? Really?

    You’re necessarily talking to adults here. Human fertility is an adult concept. So talk to adults like adults: they can take it. And if you want them to seriously consider being responsible for another human being, they’d better be able to take it.


Now I’ve saved the best for last, as taken from their “About Us” page:

Singaporeans aren’t just “choosing” to not “have it all.” That’s pretty extraordinarily insulting. They either cannot, or they simply reject the idea of your “all.”

More often than not, you really just can’t have it all. Life is about priorities & trade-offs; it’s not a mere matter of moving some stuff that gets in the way of achieving Complete Adulthood. These fairytales barely begin to scratch the surface of the overwhelming decisions Singaporeans face when considering these trade-offs and do little to provide them with the information they need to help them with that. I’m as much a fan of public education & awareness as anyone else, but it’s hard to see this project as much more than baseless propaganda.

20 thoughts on “The Singaporean Fairytale: A Critical Reading, or, MAKE IT STOP I DON’T EVEN–

  1. Hahah I really had a good laugh reading through your criticism. It is a harsh, but thorough and fair evaluation. On a more serious note, I concur with you on several short-comings of how information is presented, and their way of approach. I have also found offense in some of their “stories” and “facts” that hints at us being baby-making machines, and that our goals are incomplete without making babies. As a Singaporean, I think the problem extends far beyond this website. Yes, the population fertility (in the statistical sense) is a looming problem that cannot be overlooked, but in the course of addressing the problem, the authority has compromised respect for gender equality. It is also a pity that the concept of traditional gender roles still hold strongly in our culture. Nevertheless, I’m still hopeful because more people (like you) are making sound criticism, amidst the deluge of empty complaints.

    • Completely, completely agreed that this website is just a symptom rather than the cause. I chose to tackle it specifically because addressing the larger issues of fertility & family & gender overwhelm me (as they do most people, I believe, and very justifiably so) and so I break it down into chunks that I can manage. Baby steps! (Pun not intended.)

  2. You are in my Top 5 favorite bloggers on the Internet right now. Well done. I stumbled upon your vegetarianism (rant), which, as a fellow vegetarian, I have mad respect for (can relate to in all good/bad ways). Then, I poked around this here WP and found out you’re pretty cool on many levels. Keep up the good work. BTW, this particular post is as satisfying and orgasmic as I suspected it would be.

    • Thanks! I did kinda regret ending the series of posts on veg*nism on a snarky note, because it’s the post most people read and then they don’t see the earlier ones which were actually serious, but I’m glad someone could relate.

  3. I think you’re a tad hypocritical, your criticism of their work being made on invalid assumptions can similarly be applied to yourself. Who is to say that fairy tales are not a viable way of conveying a message? Your post starts out being balanced but slowly descends into a rant. I would like to point out that although the students may come across as offensive to some people, their intentions were well-meaning. I feel that before you criticise something into the ground in the future, please make an effort to also be slightly more constructive, especially because many others read your blog and your comments will likely influence them.

    • I think you’re a tad hypocritical, your criticism of this blogpost devolving into a rant can similarly be applied to yourself. Who is to say that the writer was not well-meaning in pointing out these dangerous biases in societal perception? Your comment starts with an accusation and ends with a condescending head-pat, as though the writer were only an upset child, and not a person with valid and pressing concerns. I would like to point out that although the writer may come across as harsh to some people, her intentions were well-meaning. I feel that before you patronise something into the ground in the future, please make an effort to be slightly more constructive, especially because many people will read your comments and your condescending tone will likely influence them.

    • While I welcome criticism — big fan of it actually — I deeply, deeply do not appreciate being called “hypocritical” without basis.

      1. Please point out the “invalid assumptions” that I have made. I’m not saying that I haven’t made any. I’m saying that if you really want to criticise me on this, you need to point out to me me exactly where I’ve gone wrong.

      2. I say that fairytales are inappropriate given the context, and I’ve explained why. The team has said otherwise, and they’ve explained why too. Neither of us have a monopoly on the Right Opinion; no one is “to say” anything about anything. You read both sides, and you decide which one you’re more convinced by.

      3. I actually specifically address the “well-meaning” bit right from the start (and how intent doesn’t protect you from causing/being responsible for offence) — so it does make me somewhat skeptical that you really read this.

      4. I write here exactly because I intend to influence people — because if I didn’t, then it’d just be people like the team behind this project who’d be doing so. We need more criticism and debate, not less.

      5. “Be slightly more constructive” is the oldest derailing trick in the book. It’s not a constructive comment in itself. Move on.

  4. I agree entirely with your take on the matter. However I think you have misinterpreted what the students have meant by ‘choosing to have it all’. They do not dispute your assertion that making a life decision, i.e. having kids or not, involves priorities and trade-offs. What they are saying is that, choosing to have a kid is not an impossible choice, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think is the consequence of living in Singapore today.

    From a broader point of view, I think it is not really a good argument any more that there are “overwhelming decisions” that restrict us from having children. We are too fixated on having the “perfect conditions” that enable us to have children, when the reality is, there is no such thing as ideal conditions in reality. The 1960’s generation certainly had no qualms about having so many babies (thus producing the baby boomers generation) despite the conditions in Singapore then being definitely worse off than today.

  5. Pingback: Singapore uses ‘modern fairytales’ to warn women of declining fertility  |  The Temasek Times - Temasek Review Emeritus - The Temasek Review - The Online citizen - The Real Singapore

  6. Pingback: Singapore uses ‘modern fairytales’ to warn women of declining fertility | Womens Health

  7. I really like your post. As a father of one, I’m offended at the obnoxious assumptions these undergraduates have made regarding marriage, children and life. “You can have it all, if only you choose to” smacks of naive, condescending elitism.

  8. Pingback: Singapore uses ‘modern fairytales’ to warn women of declining fertility (T2W1) | Students of Fong

  9. Yes, thank you for this! I had my own “what is this I don’t even…??” moment when I first saw the website and this piece really resonated with what I was feeling about the whole thing. And as a student from a local u myself, it sort of makes me wonder about the caliber of our final year students if this is the type of FYPs that they’re producing. I think it really says quite a bit about the maturity level of our students, even after almost 2 decades of education

  10. I came across your blog while searching for Singaporean reactions to this debacle. Agree with everything you say, word for word. This is such offensive, condescending bullshit. And to think they are a bunch of Communications students, that too a team where 75% are female! I dropped them a note on their website in utter disbelief after I first went through the website. Hopefully they are currently hiding under a rock and reflecting on their utter lack of sense.

  11. Pingback: Singapore uses ‘modern fairytales’ to warn women of declining fertility | GeoNews.WS

  12. Pingback: Lesson for 12 Apr 2013: Singapore’s ageing population and policy responses | GP – Current Affairs, Critical Thinking, and I

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