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Mon, Dec 10, 2012
The Straits Times
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Who says dating services are for desperate people?
by Matthias Chew

The question of dating norms came under the spotlight this week after the Social Development Network launched the sale of gift vouchers that people can buy for singles to spend at dating agencies. Family sociologist Paulin Straughan and Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair, who sit on separate SDN panels, share their thoughts on the idea with Matthias Chew.

The vouchers drew a strong negative reaction. Why do you think this happened, and what's your own take on the idea?

Mr Vikram Nair (VN): The reaction is not entirely surprising, given there is still quite a stigma to using dating agencies, although it's probably unfair. According to an SDN survey of singles, of the ones who are not seeing anyone, 76 per cent said they would like more opportunities to meet people. Of that, about 95 per cent said they'd welcome introductions from friends but only 16 per cent are willing to use dating services.

I think it's quite unfashionable to say "I need to go to a dating agency", because it creates the impression you're desperate - though the reality is, there are many singles out there who would appreciate an introduction. I hope the stigma diminishes because if singles want to meet people, then the dating agencies are good facilitators.

Dr Paulin Straughan (PS): If it was packaged in a different way, I don't think it would come across as so negative - say, if we talk instead about events which are organised for young people to mingle but instead of buying tickets directly, you can buy one to give to your friends.

The whole idea of invoking family and friends to expand the social circles of singles is not objectionable, unusual or new. In the everyday context, we do this all the time when we introduce friends to each other.

Given in good faith, the vouchers send a strong message to the young person - that it's okay to go to a dating agency.

What do you think accounts for this stigma of dating agencies?

PS: Singaporeans are now more educated, and the idea of personal choice is very central to their world view, especially something as important as choosing their own life partner.

It's even worse when it's seen as the state intervening. So this notion of getting help to seek one's life partner has such a strong negative resonance with younger Singaporeans.

For the young singles, there's a lot of fear because nobody wants to be perceived as needy in an arena where you're expected to fight your own battles, based on your own attributes.

VN: I think when the Social Development Unit (SDN's predecessor, which used to offer dating services) did the matchmaking, people were embarrassed to say that we need government help. It's also somewhat paternalistic for the Government to get involved in one's personal life.

But according to another SDN survey, singles have more favourable views of accredited dating agencies than non-accredited ones, so it seems like they are quite happy for the Government to have some sort of accreditation scheme for quality control.

Mr Nair, you're a single man who has used a dating service. What was your experience?

VN: It's worth a stab because at the very least, they introduce you to people you otherwise would not have met. I met some interesting people, even though I didn't get into a relationship.

If you go there expecting to find the love of your life on each date, you might get disappointed.

I would say, though, there were people I was able to have a nice evening and good conversations with.

Were you not afraid of the stigma?

VN: It just seemed like fun and I'm always happy to meet new people. That was the attitude I went with.

But one of the girls I met, who shared a lot of common friends with me, said she didn't want to let other people know we met through a dating agency, which is a position I fully understand and respect.

If you weren't an MP, would you use the vouchers if someone gave them to you?

VN: Probably - although I stopped using dating agencies after I got onto the SDN Partner Connection Fund panel. It's a panel some agencies go to for funding and I didn't want any potential conflict of interest arising.

Do these dating services still play a very important role today?

PS: Yes. The research shows that singles here have no time or a limited social circle.

If you don't find your significant other while in school or university, it becomes a lot tougher. And if you don't find one at your workplace, that's pretty much the end for you.

Unless you have alternative sources of engagement, such as through sports or religious groups, your social network is a limited one.

VN: In my case, I used one because the hours at work are too long, and developing a relationship is something that takes time. And I was curious, because they said they had a sophisticated system for matching people.

How can the SDN and dating industry improve their image?

PS: Until we accredited dating agencies, they were a mixed bag. We're more familiar with those that bring in foreign brides and the social-escort types. These negative stereotypes have cast a dark cloud. With accreditation, we hope to encourage "kosher" services that honestly try to meet the needs of Singaporeans.

We're at a crossroads in terms of professional dating services. The professionalisation of the industry has just begun and we have to give them more time. When people see that you can have so much fun when you go to these agencies, that they're trustworthy and deliver outcomes, the tone will change.

VN: Generally, people are averse to the state playing too big a role. The fact that it's now giving gentle support is probably a better way. Dating agencies can be quite expensive but now there are more low-cost models, like organising mass events, that are more accessible.

These events can be quite interesting and fun too.

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