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Taiwan minister sorry for linking singles to mental illness

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Taiwan’s health minister apologised Thursday after he came under fire for suggesting single people should pay more health insurance because they have a higher risk of mental illness.

“I apologise. I should not have used the term ‘mental illness’, which is very sensitive,” Yaung Chih-liang told a news conference. Yaung angered lawmakers at a briefing Wednesday on a planned revision of the national health care program, which calls for higher payment rates for single people in a bid to encourage the public to start families.

“Statistically it is correct,” Yaung replied in footage aired by Sanlih TV news channel, replying to a lawmaker’s question on whether single people face higher risks of developing mental problems. “Generally speaking it’s safer to be in a family. (You’re) less likely to get mental illness. So everybody please start a family as soon as possible,” he said.

His remarks touched off a storm of criticism from lawmakers, who accused the government of punishing people for not getting married. “We protest the new health care programme that punishes single people… it is unacceptable,” said lawmaker Chen Ting-fei, herself unmarried.

Taiwan’s government is desperate to encourage people to have more children as the island’s birth rate has dwindled to one of the worlds lowest in recent years. Yaung has called Taiwan’s situation “tragic”, warning that a declining birth rate and a rapidly ageing society could lead to a spate of social problems.

The island’s birth rate stood at 8.29 per 1,000 people last year, according to official figures. That compares with a global average of more than 20 births per 1,000 people, according to the United Nations. Last year a record low of 191,310 babies were born in Taiwan, which has a population of 23 million, down almost four percent from the previous year.

Taipei, April 8, 2010 (AFP)