9 Jul 2004

More couples want out

Star, Malaysia
June 27, 2004

Insight: Down South

IN her early 40s, the Singaporean lady was well-bred and educated abroad. “After 20 years of giving my best as wife, mother and companion, he abandoned us to continue his adulterous flings in a nearby country,” she wrote in an Internet forum.

The inevitable outcome was divorce, a growing social epidemic in this modern, affluent city of 4.4 million.

Another case involved a wife giving up on her husband who had lost his job because of advanced cancer. The poorly educated woman couldn’t support or look after him.

A reader observed that during the past three months, he had heard five women filing for divorce. “All of them have had between 10 and 20 years of marriage and two or three children aged three to 10 years.”
The divorce rate in First World Singapore has reached a historical high; so has the number of Singaporeans emigrating abroad.

At the same time, marriage and birth rates are plunging as seriously as most developed countries. The number of HIV/AIDS cases, too, have hit a peak.

They are part of what Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew meant when he said his son would have to deal with a different set of problems and persuade a different generation of citizens.

Lee Hsien Loong will take over as prime minister soon.

Last year, 6561 couples divorced, a new record that has doubled the rate of 10 years ago. The number of marriages was 21,962 – down 5% from 2002.

This gives a divorce-marriage ratio of 3:10, still behind but catching up to America’s 5:10. Marriage problems involve family and personal choices, which are almost impossible for the government to intervene with laws.

The same applies to migrating Singaporeans.

The number of migrants to Australia, New Zealand and Canada rose by a third to 4016 last year from 3092 (2002). For the US, 2003 figures are not available but they totaled 991 in 2002, up 49% in two years.

In his days, Lee Senior did not have to cope with such issues. He had to deal with threats from the communists, racial extremists and organised crime against which he had to – as he described it – “put on the knuckle-duster”.
Today, his son can’t rely on tough measures to tackle some of Singapore’s social dilemmas, like cutting down on divorce or migration rates. Neither can he use legislation to force people to go into business or be creative.

Why are so many marriages breaking down?

From a broad perspective, it is due to Singapore’s progress and affluence. It’s not possible to become a First World country without inheriting some of its social diseases.

A low marriage and birth rate, more divorces and a better-educated workforce leaving for greener pastures abroad are all part of it and knuckle-dusters can’t help.

In addition, some Singaporean in-bred traits contribute to break-ups, like being self-centred, ambitious and materialistic.

One online message offers this explanation: “People feel the need to devote more time to career than family; thus they marry but do not plan to have children.

“In a marriage, children bond the couple together as they see the children as the seeds of their love.
“Without children, couples don't feel very linked emotionally. To them, marriage is just a piece of paper that can be violated at will. Thus, people will have a tendency to flirt around, resulting in break-ups.”

Others attribute it to more opportunities for a promiscuous lifestyle because of the influx of foreign ladies, but women’s rights supporters say this is a chauvinistic excuse.

Women initiate 60% of the break-ups, mostly because of their wayward or financially irresponsible spouses.

It even affects some Westerners. One expatriate wrote: “The temptations that are here simply do not exist in many places in Europe and the US. Many expats who lived a routine existence there come to Asia and go nuts.”

The sexual distraction is just one cause but a growing one. The larger reason lies in the character of the new generation of Singaporeans themselves.

Spoiled by servants or parents, many are just hopeless at looking after themselves or doing housework.

The men think it’s women’s work, while many ladies can’t cook and refuse to clean or wash up, relying on servants. Each expects too much of the other.

Among maid-less couples, friction often rises over responsibilities of housework and is made worse when a baby arrives.

Many men are over-dependent on the wife to care for the home and child, regarding it as her duty – even when she has a full-time job.

This results in a lot of finger pointing. Singaporean women who marry Westerners say their spouses are fairer and more responsible with housework.

On the flip side, some men prefer to marry women from neighbouring countries, particularly Malaysia, China or Vietnam, saying they are less demanding, more feminine and less materialistic.
The clashing personalities of two strong-minded beings highly educated sometimes arrogant and self-centred, make marriage a more stressful proposition.

A tabloid paper last week featured a couple whose marriage lasted only three months. They were junior college classmates who had dated for 10 years.

More women above 50 are also filing for divorce. They are often less educated and more dependent on their husbands for support.

After many years of what they feel is unfair or abusive treatment, they are now calling it quits – with the support of their grown-up children.

Ask most men, and they’ll say it is due to the emergence of the New Singapore Woman and her rising demand of the men folk. And that includes sex.

In the previous generation, sex was viewed as something that men enjoyed and women tolerated. No more. A newspaper reported that women here had a popular concept that Singaporean men were “insensitive, childish, chauvinistic and molly-coddled”.

The men’s magazine FHM quoted a global sexual survey in which Singaporean men were given a paltry 5.1 points out of 10 by their female partners in terms of sexual performance. This was two points below the international average.

Singapore men, on the other hand, rated women 7.2 points out of 10, which is right on the global average. It’s possible that the Singaporean males may be taking women for granted.

Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com (e-mail: cnseah2000@ littlespeck.com )

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