First spotted on Singapore Window
August 21, 2005
Insight Down South By Seah Chiang Nee
GLOBALLY connected and well-educated, Singapore is undergoing great social changes, one of which is a weakening of the family unit.
Like in other Asian cities, Singaporean couples are filing for divorce in worrying numbers, some of them barely months after tying the knot. At the same time, marriage and birthrates are in decline.
This may have an impact on the city’s long-term future. Singapore has about a million families, and its leaders have repeatedly said that the country can do well only if these units are well.
Last year, the number of divorces hit a peak of 6561 cases, doubling over 10 years. Among Muslims, more than three in 10 marriages broke up within the first five years. This means that for every seven marriages registered in Singapore, two ended in divorce, or some 28.5%.
This rate, however, is nowhere near the US and West Europe, where half the marriages end up in divorce. It is also lower than South Korea (47%), Hong Kong (41%) and Japan (38%) but higher than China (15%).
Divorces are rising here because the younger generation has been brought up differently. They are more individualistic and when faced with a problem in marriage, each thinks of his or her own interests instead of family harmony. Traditionalists blame it on Western culture.
Forty years ago, divorce was unthinkable but today’s MTV generation feels less attached to the concept of marriage.
It’s the wife who initiates many of the break-ups. Today’s women are no longer subservient to their men. Independent-minded, many of them no longer tolerate their husbands’ abuse or infidelity. In fact, some women even rival man’s propensity for adultery.
The Women’s Charter protects their financial interests in the event of a break-up, often ensuring the husband contribute to his divorced wife and estranged children. It’s hard to believe, but many Singaporean men see themselves as the victims of these social changes.
“We can succeed financially on our own without a man,” said a single mother with a seven-year-old son.
The women’s assertiveness has come as a blow to those men who are raised to believe that their role in a marriage should be unquestioning.
It isn’t only 20-somethings breaking up. Like in Japan, divorce is becoming more frequent among mature couples, too. After tolerating it for years, many suffering spouses (often the wives) wait until their children have grown up before taking action.
About 21% of last year’s divorces in Singapore were between spouses who had been married for 20 years or more.
According to cases, the danger age is 35 to 49, most of them having wedded before they were 25. Half the couples said problems had cropped up in the first four years of marriage. Dual-income couples often struggle with juggling the need to earn money and enjoying a healthy family life. Surprisingly, infidelity accounts for only 9% of divorces.
A high level of education is scant help; half the divorced people were graduates or diploma holders. Recent economic hardship is an added cause, although failure to communicate is said to be the biggest factor.
One divorcee remarked: “We don’t live in a land of milk and honey – you need money to survive. So when you have insufficient money, there’s stress on the marriage.”
Divorce is evidently an excruciatingly painful affair, but because of changing social mores, the younger set doesn’t feel the stigma that was once attached to it.
An open, modern city, Singapore lies on the crossroads between East and West.
At least a quarter of its 4.2 million population are foreigners. It receives 8.5 million tourists a year, and some 150,000 Singaporeans are working or studying abroad.
With these exposures, the society has become more vulnerable to outside influences than most of its rural neighbours.
A generation ago, its people began moving into high-rise housing, bringing to an end the traditional extended family under one roof. More than 90% of Singaporeans are now flat dwellers.
Unhappy couples are left without the mediation or advice that aged parents had provided in the past.
The transformation also stems from the vast number of educated women joining the labour force.
Singaporeans are a very competitive lot and this leaves a toll on home leisure. To improve family life, the civil service has just reduced the work-week to five days.
And creeping into the picture are such 21st century practices as separate bank accounts between husband and wife, pre-nuptial contracts and having private investigators to check into spouses’ lives.
Overall, the tone for social changes is the globalisation of ideas and popular culture with their new role models for any woman thinking of doing it alone.
The influence of TV, the Internet and other imported entertainment may have contributed to the phenomenon. Unfortunately, the trend is accompanied by a steady drop in the number of marriages. In 2003, only 21,962 couples registered to be married, a year’s drop of 5%.
The transformation of the family has, however, been tempered to an extent by bilingual education and organised efforts to retain cultural values. A Family Day is celebrated every year in Singapore’s heartland. Although most Singaporeans live in small nuclear families, many opt to live near parents for practical reasons. No one can care for their children better than dad and mum.
It helps to ensure a passing down of generational values.
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com
"The Flight From Marriage" in South and South East Asia by Gavin W. Jones (pdf)
The Battle of Sexuality