Monday, December 19, 2005

Marriage in Singapore

Singaporeans are getting married later and later in life. More people are beginning to feel that marriage is a burden, or that being single can be a great alternative to getting married. This essay challenges only the former view that marriage is a burden. I do think that there are wonderful benefits of staying single, so it is not my intention to portray singlehood as an 'inferior' option. My only wish is to defend 'marriage' and to show that it is not as bad or fearful as many young Singaporeans tend to think it is (having been inspired by Mr Wang's recent posts and the ST articles).

Some feel that without an extremely strong financial base, getting married will merely lead the couple into misery. In many cases, the Chinese saying 'pin jian fu qi bai ri ai' (poor couples live a hundred years of misery) is quite true: if both parties are very poor, it may not be such a good idea to get married. Nonetheless, the phenomenon that is manifesting in Singapore is not the abovementioned one; it is one in which young Singaporeans with salaries that are often above $1500, $2500, $3500, or even higher, feel that they cannot get married yet. The key concerns are:

(1) not having enough money to get a nice flat;
(2) not having enough money and inclination to have kids

The first concern is not merely the insufficiency of cash to meet the cost of the flat's initial payments. Most young couples have seen so many advertisements of 'designer condos' or 'designer flats' that they too want such a well-renovated flat. Now, the ST, the television programmes, and the magazines are all partly to be blamed for always glamourizing these beautifully renovated apartments. In the past, people are satisfied just to have a proper apartment to live in; now, even for a temporary flat that one might want to change after 5 years, most couples would want to live in such expensively designed and renovated spaces. There are three forces at work here: the first is the increasing inability of people to defer their satisfaction of their wants (if they want something, they want it immediately), the second is the increasing fetishization of designer living spaces, and the third is the outright refusal to 'stay with parents', even for a few months. It is the combined operation these three entrenched psychological traits of young Singaporeans today that results in the final decision not to get married. This final decision is then simply explained as the 'insufficiency of cash', which I think is only the tip of the iceberg. It's a deceptively simple initial excuse that in fact masks a more complex tripartite operation, which I have elaborated above. (And the refusal to stay with parents might in turn be due to other entrenched social factors...)

The second concern is related to children. The reasoning goes like this: getting married is important if you want to have children, but since we are not ready for children yet (either financially or psychologically, or both), why get married? The implicit idea is that if the man and the woman are not thinking of having children, they do not actually need to get married. Again, there is more than meets the eye regarding this simple view. Three entrenched societal trends are at work. Firstly, pre-marital sex is becoming more common, or even increasingly regarded as 'normal' among some quarters of society, so people no longer feel the need to get married in order to consummate one's love for another. People now 'enjoy' the 'benefits' that in the past marriage alone used to bring: historically, only 'membership has its privileges'; now, even non-members can have the same or even more extensive 'privileges'. But since this shift of norms related to sexuality seems to be a worldwide trend, the Singapore government will have an uphill task if it wishes to criminalize the abovementioned practice...!

Secondly, on the view that one needs to first be 'ready for children'. This sentence is very misleading, yet it is at the same time appealing because it makes several assumptions that one who is not thinking carefully might simply accept without further questioning. The first of these assumptions is that one even needs to be 'ready' mentally in order to have children. This 'mental readiness' may or may not be related to financial readiness; it can even be absent when a couple is financially ready. Now, this line of thinking did not appear overnight. It is related to four entangled factors: (a) Singapore's culture of kiasuism, (b) Singaporeans exceptionally high level of risk aversion, (c) the children products industry's successful indoctrination of people, often via the media, and (d) the herd mentality. The second assumption is that one can be mentally ready, that somehow with the natural flow of time one might one day wake up and feel 'hey! I'm ready!' While this may be possible for some people, I think that for many others, it is impossible to be psychologically 'ready' for a baby. The readiness is instead created by your interactions with the baby when it arrives. So what we have here is a 'catch-22' situation: if you do not have the baby, you can never be 'ready', since the experience of being a parent is so unlike anything that a non-parent has ever experienced that it cannot be mentally prepared for by merely imagining.

Regarding the first assumption, the entanglement is explicated as follows: in a kiasu and 'face conscious' culture, people are afraid of being seen by others (e.g. friends, relatives) as giving their kids an inferior early childhood. Yet, they are also too face conscious to ask for the old baby clothings and other items that they might require, from friends and relatives who might be willing to pass them on. The desire to have the latest artefacts is largely due to the children products industry's constant hammering of the idea through various media and advertising campaigns that parents must certainly buy tonnes and tonnes of expensive products (e.g. diapers, toys, baby cot, etc) in order to welcome their babies. People, being forever gullible, will tend to believe in such rubbish (or, they may not be gullible but they nonetheless choose to prefer the state of affairs that such rubbish advertising portrays to them). In any case, when more and more people adopt such views, they spread the views around, among people they know such as friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, and so on, creating the illusion that such views are now the de facto standard view in society. Being kiasu, Singaporeans also feel that the marketed products might well be 'safer' for their kids or 'better' in some other ways, and so the babies are likely to grow into healthier/gifted/ more energetic kids and could in future cope with a highly competitive society...

The apparently simple statement that 'we're not ready to have kids' is thus supported by a wide range of ideologies and widely-rehearsed myths, which people pass on from one to another in this tiny nation. The above explanation also attempts to illustrate why having the first baby is seen to be such an expensive affair. It's not inherently so, but it has been made out to be so, and the worst thing is that Singaporeans who have become so used to an ultra-hygienic environment have come to believe in the significant superiority and necessity of all those advanced childcare products that have been invented, for the assumption is that what a Singaporean adult is used to would be what the Singaporean infant wants. But I would think that this assumption cannot be adopted without further exploration, since Singaporean infants may well be less pampered than Singaporean adults!!

Having argued that the 'expensiveness' of having a kid is largely imaginary and self-created, I would say that the most critical difference between this generation and earlier generation is that the latter places utmost importance on 'having children'. My parents' generation accepts the need to have kids without much questioning. And because of the priority that they give to 'having children', cost considerations do not pose an obstacle at all. But things are changing, as I have argued in my early essay on 'conceptions of children': people are having an ever more pragmatic orientation towards children. Children are now conceived of in terms of dollars and cents. They are no longer the priceless treasures that they once were...

Anyway, I'm not arguing that people should all get married and have children today even if they see singlehood as a better personal arrangement; it's a personal choice. What I have done is merely to show that beneath the two ice-tips (represented by the two deceptively simple excuses that young Singaporeans present to deflect their elders' encouragement to get married), are two huge icebergs. These two simple excuses mask the two sets of complex forces that underlie Singaporeans' decision not to get married so early. In fact, I would go as far as to claim that young Singaporeans have not even 'decided' not to get married so early; they have merely accepted those views without attempting to challenge the assumptions on which those views depend.


Blogger jeffyen said...

I'm going to take my time reading this... when two gongfu masters decide to join forces and talk about bad arguments concerning the avoidance of marriage, I'd better duck, and meditate a bit first before saying anything silly...haha... Merry Christmas to you... ;)

Fri Dec 23, 02:24:00 PM 2005  
Blogger jllt said...

OooO... Kids should eat rubbish food for a stronger stomach! Many Singaporeans rush for toilets upon eating slightly less hygenic food overseas. Tut tut... Train your kids stomachs! It's for their own good! :D

Sat Dec 24, 12:26:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Jeff, it has been AGES since you popped by! How's life, man? :) Merry X'mas to you and family too!

Hey Jllt, I fully agree with you! There's a Hokkien saying that captures this idea well...

Merry X'mas and have fun overseas!

Sat Dec 24, 12:25:00 PM 2005  
Blogger BL said...

Hi Heavenly-Sword,

Well, I have two opinions on marriage:

1. Marriage is an institution in which a man loses his bachelors and a woman gains her masters.

2. Man is incomplete until he is married. By then, he is really finished.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Sun Dec 25, 02:19:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi BL, Merry X'mas (and Happy Boxing Day) :) Wish you a great 2006 too!

Aha, I like those two statements about marriage. Marriage does seem to benefit women more! ;)

Mon Dec 26, 01:11:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Mr Wang Says So said...


Mr Wang is most impressed with Mr Wang because Mr Wang's posts have inspired your highly articulate and well-reasoned post!

Wed Dec 28, 01:01:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Thanks, Mr Wang :]

Fri Dec 30, 12:16:00 AM 2005  
Blogger domestic rat said...

I think not getting married goes beyond monetary issues. It's about convenience. Convenient to let go of someone when things doesnt work out without needing to sort out messy details like a house, joint accounts, and the worst, kids.

Fri Dec 30, 08:58:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Aha, Domestic Rat: That's quite true too! :] A marriage is really a contract - sign it and you're tied down permanently (for better or for worse).

Maybe not having a joint account is better then. As for the house, I guess just let the real estate agent handle it....I think the real headache will be the kids - their emotional well-being, their future arrangements, etc.

Fri Dec 30, 09:00:00 PM 2005  
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