FAMILIES AND MEN IN SINGAPORE

FAMILIES IN SINGAPORE

Almost all Singaporeans lived in small nuclear families. Although both Chinese and Indian traditions favored large extended families, such families were always rare in immigrant Singapore where neither the occupational structure, based on wage labor, or the housing pattern, characterized by small, rented quarters, favored such family forms. In the 1980s, families were important in that most individuals as a matter of course lived with their parents until marriage and after marriage maintained a high level of interaction with parents, brothers, and sisters. Probably the most common leisure activity in Singapore was the Sunday visit to the grandparents for a meal and relaxed conversation with brothers, sisters, in-laws, uncles and aunts, cousins, and other assorted kin. Although the age of marriage increased in the 1970s and 1980s, reaching a mean 28.5 years for grooms and 25.8 years for brides in 1987, Singapore remained a society in which it was assumed that everyone would marry, and marriage was a normal aspect of fully adult status. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Both ethnicity and class affected the form and functioning of families. Chinese and Indian families rested on cultural assumptions of the permanence of marriage and of the household as an ongoing, corporate group whose members, bound by duty, obligation, and subordination, pooled and shared income. The continued efforts of Indian parents to arrange the marriages or at least to influence the marital choices of their offspring and the Tamil obligation to provide daughters with large dowries reflected such cultural definitions of family and household. In a similar manner, some Chinese combined the household with the family enterprise, practicing a traditional entrepreneurial strategy that included mobilizing the savings of all household members and allocating them in accord with a long-term plan for family success. Such a strategy might take the form of a thriving business with branches in the major cities of Malaysia and Indonesia, or of sons and daughters employed in the Singapore civil service, a large foreign bank, or a university in Australia. *

Malay families, on the other hand, gave priority to the individual and to individual interests. They viewed relations between siblings as tenuous and saw the household as a possibly short-lived coalition of autonomous individuals linked by sentiments of mutual concern and affection. Malays had traditionally had much higher rates of divorce and adoption than other ethnic groups, and the distinction continued in the 1980s although the divorce rate was lower than in the l940s or through the l960s. More significantly, for the Malays divorce was regarded as a realistic and normal, although unfortunate, possibility in all marriages. Because Malays did not define the household as a continuing body, they did not make long-range strategic plans to maximize family income and success. In Malay families, husbands, wives, and children with jobs held separate purses and sometimes separate savings accounts. It was thus difficult for Malays to establish family businesses as the Chinese and the Indians did. *

Class affected families in a manner generally similar to many other industrialized societies. In all ethnic groups, lower-class or working-class people tended to be dependent on kin outside the immediate household for a wide range of services, and to operate wide networks of mutual assistance and gift exchange. Throughout the 1980s, kin provided the bulk of child care for married women working in factories. Such relatives were paid for their services, but less than a stranger would have been paid. The possibility of such support often determined whether a woman took a job outside the home, and thus demonstrated the relation between large numbers of kin and material comfort and security. Substantial sums of money were passed back and forth on such occasions as the birthdays of aged parents, the birth of children, or the move into a new apartment. Family members were a major source of information on and referrals to jobs for many unskilled or semiskilled workers. Relations with the extended circle of relatives were not always harmonious or happy, but they were important and necessary to the welfare and comfort of most working-class families. *

Middle- and upper-class households were less dependent on kin networks for support. They maintained close ties with parents and siblings, but did not need to rely on them. Indeed their relations with their extended kin often were more amiable than those of the lower-class households, where mutual need often was accompanied by disputes over allocation of such resources as grandparents' childcare services, or of the costs of supporting elderly parents and other dependent kin. Middle- and upper-class households spent more leisure time with people who were not their relatives and gained much of their social support from networks based on common schooling, occupation, and associational memberships. In such families, the bond between husband and wife was close as they shared more interests and activities than most workingclass couples and made more decisions jointly. *

In the late 2000, singles made up 55.7 percent of all households in Singapore, compared to 50.1 percent 10 years earlier. In 2010, 43 percent of Singaporean men between 30 and 34 were single. The figure was 31 percent for women.

Military Service has Precedence Over Family in Singapore

In 2000, AFP reported: “In a landmark decision, Singapore's Chief Justice Yong Pung How has ruled national service is paramount, taking precedence over family and personal issues. He delivered the ruling in sentencing 22-year-old Lim Sin Han to 18 months' jail for disappearing from national service for three years to support his wife and new baby, the Straits Times reported. "National service is vital to the security of Singapore and it necessarily entails sacrifices by national servicemen and their families," the report said quoting from Yong's written judgement in the latest Law Academy Digest. [Source: Agence France Presse, May 29, 2000 /*\]

"If the court were to sympathise with the personal difficulties of every national serviceman, the overall effectiveness and efficiency of civil defence, or the Singapore armed forces, would be severely compromised." Yong said Lim's plea for leniency because of the need to support his family was unacceptable because national service was about duty to the country ahead of all other interests. It was necessary to hand down a stiff punishment to deter other servicemen from being tempted to be absent without leave (AWOL), he said. The fact Lim had no previous criminal conviction was not a mitigating factor, he added. /*\

“All able-bodies Singapore males are required to do two and a half years of national service from the time they reach the age of 18. Lim reported for national service in January 1996 and went AWOL seven months later. He surrendered to police in October 1999, after working as an odd-job labourer for more than three years to provide for his family.” /*\

Caning and Violence in Singaporean Families

In 1999, Associated Press reported: “Two -thirds of Singapore parents have punished their children by caning them, according to survey results published Sunday in a local newspaper. Many parents in the Southeast Asian nation believe the rod is an effective form of discipline, the report said. Rattan canes used for swatting children are widely sold in Singapore. Sales are most brisk during school examinations, the newspaper said. The survey questioned almost 400 parents with children ages 16 or younger. [Source: Associated Press, April 11, 1999]

In 2007, Associated Press reported: “Three wives of a Singaporean man who raped five of his young daughters were jailed for helping their husband commit incest, according to court documents. The 45-year-old owner of a transport company was sentenced to 32 years in prison and 24 strokes of the cane for repeatedly raping his daughters. He has 10 wives and 64 children. The man, a Muslim who conducted religious classes for his family, told some of his wives and daughters during one class in March 2004 that the Muslim holy book, the Quran, said he owned his children and could have sex with them. [Source: Associated Press, May 23, 2007 +=+]

“The wives then acted as his messengers, notifying the girls - then between 12 and 15 years old - whenever the man wanted to have sex. He was arrested in June 2005 after the eldest daughter notified police, the court documents said. Two of the wives were sentenced to three years in jail after pleading guilty to charges of abetting incest over an 18-month period from December 2003. The other wife was sentenced to nine years because she played a more active role. "Instead of acting to prevent their daughters from falling prey to the sexual perversity, they meekly surrendered their maternal instinct and duty to protect their daughters," District Judge Shaiffudin Saruwan said in his judgment. +=+

“The man has 33 sons and 31 daughters between 9 months and 16 years of age. He had four lawful wives under Muslim law, while the other wives were "contractual" - an arrangement in which a Muslim couple enters into a union for a fixed term. Singapore law allows Muslim men to have four wives. Contractual marriages, however, are not recognized and are invalid. All of the three sentenced wives were legal wives. +=+

Men in Singapore

In March 2004, Agence France Presse reported: “More husbands in Singapore are seeking legal protection to shield themselves from abusive wives, the Straits Times reported. The newspaper cited data showing that the number of husbands taking out personal protection orders (PPOs) has risen from 103 applications in 1997 to between 250 and 300 over the past three years. But the report said that in many cases, the men sought the orders in a tit-for-tat retaliation against their wives who had taken the first move against them. The newspaper also quoted counsellors as saying that abusive husbands still far outweighed the number of abusive wives in the city-state, and that women still bore the brunt of physical violence from the men. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 4, 2004]

In 1999, DPA and the South China Morning Post reported: “Many teenagers see their fathers as cold, aloof and authoritarian, while better-educated parents and those from higher income levels are more supportive of their children, a study said yesterday. The survey of 748 youths aged 16 to 19 found mothers were perceived to be stricter than fathers but more nurturing and caring, and included their offspring in decision-making. Mothers did not use physical force to punish children, but made them feel guilty for letting them down. Results of the survey, conducted by Ong Ai Choo, a National Institute of Education lecturer, were published in the Straits Times.[Source: DPA, South China Morning Post. November 16, 1999 *~*]

“Adolescents who described their fathers as cold and who had frequent arguments with them tended to have behavioural problems such as aggression, playing truant, drinking alcohol, cheating in exams, smoking and fighting, the survey said. "The study is significant because it shows that both father and mother are important for the child's psychological and social development," Ms Ms Ong was quoted as saying. Previous studies in the region had focused more on the mother's role, she said. *~*

“Fathers were urged to show love, warmth and affection by speaking and listening to their offspring if they wanted teenagers who were better-behaved and well-adjusted. They also were urged to explain why they were resorting to punishment without asserting authority. The findings also showed better-educated parents and those from higher income levels were more supportive of children than parents with lower educational standards.” *~*

Military Service in Singapore

Military Service: Singapore has universal conscription. All able-bodied males are required to serve two years in the military and have to take periodic refresher courses after they return to civilian life. Singapore has compulsory military service for males between the ages of 18 and 21 and voluntary service for those reaching 16½ years of age. The conscription term of service is 24 months. Reservists attend annual training until age 40 for enlisted ranks and age 50 for officers. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Boot camp and military life in Singapore is far less harsh than it is in other countries. Soldiers get to eat good meals and sleep on soft beds. They don’t have to wash dishes or peel potatoes and are allowed visits by their parents, girlfriends and friends and can chat with them on their cell phones or in person between activities. Training is called off on rainy days and overweight recruits get a special training program. One military spokesman told Associated Press that their aim was “build up” soldiers “not break them down.”

However, military personnel are not allowed to smoke in public. Any eligible Singaporean boy who fails to turn up for National Service can be prosecuted. If he is convicted, the penalty is imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to S$5000 (US$3000), or both. After their National Service stint, they join the reserves and resume their education or enter the workforce. Reservists are called up annually until their mid-thirties to refresh their skills and make sure they remain physically fit. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 24, 2005 <^>]

In 2004, Singapore cut the length of full-time national service for men from two and half years to two years, a six-month reduction, because of demographic and technological changes. AFP reported: “Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean assured parliament that the reduction would not compromise national security despite repeated warnings by officials of terrorist threats to the city-state. Teo said his ministry had carried out a thorough review and concluded that it can reduce the period of mandatory military training "while maintaining the operational readiness" of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). [Source: Agence France Presse, June 16, 2004]

“The SAF relies on regular troops and a larger pool of reservists who are trained to be mobilised for war at short notice. Teo said a baby boom from 1988 to 1997 had produced a large pool of incoming national servicemen over the coming decade, side by side with a "rapid advance of technology and new war-fighting concepts." National service has often been described as an important instrument of social cohesion in Singapore, whose local population of 3.4 million is dwarfed by neighbouring Malaysia's 23 million and Indonesia's 212 million people. [Ibid]

Mandatory Military Service Turns Singaporean Boys into Fighting Men

In 2005, AFP reported: “It’s a scorching day and the breezy beaches and air-conditioned shopping malls beckon Singapore's youth, but for hundreds of teenage boys, hanging out is totally out of the question. The latest recruits for the city-state's mandatory National Service program are sweating their way through basic military training at Pulau Tekong, a fortified Singaporean island bristling with rifles and testosterone. "Where's your aggression?" an officer growls at trainees, their pimply faces grimacing under camouflage paint as they kick at imaginary enemy troops or squirm on their backs to make it past a prickly canopy of barbed wire. Elsewhere on the island, trainees march in tight columns, undergo marksmanship training and learn parade precision in the shadow of jetliners taking off and landing at Changi international airport. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 24, 2005 <^>]

“All able-bodied boys in Singapore, including both citizens and permanent residents, are eligible to be conscripted for two years of full-time military service once they turn 18. "Whether you are Malay, Chinese or Indian, or any other race, whether your father is rich, your father is a hawker, or your father is a banker, we put them in together to train together," says Colonel Winston Toh, the military's director of national service affairs. <^>

“While some parents and youngsters see it as an interruption in studies and careers, others accept it as an inevitable, and beneficial, rite of passage for Singaporean boys. Bespectacled recruit Andy Lee, who had just completed junior college, looks sullen and a little dazed when he arrives with a fresh batch in Pulau Tekong. He hugs his parents tightly when it is time for them to leave him on the island for two weeks of orientation, after which he will enjoy weekends off. "I'm definitely ready for NS. It's time, it's now my turn," he says. <^>

“Pulau Tekong is where it all begins for fresh recruits, with nine gruelling weeks of basic training before they are farmed out to officer school or duties in the various armed services. Permanent residents who reach the cutoff age must undergo the same military training if they want to continue living in Singapore. As a result, children of westerners or mixed-raced couples train alongside "native" Singaporeans. “Nicolas Huang, a broad-shouldered half-German boy, completed basic training in early March. Asked if he felt he received any particular treatment from officers, he smiles and says: "I've been in the Singapore system since I was born. They just call me ang moh (white person), but it's all just for fun, no harm done." <^>

”The physical training is still tough -- obese boys usually leave National Service as buff young men -- but times have changed since the rudimentary years of the program. In a concession to the much more comfortable modern lifestyle of Singaporeans, trainees get commercially catered food in Pulau Tekong. The mattresses in the bunks are thick and comfortable, and there's a television in the lounge. The recruits are even asked to grade the canteen food in order to keep the caterers on their toes. <^>

“And for a generation raised on electronic video games, technology plays a key role in sharpening recruits' combat skills. Before firing a real weapon in the rifle range, recruits use M-16 simulators in an air-conditioned room with a surround sound system, shooting at static or moving targets on a large video screen occupying the far wall. The results are immediately flashed on the screen, and mistakes in body position, breathing technique and weapon angle are pointed out. Commercially available computer games with combat themes are also modified for use by the military to complement live or simulated exercises. Even exercise routines like sit-ups and chin-ups are electronically tallied in a wired gymnasium to make sure recruits perform the minimum repetitions. "Yes, the boys love it," Lieutenant Colonel Ng Wai Kit, head of the Singapore Army's training development branch, says of the widespread use of technology. "They are into it." <^>

Singaporean House Husbands

Janet Ang is vice-president of IBM's Global Technology Services. Her husband Anthony Cheah has been a house husband, taking care of their four daughters since 1998. "It was unthinkable for a man to be without a job. But Janet is doing well at work and enjoys it so much," Cheah, who turned full-time homemaker from real estate agent, told the China Daily. "We could live off Janet's income in Tokyo while I helped the whole family get used to the new environment." He admits that he learned on the job. "Although it was messy and noisy sometimes, no one complained because they knew it was difficult for me," Cheah recalls. [Source: Qiu Yijiao, China Daily, December 24, 2009 ^^]

Qiu Yijiao wrote in the China Daily, “Ang is thankful to her husband for his efforts. "Anthony knows well that I am better suited to outside work. Surprisingly, he managed to handle all the nitty-gritty within the house," says the fast-talking businesswoman. Later, Cheah got involved in community services and school activities. "Anthony changed their traditional beliefs that men did not make good homemakers. The school our girls attended even renamed the Mothers' Association to Parents' Association," Ang says proudly. ^^

“When Jill became the first Asian CFO of Siemens in China, in 2004. Her husband Kelvin Leong took up the duties at home. "Right from the beginning, I was very open-minded about this (the different gender roles)," Leong says. "It is also great that both Jill and I share the idea that each of us plays an equally important role in the family. We are very comfortable with the different responsibilities we manage." Once one of Lee's colleagues who had not met Leong before asked him which department he handled. "I told him I was responsible for Jill and we both had a good laugh." ^^

“Lee has no qualms about telling people that at home Leong is her CEO. The fact that she can leave all decision-making to him once she returns home after work is extremely relaxing, she says. Like any other homemaker, Leong makes sure the needs of the family are met. When friends and relatives from Singapore pay a visit here, he is the one taking them around Beijing. Leong likes to keep himself well-informed of current news from the press and Internet, particularly of the business world and, especially, the real state sector. ^^

“Cheah works as a training program coordinator in a local orphanage and an honorary teacher helping kids to improve reading skills and hangs out with other male trailing spouses. "My skin is getting thicker now," Cheah jokes. "In a party, I am comfortable exchanging notes with mothers about where to buy fresh food and how my children perform at school, while other men usually talk about business." ^^

Shy Singapore Men Hire Coaches to Find Partners

In 2011, Simin Wang of AFP wrote: “At 17, Xavier See was an insecure school dropout with very few friends, little luck with girls and a bad stutter. "Physically I was out of shape, my skin saw way too little sun and I had terrible hair. Socially, due to my poor looks and grooming, I had poor self-confidence. I never imagined anyone would take me seriously," he says. But after discovering a vibrant online dating community and hiring a social coach to solve his teenage woes, he is a changed man at 23. [Source: Simin Wang, Agence France Presse, March 30, 2011 +++]

“The self-assured, fashion-conscious See is now a professional dating coach and teaches other Singaporean men how to transform themselves and win women's hearts -- for a fee of S$1800 (US$1400) for an intensive three-day course. "Men who take my classes just want to be able to have the confidence and skills needed to sweep women off their feet so that when the (right) one comes along, they will be ready and able to get her," he says. +++

“With 43 percent of Singaporean men between 30 and 34 -- the prime marrying age -- unattached, See has plenty of potential clients in the wealthy city. Among women in the same age group, singles make up 31 percent, resulting in an imbalance against the men, who also have to compete with foreign professionals working in Singapore in wooing local girls. See conducts one-on-one as well as group workshops to teach Singaporeans how to be the partner women want by understanding social dynamics and dating techniques. He also takes them on "field trips" to bookstores, cafes, streets and clubs to interact with women they have never met before. In his workshops, See demonstrates how he himself approaches women, and then watches how the students do it. +++

“See, a dating coach for a US-based company called 24/7 Attractive Man, said he has seen a steady increase in clients from 50 in 2009 to 140 in 2010. Another dating coach who asked to be identified only as "Skilldo" has also seen a rise in students since he started his "boot camps" in 2007. "Through our system of growing up in a conservative Asian society, we definitely do not dare to take as much social risk as (men in) other countries," Skilldo said. He says he has taught more than 700 students, including young men who want to find girlfriends and divorced men who want to learn how to date again. +++

"Guys currently do not socialise. They would work, they would play computer games, but their social skills are very low," said 32-year-old salesman Ryan Tan, who took up dating classes in 2008 to improve his image. He credits his two dating coaches for helping him court his current girlfriend of two years, 35-year-old Theresa Low, whom he plans to marry this year. Men in their twenties are also jumping in early to get a headstart. "Certain people need it, especially the ones who are too nice and those with no confidence in themselves," said a 21-year-old dating-course student who wanted to be known as Mike. +++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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