Shifting values in Singapore: on co-habitation and marriage

Hi Cheryl,

My stay-in girlfriend just asked me “what is your definition of me as your girlfriend” and I replied “Cohabitation Partner”.

I googled “cohabitation in singapore” and was very intrugued in finding your page. It’s been 4 years since you published this and I see that nothing significant has changed. Outlook towards marriage still revolves around getting a place of their own.

Unfortunately after all these years, you’re still correct. I’m 37 this year & come from a fairly traditional family. I took quite a while before my parents could accept my “defiant nature”.

In your view, how are we going to cross this social tradition in Singapore?

Cheers,
Sam

Hi Sam,

Thanks for stopping by my blog and for sharing your insights into Singapore living.

Though I follow the socio-economic and political developments of Singapore, I have myself not lived there for about a decade and therefore need to qualify that my current perspective on life is perhaps not quite representative of the average Singaporean’s but rather, comes from one who has lived overseas, in my case in Scandinavia (Sweden) for some time now.

And here, I’m picking up some keywords from your post about concepts in the Singapore context such as “co-habitation partner”, “marriage” and the general theme of evolving social traditions in the country, where I’m happy to take this opportunity to share with you some theoretical insights from the disciplines of social psychology (e.g. works by Clare Graves), political science and organization studies about the evolution of individuals, organizations and societies.

When and how Singapore will shift in social traditions will from that point of view depend upon several factors – internal factors such as socio-economic politics, external factors such as global socio-economic politics, and its inhabitants’ capacity to learn and adjust to new challenges. This perspective is simplistic to say the least, because we’ll soon realize that each of these factorial dimensions have in themselves, multi-levels of address. So this tri-pronged view is a rather broad sweep.

As things tend to move so much faster these days – or so it seems – I think Singapore is going through an interesting period of rapid change. One could argue that Singapore has always been in a state of flux, being an immigrant society and having a unique geographical location that has contributed to it being today, a hub for many modern sectors including advanced information and communication technologies. But I think people are feeling the changes more intensely today, and you can gauge this in social media and the Internet, where opinions are voiced.

Singapore today faces social challenges at multiple fronts, with the resultant effect of changes experienced on the socio-cultural demographics of the society. From low fertility rates (Channel NewsAsia. 11 Aug 2011) that in part led to a rather liberal immigrant policy, to its then calibrated immigration policy (Channel NewsAsia. 25 Sept 2012) as a subsequent result from Singaporeans feeling the pressure of the influx of foreigners, to the latest Gallup survey as Singaporeans being ‘emotion neutral’ (Businessweek. 20 Nov 2012), or perhaps more notably suppressing emotions as a coping mechanism towards these rapid contextual changes and in response to their altering urban lifestyle or too high pressures in society.

The manner of progress
And it is this open-sequential spiral of experience of (i) facing a challenge, (ii) facing the need to find a solution, (iii) facing discomfort and the desire to regress, back into a prior ‘comfort zone’, (iv) realizing that this prior comfort zone will not solve the problem, and then (v) evolving forward towards a new perspective that gives new means to cope with the new context of situation. This is the manner in which individuals, societies and even organizations are pushed to evolve to new and higher levels. The theory also says nothing of the time needed for this evolution or if they are even capable of it. Depending on all factors involved, the process of change can be rather quick, occurring in days or a matter of months, the next decade, or maybe never.

Navigate wisely
What in my view is important is that society at large navigates wisely in times of challenges towards a heightened level of patience and tolerance, and does not negatively regress into civil unrest in order for change to happen. And perhaps this is already happening too, with Singaporeans going ‘neutral’. But this neutrality in emotions cannot be a long-term solution because what you don’t want in general is a bottling up of emotions towards an unhealthy eruption of sorts. So new perspectives are needed to cope with a changing reality.

Change in progress
Social traditions in Singapore are already transforming, which is why so many challenges are currently faced at the same time. The fact that unmarried couples do indeed live together these days in Singapore, or that couples hesitate to have children, is testament to that. Of course you can expect most people to prefer to remain in their ‘comfort zones’ i.e. holding on to values that they were taught when they were young or to hold onto a world perspective that they are familiar with. This is what holds together a society but also what creates a generation gap or the gap between ‘what was’, ‘what is’ and ‘what will be’. Which is why you still have the view that living together unmarried is ‘immoral’ and if not married there is the added pressure of doing so in short. To the extent that men are the higher income earner, then in most pragmatic societies which includes China and most of Southeast-Asia, women will want to marry in order to gain the material security the legal contract provides.

In societies where circumstances of living are different, the concepts of co-habitation and marriage can remain distinct. In Sweden for example, the Swedish language reflects its social ideologies where the marital status of a couple is covered by a wider variety of concepts. A couple can be gift meaning married and living together, sambo meaning living together but not married and särbo meaning they are a couple but living apart. And if anyone is single or ensamstående the word includes not married, not living together, maybe single parent, divorced, or widowed. To society at large the details do not matter. Most of what you will find in Scandinavia is that your marital status as well as whether you do or not not have children are non-isssues, as in these will get little or no attention and have no implications whatsoever in the average social setting, except at formal dinners where if you are ‘married’ you will be seated separated from your partner.

Conflation of concepts in the Singapore context
In Singapore, due to various socio-economic and political circumstances, the concept of marriage is often conflated not only with co-habitation but with all kinds of other life project/s or goals in life. Depending on purpose, these conflations may or may not necessarily be advantageous in the long-term perspective for the individuals involved because at the individual level, various life projects have different time-spans.

Some common conflations in Singapore seem to be:

  • People get married ‘to get an apartment’. When done as a couple, this could be between a 2 to 5 years project depending on how long you think it’s fun living with a person you married just to move out of your parents’ place and get an apartment / an adult life of your own. Since the Singapore government housing policies currently place an age criteria for owning your own HDB apartment if you are single, getting married and owning an apartment is easily conflated. This may not be an optimal policy for younger couples who are in effect still maturing as individuals and finding their way in life and who are in no frame of mind to settle for a ‘life partner’ until they know in the first place, who they are and what they want out of life.
  • People get married ‘to have babies’. This is a changing trend in Singapore, where I find that less and less are inclined to even have children today, though the social and policy pressures still exist. The “baby project” can be seen as ca. 20 to 25 years long, or until the children move out and become financially independent, which if the world economy worsens or if due to other circumstances, you might find yourself supporting your children until they are well into their 40s (or longer). In Sweden, there has been much debate about the 1990s baby boom, where these children are now coming of age, need their own place to stay and need jobs – a challenge that the Swedish society is finding increasingly difficult to live up to (SvD 21 Nov 2012). The 1990s generation is also the first Internet generation (Gen-Y) who grew up in the knowledge economy, meaning that their expectations in life, their values and how they organize their networks and lives differ from generations prior to them. The realization of this will in turn have repercussions in the social fabric regarding general organizations and social institutions etc. (SvD 16 Nov 2012)
  • People get married ‘to get a life partner’ instead of finding someone you would want to have as a life partner, and then marry. A ‘life partner’ is ceteris parabis, a 60+ year long project, for the purpose of a lifetime of shared memories. This project is based on individual conviction more than joint signatures on a legal marriage certificate – no amount of signing on a legal document can for example, bind you in heart to a single person, the reason why extra-marital affairs are a common feature. The “life partner project” being of a longer timespan than the “baby project” can ideally accommodate the “baby project” but not vice versa.
  • People get married because ‘society expects them to’.
  • People remain unhappily married for likewise reason.
  • The examples of wrong reasons to get married could probably be expanded upon at length. In old feudal societies in Europe, the issue of marriage was a business deal struck between the parents with the purpose of combining lands and properties in an economically and politically favorable manner, and up until the mid-1900s in Asia arranged marriages were the norm. The young preferring to fall in love and have the marriage format to protect them for the practical consequences of getting pregnant was at the time of arranged marriages, a radical idea. Today, no doubt things are again quite different. Given an increasingly multi-polar world with high individual mobility, it causes that little of the practicalities of even the mid-1900s living are really relevant. So what we have going are some social challenges. The two directions available are to regress and ‘lets get married then to make everyone else happy’ or to progress, evolve, and find something that works for you in the society we live in today.

    Cheers,
    Cheryl

    Related Posts

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.