Love, dating and marriage is of great importance in Singapore, not only in terms of the high value and respect in which the institutions of marriage and the family are held by Singapore’s various ethnic groups, but also for the role they play in shaping the future of the country.
Singapore’s Marriage and Fertility Rates
Many politicians and analysts believe that Singapore cannot sustain its economic growth and development at its current population level and that there needs to be a significant increase in the size of workforce. However, since the 1980s marriage and birth rates in the country have been declining.
Singapore’s total fertility rate (TFR) needs to be 2.1 children per woman in order for its population to be self-sustaining. At present, it is significantly below this, being 1.20 in 2011 and 1.29 in 2012 (a five-year high regarded as a blip because 2012 was a Dragon year in the Chinese zodiac).
Marriage rates are falling too, with decreases in the number of people between 15 – 44 who are married, and an increase in the median age of new brides in 2013 (27.4 years) and grooms (29.9 years) .
The reasons for this are frequently debated, but for many the pressure on Singaporeans to succeed professionally and financially are often seen as the root cause, as young professionals wait until they’ve established their careers before they start to think about a family. However, authorities are concerned that far too many of them are leaving it far too late.
Therefore, since the 1980s the government has been extremely proactive in both encouraging and incentivizing Singaporeans to marry and have children. It runs the Social Development Network (SDN) which is, in essence, a state-sponsored dating agency with the aim to “promote marriage and nurture a culture where singles view marriage as one of their top life goals.”
More significantly, the state offers a great many financial incentives to those who marry and have children. These include tax exemptions, childcare subsidies and parental leave that for a middle-income, two-child family add up to around SGD$142,000 in support until both children turn 7.
Much of Singapore’s nascent nationhood has been constructed on the back of the nuclear family, and its demise would not only be disastrous for the country economically, but may also spell the end of the entire Singapore ‘project’. This is why the authorities play such an active role in encouraging marriage and promoting procreation. The government also takes the view that having the nuclear family unit as the apex of the social structure is a way of ironing out ethnic differences in the country—the family as an ideal is something that all of Singapore’s ethic groups aspire to.
Dating in Singapore
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many young people in Singapore regard dating as a serious business, but at the same time a similar sort of uncertainty as to that which surrounds questions of Singaporean identity also affects the world of dating and relationships. Recent research and surveys suggest that Singaporean men feel that the standards that women expect are too high, while women are often dissatisfied by what is perceived to be the unromantic quality of their male counterparts.
Singaporean women in particular find their status problematic. Foreign influence is perhaps greater in Singapore than just about any other Asian country, and this combined with the country’s high levels of education and achievement (the modern-day corporate woman is called a Singapore New Independent Princess or SNIP) leaves some Singaporean women unsure as to their role. They consider themselves less demure than some of their Asian counterparts, yet not as outgoing and upfront as western women. They are independent and career-oriented, but yet many still have the traditional family with the man as the breadwinner as an ideal.
At the same time, or perhaps as a consequence, Singaporean men are not as patriarchal as in some Asian societies, but nor do they take as light-hearted approach to dating as young men do in western societies, and so they too are somewhat unsure as to how they should act and what their expectations should be with regards to relationships. They have a fundamental belief in ideas of equality and empowerment, yet the majority would still prefer their wives to stay at home to raise children.
In both sexes, therefore, there is a mixture of both liberal, modern attitudes and social conservatism regarding gender roles and relationships, with individuals themselves often holding conflicting views simultaneously
What this uncertainty means is that the business of dating in Singapore is much like that of western countries, in that Singaporean women expect men to do ‘romantic’ things, such as give them gifts, take them for fancy dinners on special occasions, buy them flowers and so on. Most Singaporean men, likewise, are content with this dynamic, although perhaps less enamoured of the expenditure involved!
Interestingly, recent research into dating has also found that many young Singaporeans complain that there is nothing for them to do on dates, apart from see a movie, go shopping or go for a meal, and for some this is why dating is so difficult—they feel that Singapore does not provide them with the atmosphere or locations in which to be ‘romantic’.
Marriage in Singapore
Marriage as an institution continues to be valued by men and women, young and old and across all ethnic groups in Singapore, and is considered a significant milestone in life. Additionally, despite the fact that marriage rates are falling and people are getting married later, there is nevertheless a prevailing sense that marriage is the ‘normal’ state of affairs and that people who don’t marry have missed an important part of life, and although there is no open discrimination against unmarried people, anecdotally there is often the sense that those who don’t marry are atypical, and perhaps out of mainstream life. This is one of the many paradoxes around dating and marriage—most Singaporeans hold the view that marriage is the state to which all should aspire, and yet growing numbers remain unmarried.
For many, what has come to be known as the ‘checklist syndrome’ is to blame. Young Singaporeans, raised on ideas of high achievement, material wealth and upward mobility set criteria that their prospective partner needs to meet, yet increasingly it is thought that they simply set the bar too high, creating unrealistic standards that very few people could attain.
There is added pressure on marriage because cohabitation is not common in Singapore. This is partly due to the government policies that only enable HDB housing to be purchased by married couples (or singles over 35) as well as the conservative attitude of parents and families across all ethnic communities, and so marriage is still the desirable state in order to make a life and, more importantly, raise children.
There is still some sense of stigma attached to divorce in Singapore, although the most recent data suggests that social attitudes are changing and remarriage for divorcees is on the increase. In 2011, 25.5% of Singapore marriages involved at least one partner remarrying, up from 19.7% in 2001.
Inter-racial Relationships and Marriage
Inter-racial relationships and marriage are far from uncommon in Singapore. Latest figures show that in 2010, about 20% of marriages were inter-racial. This is, of course, entirely to be expected in a country that is made up of distinct ethnic groups, has a significant expat population that is increasing all the time, and where growing number of Singaporeans go abroad to work and study.
There are no hard and fast rules regarding inter-racial relationships and they are not in any way officially or systematically discouraged. On the surface at least, a foreigner having a relationship with a Singaporean should expect no real problems, and it raises little comment. However, individual situations and families may be different.
Religious differences may come into play, and some research suggests that this is in fact the primary cause of breakdown in inter-racial relationships. In the case of westerners having relationships with Singaporeans, there is always some caution, particularly from families, because of the view that westerners don’t share or appreciate Asian values. Despite societal changes, parental approval of a partner is still considered to be extremely important by young people in Singapore, and while for most it would not be the absolute criteria that decided who they marry, for many it nevertheless remains important.