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Early Singapore family in the 1890s.
Source: Gretchen Liu, courtesy of National Archives ofSingapore.


Singapore’s government has often cited the family as the “basic building block of society”. However, the “family” has been defined narrowly, around heterosexual marriage, with clearly gendered roles within the family unit (including men as “head of the household”), and specific assumptions of economic interdependence among family members. State policy has long been geared towards encouraging the growth of such families, while other family types have often been neglected or ignored.

Family and marriage in the early days

Prior to 1961, many marriages in Singapore lacked official documentation. “Muslim marriages had been registered, as had marriages for Christians,” wrote Ann Wee in The Ties That Bind: In Search of the Modern Singapore Family. “Also a small number of middle-class Singaporeans had chosen the monogamous option of British-style ‘registry marriage’. But the vast majority of marriages were celebrated by either Chinese or Indian custom, without there being any official record whatsoever of their existence.” 1 This tended to disadvantage women; men were able to take on multiple wives, and women had no formal rights to property.

Although this situation held some advantages for children –for example, all that was needed in Chinese custom for a child to be seen as legitimate was acknowledgement from the father – women often lacked legal protection in the event of failed marriages.

Before the Women’s Charter, any man in Singapore could take more than one wife. This was something that advocates and groups for women’s rights –such as the Singapore Council of Women (SCW)–worked hard to change.

Singapore's first women's advocacy group

The Singapore Council of Women was established in 1952 and was set apart from other women’s organisations at the time because of its focus on lobbying for better rights and protections for women in Singapore.

Related themes Civil Society

Following the election of 1959, the People’s Action Party took steps to fulfil the promises they had made when courting the female vote.

Action was also taken to introduce legal protection for Muslim wives. Thanks to the lobbying of the Muslim women’s group Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura, a Syariah Court was established in 1958, even before the Women’s Charter had been enacted.

What is syariah law?

Syariah law is the Islamic legal system based on teachings of the Quran and the traditions of Prophet. The law encompasses both religious and secular aspects of everyday Muslim life. Because of how the law is derived, there is varied interpretation and implementation of it within different Muslim societies today.

Khatijun Nissa Siraj (often known as Mrs Mohamed Siraj) was a key figure in the push for an Islamic family court, and still remembers how easily men could divorce and abandon their wives. “The man could just divorce the woman, you know? ... They didn’t have to do anything for the woman,” she said in an interview for this feature. 2

Her daughter Zaibun Siraj added, “The men would go to the kathi and say, ‘I divorce you.’ A man could get a divorce just by saying ‘I divorce you’ three times. And then the divorce notification would come in the post to the wives.”

The setting up of the Syariah Court to deal with family, marriage and divorce required couples to go for counselling before divorces could be finalised. Upon divorce, husbands were required to pay some alimony to their wives – in the early days of the Court this was sometimes a paltry sum of $30 a month for three months. 3

The Court also made it more difficult for men to have multiple wives. “They had to go through the process, if they wanted to marry more than one wife... they had to come to the court and obtain the current wife’s consent,” added Siraj. “In the past they didn’t have to do that. They could either divorce the wife, or they could marry another woman and have up to three wives or so, even if they couldn’t afford to look after them! So the setting up of the Court was a good thing because it brought all the other laws into attention.” 4

Following the election of 1959 – in which Singaporeans were, for the first time, able to fully elect their government – the People’s Action Party took steps to fulfil the promises they had made when courting the female vote. The Women’s Charter, passed in 1961, played a crucial role in Singapore’s economic progress by encouraging the full participation of women. C

The passage of the Charter made polygamy illegal for all except Muslim Singaporeans, and ensured a wife’s right to a different domicile from her husband. It also stated the rights and duties of both husbands and wives in the management of the home and children, made it obligatory for parents to maintain their children, and for a husband to maintain his wife. Governing divorce proceedings, the Charter entitled the divorced spouse to a share of matrimonial assets, enabled a battered spouse to gain protection from the perpetrator, and provided a penalty for offences against women and girls.

An introduction to the Women’s Charter

The Women’s Charter was a piece of legislation passed to protect the rights of women and girls in Singapore. It deals with issues such as polygamy, divorce and the division of matrimonial assets. It also provides for protection against domestic violence. It applies to all Singaporeans, with the exception of those married under Muslim law when it comes to divorce. Related themes Family Violence Civil Society

“If you were married under customary law, prior to '61, even if you're the 10th wife, you're still recognised as a wife. Now because middle-class people had not had what they would regard as a full-blown marriage during the Japanese period, you got a rush to go and actually register under the Women’s Charter, just to make sure [that they would be considered as] married!” said Wee in an interview for this feature. 5

The new Administration of Muslim Law Act followed the Women’s Charter, and “made sure that polygamy for Muslims was governed by the strictest interpretation of Islamic Law.” 6

“It is rare to encounter a statute, such as the Women’s Charter, the enactment of which by the legislature was so closely bound up with the political development of the nation,” wrote Leong Wai Kum. “The political party that won the first general election to the legislature held in Singapore in 1959... rightly envisioned of national reconstruction to require the efforts of both men and women equally: ‘[We] stand for the equality... of opportunity for education and employment for all Singapore citizens.’ Thus the political leaders wisely believed in raising the status and marital condition of the majority of women. 7

Family Norms

From Kampong to HDB

When the first PAP government came to power, a majority of the population lived in kampongs or overcrowded slums. Recognising that housing would be a major challenge in the growing city, the government set up the Housing Development Board (HDB) in 1960 to look into the issue.

“The family was extremely important to the squatter population, particularly among the Chinese; it was one of the major reasons why in many cases they had moved out - as nuclear families - of the Central Area,such as Chinatown, into the kampongs,” wrote historian Loh Kah Seng in an email interview for this feature. “The families who did so were largely low income but extremely optimistic about the future and were willing to change their residential and housing patterns for the sake of their children. Prior to this move, most of the population had lived in the shophouses in the Central Area, but such housing for single men was no longer adequate for big families after WWII.” 8

Families queuing for the ballot of Macpherson HDB flats under the Home Ownership for the People scheme (1965). Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

The move from kampongs and shophouses to HDB estates had a profound impact on families. “The most important change was economic and the family becoming an economic unit. The HDB estate or new town was built with crèches and schools, and one of the primary aims of the government was to encourage women to work,” wrote Loh. “HDB housing was an important reason why women increasingly worked full-time (rather than casually or in housework before); the two-income family – at least before the birth of children – became increasingly common in order to pay for the flats.”

As Singaporeans began to move from villages into HDB estates, anti-natalist calls began in the late 1960s, pressing people to have smaller families. 9 Multigenerational families were not that common until about the time HDB flats started to break them apart, since many early migrants migrated alone rather than with families. This culminated in the Stop At Two campaign in the early 1970s as a way to control population growth. Initiatives included a large-scale public education effort, along with an array of legislation and polices aimed at encouraging Singaporeans to have fewer children. 10 Then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee explicitly framed the nuclear family as better than extended families and as a precondition to economic accumulation. 11

Small Families have a Better Education. Singapore wants all married couples to have no more than two children so that there will be food, work, a home and security for everyone (1978). Source: Singapore Family Planning and Population Board
Source: Singapore Family Planning and Population Board

By 1975, Singapore had reached the replacement fertility level of 2.1 children per woman. Stop At Two had been effective, but the drop in fertility rate also had to be attributed to other factors: women’s higher educational levels, their increasing participation in the workforce, family nuclearisation and better living conditions all contributed to smaller families.

Further impact of Stop At Two

The Stop At Two campaign was a huge public education campaign that encouraged Singaporeans to stop at two children, regardless of whether they were sons or daughters. The campaign had a knock-on effect for girls’ access to education, as parents could better afford to educate their daughters. Related themes Education Reproductive Rights

The Great Marriage Debate

Following the publication of the 1980 census, the state grew concerned that better-educated women were reproducing at lower rates than less-educated women, and that many graduate women were remaining single. In his 1983 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew worried that, if this continued, the following generation might be “depleted of the talented”. 12

It was a key example of the eugenicist mindset that was adopted at the time: there was a belief that better-educated parents would produce more intelligent, talented offspring, and that it was therefore important to ensure that graduate men and women had more children.

Mr Lee’s comments sparked a public controversy which the press dubbed the Great Marriage Debate. Still, the government pushed on and introduced a slew of eugenicist policies the following year.

In detail: the Great Marriage Debate

TThe Great Marriage Debate refers to a period in 1983-1984 when the PAP government tried to encourage highly-educated women to get married and have children. For example, it formed the Social Development Unit in 1984 to help university-educated men and women in the public service to socialise, in the hopes that this would lead to marriage. It also introduced a series of financial and social incentives to encourage graduate women to marry and have more children. This rhetoric irked many young graduate women, who came together to speak out against such pronouncements. Related themes Education

The Great Marriage Debate did not just involve questions of which socio-economic groups were more fit to reproduce; it also involved a discussion of women’s roles.

The government took a number of steps towards encouraging graduate women to marry and have more children. For example, it established the Social Development Unit (SDU) to encourage matches between graduates. The government also introduced the Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme, where children of graduate mothers, beginning from the third child, would receive priority in Primary One registration in a school of their choice.

The Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme led to much anger and resentment amongst non-graduates, but even graduate women found it unfair. The policy was scrapped within a year.

The founding of AWARE

Frustration with the Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme – along with a number of sexist comments made during the Great Marriage Debate – was a major contributing factor to the formation of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), which today is Singapore’s largest gender equality organisation. Related themes Civil Society

The Great Marriage Debate did not just involve questions of which socio-economic groups were more fit to reproduce; it also involved a discussion of women’s roles. In his 1983 National Day Rally speech, Mr Lee Kuan Yew bemoaned how giving women and girls equal opportunities in education and employment had “affected their traditional role as mothers”, and argued that women should be discouraged from joining certain occupations. 13

Equal employment opportunities, yes, but we shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers … You just can’t be doing a full-time heavy job like that of a doctor, engineer and run a home and bring up children … their contribution to the next generation … is more important than their contribution to this generation. 14

Graduate women, rather than graduate men, were singled out for not reproducing. Dr Vivienne Wee, a founding member of AWARE and co-organiser of the Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives forum, recalls receiving a phone call in 1984 from the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. They asked if she would like to go on television to explain why, as a graduate woman, she did not have children. She hung up. 15

Determining the head of the household

The government has also cited the supposedly “Asian tradition where husbands are the head of households” as a justification for the way some family-related policies are structured. 16 For instance, only in 2004 was it announced that female civil servants could enjoy the same medical benefits for their dependants as their male counterparts. 17 This is despite the fact that the proportion of female-headed households has steadily crept upwards, from 17.8 per cent in 1990 to 21.6 per cent in 2010.

Following this mindset where a family is defined and represented by the man, a child born outside Singapore to a Singaporean mother and a non-Singaporean father had to apply for citizenship by application, which may have been refused. Meanwhile, a child born to a non-Singaporean mother and a Singaporean father received citizenship by descent. The government defended this policy in its initial report to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000, but amended the Constitution in 2004 to allow overseas-born children to obtain citizenship through their Singaporean mothers.

Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts (1990s).

Low fertility rates and population issues continued to be a cause of concern for the government. In 2000, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced the creation of a Ministerial Committee on Marriage and Procreation during his National Day Rally speech. The Public Education Committee on Family (PEC) was formed in 2000 to strengthen the family by “making it an important life goal.” 18

The (new campaigns) focused on the need to change women’s behaviours at work and at home, and most of the “incentives” were targeted at middle-class women. There was very little mention of men’s roles.

A new scheme was also introduced that same year to encourage marriage and childbearing. “This time, the more ‘romantic’ tone of campaign, titled “Romancing Singapore,” pronouncing the advantages of having families gave way to more specific measures to reduce the obstacles faced by couples in starting a family, and to create a total environment conducive to raising a family,” wrote researchers Theresa Wong and Brenda Yeoh. “In spite of the purported emphasis on the ‘environment’ of caring for the family, the new package continued the old fashion of disbursing monetary incentives to couples.” 19

The new campaigns and policies also continued to reproduce specific roles for men and women. They primarily focused on the need to change women’s behaviours at work and at home, and most of the “incentives” were targeted at middle-class women. There was very little mention, on the other hand, of men’s roles and how they would need to change. 20

Two initiatives were announced in 2001 — the Child Development Co-Savings Scheme (also known as the Baby Bonus Scheme) and the Third Child Paid Maternity Leave Scheme (also known as 3CML). The Baby Bonus Scheme was first introduced on 1 April 2001 initially gave out a first tier of payments of up to S$9,000 for the second child and $18,000 for the third child, paid over six years. The Scheme was enhanced in August 2004, August 2008 and March 2012.

The first Marriage and Parenthood Package also included infant care and childcare subsidies as well as tax benefits for mothers. In monetary terms, subsequent packages have grown from $500 million per year in 2001 to $1.6 billion per year in 2008.

“The Marriage and Parenthood Package is an incentive for married couples…not a financial assistance scheme for children.”

Adoption leave was also introduced in 2004 due to the steady advocacy by adoptive parents to provide time for parents to bond with their adopted child. It was not a mandatory provision, but employers who voluntarily granted adoption leave to their employees were able to claim reimbursement of four weeks’ salary from the government. “I was eligible for adoption leave when me and my husband adopted our son, Christian, as an infant from Indonesia in 2011,” said Melanie Lee, an adoptive mother and author of The Adventures of Squirky, a series of books on adoption. “However, I was only eligible for leave and a baby bonus once my son became a citizen, a process that took several months.”

The contrast is stark when comparing adoption leave to the maternity leave prescribed under the Child Development and Co-savings Act, which provides for 16 weeks of maternity leave for citizen births to married couples as a way to incentivise more births.

“So much is dependent on the ‘kindness’ of the employer,” Lee added. She recalls that a friend in her adoption community was given eight weeks of unpaid leave. “It’s not really a standard policy yet.” 21

In 2007, single mothers were made eligible for government-paid maternity leave only if they married the father of their child within three months of the child’s birth. The current policy for unmarried women is less than that for married women and is partly paid by the company, with no funds from the state.

“The Marriage and Parenthood Package is an incentive for married couples,” said Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, implying that the state only “approves” of children born within the context of a heterosexual marriage. “It is not a financial assistance scheme for children. So the Government cannot and should not be the surrogate father.” 22

What is provided within Marriage and Parenthood Packages?

The first Marriage and Parenthood Package was introduced in 2001, and was most recently extended in the Marriage and Parenthood Package 2013.

These packages provide benefits for young parents in terms of public housing, tax relief, childcare leave and cash gifts in the form of the Baby Bonus.

This policy is still employed today, betraying a mindset that was justified by then-Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing in 2015. Speaking in Parliament, he explained that these additional benefits are given "to encourage and support parenthood within the context of marriage. This form of parenthood is a prevailing societal norm in Singapore which the Government seeks to preserve.” 23 Though his successor, Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, announced his intention in July 2015 to review policies affecting single parents, it remains unclear whether this will extend to complete equality and inclusion.

However, all the government’s measures failed to stop Singapore’s total fertility rate from falling to 1.2 in 2011. There continues to be a steady trend of increasing divorce rates, of late and fewer marriages, and of smaller families.

Amendments made to the Women’s Charter in January 2011 to better mitigate the impact of divorce and to improve women’s’ access to maintenance fees. The amendments introduced provisions to facilitate marriages in Singapore. It also addressed divorce and its impact, and strengthened the enforcement of maintenance orders to better safeguard children's needs after a divorce.

While social and economic norms have shifted since the Women’s Charter was drafted, domestic labour remains unequally shared due to gendered policies enacted. According to a labour force survey, 43.3 per cent of economically inactive women cited housework, childcare and other caregiving activities as their main reason for not working or looking for a job, compared with 1.8 per cent of men. 24

In other households, foreign domestic workers are hired as substitutes for women’s household labour so that Singaporean women will be able to go to work, thus intensifying the shift in the burden of domestic work, such as housework and care of dependents, from the household to the marketplace.

The introduction of foreign domestic workers into the modern Singapore family

Foreign Domestic Workers, or FDWs, refer to women who come to Singapore to take on household and caregiving labour. Beginning in the 1970s, the government moved towards migrant domestic labour in response to more Singaporean women joining the workforce. In 1978, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act was amended to allow employment visas for this purpose.

These women often come from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar, and live in the homes of their employers.

Related themes Migration Work & Economy

Halimah Yacob calls for mandatory eldercare leave. Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

It was also in 2004 that Member of Parliament Halimah Yacob first proposed the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) consider legislating paternity leave of not more than five days a year:

The other way of ensuring that there will be no discrimination against women if they avail themselves of the longer maternity leave, is to extend this benefit to fathers as well… At the same time, we also encourage fathers to assume greater responsibility over childrearing and family responsibilities. Over time, this would be itself creating a momentum in terms of changing society's norms and perceptions about work and family. 25

“A slight change in the paternity leave policy to make it a national programme could help increase male participation in domestic work,” said Shirley Sun, an associate professor in the Sociology department of Nanyang Technological University. She added that “with our deep-rooted traditions where men play the role of provider, taking leave… would be first expected of the mother and not the father.” 26

Despite early suggestions, it was not until 2013 that working fathers were made eligible for one week of government-paid paternity leave per confinement. This could only to be taken continuously and within 16 weeks from the birth of the child. A second week – optional for employers – was announced in 2015. In contrast, maternity leave for women increased steadily and is now a respectable 16 weeks, at least for married women of children who are Singapore citizens.

Changes to policies have been incremental for fifty years, but the government continues its “soft paternalistic” policies by skewing choices towards a prescription for specific roles for men and women in the family.

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  1. Wee, Ann. “The Way We Were: The Singapore Family of Times Past.” In The Ties That Bind: In Search of Modern Singapore Family, 1st ed., edited by Constance Singam, 9–55. Singapore: Armour Publishing, 1996.
  2. Siraj, Khatijun Nissa and Zaibun Siraj. Interview with Kirsten Han, 24 February 2015.
  3. See note 2
  4. See note 2
  5. Wee, Ann. Interview with Pooja Makhijani and Yong Shuling, 5 March 2015.
  6. See note 1.
  7. Leong, Wai Kum. “Significant Provisions in the Women's Charter.” In Singapore Women's Charter: Roles, Responsibilities, and Rights in Marriage, 1st ed., edited by Theresa W. Devasahayam, 80. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011.
  8. Loh, Kah Seng. Email interview with Kirsten Han, 16 March 2015.
  9. Saw, Swee-Hock. 2005. Population Policies and Programmes in Singapore. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
  10. Wong, Theresa and Brenda S.A. Yeoh. “Fertility and the Family: An Overview of the Pro-natalist Population Policies in Singapore.” Asian MetaCentre Research Paper Series 12. Accessed [20 June 2015].
  11. Teo, Youyenn. Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society. London and New York: Routledge, 2011.
  12. Quah, Jon S.T. “Singapore in 1983: The Continuing Search for Talent.” Asian Survey 24(2) (1984): 178-186.
  13. See note 9.
  14. “Talent for the Future.” The Straits Times, 15 August 1983. Accessed [22 June 2015].
  15. Wee, Vivienne. Interview with Emily Charissa Lim, 21 February 2015.
  16. Ministry of Community Development. “Singapore’s Initial Report to the UN Committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” Accessed [12 March 2015].
  17. Ministry of Social and Family Development. “Singapore’s Third Periodic Report to the UN Committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” Accessed [17 December 2015].
  18. Ministry of Social and Family Development. “Family Matters: A Report of the Public Education Committee on Family (Abridged Version), January 2002.” Accessed [28 April 2015].
  19. See note 10
  20. Teo, Youyenn. "Population problems, family policies, and the naturalization of differentiated deservedness." In The Future of Singapore: Population, Society and the Nature of the State, 1st ed., edited by Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir and Bryan S. Turner, 64-82. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
  21. Lee, Melanie. Interview with Pooja Makhijani, 13 March 2015.
  22. Head I – Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.” Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard), volume 82, sitting 19, column 3412, 8 March 2007. Accessed [26 December 2015].
  23. The New Paper. “Norms are slowly but surely changing.” Accessed [28 April 2015].
  24. Ministry of Manpower. “Labor Force in Singapore, 2013.” Accessed [28 April 2015].
  25. “Speech by Madam Halimah Yacob, MP for Jurong GRC, Budget Debate 8 March 2004.” Accessed [28 April 2015].
  26. “Tenth Family Research Network (FRN) Forum: ‘Woman, Wife & Working Mother – The Role of Women in the Family’.” Accessed [15 April 2015].