Thursday, September 23, 2010

It is time to "kids" and make "marry" in Singapore

Singapore's birth rates (and replacement rates, or whatever index that pleases you) are probably not the best in years. Singaporeans are marrying later. You know the whole social phenomenon.

The National Family Council (yes, we Singaporeans need a council to tell us what the concept of "family" is and should be) is recently reported to be spearheading a campaign to get youths to embrace the(ir) idea of marriage. Talk about the shameless glorification of heterosexuality.

When I saw its acronym NFC and read that the National Family Council is developing this initiative, I can't help but feel that the NFC really means "Nobody Fucking Cares".

Well, here is the article, from the Channel NewsAsia (why is "NewsAsia" one word any way?) website,, reproduced for public interest and critical commentary (two defences against intellectual property rights infringement, a common excuse used by semi-IP-literate big companies to bully random netizens):

National Family Council wants to convince youths to settle down early
By Evelyn Choo. September 22, 2010.

The National Family Council (NFC) is expanding its efforts to target a new segment of society - youths.

It wants youths to embrace the idea of marrying and having children early, as part of their definition of success.

But just how easy is that?

"Getting married early? I think it may restrict you (from) things that you (want) to do," said one Singaporean.

"I want my own independence. I want to do whatever I want and not worry about having a family," said another.

Students in secondary or tertiary institutions are the new targets.

"We don't want youth to look at success purely in terms of having a great education, and getting a good job and making good money. I think the kid should also embrace the notion of having a good family as part of their definition of success. So we have to look at other ways and means of reaching out to the youth," said Lim Soon Hock, chairman of National Family Council.

The council said it will use the new media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, along with viral marketing methods to reach out to Generation Y.

Another idea is through youth forums, where they can air their views on settling down.

22-year-old Uma Devi, a student of Singapore Management University, thinks the new strategy of giving youths a voice could work.

She said: "It will be effective. At the same time, before a person wants to set up a family, they should be stable first. It'll be better to work that out instead of driving at the youths."

Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan said: "Family as an institution in Singapore is under stress. Many of the other things that we strive and spend so much time on in life ultimately are all very transitory and sometimes quite meaningless.

"But we want to emphasise the family. It's not because we need to produce the next generation of economic workers. And it certainly isn't just about pro-creation or fertility."

NFC will hold a strategic planning workshop next month, where more details will be brainstormed and ironed out. - CNA /ls

There are many things to discuss here, and I don't think I'll be able to organise them well, but that's fine any way, as I don't get a single grain of rice for doing this, although I wish I could have. I'll take NTUC vouchers!

First up, the concept of marriage and procreation (having kids), and not to mention, the little thing in between that nobody dares to talk about or risk being stared at and backtalked by some religious bigot, sex.

In sociology class, I learned that marriage, sex and having children have long been assumed to be one. What bind the three entities into one whole concept are human sense-making and moralisation.

In reality, you can have one without the other. You can be married but have no children. You can have sex without getting married. You can even have children (adoption) without even getting married or having (procreative heterosexual put-the-pee-pee-into-the-flower) sex.

But policy-makers make the assumption, I mean, ASSUMPTION, that if people appreciate and embrace the idea of being together and getting married, children will follow. That is not always the case.

Next, sociologically (again), the fact that our (PAP) government and the way things are run in Singapore are driven by the economic imperative of increasing and sustaining productivity, reaching certain economic growth only measurable in percentage points, have all created the severe repercussion that is the social phenomenon we experience today.

We have spent more than half the nation's young life rapidly industrialising and developing the economy. I am in the belief the the government has often treated the social ramifications of their economic imperative as secondary to achieving the targeted percentage points of economic growth. In short, they/we (because we democratically voted them in) have created a problem for ourselves.

In order to push development, progress and sustainability, in the economic sense, you need minds to think that way. You need rational, perhaps over-rational minds, impatient for efficiency and predictability, plus that little industrious spirit. Pleasure and smelling the roses can be postponed until you have reached the economic objectives set for you.

Now, we have a new objective - get married and have kids. Vivian Balakrishan did try to divorce the idea of marriage/kids from the economic imperative, e.g. marriage not as a means to producing another generation of economic workers. For all his good intentions and sociological imagination, he is still subjected to the political regime whose political legitimacy is established on its economic leadership. This is a political regime long left unchallenged and unshaken in a society whose democratic and political soul has been sucked out and replaced with an economic agenda which ultimately serves and feeds back into the regime.

But Balakrishnan's release is a prime example of illusory agency, a view or a position imagined to be counter-discursive or capable of subverting or negotiating with the dominant rational economic discourse of the state, but in actual fact is its mere constitution, subjected and functional to it. Poststructuralism treads where (most schools of) sociology does not.

Well, that might be the compassionate government's view, but the government stays where it is so long as its economic leadership remains strong. There is also no denying that everyone is technically an economic worker.

In such a rational economic environment, there are items that fall within and those that fall outside the domains of economic rationality. For example, working a certain number of hours, reaching the targets set by your superior, and getting the remuneration for your time and sweat, are all economically rational actions. Conversely, falling in love is normally (NORMALLY) not an economically rational thing. Having children in the post-industrial era is not normally an economically rational thing either.

The idea of happiness and freedom is articulated in terms of wealth and wealth accumulation, and whatever positive social externalities that come with them (e.g. having new friends when you are rich). In this rational economic (post-industrial) environment, we are born into the concept of dependence, and we are born dependent. Our idea of freedom is independence, and independence is articulated in the language of financial independence.

Well, part of the financial independence-craving phenomenon we observe in our younger generation today can also be attributed to the influence of upscale urban living in already developed cities, such as those in the United States, parts of Europe, cities in Japan and Korea. It is always very empowering to wrap yourself in material possessions, culturally deemed to represent a position of superiority and success, since success within the domains of economic rationality is thus measured in economic terms.

This brings me to the next issue - the definition of success. Like it or not, success remains defined by the 5 C's. Cash, condominium (property and investments), car, credit card and country club membership (not really, I think). They are all material in nature, with socially ascribed meanings of importance and significance.

We are socialised into believing that esteem and a sense of self are intricately tied to feeling a sense of importance and feeling significant, but these entities are articulated in terms of materialism and wealth accumulation. This is a symptom of a combination of the following phenomena: The (almost stereotypical) ethnic Chinese cultural idea of wealth accumulation and "face"; the historical fact that we have emerged from rapid industrialisation and are continuing to "progress" further; the (ancestral) immigrant mentality of working hard, accumulating wealth and postponing enjoyment; and the influential economic rationalisation of a government and its policies, affecting the way a society thinks and rationalises itself.

If we ever wanted to redefine success to include "a happy marriage and happy family", it would require even greater re-rationalisation, simply because we exist in the context of a rat-race of mostly self-serving people who probably don't really give a rat's ass (HAH!) about others. Not every Singaporean is an Ace Kindred Cheong, who is by the way a kind-hearted gentleman with genuine compassion for even people he doesn't know, although most netizens will slam him for being that perennial PAP scrotum-licking dog every hateful critic loves to loathe.

How do you break the chains of economic rationality when everything else does not change - when the government continues to measure "growth" in terms of the economy and productivity? Is it not ironic, or bordering on hypocritical, when you have, on the one hand, some public officials encouraging economically irrational things such as marriage and children, and on the other hand, there continually exists government rhetoric on productivity, and policies that make marriage appear more rational than it is?

Looking at it sociologically, marriage in Singapore is now highly rationalised with the introduction of economic incentives. Textually and discursively, these are iterated in the language of economic rationality. It plays on the growing materialism and the people's idea of independence and success, and the nature of these economically rational incentives is basically oriented towards the accessibility of other items such as HDB, lower taxes and the occasional political bribe, I mean handout.

Marriage is now part of a systematic approach to living in Singapore, continually calibrated and steered with series of incentives and disincentives, targeted at Singaporean pockets.

Even having children is a highly rationalised state affair, as it is no longer confined to just the family that are (pro)creating. Stop at two. Three or more if you can afford it. Graduate dad + graduate mum = double degree baby. Stupid mums with no qualifications to stop producing stupid babies with no qualifications. You know, those kind of policies.

The rising cost of living, always rising like the incomes of our Ministers, is another factor as a direct result of our economic growth. It is one of the many repercussions of a government hellbent on reaching the growth figures it want to. Let's get 1%, or 5%, or 10%. Got any problems because of our strategies or because of the effects of our strategies and policies, we talk later can?

When it comes to accessing the (potential) social implications of our economic policies, the PAP government is a classic case of one putting the cart before the horse. To emphasise that, the PAP government would grab the cart, dig its nails into it and bodyslam it down in front of the horse like a what a lunchtime hawker centre patron would do as she "chopes" her seat with that magical cultural symbol that is the packet of tissue.

In the rational economic environment, problems that arising from such rationalisation are often negated and divorced with further rationalisations, i.e. the internalisation of problems. The poor are rationalised as the not-so-hardworking, for instance. But when you are rich and successful, you enjoy both strategies of internalisation (you worked hard, congrats!) and externalisation (you benefited from awesome policy-making!). This is how the system protects itself, a defence mechanism of sorts that deflects challenge and blame away from it.

It does not help at all that policies such as CPF do not appear to be helpful to most lower income ageing Singaporeans. For most middle-income middle-class Singaporeans, when they retire, they have their CPF savings on top of their existing savings (accumulated wealth). For the lower income, are their CPF savings alone enough to support them independently? I don't think so.

The government ignores its own shortcomings by deflecting attention towards the "unfilial" bunch of Singaporeans. It comes up with narratives, policies and laws to ensure that Singaporeans take care of their aged/retired beloved.

I believe CPF in isolation, is a good idea. However, given the rising cost of living (because of our economic and immigration policies) and the many limitations on the liberties of Singaporeans to do what they want with their CPF savings, CPF is rendered almost ineffective for the segments of the underprivileged population.

Because of these policies and restrictions, there is a greater financial burden on these "un/filial" Singaporeans. Relying on economic rationalisation, which is the more rational choice? A: Supporting the aged who are already in existing; or B: Saving up and supporting a baby that has yet to be born into this world?

These policies affect the way some people see "family". And moreover, with the diverse yet ever stressful and competitive schooling system we have in Singapore, is it rational to bring life into this world/Singapore and subject it to the rigours and limitations of the system without having the necessary sufficient resources?

In another view, I believe what some younger Singaporeans are doing right now is negotiating with what they have and how they are being treated by the authoritarian government. Having most of their constitutional rights curtailed by statutory laws and strict enforcement to preserve the "face" of an arrogant establishment, younger Singaporeans are (counter-discursively) creating newer spaces and rules to claim autonomy, although they remain subjected to the prevailing rational economic discourse. They are claiming the right to enjoy themselves.

After all, the money they earn is their own, so they have to right to use it in ways that make them happy, and have a healthy self-esteem. Marriage and having children are items that do not entirely correspond with the idea of one enjoying himself/herself.

If only the policymakers can open their eyes and realise that the social phenomena we are experiencing now are actual symptoms of policies, law and the nature of governance. However there will always be tradeoffs, and to ever identify a new equilibrium/balance and work towards it, might bring about newer problems in the social, economic and political domain. This is especially so when the economic is very entwined with the political (given PAP's political legitimacy is largely based on its economic leadership).

Love, in its romanticised definition, is mostly irrational. It is not a business deal. It is not even a deal. However, like marriage, it is systematised, capitalised/monetised and highly rationalised, shaped by a laundry list of incentives and disincentives.

Of course, there are people who believe that love can only be given to those who are deemed capable of giving love to them. Selfish, but they probably can't help it. That is probably why some people are nicer to others when they need help, but otherwise are not. Why the world like that sia?

I believe that people do not need to have incentives to get married and to have children. The problem lies more in the disincentives created in/by capitalism and governance, that dissuade others from marrying and having children, making these decisions look all the more (economically) irrational.

The solution? I say make the conditions conducive for marriage and having children. For the moment, the government is approaching the marriage and birthrate issues like they are trying to build a library within a discotheque. They can do all they want to increase library membership and interest by allowing a higher borrowing quota, and having a larger selection of books, but it still exists in a noisy and dimly lit discotheque. The analogy applies to marriage and having children in an environment that is rationally not conducive for one to be married and to have kids.

But given the way social life is greatly affected by the economy and economic imperative, I am not sure if we can ever reach a more family-friendly equilibrium. Remember, our individual problems have a larger social and political dimension, and yes, whatever the men in white think or do, is always closely related to how you think and live your life.


Eng Wu said...

Hi Sam,

When you mention "illusory agency", are you referring to Bourdieu's "illusio"?

It seems like a lot of your writing in is grounded in Weber's rationalisation theories.

Very interesting read.


Eng Wu

Sam Ho said...


i wasn't thinking about bourdieu though. more focused on one of poststructuralism's main positions. bourdieu would have been more about the reconciliation of structure and agency. for the poststrucutralist position, agency would be a function of structure, and like in structuralism, nothing changes.

weber is a chief inspiration here. but i'm not too well read on his definition of various rationalisations. i was thinking more george ritser and his critique on post-industrial modernity.

you a sociologist?

Eng Wu said...

Hmm interesting. No, I'm not a sociologist. Just an Arts student who is interested in how sociological theories can be applied to Singapore's context.

I remember reading a very interesting book about the consequences of modernity, which might interest you. Richard Sennett's "The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in The New Capitalism".