ST, 17 August 2011
By Theresa Tan
MOST Singaporean singles here long to be married, but are just leaving it to fate. Few actively hunt for a spouse, and believe that Mr or Miss Right will appear magically when Cupid strikes.
That’s one of the main findings from new research on Singaporean Chinese singles by Professor Gavin Jones, a demographer with 45 years’ experience who has been based at the Asia Research Institute here since 2003.
He also found out that most singles here will not lower their expectations of a life partner just for the sake of marrying. Many are just too busy with work to hunt for a mate, while some avoid the dating market for practical reasons.
For example, less educated men who feel they don’t have enough money to start a family or find it hard to get a girlfriend, he noted.
When it comes to finding a husband, his findings showed that Singaporean women place great emphasis on a man’s ‘economic success’. They want a man who has greater – or at least equal – earning power.
One study respondent, a security guard in his 30s who earns about $1,500 a month, said that his girlfriend broke up with him because his pay was too low.
Prof Jones noted this materialistic streak is ‘very widespread’ and ‘more marked’ among East Asian women.
‘Men are supposed to be the provider and women raise the kids. So women feel it’s important to find men with earning power. This attitude is very deep-seated even though women have their own earning power now,’ he said.
And when it comes to mating criteria, Singapore men go for looks and women with a good character. ‘This may sound a bit stereotypical, but that is what they are saying,’ he added.
Prof Jones, 70, an Australian, has been partnering Dr Zhang Yanxia, a visiting research fellow from China at the East Asian Institute, to conduct a qualitative study on singlehood in Singapore – a topic where ‘not much research’ has been done locally, he said.
Their focus is on Singaporean Chinese – the ethnic group with the highest proportion of singles – to understand why they are not getting hitched. Since September last year, they have done in-depth interviews with 38 singles aged between 30 and 44 from all walks of life and plan to wrap up their research soon.
While the growing number of singles here is of perennial concern to parents and policymakers, Prof Jones noted that the situation is not as grim as it appears to be. One encouraging trend from the latest census, he said, was that highly educated women are not being left on the shelf in growing numbers, as commonly perceived.
‘The conventional wisdom that more graduate women are staying single appears to be wrong,’ he said.
In fact, the proportion of older female graduate singles has fallen significantly in the past decade. Women with university degrees are tying the knot – just doing so at a later age, he said.
Last year, about a quarter (24.8 per cent) of graduate women aged between 35 and 39 were single, down 4.3 percentage points from 29.1 per cent in 2000.
The influx of highly educated women migrants who became permanent residents and citizens here in recent years could be one reason behind the falling proportion of single graduate women here, he said.
This could be a ‘very interesting trend’ for further research, he said.
But while more graduate women have found husbands, the same cannot be said of graduate men.
Last year, 20.8 per cent of male graduates aged between 35 and 39 were single, up 3.4 percentage points from 17.4 per cent in 2000.
While it is common knowledge that lowly educated men are the most likely to remain bachelors because they cannot find mates, Prof Jones is ‘puzzled’ by the growing proportion of graduate bachelors.
But overall, Singapore is no longer No. 1 among its Asian neighbours when it comes to the number of lonely hearts.
Two decades ago, he noted, Singapore was top among Asian nations when it came to the proportion of its single women. In 1990, 15 per cent of women here aged between 35 and 39 were single, compared with 8 per cent for Japan, 6 per cent for Taiwan, 2 per cent for Korea and 0.3 per cent for China.
But Japan and Taiwan have since surpassed Singapore in the number of bachelorettes. In 2005, the proportion of unmarried women remained at 15 per cent here, while it rose to 18 per cent in Japan and 16 per cent in Taiwan.
The lacklustre Japanese economy may have dampened the desire for marriage there, coupled with the fact that Japanese men tend to be less involved on the domestic front, such as helping with housework and raising junior, putting women there off marriage, he said.
But he acknowledges that in Singapore, the proportion of singles among citizens and PRs aged 15 and over has crept up from 30.5 per cent in 2000 to 32.2 per cent last year, according to census data.
One reason why it did not rise further could be due to the inflow of new immigrants in recent years, he noted.
‘Without PRs, Singapore’s singlehood rate will be substantially higher,’ he said, considering how the proportion of singles among PRs is half that of citizens.
Another finding was that of a new liberality taking root. While older Singaporeans may frown upon cohabiting, the majority of those interviewed are open to the idea of living together before marriage.
In fact, four or five of respondents were currently cohabiting or have done so before. Many saw it as a ‘trial’ to determine their compatibility for matrimony. ‘I think there may be lots more cohabitation going on in Singapore than previously thought,’ he concluded.
But the deal-breaker for most seems to be children born out of wedlock, which is a no-no for 80 per cent of the respondents.
But of these, about half feel that having children is ‘not important’ to them, thanks to the cost and the pressure of raising kids here. He noted that such a ‘kids optional’ mentality has taken root in a growing number of couples here, going by the latest census data.
Last year, 20 per cent of female citizens and PRs aged between 30 and 39 who are married, or have been, were childless, up from 14 per cent in 2000.
This was abetted by the fact that Singaporeans, he noted, are mostly spared the constant nagging and pressure from their elders to settle down and have children that afflicts their peers in countries like China.
In Beijing, anxious parents gather in parks to find prospective partners for their children, and women over 35 who are still single are ridiculed.
But his research found that Singaporeans tend to feel it is their own business and nobody else’s whether or not they tie the knot.
He feels that the Government should stay out of the match-making arena, given that most Singaporeans interviewed shy away from match-makers, as they think that only ‘hopeless’ people turn to them for help.
‘I don’t think there is any more the Government can do to get people married. Many of our respondents are not interested in Social Development Network stuff.
‘The Government getting more involved in this area is not a solution and people resent government interference in things that are personal,’ he concluded.
More pressure to succeed, so Singaporeans have fewer kids
Your study found that Singaporeans are growing increasingly individualistic. How will that impact our marriage rate?
People getting more individualistic does not necessarily mean that they wouldn’t wed or have kids.
It is just that they see marriage as something that is good for them, rather than something they feel obliged to do.
Why do other developed countries, such as the United States and Australia, have a higher total fertility rate than Singapore?
In Australia and the United States, the lifestyle is more relaxed and there is less drive towards economic success.
In Singapore, there’s a strong pressure to succeed. So some people put off having children as they have to invest a lot of time and money to help their child succeed.
You don’t have that kind of pressure in Australia to get your child into the very best primary school.
And women here are expected to juggle both work, long working hours and family, so something has got to give…
Expert in tracking changing face of the Asian family
PROFESSOR Gavin Jones, 70, is a research leader on the changing family in Asia cluster at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore (NUS). He is also a professor at the NUS Sociology Department.
An Australian, he earned his bachelor’s degree in arts from the University of New England in New South Wales and his PhD in demography from the Australian National University (ANU).
Prof Jones was with the Demography and Sociology programme at the ANU for 28 years. He has served as a consultant to many international agencies, such as the World Bank, the Population Council and the United Nations Development Programme.
He has researched widely on marriage, fertility, education and urbanisation in South-east Asia and published about 20 books and monographs.
In 2003, he came to Singapore to work at the ARI. He is married to a 40-year-old Indonesian housewife, Henny, and they have a five-year-old daughter, Stephanie. He has three grown-up children from his first marriage.