Looking abroad
for a spouse

A woman's plea for government help to stop Singaporean men marrying foreign women spark off nation-wide debate on a new phenomenon. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Nov 26, 2002

FACED with a rising number of Singaporeans seeking wives abroad when more women here remain unmarried, one local lady has appealed to the government: Please help us keep our men.

It wasn't a frivolous call but one that touches on a serious national issue.

"I am very alarmed that women here are losing their appeal with some Singapore men, who are going abroad in their search for mates," wrote Melissa Foo.

It did not help, she added, that the men were held in high esteem, especially by women from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and India.

"This would not be a problem if not for the fact that many Singapore women are still unmarried."

The second dilemma, she indicated, comes when foreign brides marry Singapore men with ulterior motives, such as for money or just to get permanent residency or citizenship.

(There were recent cases of foreign wives seeking a divorce after being granted citizenship or when they became entitled to their husbands' assets.)

Her letter has raised a wide, lengthy discussion in the media and the Internet, provoking some finger-pointing at both sexes.

In her well-written letter, Foo said there were only so many Singaporean men. She asked the government for help to reverse the trend.

To encourage the men to seek their brides locally, she suggested: "Why not give a large bonus to the men who marry local spouses, like the national-service allowance or baby bonus?"

"Pardon me for my nationalistic fervour, but if we don't fight for ourselves, no one else will."

It was as if a giant gong had just been sounded to signal the start of a no-holds-barred debate.

An early response was: "What's wrong with foreign spouses?"

Foo's suggestion for financial incentives was shot down very quickly. "Marriage is about love and love is not economics," said one person.

The subject of men - and women, too - marrying foreign spouses during recent years has become a worrying trend to some - and welcomed by others.

It's not hard to trace its causes. One reason is, of course, globalisation that sends tens of thousands of single men abroad to study, work and do business for a long period.

That increases the chances of them finding a spouse there. But the main reason is rising educational standards (especially of women) and changing values.

Increasingly, a stereotype view is that Singapore women are materialistic, unlike overseas brides who are likely to be satisfied with a roof over their heads, three meals a day and love from their husbands.

Another is that local women, highly educated, tend to want husbands who are better skilled or higher earning than them, thus narrowing their choices.

As one web posting declares, Singapore's men have been raised to believe that if they study hard, get a degree and a good salary, girls will flock to them.

That means, they believe, they can choose a wife who is demure, obedient and ready to cater to their needs.

With better education and high earnings, women tend to be, on the other hand, more self-reliant, assertive and demanding.

These contrasting expectations of marriage are pushing many men to go global in seeking a wife.

Stereotypes die hard. Some men see local women as being too calculating and over-demanding.

"They want a car, a condo and other comforts of life. If you're poor, forget about marrying a Singaporean girl," said one exaggerated posting.

"Pampered by maids and parents, many do not even know how to cook or sew, unlike most girls from China or Vietnam."

These foreign girls from less wealthy countries generally do not possess the same level of education of the Singapore women, declared one message.

This is due to their deeply-rooted cultures and social mores and their perception that Singaporean men are "better."

There are potential pitfalls, too. Some marriages fail after the initial curiosity wears off on both sides.

As for the men, they have not abandoned their traditional gender roles despite their higher Western education.

A foreigner put it: "Singaporean women are being caught in between the demands of traditional Asian cultures and modern economic requirements."

On one hand, he said, they are expected to perform the traditional housewives' roles their mothers played while, on the other, the society needs them to contribute to its economy.

Some men, however, choose a Vietnamese bride because they want one who believes in the value of family, rather than one who believes in career.

Some Singaporean women are marrying abroad, too, mainly to Westerners who are ready to grant their spouses the freedom to pursue their own careers and individual interests.

The trend has become so hot that a number of matchmaking agencies are flourishing to cash in on the China brides business here.

What's more, while Singaporean men used to travel to China to seek wives before, the mainland ladies are now seeking out Singaporean men through local agencies.

According to press reports, six out of seven agencies report this trend.

One agency reported a five-fold increase in clients from China compared to two years ago. Some girls have been studying here, looking for husbands because they want to remain in the city.

Another agency said half of the 1200 clients are Chinese nationals. Many of these men taking foreign brides are "heartlanders," a term used to describe the non-English speaking, 40-plus people who live in housing board estates.

For a long time, these people have been finding it difficult to marry local girls as a result of their low incomes and poor education. Many are forced to look for brides in China, Vietnam and India.

Today as I am writing this, the Streats newspaper had a report of a 62-year-old Singapore bachelor finally fulfilling his wish to get married - to a 21-year-old Vietnamese bride.

Earning S$1800 (M$3960) a month in a hotel, Ho Park Tong said: "Vietnamese girls are more honest and are not as demanding as Singapore women."

But increasingly, such bridegrooms are coming from the ranks of the better educated and professionals.

But the number of China girls registered with matchmaking agencies in recent months is said to have fallen as the Singapore economy declines and the mainland's fortune booms.

This seems to bear out what Foo fears - a financial motive among some foreign brides - is not entirely baseless

(This article was published in the Sunday Star, Nov 24, 2002.)