Monday 23 December 2013

More Singaporeans taking foreign brides

Many of these grooms are older and poorer, and couples run into multiple problems
By Theresa Tan and Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

There has been a surge in the number of Singaporean men taking foreign brides in the past decade, a trend social workers worry about as many of these grooms are older and poorer, and their families face a host of challenges from poverty to abuse and immigration woes.

Last year saw 5,599 marriages between citizen grooms and non-resident brides - a 40 per cent jump from the 3,988 in 2002.

That accounted for 20 per cent of all marriages last year, up from 17.2 per cent in 2002, according to data released by the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) in September this year.

More than 50,000 Singaporeans have married non-resident brides - those who are not citizens or permanent residents - in the past decade. More than 95 per cent of foreign wives are from Asian countries.

Although the report did not specify their countries of origin, social workers who help foreign wives say many of the women, usually in their 20s and 30s, hail from China, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Their ranks have swelled as more foreign women have been seeking out Singaporean husbands through compatriots already married to Singapore men, said Ms Elizabeth Tan, senior executive officer of the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI), a Catholic group that helps foreigners here.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said the grooms, often in their 40s or older, and some into their second marriages, tend to be lower-educated men who find it hard to attract a local wife. They choose foreign women who they feel make fewer demands of their husbands.

In a paper on Vietnamese brides published last week in the journal Third World Quarterly, Professor Brenda Yeoh of the National University of Singapore geography department and a team of researchers wrote: "Working-class Singaporean men are increasingly seeking foreign brides as a more affordable way of securing various forms of care work, including household chores, caring for elderly parents, physical and emotional companionship, as well as reproducing and caring for the next generation."

Her team did in-depth interviews with 27 Vietnamese matched to Singaporeans by commercial matchmakers to find out about their lives and the problems they faced. The women were mostly in their 20s and early 30s, with the youngest just 18. Most had at least a lower secondary education.

Their husbands were mostly in their 30s to 50s, and the oldest was in his 70s. Most lived in smaller HDB flats.

Social workers are dealing with some of these couples, who run into multiple problems.

Some of the men earn too little from blue-collared jobs to support their families or are too old to land a job. And their wives cannot work unless they have a work permit or a long-term visit pass plus.

Kampong Kapor Family Service Centre (FSC) counsellor Linda Lim cited the case of a part-time security guard struggling to support a family of four on his pay of $600 a month.

The 70-year-old was a divorcee when he married a divorced woman from China now in her 40s, and they have a seven-year-old son. The woman has a teenage son from her first marriage and her long-term visit pass (LTVP) does not allow her to work.

Money problems aside, the women also worry about their right to remain in Singapore.

Many hold an LTVP usually valid for between three months and a year. Some are given only a social visit pass, valid for even shorter periods, and they have to shuttle in and out of Singapore - often with their young children in tow - when their passes expire, said Ms Jessica Chan, executive director of Kampong Kapor FSC.

As a result, some families find it hard to stay together, and their young children may skip pre-school due to this shuttling, she said.

Covenant FSC assistant director Cindy Ng said: "Their children start off life more disadvantaged. Some cannot speak English or read when they start school as their mothers are not proficient in the language and cannot help them with their studies."

And for many of these women, getting permanent residence is an uphill task, social workers note.

In February this year, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu revealed in Parliament that about half of the applications - or an average of 4,400 a year - for permanent residence by foreign spouses of Singaporeans in the past five years were rejected. About nine in 10 of those rejected were wives.

But the Government also introduced a new pass, the long-term visit pass plus (LTVP+), in April last year to enable foreign spouses to stay for longer periods, for three years initially, and up to five years upon each subsequent renewal. Those with this pass can also work and enjoy some health-care subsidies.

At the end of last year, 11,736 foreigners married to Singaporean citizens were on long-term visit passes, including the LTVP+. Most of these spouses were women, an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority spokesman said.

Some of the foreign women are also living with abusive husbands, who use their fists to control their wives, who are totally dependent on them, social workers said.

About 10 per cent of all personal protection orders filed over the past three years were by foreign wives against their violent husbands, an increase from about 2 per cent to 3 per cent in the five preceding years.

For some unfortunate women, problems snowball when their husbands fall ill or die.

They lose their sole breadwinner and may find it hard to remain here with their children without their husbands to sponsor their passes.

Noting that many of these women are seen as no more than "temporary visitors" when it comes to their immigration status here, Prof Yeoh argued that the Government must ensure that the State, civil society groups and families work together to strengthen the safety nets for these foreign brides.


More than this number of Singaporeans have married non-resident brides - those who are not citizens or permanent residents - in the past decade


Over this percentage of foreign wives are from Asian countries

Affordable alternative

"Working-class Singaporean men are increasingly seeking foreign brides as a more affordable way of securing various forms of care work, including household chores, caring for elderly parents, physical and emotional companionship, as well as reproducing and caring for the next generation."

PROFESSOR BRENDA YEOH of the National University of Singapore geography department and a team of researchers, in a paper on Vietnamese brides published last week in the journal Third World Quarterly

Love and children 'make the trouble worth it'
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

Like many men, immigration officer Goh Ah Meng's life revolves around family and work.

He drops his children at school, plays with them - and even cooks for them.

Mr Goh is 59, and unlike most fathers his age, his three youngest children are all below 10 years old. And his second wife, Dariyah, an Indonesian, is just 33.

The sole breadwinner is also nursing a sad secret. His kidneys are failing, and he has been told by doctors that he will need dialysis soon.

Ms Dariyah, a housewife, does not know how dire his health condition is.

"I worry about how she will take the news, what she will do when I can't work," said Mr Goh, who takes home about $3,300 a month. "I try not to think of the future."

He met Ms Dariyah while on a holiday in Jakarta in 2000. He was 46 and married with a teenage daughter at the time. Ms Dariyah, a cashier, was just 20.

The way he tells it, they fell in love, he got a divorce, and he married her in 2004. Their children are Zharfan, eight, Zharfy, six, and Zharfitri, two.

The older two children have special needs - son Zharfan is hyperactive and has acute asthma. Daughter Zharfy has global developmental delay, which slows down the development of her language and motor skills, from walking to writing.

When The Sunday Times visited the family's three-room flat in Marsiling, Mr Goh was trying to read the popular nursery rhyme Rock-a-Bye Baby with the cherubic Zharfy.

When her father asked her to point out the word "rock", the pink-clad little girl cheerfully pointed to the word "cradle".

"She is six and still can't read," he said sadly. "That is just one of my many worries."

Ms Dariyah, who was initially on a long-term social visit pass, is now a permanent resident and can work if she wants to.

But her husband frets about who will look after the children when she is away. "They need their mother even more than most kids."

What advice would he give other middle-aged men considering marriage to much younger foreign women?

"If you love her, you should marry her," he said without hesitation.

There are problems, of course. "But love and children make all the trouble worth it."

Forget Mr Right, some prefer Mr Can Do
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

Vietnamese bride Nhi, 22, chose to marry a Singaporean hawker twice her age despite strong objections from her father about the whirlwind union, which was arranged by a marriage broker.

"I actually had a boyfriend in Vietnam, but I knew that if I married a Vietnamese, the most he could do would be to take care of me only. He wouldn't have been able to take care of my family," she told researchers.

"Not all the girls who married Singaporeans can support their families in Vietnam, but at least, they are well taken care of and they have an easy life for themselves."

Then there is Puk, a 35-year-old Thai who used all her savings to fly here to hunt for a Singaporean husband and a better life.

A friend introduced her to a Singaporean man at a pub, and after a few months of courtship, she urged him to marry her. During that time, he regularly gave her money to spend.

"At that time, I did not love him, but gradually, I came to love him because he always took care of me," said Puk. They are now married, and he gives her $350 to send home every month.

In the past decade, there has been a sharp jump in the number of Singaporeans marrying foreign women, so considerable research is emerging on the lives and problems faced by foreign brides here.

Last year, 5,599 Singaporeans wed foreign women who were not citizens or permanent residents - a 40 per cent jump from 2002.

Some research papers have shed light on why foreign women plunged into matrimony with Singaporeans they hardly knew.

No prizes for guessing that most just wanted a better life.

But more than that, many also hoped that their husbands would help support their families back home and lift their loved ones out of poverty as well.

Thai researcher Rattana Jongwilaiwan, together with Associate Professor Eric Thompson of the sociology department at the National University of Singapore (NUS), wrote a journal paper, published in 2011, about the lives of Thai women married to Singaporeans.

Ms Jongwilaiwan spent more than a year interacting extensively with the Thai wives and did 22 in-depth interviews with them.

"The Thai women interviewed consistently and frankly stated that their primary reason in choosing to marry Singaporean men was material gain and not romantic love," the paper said.

"For many women, it is seemingly the best among available strategies for achieving upward mobility and socioeconomic status, and to fulfil traditional cultural expectations as dutiful daughters."

Most of the women had moved from their homes in rural areas to cities such as Bangkok to find work - some in the sex trade - before meeting their Singaporean grooms in Thailand or Singapore.

About half met their husbands at "sexually oriented entertainment venues", while others were introduced by family and friends.

Most of the couples got hitched within two to nine months of meeting, with the shortest "courtship" being just two weeks.

Apart from being better off financially, Singaporean men are also regarded as being more loving and responsible husbands, compared with their counterparts elsewhere in the region.

The Thai women interviewed described Thai men as being abusive, womanisers, financially irresponsible, gamblers and alcohol addicts.

More recent papers have examined another aspect of such unions. In the past two months, three journal papers have been published based on a three-year study of Vietnamese women who married Singaporean and Malaysian men after they were introduced by commercial matchmakers.

The papers were written by Professor Brenda Yeoh of the geography department at NUS and a team of researchers that included Dr Chee Heng Leng and Dr Vu Thi Kieu Dung.

Different aspects of the women's lives were studied, from their expectations of love to the importance of sending money home to the problems they face here.

Almost all the 30 women interviewed said they married a foreigner to escape poverty, for a better life and to support families back home.

However, most said they wanted to marry only men they liked.

In the interviews, the Singaporean men hardly spoke of love either in their choice of a wife.

They wanted a companion and someone to care for them, look after their parents and do the housework.

What was important to the women was being able to send money home - an act that boosted their self-esteem and their standing in the family.

Take Thach, 19, who feels trapped in a marriage to a man she does not love. Yet, she is grateful to her husband, a security guard in his 50s, because he helped her pay off her family's debts and enabled her mother to start a small business.

Or 25-year-old Bich, who speaks proudly of her husband, a driver twice her age who paid off her family's $20,000 loan and gives her mother $500 every month.

The paper notes that these marriages are "not necessarily less sustainable or more fragile". The authors say: "There is no simple trading of money for care, or care for money."

Couples are "keenly aware of the fluid nature of the negotiated relationship at stake", and they put in time and effort to make the marriage work.

They know the roles expected of them - breadwinner husband, dutiful stay-at-home wife, mother and daughter-in-law - and they try to play their parts conscientiously.

Not surprisingly, the husbands are usually not keen to have their wives join the workforce.

Such relationships might puzzle the Singaporean woman looking for love, passion and Mr Right.

But for many women from countries in this region, romantic love is not the core issue. As a Vietnamese woman once told me, romantic love is a Western concept - a luxury she and others like her cannot afford.

Instead of hunting in vain for that elusive Mr Right, they settle for Mr Can Do.

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