By Dr Nuraliah Norasid

In Singapore, the family is recognised as the bedrock of a society. In line with the country’s family-oriented values, as well as the respective cultural ones, the Malay/Muslim community and its structures are making efforts to safeguard the integrity of the family unit through an amalgam of programmes, schemes and policies. In this shared, multicultural space, any policy changes and environmental shifts will affect the Malay/Muslim family inasmuch as that of other groups. Thus, it is important for the community and its stakeholders to be aware of the various changes and ways in which policies can be crafted to cater to them. At the Singapore Families: Risk and Protective Factors workshop[1], practitioners and representatives from a number of key organisations provided insight into the changing nature of families in modern day Singapore and the challenges they face.

Ms Charlotte Beck from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), noted the rapidly changing structures of family in Singapore, where there is a growing number of childless households and single-person households. The latter is due to rising singlehood and more elderly living alone. As Singapore’s population age and families shrink, the burden of support is borne by adult children. Mr Mark Lin from Montfort Care, cited that 55% of these children are between 45 and 59 years of age. Given the increase in number of couples marrying and having children later, it can also be discerned that a good number of them would have children of their own; a significant proportion of whom would still be in the primary to tertiary levels. While households in Singapore are more affluent[2], it does not necessarily equate to a better quality of physical, emotional, and financial support. Indeed, as more members of the nuclear family are required to work to maintain that very affluence, financial resources see a greater spread across all aspects of support; for example daily child- and eldercare.

Even though the Malay community is a relatively ‘young’ population with a higher fertility rate and average number of children per household, they are no less laden by the challenges of maintaining a quality support system. Rather, Malays are recorded to have a significantly higher total dependency ratio (TDR) compared to other ethnic groups[3]. Overall, the issues lie in available resources being stretched to capacity leading to other concerns, which representative from REACH Youth Powerhouse, Mr Joe Chan, uncovered in the challenges faced by youth. The values of the youth are often that of their parents, albeit with some adjustments from adaptation and other influences. Youth, including Malay youth, cited financial concerns and economic uncertainty to be their biggest life stressors; even those of school-going age are leading “lives of quiet desperation”[4] as they move from grade to grade. It, therefore, becomes prudent that youth engagement programmes incorporate alternative education routes to achieving goals and seeking employment opportunities.

Other challenges cited were transnational marriages and domestic violence; both of which have risky bearings on the integrity of a family unit. The nuclear family, with the married man and woman at the core, still remains the model for family development in Singapore. However, it is worth noting that the concept of family grows ever more complex: single parents, co-habiting unmarried couples with children and elderly to care for, step-families, and foster parentage to name a few. These families are gaining presence in our society and are also in need of resiliency-promoting frameworks. In a community and society where we refer to strangers by familial terms—adik, kakak, auntie, uncle—blood relation or otherwise, it is time that frameworks are also created to cater to a more extended, sometimes not entirely normative, concept of family.

[1] Jointly organised by the Institute of Policy Studies’ Social Lab and National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, on 29 January 2016.
[2] “Households smaller but more affluent”. The Straits Times. 16 February 2011.
[3] AMP. The Next Decade: Strengthening Our Community’s Architecture. 30 June 2012. 3rd National Convention of Singapore Muslim Professionals.
[4] Henry David Thoreau. Walden: Life in the Woods. (1854)

Dr Nuraliah Norasid is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research in Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Doctor of Philosophy, with a specialisation in Creative Writing and Contemporary Mythopoesis from Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed in the article are her own.

This commentary was also published in AMPlified, April 2016, Issue 30.

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