Singapore Feminism: Fertility and Transnational Immigration

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Post-World War II Singapore witnessed crucial nation-building decisions. Women were given the right to vote and right to stand for election on July 18th, 1947, two years after the end of the Japanese occupation. In subsequent decades, public policy targeted fertility and immigration, issues that directly affected women. Although today its international image as an Asian tiger has afforded this tiny island-nation notoriety as one of the richest countries in the world (“The World’s Richest Countries”, 2012), progress remains gendered, raced, and classed. Feminist alliances and protest have started to address resulting inequality.

Photo by Wikipedia user someformofhuman

Photo by Wikipedia user someformofhuman

Singapore’s concern with population growth prompted state policies on family planning. The vast majority targeted women. In the 1970s, in the context of the post-WWII ‘baby boom’, the ‘Stop at Two’ campaign was established with public exhortation and disincentives (Wong and Yeoh, 2003). Soon, however, falling fertility was identified as a national problem. Not all Singapore women were equally targeted for attention. In the 1980s, the highly controversial ‘Graduate Mother’s Scheme’ was implemented to get educated women, particularly those with university degrees, to marry (specifically male graduates) and have babies. Conversely, women under age 30 with low levels of formal education were given sterilization incentives of $10,000 after their first or second child and penalized the same amount plus interest for a third child (Wong and Yeoh, 2003). The distinction (essentially a marker of class) between more or less educated women mirrored the division between the more highly educated majority Chinese and the indigenous Malays and minority Indian populations with fewer formal credentials. The remnants of this policy still privilege heterosexual, upper-class, highly educated Chinese. Such essentially eugenic policies produced a backlash, contributing, though we do not know how much, to a significant protest vote in the 1984 General Election.

Nor did such ‘positive eugenics’ produce the desired result. In 2001, the ‘Baby Bonus’ scheme was introduced to encourage all female citizens, regardless of education and income, to reproduce. Such monetary incentives proved insufficient (“Key Demographic Indicators”, 2011). Increased promotion of family-friendly workplaces and a ‘Romancing Singapore’ campaign, launched in 2003 offered new strategies to encourage Singaporeans to marry and have babies. Despite such efforts, the birth rate continued to decrease, hitting an all-time low at 1.2 children per woman citizen in 2011 (“Key Annual Indicators”, 2011). Instead of reproducing, women were choosing the possibility of greater independence and autonomy that so often accompanies fewer offspring.

In the same period, immigration emerged as a related public policy concern for feminists. ‘Liberalized’ immigration created a large pool of immigrant domestics (some 30% of unskilled permanent residents and immigrants, most from the Philippines and Indonesia) (Population in Brief”, 2011). Such caregivers subsidize, as in Canada, the care-giving responsibilities of better-off families and encourage greater fertility. In confronting the entry of vulnerable women into the domestic labour market, Singapore’s feminists faced a potent issue of equality for feminist organizing.

Only recently have Singapore’s feminists championed domestic workers. Considerable media attention on abusive working conditions has prompted them, as in Canada, to connect racism, disadvantaged international domestic workers, and women’s disproportionate responsibility for caregiving. Protest is led by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) – a nationally recognized women’s organization, which since its formation in 1985 has actively rallied for gender equality in education, marriage, employment and reproductive rights. AWARE aligns itself closely with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-governmental organization campaigning for the ‘Day Off campaign’ aimed at encouraging employers to voluntarily give domestic workers a day off a week (“Day Off”, 2011). TWC2 has also joined with the National Committee of UNIFEM Singapore and the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economic (HUMO) to demand government remedy. Their demands have brought occasional redress. On March 6th, 2012, a new law required all employers to give their foreign domestic workers a day off per week starting January 1, 2013 (Tan 2012). Feminists will need to monitor its impact.

Fertility and immigration in Singapore as elsewhere have always been connected to nation-building. They simultaneously raise questions about women’s rights and the relations among different groups of women. Today the feminist movement in this island-nation has begun to address such concerns and join similar protests across the region and the world.

Resources and Further Reading

About the campaign. (n.d.). DAY.OFF Campaign . Retrieved April 15, 2012, from http://www.dayoff.sg

Greenfield, B. (2012, February 22). The World’s Richest Countries – Forbes. Information for the World’s Business Leaders – Forbes.com. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/bethgreenfield/2012/02/22/the-worlds-richest-countries/

Lyons, L. (2010). Examining Migrant Worker Organizing in Singapore. Solidarities Beyond Borders (pp. 89 -107). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. Population in Brief. (2011, September 28). Population (Themes). Retrieved April 15, 2012, from www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/themes/people

Statistics Singapore – Key Annual Indicators. (2012, March 16). Welcome to Statistics Singapore. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from http://www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/keyind.html

Statistics Singapore – Key Demographic Indicators 1970 -2011. (2012, March 16). Welcome to Statistics Singapore. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from http://www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/themes/people/popnindicators.pdf

Statistics Singapore – Population in Brief. (2012, March 16). Welcome to Statistics Singapore. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from http://www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/themes/people/popinbrief2011.pdf

Tan, Amanda – Weekly day off for maids a must from next year. (2012, March 6). The Straits Times. Retrieved April 18, 2012 from http://www.straitstimes.com/Parliament/Story/STIStory_774234.html

Wong, T., & Yeoh, B. S. (2003). Fertility and the Family: An Overview of Pro-natalist Population Policies in Singapore. Asia MetaCentre Research Paper Series, Retrieved April 15, 2012, from http://www.populationasia.org/Publications/ResearchPaper/AMCRP12.pdf

Women’s Rights – AWARE Singapore. (n.d.). Women’s Rights – AWARE Singapore. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from http://www.aware.org.sg

DAY.OFF Campaign (n.d.). DAY.OFF Campaign . Retrieved April 15, 2012, from http://www.dayoff.sg

Ismail, Syahidah

Ismail, Syahidah

Ismail, Syahidah

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