Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Understanding High Levels of Singlehood in Singapore*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Understanding High Levels of Singlehood in Singapore*

Article excerpt


Over the past four decades, a trend towards late marriage and non-marriage has characterized all the countries of East and Southeast Asia, though to varying degrees. In countries of the East Asian cultural realm - Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong - late marriage and non-marriage is very high; proportions remaining "effectively single" in their 30s are higher than in the late marrying countries of Europe (Jones, 2007), which probably means they are the highest in the world1. The ethnic Chinese population of Singapore (74 per cent of Singapore's total population) can be considered to be part of this cultural realm. The trends for many of these countries are shown in Jones and Gubhaju (2009) and also summarized in Figure l2. China itself, however, is different; almost all women have married by the time they reach 30 (for more detailed discussion, see Jones, 2007:466-7).

The median age at first marriage among Singapore residents in 20 1 0 was 30.0 for males and 27.7 for females (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2011b). Singlehood in Singapore, while high and still on the rise if measured by the proportion of females single at ages 25-29, has not been rising since about 1990 if measured by the proportion of females single in 5-year age groups in the 30s and 40s (see Figure 1), or by the singulate mean age at marriage, or by marriage rates related to the marriageable population (see Figure 2). Indeed, when controlled by education, singlehood prevalence has fallen somewhat since 1990. However, one factor explaining the divergence between trends in Singapore and those in the other countries is the rising share of permanent residents in the resident population of Singapore3. Those granted permanent residence are twice as likely to be married as the citizen population, and this has been a major reason for the failure of singlehood rates to increase over the 2000-20 1 0 period (Jones, forthcoming).

The aim of this paper is not to investigate possible reasons why levels of singlehood have not increased further, but rather to help understand why rates of singlehood are so high among the ethnic Chinese population of Singapore, based on a series of interviews conducted in 2010-11. It is expected that the findings from these interviews will have resonance for other populations in East Asia. Before giving details of this study and presenting its findings, however, we will summarize very briefly some of the factors thought by various scholars (e.g., Boling, 2008; Bumpass et al., 2009; Eun, 2007; Jones, 2007; Jones and Gubhaju, 2009; Ono, 2003; Raymo and Iwasawa, 2005; Retherford and Ogawa, 2006; Retherford, Ogawa and Matsukura, 2001; Tsuya and Bumpass (Eds.), 2004) to underlie the high levels of singlehood in the region.

Basically, these authors have argued that the trends are linked to fundamental changes in demographic structure, economy and society that have affected marriage markets and the perceived costs and benefits of marriage and its normal sequel, childbearing. The limited survey information available in the region suggests that most women desire to marry (Chan, 2002; MCYS & COF, 2004; NFC & MCYS, 2009; Quah, 1998, Table 3.5; Quah, 1999; Raymo and Iwasawa, 2008)4, but many factors weaken the intensity of this general desire to marry, or hinder its realization.

One important factor has been the expansion of education, even more rapid in the case of females than of males. Educational expansion and trends in labour markets have opened up employment possibilities for women, widened their aspirations and freed many from financial independence on men. Delayed marriage has particularly characterized the growing group of women with tertiary education. However, in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, upsurge in non-marriage since 2000 has characterized all educational groups (Jones and Gubhaju, 2009). Another factor has been increasing uncertainty in the labour market, which has perhaps been most marked in Japan with the demise of the firm-based lifetime employment system, but has also been very important in Korea since the economic crisis of 1997-8, and is felt in varying degrees throughout the region. …

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