January 13th, 2014

An inclusive approach to family

By Teo You Yenn

2014 is the International Year of the Family. In the first days of the new year, there have been news stories about young couples welcoming newborns into the world and older ones renewing marital vows.

familyThis year we will no doubt bear witness to photogenic nuclear families cycling through East Coast Park and three-generational families sharing meals in rooms with beautiful lighting. At the same time, we will be constantly reminded of the importance of family, of families that are “pillars” we return to, our “shelter”, “what really counts” and that to which we return “at the end of the day”.

This year, too, lively public discussions around poverty and increasing income inequality will continue – and perhaps even intensify.

As a society, we in Singapore need to bring these two seemingly separate stories into the same frame.

In my ongoing research on low-income families in Singapore, one key issue sticks out: Family life is a privilege. Those who have the privilege take it for granted. Regular incomes support our families’ lifestyles of three meals a day every day. They ensure homes that are adequate for all members of our families at the same time, and provide savings that prevent us from falling into debt and despair when a family member falls ill. Regular work and decent income provide the bare-bones infrastructure underpinning stable familial lives.

Beyond this, there is the privilege of leisure. The privileged take weekly days off for granted, the same way many of us take for granted that we will have money for lunch tomorrow. Some of us spend it recklessly watching too much television or surfing the web. Others grudgingly and dutifully spend it bringing children to enrichment classes. Some of us take secret pleasure in stealing hours away from our offspring and loved ones, absence rendering the heart fonder et cetera.

For persons who have limited income, managing or trying to avoid crisis is an everyday activity. They must spend their time and energy figuring out whom among their extended families have floor space they can sleep on when Housing Board rules kick in after divorce and the matrimonial flat is sold. They need to strategise to figure out how to work enough to provide for the children while still being around to make sure they have meals to eat. They may have to walk an hour each way to and from the hospital to visit a sick child when there is no money left in their EZ Link cards. These efforts leave little space and capacity for much else.

Among persons with low income, I have witnessed tremendous efforts to keep families together and a great deal of familial love, kindness and generosity. This is not just between husbands, wives and children, but includes grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and siblings.

Their material conditions may be bare but their needs, capacities and aspirations for familial love are as rich as those of people with more wealth. Yet their families and familial struggles are neither properly recognised and respected nor adequately supported. Their divorces and reconstituted families are characterised as dysfunctional; their interdependence beyond the nuclear heterosexual couple sometimes viewed with suspicion.

On the other hand, the persistent rhetoric on the importance of family does not address their limited access to the conditions of material security and leisure that are taken for granted by better-off members of our society.

Promoting and lauding family life is not in itself problematic. It is problematic, however, to portray a limited vision of family life as universal, as the standard. It is moreover unjust to hold this ideal up, without addressing the uneven access members of our society have to the preconditions of stable familial lives, no matter the definition of family.

In Singapore, the narrow ideal of family is buttressed by public policies that affect Singaporeans’ access to public housing and support for children. While heterosexual, married, educated, professional women like myself easily access the full benefits of generous maternity leave, childcare centre subsidies, baby bonuses, and maid levy reliefs, my counterpart with less education and limited options for stable employment has to struggle to cobble together enough income from two part-time shift jobs, while worrying about whether the school will allow her older child, barely out of preschool himself, to pick up the youngest from childcare while she’s gone.

Childcare subsidies may be available, but working in low-wage jobs in order to qualify for them leaves gaps in her children’s care needs that higher-income families can resolve with other paid caregivers. With less cash to spare, she also gets less in the co-savings component of the Baby Bonus. Any blip to her tenuous arrangements–a sick child, an unanticipated loss in hours she is given work–can become a crisis that throws her off-course.

Differentiating policies create an environment where families that do not fit are seen as and see themselves as failing. They perpetuate a vicious cycle of inequalities: failure to live up to ideals mean more difficulty accessing public resources, less access to public resources result in greater struggles to establish stable familial lives.

As we laud “the family,” we must bring into view less photogenic but crucial elements of this issue: the celebration of one type of family should not undermine the many families who do not fit these narrow ideals. Importantly, if familial life is a good thing for our society, we must work to ensure that everyone has access to the basic conditions that enable it.

Teo You Yenn is a board member at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University, and author of the book Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society (Routledge, 2011). This op-ed was first published in the Straits Times on 11 January 2014. 

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