((Wo)man Overboard – perspectives from a lass who jumped off the family ship.

by Sangeetha Dorairaj

So it was with great interest (and greater trepidation) that I read the latest foot-in-mouth comments made by our former PM Lee.

Mr Lee (I can’t call him Minister Mentor anymore) was at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Ministerial Forum – the type of forum the PAP love to participate in to ‘get in touch’ with our disconnected youth and reach out to the best and brightest our tertiary institutions have to offer; and the type of forum the Singapore media love to attend so that the front page of the Straits Times can report how the PAP member in attendance addressed the ‘key issues and concerns’ of Singaporeans.

One such issue of concern addressed was the influx of foreigners due to our shrinking population – which by the way, has been an ongoing since the 1980s; there’s nothing new about our aging population, and I personally feel that it needs to stop being referred to as an ‘issue’, which has more temporal connotations (and clearly this is not temporal seeing as how they haven’t been able to do anything about it for the past three decades).  But I digress.

Mr Lee was addressing a question posed by a 27-year-old PhD student about the aforementioned ‘issue’, and explained that if Singaporeans replenished the population, then there would not be a pressing need to bring in as many foreigners as currently required to sustain the economy and the workforce. He then asked the student, a young lady, if she had a boyfriend, to which she (bless her, for having to brave this line of questioning in a public forum!) replied no, she did not. Mr Lee then told her (in not so many words) that her childbearing years would be coming to an end soon and advised her not to ‘waste time’, and that procreating would be more important and satisfying than getting her PhD. To be fair, at the end of that nugget of advice, he tagged on a cursory wish that apart from a boyfriend, she would also get her PhD.

Of course the Internet forums, chat rooms and blogs went into full gear, with everyone discussing this latest juicy morsel. The idea that furthering one’s education would be nowhere near as satisfying as bearing children (and by implication, doing one’s bit for the nation) had just been legitimated by none other than our former prime minister, a man credited with steering our country from the third world to the first.

Now as a single female who has recently embarked on a Master of Education, this comment was of particular interest to me. What really made me sit up and pay attention was not the fact that former PM Lee had told the young lady to find a partner on the double, but that he had told her with such conviction that doing her PhD would not bring her the same kind of contentment that raising a family would.

The reason I sat up and paid attention was because of the assumption made (and a rather large one at that) – that academic achievement would not provide satisfaction, in and of itself. Was it because she was a single female? And would he have given the same advice if the question had come from a single male? Of course, I could speculate for hours, and yes, I realise that the comment was made with national agenda undertones, but I suspect that the view held by our former PM is also held by other Singaporeans – and it’s not just the aunties and uncles.

When I was leaving Singapore for Melbourne (where I am currently pursuing my postgraduate degree), an overwhelming number of my friends – when saying their farewells – advised me to “come back with a boyfriend, ah!” and not to come back home still single.  After imparting this advice to me, some would add, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, and study hard!” This was perplexing to me; why wasn’t anyone primarily telling me things like, “Come back valedictorian!” Or why wasn’t their foremost wish that I would come back and tell them that I’d been offered a PhD?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that my friends only had the very best of intentions in saying what they did, and I know that they only want the best for me. Nonetheless, I found it strange. One friend tried to explain it by saying, “Aiyah, we know you will study hard, so no point telling you that! So we told you to go find a husband, so you can be happy.” As it turns out, Mr Lee’s remark seems to be echoed by society in general as well.

This explanation was even more confusing to me. I wasn’t offended; rather, I wondered why these young Singaporeans, all of whom were well-educated and rather liberal in their views, would be making the same assumption as Mr Lee – that I, a single female (apparently doomed to perpetual single-hood, living in a cosy apartment with my fifty cats and labelled spice jars if I didn’t come back with another half), would be better off or happier with a man than a Masters.

Maybe I don’t want a husband; maybe I want to live in an apartment by myself with large numbers of four-legged pets of my choice; maybe the PhD student who asked the question would rather study biological sciences and stare into petri dishes than go to a speed dating event; maybe A LOT of single women pursing further academic qualifications would rather push for doctorates than push out babies. Maybe the lot of us single ladies (put your hands up, oh oh oh…) would rather improve our minds, instead of improve population growth.

Which brings me to the entire point of my rambling thus far – I hate that people have made assumptions about us single women. We’re just as happy and as satisfied (and I dare say, looking at the sleep-deprived faces of my friends with children, sometimes even more satisfied) as those women who chose to get married and procreate. Just because more women may choose the path that leads to the husband, condo, kids and dog, it doesn’t mean that all women want to go down that same path. And I’m not knocking the women who chose the former path, either – I’m sure that there is much happiness to be had from marriage and childbirth, but let’s not forget that there is also much happiness to be had from attaining one’s personal academic goals.

At the end of the day, we’d all be better off if we didn’t judge the people who have made a choice to pursue an academic life instead of a family life – those of us who have aren’t judging the others who did the reverse. I say let’s leave people to do what floats their boats, and in the meantime, let’s leave Mr Lee to sail in the ocean of comments he’ll undoubtedly be making at the many NTU forums to come.

Sangeetha is currently pursuing her Master in Education. She enjoys reflecting on the many preposterous comments people make, and enjoys being a swinging single even more. Despite what most people seem to think about single women approaching thirty, she is confident that she will not end up a lonely old spinster living in a flat with fifty cats – she prefers dogs.


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3 Responses to ((Wo)man Overboard – perspectives from a lass who jumped off the family ship.

  1. Rupert says:

    What is shocking here is not really what Mr Lee has said (he has said worse before, consistently), but the way in which he inverts responsibility. Ms Joan Sim asked about social cohesion, and instead of a straight answer was asked an alienating question. Social cohesion is always a question of social acceptance, so if leaders (or high establishment figures) put forward attitudes that undermine people’s perfectly civil lifestyles, they are actively working against social cohesion. So in a sense he did answer her question…

    • Sangee says:

      That’s an interesting perspective…I’m not surprised that he did it though. The fact that he doesn’t seem to accept her chosen lifestyle (or lifestyle for now at least) hints at the rigidity of Singaporean thinking and how we are unwilling to accept the paths that stray – even a little – from the tired and tested, and those that are esteemed by the powers that be. Sad. I must be such a disappointment to the nation and Mr Lee.

  2. good one sangeetha! “come back with a boyfriend ah!” is often followed by “when you getting married?” and then “still no kids?” GAG. Anyway, even if we do choose to procreate, why the hell do we have to do it in captivity eh?

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