Can Singapore’s and Other Asian countries’ Rising Divorce Rates be Reversed?

Divorces in Singapore rose to an all time high in 2014, placing the republic’s divorce rate among the top six countries in Asia. It is exceeded only by South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan. It is significant that all these countries are among the most affluent in Asia and they share a common Chinese cultural heritage background. This accelerating development contrasts starkly with just four decades or so ago when divorce was taboo in my native Singapore and a divorcee, especially for a woman with children, would carry a severe social stigma and her chances of a successful remarriage to a fellow Singaporean husband would have dimmed considerably, except to a small number of very open-minded men.

Today, Singapore’s total population stands at about six millions, including one million foreigners working there. The latest official statistics show that about 4% of Singapore’s residents, aged between their late teens and above, are either divorced or separated pending divorces. This is considerably higher than the other less economically developed Asian countries. However, compared to the divorce rates in the United States and other Western countries, these six Asian countries still have some way to catch up with their Western counterparts Nonetheless, an alarm bell has been sounded and they should all heed it and endeavour to arrest this worrying trend before it gets progressively worse. As a comparison, based on latest available statistics obtained from Internet sources, the top ten most divorced Western nations have divorce rates ranging from 53% of marriages ended in divorce in the US to 71% in Belgium. In Asia, on the other hand, 30 to 33% of marriages in South Korea and Japan were terminated.

Singapore Supreme Court (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Singapore Supreme Court (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Now that Singapore has become increasingly more affluent and the emergence of a more sophisticated lifestyle coupled with pervasive Western influences, there has been drastic changes to the traditional pattern of family life leading to the weakening of the sanctity of marriages and family cohesion. For example, by the beginning of 2014, one in five marriages in Singapore had resulted in divorce, compared with one in eight in 2003. The failure rate is especially high among the 20s and 30s age group. There are, of course, many causes that have led to marital breakdowns in Singapore and other Asian countries mentioned above, and I would venture forth what I consider to be some of the common underlying factors contributing to rising divorces in these countries. Lets just confine ourselves to Singapore as a case in point.

First, Singaporeans, by and large, have become more tolerant towards failed marriages and no longer regard divorcees as social outcasts. They also accept marital misfortunes as a reality of modern living and therefore deserve sympathies and not outright condemnation.

Secondly, with better education, well-paid jobs, high standard of living, easy exposure to external influences and a colonial legacy, Singaporeans are highly westernised and, understandably, some of the West’s less edifying mores and practices have taken roots there.

Traditional Chinese wedding costume (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Traditional Chinese wedding costume (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For instance, Western movies and television programmes which dominate our cinema halls and broadcasting channels would indiscriminately play up, and sometimes even glorify, the allures of extramarital affairs, the virtue and convenience of couple cohabitation without marriage responsibilities and rampant permissiveness as if these were the accepted ways of life in the West. This is, of course, a sensational misrepresentation of the life of the majority of people in Western societies, but their powerful visual impacts on viewers can shape and influence their perceptions of the moral norms of the West and some may even find them worthy of emulation.

Thirdly, more and more Singaporeans of both sexes nowadays frequently travel overseas either for business or pleasure and these could, and do, present opportunities for marital infidelity. Further, modern working environments necessitate close contacts with colleagues or customers of the opposite sex and these often put temptations in the way of the weak-willed spouses.

Fourthly, through better education and an ability to earn a decent living on their own merit, numerous Singaporean women would rather terminate a marriage that has irretrievably broken down rather than perpetuating it and living in misery for the remainder of their lives like women in earlier generations would do. Many have succeeded in bringing up their children well and happily as single parents.

Finally, divorces have been made easier in certain defined circumstances through law reforms in Singapore in order to reflect changing circumstances, and this has resulted in significant reductions of the attendant legal costs and shortening the hitherto more lengthy and complicating proceedings in court.

In times past, aggrieved wives were virtually dependent on their husbands financially and this, coupled with the shackles of feudal traditions and stricter societal norms, made it virtually impossible for them to extricate themselves from an unfulfilled and miserable marriage and they would, per force, have to bear it bravely for the sake of the children or to uphold the family honour. All they could do then was to suffer the insufferable and to pin their hopes on their children to bring them happiness and protection in their old age out of filial piety, a highly venerated component of Confucian teachings.

Re-enactment of Korean royal wedding (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Re-enactment of Korean royal wedding (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Can these rising divorce trends be reversed and, if so, through what channels and means? This is a most difficult question to find a perfect answer but would undoubtedly continue to exercise the minds of our sociologists and decision makers.

Be that as it may, my view is that it is extremely difficult to reverse these corrosive worldwide trends, short of enacting draconian measures which would be unthinkable in a progressive society like Singapore.

In the ultimate, the final arbiters of a loving union are the parties themselves, who must do their utmost to make their marriage work. In this regard, the appropriate educational institutions, the religious and other public bodies as well as parents themselves can lend a strong and influential helping hand to instil moral values and marital responsibilities in our youth.

Lam Pin Foo

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