From The Straits Times    |

The Singleporean is an anonymous column by a 30something, female Singaporean writer who’s obviously single (and cautiously ready to mingle). She pens her thoughts on work, relationships, and adulting from the lens of a millennial on the cusp of a mid-life crisis.

It’s not every day that findings from a survey make you wonder if you’d rather be alone than consider the possibility of marriage or starting a family. By the time I’m writing this, the infamous Ipsos survey would have made its rounds online.

The results, released in March this year, stated that 62 per cent of Singaporeans (68 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women) feel that “things have gone far enough” when it comes to “giving women equal rights with men in Singapore”. Furthermore, 58 per cent of Singaporeans agree that men are being expected to do too much to support equality.

This is not the first controversial poll that Ipsos has released. Last International Women’s Day, the international market research firm revealed that one in three men think feminism does more harm than good in a global survey spanning 30 nations, including Singapore, Australia, UK, and the US.

These figures reveal what we have already known for decades: Patriarchy is still deeply rooted in many cultures and countries, and it’s a system that’s held by both men and women. Just take the outrage that the Barbie movie is continuing to stir among both genders for its unapologetic feminist messaging (Shakira, we’re looking at you).

Returning to why I might be better off without a plus one: As a feminist myself, I can’t fathom being in a partnership where feminism becomes the proverbial elephant in the room. I want to be able to discuss values that I hold dear in a safe space, with a partner I love and trust. And if a whopping 68 per cent of Singapore men think of feminism as a “dirty” word, then what are the chances of meeting another single who doesn’t?

Aside from the dearth of Singapore men who identify as feminists, there is no doubt that much has been debated about how we can improve women’s equality from an institutional level.

However, have we missed an important aspect of the conversation? For feminism to succeed, we need the support of men – not just in policy-making roles, but also with men at home. And this entails forging mutual respect, support and constructive communication with our partners.

“If a whopping 68 per cent of Singapore men think of feminism as a “dirty” word, then what are the chances of meeting another single who doesn’t?”

Redefining one’s value, regardless of gender

An equal partnership starts with addressing fundamental biases, with the most common being income disparity. It doesn’t matter if my paycheck, as a woman, might be heftier; we both bring home the bacon.

Don’t get me wrong – equal contribution is important in any relationship, but it’d be unwise to place emphasis on monetary value above all else. Your partner might be flush with the five Cs (cash, credit card, car, condominium and country club), but then again, he might also be a Cad.

One of the many contentious and familiar issues in the feminist discourse is the topic of gender norms. In most parts of the world, the idea that men should always be the main breadwinner is a standard that is hard to shake, even in more egalitarian countries like Finland.

A peer-reviewed academic journal by the European Sociological Review recently indicated that in heterosexual relationships, men’s wellbeing across Europe is significantly lower when their partners out-earn them, while findings were inconclusive for women.

In Singapore, a 2023 Her World article that touched on whether women would date men who earned less than them garnered mixed responses. While money didn’t present an issue for some couples in a fiscal sense, the income disparity became a problem when one partner, male or female, feels the pressure to conform to traditional gender norms. This creates a mental and emotional rift when one questions their place (and worth) in the relationship.

“Your partner might be flush with the five Cs (cash, credit card, car, condominium and country club), but then again, he might also be a Cad.”

Then, there is the unpaid labour that women are expected to shoulder. We are supposedly more nurturing, are better listeners, and are more in tune with our emotions than men – as such, societal constructs portray women as the likely caregiver in a relationship.

That’s not to say that women do not embody these traits, but I believe with self-awareness, every individual is equally capable in this aspect.

Take married couple Cliff Tam and Dr Tam Wai Jia, for example. They have faced their fair share of judgment over their flipped roles at home. A former pastor, Cliff is a full-time caregiver to their two young daughters while Dr Tam, a medical doctor, is the breadwinner of the household.

In an interview for Her World’s video series, How to Build a Singaporean Woman, the couple discussed their unconventional arrangement. When Cliff became a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) to support Dr Tam’s return to full-time work in Singapore, he struggled to find meaning in his life, because he was doing the same things with his kids every day. “I also felt very lonely, because when I worked [as a pastor previously], I had friends and colleagues.”

He adds: “One struggle I encounter is when I meet new people and tell them I’m a SAHD. There’s usually a long pause, followed by the question that irritates me the most: ‘What else do you do?’”

It was a situation that was all too familiar for Dr Tam, who was a stay-home mum while Cliff served as an assistant pastor in Canada in 2018, prior to their move here. She had just graduated from John Hopkins University with awards and honours then.

“When Cliff transitioned into that role, and I saw my [experience] playing out in his life, I think that became a point of connection. It was helpful in terms of us giving each other space and grace, just to work things out,” she says.

You might be thinking, “Sure, their story is a textbook example of how a supportive and healthy relationship should look like.” However, their experiences emphasise the importance of empathy and compassion, communicating personal challenges, the willingness to take risks as a team, and sharing the weight of those decisions. These are hard-won values that require an immeasurable amount of work from both parties.

More than that, the Tams have shown that an equal partnership isn’t always equal all the time. Sometimes, it could be a case of one partner lifting the other so they can be closer to their goals and ambitions – the equilibrium is always shifting. That’s OK, because each person is progressing at their own pace, but they’re doing it together.

And doesn’t that embody some of the basic tenets of feminism, which include working to increase equality, expanding human choice, and eliminating gender stratification?

“An equal partnership isn’t always equal all the time. Sometimes, it could be a case of one partner lifting the other so they can be closer to their goals and ambitions.”

Changing the feminist narrative

Perhaps this is what the Ipsos survey, and 62 per cent of its Singaporean participants, got wrong.

Women’s equality often gets misunderstood as an uncompromising call to action or a zero-sum game. Feminism isn’t about pointing responsibility at one party in the movement against female subjugation, or about subjugating men and reversing the equation.

Feminism can mean that while we lobby against the scourge of misogyny and patriarchy, we can do so with strength derived from embracing our vulnerabilities as a couple – by tackling tough conversations with empathy, listening with intention, and showing appreciation for each other.

In fact, feminism underscores the most important “C” of all: collaboration.

Underneath the veil of cynicism, I remain hopeful in my search for a partner who is an ally – with whom I can offer my irrevocable support and love, and who will reciprocate in kind. After all, there’s still the 32 per cent who remain receptive to feminist principles. If not, I’m open to casting my net elsewhere.

And perhaps – with the right person – this Singleporean’s stance on marriage and kids might even shift from a “hell, no” to a “well, maybe”.

Have a topic you’d like us to explore? Email your suggestions to magherworld@sph.com.sg with ‘The Singleporean’ in the header.