There has been a surge in the number of Singaporean men taking foreign brides in the past decade, a trend social workers worry about as many of these grooms are older and poorer, and their families face a host of challenges from poverty to abuse and immigration woes.
Last year saw 5,599 marriages between citizen grooms and non-resident brides - a 40 per cent jump from the 3,988 in 2002.
That accounted for 20 per cent of all marriages last year, up from 17.2 per cent in 2002, according to data released by the National Population and Talent Division in September this year.
More than 50,000 Singaporeans have married non-resident brides - those who are not citizens or permanent residents - in the past decade. More than 95 per cent of foreign wives are from Asian countries.
Although the report did not specify their countries of origin, social workers who help foreign wives say many of the women, usually in their 20s and 30s, hail from China, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Their ranks have swelled as more foreign women have been seeking out Singaporean husbands through compatriots already married to Singapore men, said Ms Elizabeth Tan, senior executive officer of the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI), a Catholic group that helps foreigners here.
Sociologist Paulin Straughan said the grooms, often in their 40s or older, and some into their second marriages, tend to be lower-educated men who find it hard to attract a local wife. They choose foreign women who they feel make fewer demands of their husbands.
In a paper on Vietnamese brides published last week in the journal Third World Quarterly, Professor Brenda Yeoh of the National University of Singapore geography department and a team of researchers wrote: "Working-class Singaporean men are increasingly seeking foreign brides as a more affordable way of securing various forms of care work, including household chores, caring for elderly parents, physical and emotional companionship, as well as reproducing and caring for the next generation."
Her team did in-depth interviews with 27 Vietnamese matched to Singaporeans by commercial matchmakers to find out about their lives and the problems they faced. The women were mostly in their 20s and early 30s, with the youngest just 18. Most had at least a lower secondary education.
Their husbands were mostly in their 30s to 50s, and the oldest was in his 70s. Most lived in smaller HDB flats.
Social workers are dealing with some of these couples, who run into multiple problems.
Some of the men earn too little from blue-collared jobs to support their families or are too old to land a job. And their wives cannot work unless they have a work permit or a long-term visit pass plus.
Kampong Kapor Family Service Centre (FSC) counsellor Linda Lim cited the case of a part-time security guard struggling to support a family of four on his pay of $600 a month.
The 70-year-old was a divorcee when he married a divorced woman from China now in her 40s, and they have a seven-year-old son. The woman has a teenage son from her first marriage and her long-term visit pass (LTVP) does not allow her to work.
Money problems aside, the women also worry about their right to remain in Singapore.
Many hold an LTVP usually valid for between three months and a year. Some are given only a social visit pass, valid for even shorter periods, and they have to shuttle in and out of Singapore - often with their young children in tow - when their passes expire, said Ms Jessica Chan, executive director of Kampong Kapor FSC.
As a result, some families find it hard to stay together, and their young children may skip pre-school due to this shuttling, she said.
Covenant FSC assistant director Cindy Ng said: "Their children start off life more disadvantaged. Some cannot speak English or read when they start school as their mothers are not proficient in the language and cannot help them with their studies."
And for many of these women, getting permanent residence is an uphill task, social workers note.
In February this year, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu revealed in Parliament that about half of the applications - or an average of 4,400 a year - for permanent residence by foreign spouses of Singaporeans in the past five years were rejected. About nine in 10 of those rejected were wives.
But the Government also introduced a new pass, the long-term visit pass plus (LTVP+), in April last year to enable foreign spouses to stay for longer periods, for three years initially, and up to five years upon each subsequent renewal. Those with this pass can also work and enjoy some health-care subsidies.
At the end of last year, 11,736 foreigners married to Singaporean citizens were on long-term visit passes, including the LTVP+. Most of these spouses were women, an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority spokesman said.
Some of the foreign women are also living with abusive husbands, who use their fists to control their wives, who are totally dependent on them, social workers said.
About 10 per cent of all personal protection orders filed over the past three years were by foreign wives against their violent husbands, an increase from about 2 per cent to 3 per cent in the five preceding years.
For some unfortunate women, problems snowball when their husbands fall ill or die.
They lose their sole breadwinner and may find it hard to remain here with their children without their husbands to sponsor their passes.
Noting that many of these women are seen as no more than "temporary visitors" when it comes to their immigration status here, Prof Yeoh argued that the Government must ensure that the State, civil society groups and families work together to strengthen the safety nets for these foreign brides.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 22, 2013
To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/