This is part of a weekly series of feature stories, videos and podcasts in which The Straits Times correspondents cast the spotlight on people and communities around the region, living in the shadows of their societies where they exist largely unseen, unheard and little talked about.
SINGAPORE – Siti’s husband, an odd-job worker 10 years her senior, did not allow her to leave the house without him – not even to do marketing.
Her husband also did not allow her to work and she was not given an allowance, though he paid for the bills at home.
Siti (not her real name), now 38, met her husband while working as a hotel receptionist in Indonesia, where he was holidaying.
They got engaged after a long-distance relationship of three months.
“I married him as he was very sincere in wanting to marry me,” she said.
However, life in Singapore in the early years had been mostly housebound for her. She stayed home to raise their four children, the oldest of whom is now 14.
“I felt he was afraid of me making new friends and I felt very alone.”
She said she did not go into marriage thinking that a Singaporean man would be her ticket to a better life, but she certainly did not expect the chagrin of having to ask him for money for even the smallest things.
“I felt like a child,” she said.
“Once I asked him for $5 to buy chilli for cooking, and he said he had no money. I was angry that he had money to buy 4D, but said he had no money to buy chilli.”
Siti is not alone in her marital woes.
There are many foreign women, wed to low-income Singaporean men, who face problems ranging from family violence to poverty as well as an uncertain stay in Singapore.
These women remain “invisible and voiceless” largely due to their immigration status, as they have limited rights, protection and access to social benefits, said Ms Shailey Hingorani, head of research and advocacy at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
She added: “Many lack knowledge of the rights and benefits that they are entitled to and are left feeling helpless in times of need as they do not know where to seek support for various challenges. This is compounded by the limited social networks they have in Singapore.”
Lowest family income, highest level of conflict
In 2019, 4,426 Singaporean men wed non-resident brides – making up one in five marriages involving at least one citizen, according to the Government’s Population In Brief 2020 report.
A recent landmark study on cross-national families by Professor Jean Yeung, founding director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore, and PhD student Shuya Lu, shed light on these families.
In 2018 and 2019, the researchers interviewed 3,121 women who were the primary caregivers of Singaporean children aged up to six years old.
It found that 18 per cent of these families had a wife born overseas and a Singapore-born husband, and 57 per cent had both parents born here.
The other families are those with a Singapore-born mum and a foreign-born dad and families with both parents born overseas.
The top five countries the foreign-born wives in the study are born in are China (26 per cent), Malaysia (25 per cent), Vietnam (14 per cent), Indonesia (11 per cent) and the Philippines (7 per cent).
The study also found that the level of family conflict is inversely related to family income.
The pressures of making ends meet often stress a marriage, and families with a foreign-born wife and a Singapore-born husband had the highest level of family conflict.
Social workers say Prof Yeung’s study confirms what they have been observing on the ground for years: that many of the Singaporean men who marry foreign wives are older, less educated and are low-wage workers.
And given the financial, legal and other challenges many of these women face, the study confirms the vulnerability of these foreign wives, they say.
Shaky foundation to marriage
Foreign women married to low-income Singapore men are particularly vulnerable to family violence and marital woes, social workers note.
Women interviewed for this story said their marriages were not arranged by matchmaking or “mail-order bride” agencies.
The couples had met instead through friends, social media, or while the Singaporean was holidaying or working in their country.
One reason these marriages are particularly vulnerable is that the couples tied the knot after a brief courtship and do not know each other well.
Sister Sylvia Ng, case manager at the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, said some of these couples had “shaky foundations” to their marriages.
They may have met only a few times before saying I do or they may not even share a common language, she said.
Ms Amanda Chong, whose research study on migrant brides was published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender in 2014, said that many of these women she interviewed told her they wed a Singaporean as an “economic strategy”.
Ms Chong, who co-founded Readable, a volunteer group that teaches children from disadvantaged families literacy and numeracy, added: “They feel that Singaporean men can provide for them and their children will have more opportunities here than in their own countries.”
The women often depend on their husbands to support them financially and to sponsor their long-term visit pass (LTVP), she added.
So some choose to stay in abusive or strained marriages, as they fear being separated from their children should their husbands cancel their LTVP if they ask for a divorce, social workers say.
Siti is a case in point.
The LTVP holder had once considered divorce, but banished the thought for fear of never seeing her children again.
“So I just tolerated everything,” she said, adding that her relationship with her husband has improved over time.
The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, however, has said that Singaporeans cannot unilaterally cancel their foreign spouse’s LTVP or long-term visit pass-plus (LTVP+) without their spouse’s consent – a fact which social workers say many foreign wives may not know.
Measures to help
Of course, there are many happy marriages between Singaporean men and their foreign wives.
And in the past decade, the Government has put in place policies and programmes to help foreign brides and their families.
For one thing, it is now easier for LTVP and LTVP+ holders to work here. Since December 2018, they do not need their employers to apply for a letter of consent for them to work and they are granted such pre-approved letters.
With these pre-approved letters of consent, their bosses just need to notify the Manpower Ministry when they start work.
Foreign spouses holding a LTVP or LTVP+ are not subject to foreign worker quotas or levies, which boosts their employability, said those interviewed.
Sister Sylvia said: “This is a great development as it allows foreign wives to be employed and contribute financially to their family.”
The Government has also improved the accessibility and affordability of HDB flats for transnational families, a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) spokesman said.
For example, since 2019, a citizen aged 21 and older marrying a non-resident spouse and applying for an HDB flat for the first time can apply for the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant (Singles) of up to $40,000 when buying a resale flat. Previously, the Singaporean had to be at least 35.
More can be done
Still, those interviewed say more can be done for this vulnerable group of foreign wives.
For example, Kreta Ayer Family Services social worker Tan Ee Hiang said more healthcare subsidies can be extended to foreign wives holding a LTVP.
Aware’s Ms Hingorani said: “There should be clear and timed access to permanent residency and citizenship for migrant spouses, so as to secure more rights for this group of people who have committed themselves to being part of the Singaporean community.”
The MSF spokesman said that Singapore does not automatically grant immigration passes such as LTVP and LTVP+ to all foreign spouses, and it assesses each application on its individual merits.
The MSF spokesman said: “Our immigration policies must strike a balance between facilitating marriage and parenthood, and safeguarding against marriages of convenience that aim to circumvent our immigration framework.
“The family must also be able to support itself financially, and the marriage must be stable, among other considerations.”
For Siti, her life here became brighter after she took up a cleaner’s job – going against her husband’s wishes, she said.
He was angry at first but relented and allowed her to work as her over $1,000 monthly pay also paid for some of the children’s expenses.
She also has made more friends through work and says she now knows how to seek help from social workers if she needs it.
She said: “I’m happy I earn my own money, as I can spend it on myself and my children. And I have saved some money in case of an emergency.
“I have made more friends.”
‘I feel so blessed’
SINGAPORE – What should have been the honeymoon period of her marriage was instead eclipsed by homesickness.
Ms Khuong Thi Van, who moved to Singapore after marrying a Singaporean three years ago, missed her parents, who run a vegetable wholesale business, and her two younger brothers back in Vietnam.
The 24-year-old Vietnamese, who goes by the name Anna Ng, also missed Vietnamese food and had no friends here.
The high school graduate who speaks English said: “I felt very lonely during my first year here. I cried a lot and felt very lost.”
But her “buddy”, whom she met while attending a marriage support programme for transnational couples like her, was a lifeline.
The Vietnamese woman introduced her to other Vietnamese wives and showed her around. Mrs Ng also made more friends through the church she attends.
Mrs Ng met her 25-year-old husband Ng Bon Han, a sales engineer, through friends. During their year-long courtship, he often visited her in Vietnam.
“I feel I can relate to him,” said Mrs Ng, who is not working. “And he cares a lot about me.”
Their first year of married life was the hardest as they had to adjust to being man and wife.
For example, she initially wanted to have children immediately, as couples in Vietnam usually do, but he wanted to save up first.
They now plan to have children in five or 10 years’ time, as they believe it is costly to raise children here.
She said: “Even though we love each other, we still have differences. So we communicated a lot more to understand each other. Now our marriage is very stable.”
Other marriages on the rocks
However, a few of her Vietnamese friends’ marriages to Singaporeans are on the rocks.
Some wed Singaporean men in the hope of leading a better life here, after a courtship of as short as a month and without getting to really know their spouses before saying “I do”, she said.
One or two friends wed a Singaporean twice their age, and the couple have different sets of values and expectations about marriage, Mrs Ng added.
“I always tell my friends, marry the one you love and it doesn’t matter where he comes from. But many still feel marrying a Singaporean is a dream,” she said.
To help transnational couples start their marriage on a “strong foundation”, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) introduced a marriage preparation programme (MPP) and the marriage support programme (MSP) in 2014.
The programmes cover communication and conflict management in a cross-cultural context, and offer practical advice on living in Singapore, said an MSF spokesman.
The MPP is a half-day programme, while the MSP is a full-day programme, said Ms Isabelle Ng, social worker at Fei Yue Community Services, which runs the programmes.
Fei Yue also organises classes to teach the foreign spouse basic conversational English or Mandarin, organises outings and matches a buddy to those who want one.
Ms Ng said: “Due to cultural and language gaps, the marital difficulties faced can be magnified. So the buddy is a source of emotional and practical support for the foreign wife.”
After a review of the programmes in 2019, the MSF revised the content to focus more on managing cultural differences as well as relationship skills, such as communication skills and conflict resolution, among other things.
Mrs Ng is now a buddy to two Vietnamese women, as she found the marriage programmes run by Fei Yue helpful.
She said: “My buddy did a good job for me and now I can help others. I have more friends now and feel less stressed now. I feel blessed.”