Ideal of the S-E Asian family unlikely to endure

Migration can strain the family unit. In Vietnam, about half of female migrants to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (above) are married, and over 80 per cent of those married when they first move have at least one child.
Migration can strain the family unit. In Vietnam, about half of female migrants to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (above) are married, and over 80 per cent of those married when they first move have at least one child. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

THE case for South-east Asian exceptionalism has, in part at least, been laid at the door of "the family". The South-east Asian family has been seen as a cornerstone in the region's economic success.

And the family's apparent resilience in the face of other social and economic transformations has become almost an article of faith. The family, it is believed, will not erode and decline as it is seen to have done in the Western world, and the family will not abandon its elderly and fail in the care of its young.

But South-east Asia now faces a perfect storm. It consists of falling fertility rates, an ageing population, growing levels of migration and mobility, the entry of women into the workforce, rising levels of education, and significant "ideational" change. Collectively, these changes have the potential to re-engineer social relations and norms.

Can the South-east Asian family ideal withstand such a demographic onslaught?

That this question might be answered in the negative is given credence by the number of terms that have been coined to describe the familial ructions evident across the region. Scholars and policymakers write - and worry - about "absentee" mothers (and fathers), and "absent" and "remote" parenting.

At root, these terms hone in on the same elemental question: How does the family care now, and will it - and how will it - care in the future?

There are two processes at work here. Fertility rates have declined across the South-east Asian region, in most countries to less than replacement levels.

At the same time, growing numbers of people have had to migrate to secure their livelihoods. The family is getting smaller, older and more dispersed.

These changes to the nature of the family raise a puzzle and provide the outlines of a key policy challenge. The puzzle is nicely captured by Linh, a Vietnamese female migrant in a 2008 study by Dr Catherine Locke, a specialist on Vietnam at the University of East Anglia in Britain.

Linh told Dr Locke: "If I want to provide for them (my children), I have to migrate. But when I migrate, I cannot take care of them."

In Vietnam, around half of female migrants to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are married, and over 80 per cent of those married when they first move have at least one child.

In Thailand, a 2012 survey by the National Statistical Office revealed that one-fifth or three million children were not living with either of their parents due to migration.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the proportion of the elderly living alone in Thailand doubled from 4 per cent in 1986 to 8 per cent in 2011, and the proportion living alone or only with their spouse increased from 11 per cent to 26 per cent.

Of all the social effects of migration, the most problematic are seen to be the effects of parental absence.

There is a good deal of evidence from studies in the Philippines and Thailand particularly to suggest that migration and long-term parental absence can create a care deficit and lead to emotional strain, depression and schooling failure. Most studies also unequivocally show that a mother's absence has greater negative consequences than a father's absence.

The evidence is not all one- sided, of course, and it is important not to discount or underestimate the effects of increased income on the wider household.

After all, the overriding motivation for migration is economic, and the income that can be generated can lift a household out of poverty and boost a child's life chances through investment in education.

Just as left-behind children are a source of concern, so too is the growing number of older adults living alone.

Traditionally, older generations were supported by their younger kin through an intergenerational "bargain". With heightened levels of migration and falling fertility, this is becoming harder to sustain.

Some families manage well and some less well. This is linked to a host of factors, from the presence of strong kinship support networks to the cultural histories and contexts that shape family relations.

For the moment at least, it seems that the triple challenge of an ageing population, falling fertility and increasingly dispersed living arrangements is, overall, being met.

As a 2013 report on the elderly in Thailand by HelpAge International noted, "the fundamental traditions of (Thai) society remain in place" and as "older persons become less able to work and their health worsens, they rely largely on their families to provide material support and care".

But the demographic forces at work across South-east Asia are necessarily going to exert growing pressure on family living arrangements. Currently, most elderly people have large families to support them, even when (some) children are absent. That will not be the case for those currently in their 50s and 60s. In Thailand, 44 per cent of 50- to 54-year-olds have two or fewer children. With fewer children to go around, a growing need to build livelihoods away from home, and a thinning community support network, it is easy to conclude that something will have to give.

In Europe and the United States, the burden and costs of care have generally been borne by the state. In South-east Asia, they are internalised within the household. Public transfers to care for those aged 65 and older are negligible in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Indeed, in the latter two countries, the elderly collectively actually pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

Belief in the strength and resilience of the family remains strong in South-east Asia - and for good reason. But it is also clear that modernisation and the social transformations that have been set in train by modernisation are placing families under strain.

This has policy and societal implications. For states in the region, the challenge is how to provide economic security for a growing - and increasingly politically influential and powerful - elderly population while not undermining economic growth.

For wider society, the challenge is whether - and how - families will adjust their cultures of caring to account for the new household forms that are emerging. What is evident, however, is that the "ideal" South-east Asian family is unlikely to endure.


The writer is a professor at the National University of Singapore's geography department.

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