'I do' ... or maybe I don't

Just over a year ago, I attended the engagement party of a close friend in her early 20s.

Fortified with too much champagne and too much reading on social theory, I made a gallant, tongue-in-cheek attempt at toasting the happy couple: "I respect your decision to partake in this bourgeois institution of heterosexual property transfer."

After all, the key objectives of marriage, historically speaking, are to cement a sense of shared parenting and set in motion a proper lineage for the inheritance of assets. And as a cultural studies graduate, I know what many of us think of as marriage - heterosexual, monogamous, permanent - is not the universal definition but a culturally specific practice that is sometimes a colonial imposition.

That has made me and some of my friends wonder: Does marriage still hold the same appeal, or relevance, to millennials?

Marriage confers a special legal role on couples in many societies. For example, it makes them eligible for certain tax advantages and, in Singapore, eligible for some baby bonuses and access to subsidised public housing. These legal benefits are not to be sneezed at and are, in fact, critical to many families.

The barriers faced by those who want to get married but cannot - for example, former or current work permit holders, who generally require Manpower Ministry approval to marry Singapore residents - take a very real toll on people.


On top of that, proponents of marriage tout health benefits such as greater longevity and fewer heart attacks and strokes, possibly because married people are likely to receive more emotional and physical support.

And it benefits children too, they say. Having parents who stay married is associated with greater socio-economic mobility and more family wealth, to say nothing of better odds of staying in school and avoiding teenage parenthood.

But there is a flip side as well.

Critics say marriage often benefits men more.

Women, in contrast, tend to end up with the bulk of household duties, on top of - or at the expense of - full-time jobs in the formal economy.

Wives also suffer from all sorts of disadvantageous legal assumptions, from the pesky - here, a married mother cannot give her child her surname - to the life-threatening, such as the legality of spousal rape, which is now under review by the Government.

More importantly, the legal benefits and cultural esteem given to the married may be what fuel the disadvantages faced by those with alternative household structures.

As a recent news report highlighted, the distinction in Singapore law between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" children means that unmarried mothers may have to legally adopt their own children to protect their inheritance.

As much as illegitimacy makes for juicy storylines in soap operas about imperial concubines or family feuds over business empires, it is an unfair predicament to slap onto a child.

Even as the total fertility rate here continues to fall - it was 1.2 children a woman last year - so does the joint-parenting motive for tying the knot.

As many Singaporeans living in multi-generational households know, child rearing has not traditionally fallen under the purview of the recently invented nuclear family.

From Soviet creches and Israeli kibbutzim to common-law partners and cohabiting parents across the world, who's to say that the bounds of marriage must be the only acceptable way to raise a child?

In the "walking marriages" of the Mosuo tribe in China, men may visit female partners' houses at night but must return to their maternal homes by daybreak, and children are raised collectively.

Meanwhile, given how contractual an entity marriage historically has been, it is no surprise that there have often been exit clauses quite at odds with "till death do us part".

One could thus wonder why marriage should be put on a pedestal to enjoy a special legal status, compared with other kinds of relationships - whether unwed partnerships or close friendships.

In 2009, American sociologist Claire Kamp Dush looked at the data of 4,910 mothers and 11,428 children.

She concluded that "the key for many children is growing up in a stable household... whether that is in a single-parent home or a married home" with two parents. Similarly, the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank, pointed out in a report in March: "Not all marriages will benefit children equally. The average difference in outcomes between children from married and unmarried parents disguises considerable variation across circumstances."

For young people these days, who have a veritable buffet of relationship options, the conundrums presented by marriage may make it seem like a less attractive and less inevitable choice. Still, I must admit that, having written this column, when my soon-to-be-married friend decides on who should give a toast at her wedding, I may end up being her less attractive option.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline ''I do' ... or maybe I don't'. Print Edition | Subscribe