When it comes to what Singaporeans prioritise in their lives, the government has some ideas. In a Singapore where the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is miserable and work-life balance a coveted privilege, it has been decided that Singaporeans should all be exhorted to put “family first”. And what better way to spread this message than with a pledge?
At first it just sounds a little silly, an idea that makes one roll one’s eyes and say, “Here we go again, yet another campaign!” Oh, slogan-crazy Singapore, when will you stop?
Then you hear the pledge, and the joke stops being funny.
We, the people of Singapore, pledge to build strong and happy families.
We affirm the commitment of marriage between husband and wife.
And take responsibility to nurture our children, and respect our elders.
We celebrate and honour the roles of each family member.
And uphold the family as the foundation of our lives, and the building block of our society.
It’s written by the National Family Council (with input from ‘stakeholders’), but sounds and reads like a conservative fundamentalist Christian manifesto. It pledges to “uphold the family as the foundation of our lives” while making sure to frame “family” in the narrowest of ways. It firmly defines marriage as a commitment ”between husband and wife”, thus pre-empting the radical impudence of any of the 20,000 Singaporeans who were at Pink Dot celebrating the freedom to love.
Lawrence Khong – he of the staunch belief that repealing Section 377A would unleash some sort of “homosexual agenda” that would rip society to shreds – must be so proud. In fact, the pledge echoes the words he used in his statement to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, where he “affirm[s] that the family unit comprises a man as Father, a woman as Mother, and Children” and asserts that the family is the “foundation” and “building block of society”.
While aiming to encourage family life in Singapore, this pledge excludes same-sex couples, divorced parents, single parents, or anyone not in a ‘traditional’ nuclear family structure. According to this pledge, these people don’t deserve to be seen as families. On top of the everyday struggles of a single parent in Singapore – because, for some reason, the state can’t seem to treat them like any other parent – we have added this giant stinking whopper of an insult. Here you go, just a little reminder that you’re not accepted here.
I understand that this is perhaps yet another effort to encourage Singaporeans to get married and start having children, but it is high time that our social engineers realised that wilfully neglecting or excluding non-traditional families does not help the TFR. There are non-traditional families everywhere in the world, and there will be more and more of them as we strive to break down painfully patriarchal models (the very model that this pledge appears to be trying so hard to uphold). To behave as if none of that is happening in Singapore is either incredible naiveté or exasperating close-mindedness.
Gay Singaporeans are not going to recite this pledge, turn straight, get married and have five children. Divorced couples will not suddenly decide to get back together. Single parents will not become un-single. No matter how we alienate and marginalise these people they simply will not fit into the boxes we’ve picked out for them. And so we achieve nothing except to hurt and punish people just for deviating from the ‘norm’.
And this ‘norm’ is now marketed to us as “Singaporean values”, as a shared belief that we as a nation subscribe to.
This is what’s most aggravating about this National Family Pledge. It’s homophobic, bigoted conservative propaganda dressed up as a government-sponsored movement and sold to us as part of who we are as a society. It tells us that we should all subscribe to these beliefs, these beliefs that would disenfranchise so many of my friends, so many amazing people who have given so much to the country that now would not deign to recognise them.
At the end of the first recitation of the pledge, the Master of Ceremonies crows, “Well done, give yourselves a round of applause!”
But it was not well done, and deserved no applause. If this definition of family really is the “building block” of Singaporean society, then we can only conclude that we will be building walls to shut out those who do not, cannot, fit.
How can we applaud that?