What transnational couples really need

They say that marriage is a major milestone in one’s life. A marker of true adulthood.

Whoever ‘they’ are, they’re right. As Facebook puts it, marriage is a “life event”. It’s a big deal. It’s also one of the hardest things that two people can do with their lives.

Our wedding in Scotland this July.

Our wedding in Scotland this July.

As if that’s not enough, there are things that can add another layer of difficulty. Being a transnational couple is one of those things. You would imagine that, with globalisation and international movement being a fact of life in today’s world, it would be easy for two people with different nationalities to marry and make their home anywhere. That assumption is wrong.

Contrary to popular belief, one does not get permanent residency just on the basis of being married to a citizen of that country – at least, not in the UK (where my husband’s from) or Singapore (where I’m from).

In the UK, the British spouse needs to be earning £18,600 per annum for at least six months before the couple can apply for a spousal visa. The Home Office estimates that this will reduce family visas by 17,800 a year. (Note: as it refers to ‘family visas’ this could potentially include visas for children and parents as well, rather than 17,800 rejected spousal visa applications. I have yet to find a resource to clarify this number.)

In Singapore, foreign spouses of citizens are eligible to apply for Permanent Residency (PR) under the Family Tie Scheme, but there’s no guarantee that the application will be approved. It was stated in Parliament last year that 4,400 PR and 580 citizenship applications from foreign spouses were rejected each year between 2008 and 2012.

Foreign spouses aren’t guaranteed the right to work in either country. This is often a by-product of not being automatically granted a visa or residency, and can have a huge impact – what would otherwise have been a dual-income family is reduced to a single-income one. I don’t think I need to explain the difference this makes when you live in a city like Singapore.

Recognising the challenges that transnational families face, the Ministry of Social and Family Development has introduced a marital support programme to help people cope. Here are some of programme’s goals, taken from TODAYonline’s report:

The marriage preparation course will aim to tackle potential problems “upstream”. It will focus on issues such as preparing to settle down in Singapore, financial management if the foreign spouse is not allowed to work and managing the couple’s expectations of each other.

The marital support programme aims to provide longer-term help as couples settle in and raise their families. Mr Chan noted that the community must also be involved in helping these foreign spouses integrate into Singapore society.

It’s not my intention to slam this programme. I’m sure that there are families out there who would find these services beneficial.

But the assumptions we hold when we talk about transnational couples and families need to be pointed out. When we think about foreign spouses we automatically picture an older Chinese Singaporean man with a foreign wife, possibly from some non-English speaking country like Vietnam or China.

You can see it in this article from Channel NewsAsia: it profiles a Chinese Singaporean man and his Vietnamese wife. It quotes the deputy director of Fei Yue Community Services, who talks about how the take-up rate of previous programmes were low because “the husband did not think it was necessary”. The executive director of the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants & Itinerant People talks about having to condense their programmes “because sometimes though the spouses may want to find out more, it is the husbands who are not able to get released due to work commitments.” The assumption is that the husband is the local, the worker, the breadwinner and the decision-maker.

But what of couples who don’t fit that cookie-cutter? Not all foreign spouses are wives dependent upon their husband. Not all local spouses are older men, eligible to apply for two-room BTOs in non-mature estates because they are over the age of 35.

Kilts and kebayas

Kilts and kebayas

Calum and I are now in Singapore, hoping to settle and spend (at least) the beginning of our married life here. Our decision stems partly from the epic rubbish that is the UK spousal visa law, but mostly from the fact that Singapore is a great place to be for a young couple, with its diversity, its potential, its location and its possibilities. This country is my home. My family is here. Despite my grumbling, I love it here. And Calum does too; he just needs to get used to the weather.

It’s not easy, although I know we have it better than many. We’re living with my parents, staying in my childhood bedroom and sleeping in my single bed. Calum’s looking for a full-time job; he would like to try freelancing but that throws up complications when it comes to getting a visa. We’ve applied for PR and hope to hear back in about four to six months; in the meantime we’re putting together our application for the Long Term Visit Pass (LTVP). Hopefully he’ll be granted a pass under the LTVP+ scheme that will allow him to get a Letter of Consent to work in Singapore upon finding employment. It’s not certain, though, because we have no children and have been married for less than a year. At the very least an LTVP will mean that he doesn’t have to shuttle in and out of the country every 90 days while waiting to hear back about our PR application.

What we need from the government is not a marriage course that will teach us to navigate cultural differences and manage our expectations of each other. That’s something we’ll deal with ourselves, as part and parcel of a young marriage between two people from different countries and backgrounds.

A post-wedding party back in Singapore for family and friends who couldn't make it to Scotland.

A post-wedding party back in Singapore for family and friends who couldn’t make it to Scotland.

What we, and I suspect many other transnational couples, need from the government is an acknowledgement of family migration that transcends the fear of sham marriages and people abusing the system and trying to get social welfare. According to the National Population and Talent Division, four in ten marriages registered in Singapore last year were transnational. This doesn’t include couples who, like Calum and I, were married overseas before coming to Singapore. Transnational families are not a tiny minority who can be ignored for much longer.

Transnational families need foreign spouses to be allowed to work, so that he/she can choose to work rather than be financially dependent. Transnational couples need to be eligible for affordable housing from the beginning of the marriage, and not just when the Singaporean is over 35. If the PR process could be expedited for family migrants, that would probably solve those two issues, as well as give transnational couples peace of mind.

I tend to agree with immigration quotas for economic migrants. I believe that a country must provide for the rights, dignity and safety of all its residents, and accept that sometimes this requires calibrated immigration quotas so that numbers are managed. But family migration is a different kettle of fish.

Family migrants have specific reasons for coming to Singapore – they want to be with their spouse and sometimes their children. They can’t just pack up and leave to try somewhere else if their visas are rejected for whatever reason. To deny a foreign spouse a visa, residency or the right to work is to place a family in a precarious position.

Of course, we’re talking about people who are already able to get married, which is in itself a privilege. Many queer people in Singapore and around the world are still denied their right to marriage and a family life. We should be working towards giving people that right, which would require examination of the different obstacles that stand in the way for different families.

14 Comments What transnational couples really need

    1. Kirsten

      Thanks for the link! I saw the report too.

      I think the most beneficial thing would be the Letters of Consent for LTVP holders. It’ll hopefully make it easier for the foreign spouse to find work. The acknowledgement that they shouldn’t count into the foreign worker quota helps, because it recognises that foreign spouses are in a different position.

      As for the thing about filling the forms beforehand and knowing about the relevant backgrounds – I think any couple who are getting married should know about each other’s relevant backgrounds like having a basic idea of each other’s finances and criminal record and past marriages, etc. I don’t see how this would make it different for couples like my husband and I, although I can see how it would make a difference in a mail-order bride scenario where the woman would benefit from knowing this stuff early on before making her decision. Same goes for the letter of eligibility thing: we would still have got married even if we were told that he wouldn’t be eligible, so I’m not sure how that would help the average couple.

              1. eunice li dan yue

                I already sent them an email, to tell them to remove my letter completely. And a separate email to reparaphrase the plagarised parts of yours, though still keeping the meaning. Of course, whether to publish that amended letter is at the discretion of the editor.

                Still waiting to hear back from today.

  1. Cassidy

    It was with some amount of concern that I read the announcements that were made by the ICA to the changes to the LTVP application system for foreign spouses.

    A Marriage Preparation Program (MPP), although well-meaning, seems a little condescending. The reason why it is hard is partially or mostly caused by the assumptions the ICA and the government has of foreign spouses. And the early registration to get LTVP also does not change anything since a couple would presumably not even deciding on marriage until they reach a certain point in their relationship. You are right that none of this helps the average couple.

    I am keeping an open mind as to whether this is intended to make things easier for couples entering into marriage who wish to live in Singapore, but depending on how all of this is implemented, it could also be a way to “vet” potential partners and to put up more barriers to discourage the ones that are regarded as undesirable, to bring some control over what is a continuously increasing trend.

    1. Kirsten

      I think the most useful bit would be allowing spouses on LTVP to find work more easily. That’s definitely the change that I am most looking forward to!

      1. Cassidy

        Ditto. I already made calls to ICA and MOM to find out more and apparently the change will start in Feb of next year. This is most definitely a step in the right direction!

  2. Daniel Yap

    I guess I’m part of an atypical transnational marriage myself, and having gone through a lot of these processes, I think that some sort of counselling or prep course is going to be extremely useful for the majority of marriages, not just transnational marriages.

    To think of it as “government mandated” does make it seem more insulting – in truth such support needs to be more organic and built into the community. At the very least it should be opt-out.

    I suppose that you and I, coming from atypical transnational marriages, do not encounter exactly the same issues that the stereotypical older male Singaporean and his third world bride would face, but what I do know is that a safety net includes having a resource or authority to turn to when things get hairy, and that not everyone is as lucky as you and I to have an organic support network.

    Either way, you are right about this whole paranoia about sham marriages and abuse of the system hurting genuine married couples. It seems a terrible precedent if policies are made to prioritise prevention of abuse rather than prioritise healthy, sustainable marriages.


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