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Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin at Social Service Partners Conference 2015

Good morning. I am happy to see so many colleagues and partners here today. We have among us, judges from the Family Justice Courts, representatives from government agencies, friends from the academia and media and of course, our dedicated group of social service professionals. This is the second year we are having this conference. Thank you for your continued support.

The Singaporean Family

We all agree that the family is, and must remain, the basic building block of our society. Today, family ties and values remain strong in Singapore. More than 90% of Singaporeans are satisfied with their family life. The same proportion agrees that they have a close-knit family.

But we also know that the family as an institution is evolving. Last year, many of you highlighted the changing family structure as an important social trend in our society. How have they changed and what will they look like in the years to come? What implications will the changes have on Singaporeans and Singapore society?

These are important questions that we hope to examine at this second conference. We know that when families are under strain, there is inevitably an impact on individual well-being. When family ties are strong, they are a source of support and meaning, and a foundation for strong societies. Looking ahead to anticipate changes will better enable Government and the community to plan our policies and services to ensure that our families remain well-supported. For individuals, it will hopefully encourage a reflection on the choices we need to make for our own families.

So today, I hope to share with you several emerging trends shaping the Singaporean 'family', which I feel that we, as government, community and individuals, should be mindful of.

Changes in Household Family Structures

First, our household family structures are changing. Very often, we think of Singaporean families as nuclear families. That is, a typical two-generation family, with a married couple living with their children or their parents under the same roof. This was the case 15 years ago, when nuclear families made up 6 in 10 of all resident households. In 2014, this proportion has fallen to under half of our households.

We are seeing the emergence of other household structures. There are significantly more households with just one person, and households headed by a married couple who are childless or are not living with their children. Together, these two household types have risen from 19% to 26% of all households between 2000 and 2014. If we look at the absolute number - this has grown by 80% to about 300,000 households. Of these, about 100,000 are aged households with at least one member aged 65 years and above.

The proportion of 3-generation or 3G households, on the other hand, has remained stable at around 10% between 2000 and 2014. That said, because our total resident household numbers has increased, the absolute number of 3G households has also risen. It is about 114,000 households today.

Our guiding principle has always been the family as the first line of care and support. But fewer nuclear family households, small household sizes and more aged households portend possibly greater challenges in marshalling immediate family support. So how can individuals step up to do more for their immediate and extended family? How can the community – neighbours, grassroots and VWOs - take on an expanded role? How do we evolve government policies to support families so that they can remain the first line of care and support?

Stresses and Challenges for Families

This brings me to the second emerging trend. Today's families are facing different challenges. The need to provide care to older family members will intensify with an ageing population. This is a common phenomenon in ageing societies. A segment of our population in Singapore can also be considered as the sandwiched generation. This means that they need to care for and support both their children as well as their parents. Among this group, those who have moved out of their parents' homes to set up their own families will need to find ways to care for their parents who are staying separately from them.

Caregiving for children and older family members could be compounded by pressures at work. More families have both parents working; our labour force participation rate has in fact reached a new high in 2014. Families will need to find ways and make deliberate choices to balance work, family caregiving and household responsibilities. Employers too can play their part by having more flexible arrangements at work, and investing in productivity enhancements to better manage work hours.

Women generally play a bigger role in the family. Mothers here are much more likely to engage in caregiving responsibilities compared to fathers. Research has shown however that when both parents are involved at home and with their children’s lives, marital relationships are stronger and child outcomes are invariably much better. The wives are more likely to report higher family life satisfaction; fathers will benefit from having a stronger and more loving relationship with their children.

In my household visits and community events, I have noticed more fathers, especially younger fathers, who are very much involved in caring for their children. I have also seen many male drivers proudly displaying the "Dads for Life" decal in their cars – I hope it is a reflection of their commitment! These are encouraging signs. We should see how we can do more to encourage even greater shared responsibilities between mothers and fathers within the family.

The kind of choices we make as parents will affect the values we impart to our children. At home, children learn from what we do, not just what we say. For instance, some of us have foreign domestic helpers at home. How do we treat our helpers? I worry that our children may grow up with a sense of self-entitlement if we over-rely on foreign domestic helpers to do everything. And if parents do not respect the helpers, what values will our children learn? In this digital age, some parents have also turned to the smart phone or iPad as high-tech "childminders". This exposes young children to unprecedented and unguided access to information and influences. Again, what will they learn?

Complexity of Family Issues

The third trend that I will touch on is more specific. We are seeing a small but increasing number of families facing unique and complex issues. Examples include divorced families and cross-cultural families.

Marriage dissolution rates are higher among more recent marriage cohorts. The impact of divorce is not just on the adults. Since 2007, more than 8,000 children are affected by their parents' divorce every year. What happens after divorce and the subsequent co-parenting and living arrangement affect the well-being of the children, especially if the separation is acrimonious.

Some divorced parents also go on to remarry. About a quarter of all marriages are remarriages for one or both parties. Reconstituted families where one or both of the parents have children from previous marriages will face a different set of issues.

We are also seeing more cross-cultural families. My colleagues at the Registry of Marriages (ROM) had observed this over the years. They tell me that one-fifth of the marriages that take place at ROM involve spouses from different ethnic groups. And 3 in 10 marriages are between a citizen and a foreigner. These trends together present an increasingly diverse family landscape in Singapore.

Arising from these trends, we have started responding with more targeted support for these families. For example, MSF has worked with the Family Justice Court on a number of measures to better protect the interest of children affected by divorces. We are also working with VWOs to start Divorce Support Specialist Agencies which will help parents understand how their children may be caught in the middle, and to enable the children to better manage their feelings.

For couples where one partner is citizen and the other a foreigner, we have started new Marriage Preparation and Marriage Support Programmes. These will help the couples to better understand the unique issues they will face during the course of their marriage and help them manage cross-cultural differences.

Whole-of-Society Response

We will need to understand and respond to the implications of changing family household structures, new pressures on family and a growing number of them experiencing unique complex issues. Not just in MSF but also other government agencies. Not just in government policies but also support services and infrastructure from community partners and employers.

Support from businesses for example is necessary to help families cope and thrive as they juggle work, family caregiving and household responsibilities. We are seeing more employers providing formal flexible work arrangements. This is encouraging. More are beginning to realise that flexible work arrangements make for a win-win situation as they help companies to retain good staff and allow staff to have work-life balance.

We will need our universities and academia to do more research and analysis for a deeper understanding. The media can help raise public awareness and discourse. And very importantly, to encourage each of us to reflect and think what we can do on a personal level, for our immediate and extended families.

For ultimately, efforts by the Government and community would not be enough without efforts by individual Singaporeans. The last mile is for each of us to complete – we all have to make deliberate choices to do better for ourselves, and our immediate and extended families.

If we all play our part, I am confident we can tackle these challenges and Singaporeans will continue to have strong families. These strong families will in turn form the robust building blocks for a cohesive society.

A Community of Support

This brings me back to the purpose of today's conference. When MSF started this Social Service Partners Conference a year ago, we wanted it to be a platform for us to come together to talk about emerging trends and consider possible responses. A springboard to discuss how we can work together on specific initiatives. And most importantly, we see it as part of an ongoing effort to build a Community of Support – to do more, to do better and to do it together.

I hope that today's event will bring us another step closer towards these objectives. I look forward to hearing your ideas on building stronger families. I wish you a fruitful conference. Thank you.

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Published On Fri, May 22, 2015
Last Reviewed On Wed, Apr 27, 2016

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