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Tue, Dec 24, 2013
The Straits Times
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Forget Mr Right, some prefer Mr Can Do
by Theresa Tan

Vietnamese bride Nhi, 22, chose to marry a Singaporean hawker twice her age despite strong objections from her father about the whirlwind union, which was arranged by a marriage broker.

"I actually had a boyfriend in Vietnam, but I knew that if I married a Vietnamese, the most he could do would be to take care of me only. He wouldn't have been able to take care of my family," she told researchers.

"Not all the girls who married Singaporeans can support their families in Vietnam, but at least, they are well taken care of and they have an easy life for themselves."

Then there is Puk, a 35-year-old Thai who used all her savings to fly here to hunt for a Singaporean husband and a better life.

A friend introduced her to a Singaporean man at a pub, and after a few months of courtship, she urged him to marry her. During that time, he regularly gave her money to spend.

"At that time, I did not love him, but gradually, I came to love him because he always took care of me," said Puk. They are now married, and he gives her $350 to send home every month.

In the past decade, there has been a sharp jump in the number of Singaporeans marrying foreign women, so considerable research is emerging on the lives and problems faced by foreign brides here.

Last year, 5,599 Singaporeans wed foreign women who were not citizens or permanent residents - a 40 per cent jump from 2002.

Some research papers have shed light on why foreign women plunged into matrimony with Singaporeans they hardly knew.

No prizes for guessing that most just wanted a better life.

But more than that, many also hoped that their husbands would help support their families back home and lift their loved ones out of poverty as well.

Thai researcher Rattana Jongwilaiwan, together with Associate Professor Eric Thompson of the sociology department at the National University of Singapore (NUS), wrote a journal paper, published in 2011, about the lives of Thai women married to Singaporeans.

Ms Jongwilaiwan spent more than a year interacting extensively with the Thai wives and did 22 in-depth interviews with them.

"The Thai women interviewed consistently and frankly stated that their primary reason in choosing to marry Singaporean men was material gain and not romantic love," the paper said.

"For many women, it is seemingly the best among available strategies for achieving upward mobility and socioeconomic status, and to fulfil traditional cultural expectations as dutiful daughters."

Most of the women had moved from their homes in rural areas to cities such as Bangkok to find work - some in the sex trade - before meeting their Singaporean grooms in Thailand or Singapore.

About half met their husbands at "sexually oriented entertainment venues", while others were introduced by family and friends.

Most of the couples got hitched within two to nine months of meeting, with the shortest "courtship" being just two weeks.

Apart from being better off financially, Singaporean men are also regarded as being more loving and responsible husbands, compared with their counterparts elsewhere in the region.

The Thai women interviewed described Thai men as being abusive, womanisers, financially irresponsible, gamblers and alcohol addicts.

More recent papers have examined another aspect of such unions. In the past two months, three journal papers have been published based on a three-year study of Vietnamese women who married Singaporean and Malaysian men after they were introduced by commercial matchmakers.

The papers were written by Professor Brenda Yeoh of the geography department at NUS and a team of researchers that included Dr Chee Heng Leng and Dr Vu Thi Kieu Dung.

Different aspects of the women's lives were studied, from their expectations of love to the importance of sending money home to the problems they face here.

Almost all the 30 women interviewed said they married a foreigner to escape poverty, for a better life and to support families back home. However, most said they wanted to marry only men they liked.

In the interviews, the Singaporean men hardly spoke of love either in their choice of a wife.

They wanted a companion and someone to care for them, look after their parents and do the housework.

What was important to the women was being able to send money home - an act that boosted their self-esteem and their standing in the family.

Take Thach, 19, who feels trapped in a marriage to a man she does not love. Yet, she is grateful to her husband, a security guard in his 50s, because he helped her pay off her family's debts and enabled her mother to start a small business.

Or 25-year-old Bich, who speaks proudly of her husband, a driver twice her age who paid off her family's $20,000 loan and gives her mother $500 every month.

The paper notes that these marriages are "not necessarily less sustainable or more fragile". The authors say: "There is no simple trading of money for care, or care for money."

Couples are "keenly aware of the fluid nature of the negotiated relationship at stake", and they put in time and effort to make the marriage work.

They know the roles expected of them - breadwinner husband, dutiful stay-at-home wife, mother and daughter-in-law - and they try to play their parts conscientiously.

Not surprisingly, the husbands are usually not keen to have their wives join the workforce.

Such relationships might puzzle the Singaporean woman looking for love, passion and Mr Right.

But for many women from countries in this region, romantic love is not the core issue. As a Vietnamese woman once told me, romantic love is a Western concept - a luxury she and others like her cannot afford.

Instead of hunting in vain for that elusive Mr Right, they settle for Mr Can Do.

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