Coupling and Legitimacy in Singapore: Trans bodies, Unwed parents, and Wedding branding

Three separate incidents that took place in Singapore over the last four days speak back to notions of coupling and legitimacy in the country: A transgender man was acquitted of sexual assault when the High Court ruled that “women cannot be charged for the offence of sexual penetration of minors”; Parliament announced that unwed mothers will “finally get the same 16-week maternity leave that other mothers get”; and a pair of newly weds’ experience with bad wedding photography went viral.

My next major project/fieldwork focuses on couplings and weddings around Southeast and East Asia (formal announcement forthcoming. Some preliminary findings and frameworks on earlier projects are here: Abstract | Poster | Video | Blog). As such, I have been closely following these developments and thinking through possible angles while preparing for fieldwork. In this post, I braindump a series of potential angles and questions by recapping the incidents, archiving crucial quotes, and cataloguing links to various reports. All URLs were valid as of 13 April 2016, 1300hrs, GMT+8.

Trans bodies

On 12 April 2016, a transgender man was acquitted of sexual assault after the High Court ruled that “women cannot be charged for the offence of sexual penetration of minors” (Today). The man had “performed the sexual acts on an underage girl between 13 and 14 years old with an external paraphernalia” (Asian Correspondent).

News reports state that the acquitted “was born a woman but identifies as a man since her teens” (Today). However, he hadn’t yet undergone gender reassignment and is not legally recognized as a man. Headlines from Today and Straits Times refer to the acquitted as “woman”, while a headline from Channel News Asia adopted “‘woman'” in quotation marks. When this case first broke in December 2015, news reports often focused on the details of the transgender man’s private sex life, including how he performed sexual penetration on his wives using sex toys without their knowledge (AsiaOne). One headline from The New Paper – “Woman pretended to be a man to sexually abuse underage girl” – even erased the trans politics altogether.

At the crux of this acquittal was the judge’s reading of Section 376A(1)(b), which states that “Any person (A) who sexually penetrates, with a part of A’s body (other than A’s penis) or anything else, the vagina, or anus, as the case may be, of a person under the age of 16 years of age (B) with or without B’s consent, shall be guilty of an offence” (Today). The judge ruled that “[t]he reference to a person who has a penis cannot be construed to include a woman without doing violence to common sense and anatomy” (Straits Times).

Papers report the judge’s sentiments that “[i]f the legislature had intended that the offender could be a man or a woman, it could have been easily clarified by adding a few words for the provision to read ‘a part of A’s body (other than A’s penis, if A is a man)'” (Today). However, this was “beyond interpreting the law, and would be rewriting it” (Today), and “[b]y doing that, (the court) would be assuming a legislature power it does not have … It is not discharging its judicial responsibility when it gives the law an interpretation which is incompatible with its literal and grammatical meaning” (Today).

Residual thoughts:

  • In 2012, a Swedish judge similarly ruled that a man was “not guilty of attempted rape of [a] trans woman because she has no vagina” (Huffington Post). Would the verdict for the case in Singapore have been different if the victim had been transgendered instead?
  • Why did it matter that the sexual assault/penetration was committed with “an external paraphernalia” or “sex toy” as opposed to a penis? Does it make it less of a crime? Is there a legal hierarchy among “external paraphernalia”, other appendages such as fingers, and sexual organs?
  • Various reports referred to the acquitted as “woman”, “‘woman'”, “transgendered man”, “born as a woman”, “identifying as a man”, “pretended to be a man”. What are the media guidelines for such reporting? Should we not refer to the acquitted’s current master status? Or did legal sex matter in this case because of the technicalities of whom a perpetrator of sexual assault can be? What is the legal definition of a man/woman in Singapore? Are other sexes accommodated?

Unwed parents

On 12 April 2016, Parliament announced that unwed mothers will “finally get the same 16-week maternity leave that other mothers get” (Straits Times). Minister for the Ministry Social and Family Development (MSF), Tan Chuan-Jin, highlighted that “legislation needs to be amended first to make this happen for children born from early next year” (Channel News Asia). Prior to that, children of unwed parents can check if they “qualify for the Child Development Account (CDA), including the S$3,000 CDA First Step grant” (Channel News Asia), which will likely be enacted “for children born from the third quarter of this year” (Channel News Asia).

At present, “unwed mothers are entitled to eight weeks of paid maternity leave and their children do not qualify for Child Development Accounts. The Government matches deposits made by parents into these accounts up to $6,000” (Straits Times). In addition, “[u]nwed mothers do not get the Baby Bonus cash gift and parenthood tax rebates, and have to wait until they are 35 years old to buy a Housing Board flat under the singles scheme” (Straits Times).

Talks of these changes first broke in July 2015, when the Minister revealed he called for policy reviews when he joined the MSF in April 2015 (Straits Times). He expressed that he had “a great deal of sympathy for single unwed mothers” (Straits Times), and wanted to “harmonise” what he calls “[s]ome of the differentiation that exists” (Straits Times). Reporters note from his April 2016 announcement that “unwed parents are usually vulnerable if they are younger and lower-educated. Some may be rejected by their own families, making it difficult to raise a child single-handedly. And some may have hoped to have a child within marriage, but ended up as unwed parents as a result of circumstances” (Today).

In March 2015, former MSF Minister Chan Chun Sing called for Singapore to “find a balance between supporting unwed mothers as well as the policy to support parenthood within marriages” (Straits Times). Reporters asked if “he thought Singapore society is now prepared to change its stance”, to which he replied “[m]y sense is that the public understands and sympathises with single unwed mothers” (Straits Times). He highlighted that available support for unwed mothers are not contained to “maternity leave and baby bonuses”, but also include “healthcare availability” and “education opportunities and the support that comes with it” (Straits Times).

In the same vein, current MSF minister Tan Chuan-Jin affirmed that “there are government benefits given to children regardless of their parents’ marital status”, such as “access to social assistance, education and healthcare subsidies” and “infant care and childcare subsidies” (Today). He expressed that “[t]he extension of these benefits (16 weeks’ maternity leave and the CDA) to unwed parents does not undermine parenthood within marriage, which is something that we do encourage and it is still the prevalent social norm” (Today). He adds that “[t]hese are the reasons behind this particular decision” (Channel News Asia).

The 26-year-old “single mother” reporters featured in this Today report gave this soundbite: “The parents may have made the mistake but the children shouldn’t be punished […] I really think that (we) should give children the equal chance. For the parents, they still have to strive to work, strive to make amends and strive to make things right.”

Residual thoughts:

  • The most recent stats I could locate on single parents in Singapore were from the MSF’s 2012 Press Room answers, “Number and profile of unwed mothers“. As of 2011, there were 519 “Total single parent births where father’s name is not in the birth registration”. Between 2007 and 2011, “About 60% of these births were by mothers between the ages of 15 and 24 years old. 80% of the mothers had secondary and below education. Data on their income levels is not available.” On the note of young mothers, the Sexuality Education provided by the Ministry of Education (MOE) emphasises abstinence before marriage as pre-marital sex has “inherent risks”. Is there a moral hierarchy between being a married teenage mother and an unwedded adult mother? I am reminded of this recent article on teen marriage in China.
  • The Lien Centre for Social Innovation, SMU Change Lab published a report on “Single parent families in Singapore” in June 2015. They interviewed 88 single parents between December 2014 and February 2015 focused on Employment and finances, Support from services, Housing, Support from family and friends, and Time poverty. I really enjoyed this report, but I wonder why research on single parents is resulting in policy changes for single mothers. Why is parenting still systemically gendered in Singapore?
  • Singapore’s gender equality advocacy group, Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), has been pushing for since its 2011 survey of 1,000 parents. See “Why No Benefits for Unwed Mothers“, in which they assert that “To build a truly inclusive society, our policies must evolve to embrace different types of families”. In the General Elections 2015 (GE2015) in September, the rights of single parents were most fervently championed by National Solidarity Party (NSP) candidate, Ms Kevryn Lim, who revealed that she was parenting her 2.5-year-old son on her own. See news reports from AsiaOne, Channel News Asia, Straits Times, The New Paper. It’d be interesting to review other policy changes that relate or speak back to “different types of families”. I’m also interested in the vocabulary of these apparently ‘non-mainstream’, ‘minority’, ‘alternative’ families. Also, why is the rhetoric of self-blame and absolution so strong in the media’s framing of unwed mothers? Benefits are “extended” to them as if they should not be entitled to state care in the first place. How have other single parent interviewees been portrayed in the press?

Wedding branding

On 10 April 2016, a pair of newly weds’ experience with bad wedding photography went viral. Ms Jaclyn Ying posted a public Facebook album titled “Wedding photography PSA“. The beginning of her long album caption reads: “So, what do you do when you finally receive your actual wedding day photos and find yourself sorely disappointed in them? Get angry? Check. Shed a few tears over them? Done. Post some of the best (of the worst) on social media for amusement? Absolutely!” Ms Ying emphasises: “Don’t take this the wrong way though – this is not a flame and shame post. We just wanted to share some of these hilariously bad photos with everyone, so sorry ar if your unglam face is in this.”

Within hours, her album was shared “more than 15,000 times” (The New Paper), and the good people of the internet took to rampant meme-ing. Resident satire Facebook pages SGAG and and Kaki Friendship Club uploaded their versions of the wedding album remixed with macros in local vernacular, as did other “movie enthusiasts“.

Although Ms Ying had not divulged the names of the company or the photographer, a Mr Chung Siew Goh outed himself in a public Facebook post. Mr Chung posted a ‘better’ photo of the couple that was not featured in the original “Wedding photography PSA” album, with the caption: “I am the photographer on that day…… Acouple long 10hrs hard work..for this couple Edit 900 plus photos for them they use less than 20 pic to URGE not SATISFY wanted to refund cash paid ..but they already collected those photos NOW put up in media to show the whole world and spoil our Reputation which no REASON which not Fair to us..”. While he has since taken down this post, The New Paper published a screenshot captured earlier. Mr Chung later published a second post, this time apologizing to the couple and offering to buy them coffee “for the inconvenience caused”.

Professional photographers interviewed by the Straits Times emphasized the importance of reviewing port folios before couples make their hire, although Ms Ying expressed that her original wedding package did not allow for the couple to select their own photographer. This post from Ian Tan, a former photographer from Singapore, reminded readers that professional photography is a craft that takes time and money to master, so prospective clients should be willing to pay for quality service.

The news has also been covered in international media (i.e. CosmopolitanDaily Mail, Mashable).

Residual thoughts:

  • There is a proliferation of websites and services for wedding planning, such as Malay Wedding Services that lists venues alternative to void decks, and Kiasu Bride which compiles wedding banquet price lists of various hotels in Singapore. In my upcoming fieldwork, I will be working with wedding planners and various backend staff to understand the wedding economy in East Asia. One recent development is the increasing use of digital media coordinators who curate, manage, or take over the couple’s social media feeds on their wedding day to give others live updates. Admittedly, this practice is most common among Influencers. In my forthcoming publication, “Frenemies and cashtags: Follower dynamics and semiotic value on Influencers’ social media”, I discuss the value of hashtags for self-branding. In another lecture I gave at the Mobile Life Centre in March 2015 and at the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DREC) in May 2015, I introduced the notion of “from public coupling to power coupling”, wherein I analysed how hashtags and dedicated social media feeds are used for couple-branding, weddings, and commerce. An early piece that catalogues some of my initial thoughts was featured on PopAnth.
  • Prices of “wedding tables” for wedding banquets in which guests have allocated seats of approximately 10pax per table – more popular among Singaporean Chinese than minority Malay, Indian, and other racial groups – are now at an all time high, with “[p]rices at top hotels near $2,000 per table before taxes, extras” and “rates rising 5-10% yearly”. Wedding tables are a mainstream practice among Singaporean Chinese who form 76.2% of the population as of June 2015. I am interested to learn if there are wedding cultures and practices that are unique to specific countries within Southeast and East Asia. Singapore is particularly interesting given its racial diversity. Is there a wedding custom that is uniquely Singaporean? How different are Chinese wedding customs among Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia? Or Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China?
  • The politics of wedding guest gifting is tricky. There is even “Wedding Guide on Ang Pow” that is updated annually, for Chinese weddings in which guests usually offer the bride and groom a monetary gift for their celebrations and to offset the costs of their attendance. I am interested in speaking with wedding guests and how they negotiate this gifting, especially those in the “marriageable” age cohorts who receive successive wedding invitations. Do you sign off on your red packet or gift? How comfortable are you with gift registries? Is there a hierarchy of gifting depending on how close you feel to the bride/groom/couple? How do these logics come about?

Some of us struggle with the luxuries and consumerism of weddings, while others fight for equal recognition and adequate care from the state. Still others live all their lives with a master status only to have it denounced for lacking legal recognition. As an anthropologist, I am curious about human culture (#firstworldproblems included) and don’t think any of these issues is more pertinent than the others. After all, everyone manages their fair share of grief and gripes. While all three incidents lay on distinct ends on the spectrum of legitimate coupling, some part of me cannot reconcile the fact that they all take place in the same developed, capitalist, first world country.

So many happenings. So many thoughts. So many questions.

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