I on Singapore
Are “Non-Traditional Families” Broken?
13 October 2017
In a letter to the Straits Times, “Don’t undermine families when championing issues” (7 October 2017), Mr Christopher Goh “as a husband and a father”, expressed his concerns at the joint report on gender discrimination submitted by various non-governmental organisations to the United Nations.
Among other things, he wrote:
Similarly, the call to remove all “legal and policy” distinctions between single/unmarried parents and the traditional family nucleus unwisely legitimises broken marriages and relationships, and will impose tremendous costs on the state and society.
Such a move is the start of a slippery slope that will invariably lead to more broken families.
This drew a response from Ms Tomoe Suzuki in her letter, “Non-traditional families are different, not ‘broken'” (13 October 2017):
While Mr Christopher Goh Chun Kiat’s dedication to family is admirable, as the daughter of a single mother, I found his description of other families as “broken” deeply problematic (Don’t undermine families when championing issues; Oct 7).
That label assumes that something has failed with that family simply because of how it is structured, based on parental marital status and number of parents.
However, a family is a family when there is love. Families that fall outside the “normal” structure are not broken; they are merely different.
Contrary to Mr Goh’s assertion, I would argue that it is the presence of the legal and policy distinctions between single/unmarried parents and the traditional family nucleus that imposes tremendous costs on the state and society.
The married family unit with children is granted various forms of assistance by the state, especially access to housing. Single parents, however, have many obstacles to surmount in order to have housing.
For instance, the income cap for rental housing is $1,500. This is a catch-22 situation for single parents, as they cannot increase their earnings to better support their families, for fear of losing their housing.
Discriminatory legislation and policies serve to compound existing inequalities in Singapore, and low-income single/unmarried parents and their children are hit the hardest.
My mother and I were fortunate enough to be able to move in with my grandparents after my mother divorced.
But not everyone has this kind of privilege in terms of familial resources and support.
If we wish not to undermine families, then let us support them instead of invalidating them.
While the legal and policy issues are certainly important and have wide-reaching implications (which I have addressed in other posts), this post will focus only on a narrow question, namely: Are “non-traditional families” “broken”?
Two Views of “Family”
As explained in “The Family on Trial: Two views of “family””, at the heart of the debate lies two very different views of “family”.
The classical view affirms the intrinsic link between marriage and family. Marriage is regarded as a comprehensive, exclusive and permanent union, based on the sexual complementary of man and woman, which is intrinsically ordered to produce new life. This comprehensive union of husband and wife, together with their offspring, form a family. This is sometimes referred to as the natural family unit, such as under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is an inherent biological connection in the natural family unit under the classical view.
The revisionist view, on the other hand, regards the family as rooted in commitment between people. Sometimes, the word “love” is used. Therefore, this does not only include the “traditional” family structure of father, mother and child(ren), but includes those led by grandparents, single parents, and same-sex couples. Flesh-and-blood ties may or may not exist under the revisionist view. If they do, they are not necessarily relevant either.
There are good reasons to support and affirm the classical view of the family. Most fundamentally, this is the model which best protects the rights of children. Every child has the right to know and be cared for by his or her father and mother, as far as possible.
As the Singapore Court of Appeal opined in CX v CY (minor:custody and access)  3 SLR(R) 690 at , “There can be no doubt that the welfare of a child is best secured by letting him enjoy the love, care and support of both parents.”
Are “Non-traditional Families” “Broken”?
What about “non-traditional families”, such as single mother households?
There can certainly be no doubt about the beauty of the natural bond between a mother and her child. In the case of Soon Peck Wah v Woon Che Chye  3 SLR(R) 430, the Singapore Court of Appeal had this to say about motherhood:
45 … The bond between the natural mother and her child is one of the most unexplainable wonders of human nature. It should never be taken for granted or slighted. We have all heard of the story of the mother who fought a tiger with her bare hands to save her child from the ferocious beast. Such is the love and sacrifice of the maternal instinct. Since the beginning of civilisation to this age of consumer materialism, the mother’s love for her child remains just as strong and unchanging. This court would be doing a disservice to justice and humanity if it turned a blind eye to the most fundamental bond of mankind – between a mother and her child, by taking the child away from the mother…
By equal measure, the natural bond between a father and child is a great marvel of nature and should also be affirmed and respected.
It is important to bear in mind that single or unwed mothers do not land in their position overnight.
A woman may find herself in such a position in one of three ways:
1. Out-of-wedlock childbearing;
2. Divorce; or
3. Death of a husband (i.e. being widowed).
In each of these cases, there can be no doubt that there has been a loss to the child, since a fundamental bond has been broken in the child’s life: the natural bond with the child’s father. In many ways, the mother of the child has also suffered loss in each of these circumstances.
I certainly salute Ms Suzuki’s mother and grandparents for their sacrifices, and appreciate Ms Suzuki speaking in honour of them. While it is not my place to speculate as to the reasons for her parents’ divorce, there can be no doubt (and certainly is affirmed in her letter) that great hardship is vested on a mother and child when the husband and father leaves the family.
So, are “non-traditional families” “broken”?
When a child is separated from his or her father or mother, despite the natural bond that the child has with the two very people whose genetic material he or she inherits, there is a loss to the child in the breaking of those very fundamental bonds.
Likewise, whether a person becomes a single parent through out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce or death of a spouse, a deep and personal bond is broken.
Of course, this is not to demean those in single parent households. Instead, just as we treat wounds with special care, tenderness and compassion, by recognising brokenness, society can learn to restore those wounds and begin to make things right.
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