Singapore’s squeeze on family life

“Mummy, why does Daddy have to work on the weekend?” Miss Chu piped up in the car on the way to church this Sunday. “Um…because there’s an important conference on and… er…he has to…” I trailed off. “Actually, I don’t know!” I finally admitted. Obviously, I knew why he was at work. But I suddenly realised that I didn’t know why this conference was being held over the weekend. In all the years we’ve been living in the UK, Daddy Chu has actually never had to attend a conference over the weekend.

Because, many people here can’t take enough time off during the working week to attend a conference,” explained my mother patiently, who has obviously been working in Singapore for a long time.

Daddy Chu now works 9-11 hour days here, compared to the standard 8-hour working day in Edinburgh. And even then, he has relatively good working hours compared to many of our local friends. It’s been reported in recent years that Singaporeans work the longest hours in the world. Even longer than workers in Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

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We definitely had more time for this sort of thing in Edinburgh

In Edinburgh, Daddy Chu used to be able to have breakfast with the kids, and would often drop them off at school before heading off to work. He would usually be back in time to help cook dinner, as well as eat with the family, bathe the kids, read stories and pray before bedtime. Sure, there was the odd weekend where medical rotas required him to be in the wards, but rarely for more than half a day. Perhaps this was a tad unusual in today’s world; we were very blessed that his work afforded such a great schedule. It’s one of the things we miss most about our life in Edinburgh.

So yeah, we certainly didn’t move back to Singapore for work-life balance. The girls have already noted that they don’t see Daddy as much these days.

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An article in yesterday’s local paper highlighted that the lack of family time is a real and pressing issue here. The working culture is often stressful and competitive; long hours and weekend working are an accepted part of life, and part-time or flexible working arrangements are relatively uncommon. Many struggle to get home in time to see children before bedtime. Most primary schools start around 7:30am, so there is precious little opportunity for family time in the morning. About 40% of respondents in a local survey on families last year said they spend 6 or less hours with their family per week.

When a Singaporean friend of mine told me about “Eat with Your Family Day” (and the fact that her employer forgot to tell her about it) I remember laughing incredulously and later looked it up because I could scarcely believe it was true. Is eating with your family such a rarity that the government needs to establish one day a year to promote this (novel) idea?

eatwithyourfamily

Eat with Your Family day encourages employers to let their staff go home ‘early’…as in, 5pm. Here’s hoping we don’t need to make a special effort to “celebrate” this next year!

We have friends here who have felt pressured to rush back to work within a few months or even weeks, of giving birth, taking less than the statutory 4-month maternity leave. We know parents who literally don’t see their children all week – their kids stay with grandparents and get picked up on the weekends. I don’t blame them. It’s hard when you’ve spent the first twenty-odd years of your life preparing intensely for working life, not family life. For many of us, a significant part of our identity stems from the career we’ve invested so much time and effort in. Deciding where to peg it on the list of life’s priorities is a tough decision when you suddenly find yourself with a gurgling, wide-eyed, sleepless babe in one arm. To add to that, Singapore’s high cost of living can make it difficult for families to rely on a single income.

From the government’s point of view, it’s a difficult balance, trying to keep the economy growing by encouraging everyone to work harder, faster, longer whilst addressing the (inevitably!!) plummeting fertility rates and an ageing population with monetary benefits. Singapore is teeming with domestic workers who help to prop up the viability of the two-income household. But there are issues created by this deficit of family time that cannot be patched up with money.

This ad, entitled “mums vs maids” hit a raw nerve in Singapore when it was aired earlier this year. It’s aim was to encourage employers to give their domestic helpers their one day off a week (which they are legally entitled to, but often do not get) – but instead it drew a lot of flak for criticizing working mothers, without mentioning the role of fathers at all. What does all this say about family life in Singapore?

 

I’ve also just read the thoughtfully written “The Myth of Quality Time” – published this week in the New York Times. When I googled it to find the link for my post, I noticed another article with the same heading from Newsweek, November 1997. So, eighteen years have passed and the conclusions remain the same: when it comes down to building relationships with your children (or anybody, really), quantity of time really matters. Or to pinch a more poetic quote from the first article: “sustained proximity is the best route to the soul of someone“.

Back in 2009, a tanking economy coupled with the lack of family nearby and expensive childcare made it easier for me to decide to go part-time after my first child, and eventually I gave up work altogether when my second baby came along. If, at the time, I had been raking it in financially or had grandparents down the road to step in when those pesky childhood ailments took hold, I might have chosen differently. At no point prior to having children had I planned to take a career break. But as it turned out, both Daddy Chu and I agree that it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ll be forever thankful for these years and the impact on our family life has been very tangible.

But now that we have four grandparents around (or even the possibility of affordable domestic help) to make childcare a little easier, the question I am continually being asked, is, “so when are you going back to work?” I admit I’m feeling the pressure to conform to expectation and get back into it. I’m grateful even to have a choice in the matter. And having been blessed with a few years to reflect on the benefits of stepping off the ladder for a while, I’m not sure I’m in too much of a hurry to get back on.

4 Comments

  1. Wow! That is a crazy amount of work. Obviously there are people here who do those kind of hours, but it’s normally directly or indirectly through choice, not compulsory. Are there many part-time jobs available? And how does the holiday entitlement compare to here?

    • You can get certain kinds of part-time work, but as an architect, it would be difficult to come by, particularly if you haven’t worked at the firm prior to asking for the part-time arrangement. But that’s just from word-of-mouth, I haven’t gone to an employment agency or anything yet! I think holiday entitlement varies, but for R, he now only has about 2/3 of the annual leave he used to get! Sigh!

  2. Well written and good analysis!

    If only the politicians could see the futility of just pouring money in, to solve the fertility issue.

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