Virgin brides off the shelf
INSIGHT: DOWN SOUTH WITH SEAH CHIANG NEE
Saturday April 4, 2009
MOVE over, China ladies; hello, Vietnam! In their dependency on foreign brides to correct a marriage imbalance, more Singaporean men are turning to Vietnamese women in recent years.
But this growing marriage bond has become mired in controversy and charges of exploitation that are earning Singapore’s image a black eye.
For years, the city-state has gone on a global binge on almost everything in life, including the institution of marriage.
With educated women rising, a marriage gap has been building in Singapore between a small army of middle-aged, less-educated men and independent-minded women who shun them as spouses.
Some 40% of marriages in Singapore today are with foreigners.
Last year, 6,520 male Singaporeans and permanent residents married foreign brides, the highest number in 10 years, according to the Department of Statistics.
Yet, one out of three citizens does not have a spouse and some 30% of the men are wife-less.
These social statistics are quite sobering for Singapore and are building up into a huge dependency on foreign spouses to keep life in b alance.
The biggest numbers still come from Malaysia and China.
But in recent years, the Vietnamese women are making up for lost ground. Many of them are flocking here – and to other Asian cities – seeking a better life.
“Many of them take a tremendous risk marrying foreign men – some having met for only an hour – so they can send money home to their families,” said a marriage agent.
Vietnam is famous for beautiful girls and obedient, hard-working wives, a contrast to their more Westernised, educated Singapore sisters.
The exact number who arrived is unknown. One unconfirmed report said that between 2000 and 2006, the arrivals had risen by 42 times.
Singapore is very small compared with bigger markets like South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and China in the transnational matrimonial business.
But the republic’s reputation as a stable, affluent society has made it a special choice of the Vietnamese women, despite the language obstacle.
A major reason is the close affinity in culture, skin colour and food.
For every Singaporean who goes to Ho Chi Minh City to find a wife, there are thousands of women who want to come here.
Aired over TV, an 18-year-old Vietnamese girl was asked whether she would marry any Singaporean and she nodded her head. “Will you marry someone even if he’s 60?” Her reply without hesitation: “Yes.”
The practice of paying for a bride has raised anger in the West and among Asian liberals who say Singapore – with clean, transparent advocacy – is condoning trafficking in women.
A letter signed by more than 1,000 Vietnamese appealed to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to stop some of the 30 Singaporean agencies offering “certified Vietnamese virgin brides” for sale.
A human rights office in Ho Chi Minh also protested to Lee about this “shameful form of modern-day slavery”.
Those in support argue that arranged weddings or dowry payments have always been part of Asia’s traditions.
Even modern weddings still involve some exchanges in cash, red packets or in gifts (either jewellery or ceremonial lavishness) demanded by the bride’s parents.
“So why is the idea of a brokered marriage through an agency so wrong?” one representative asked.
The answer lies in the undignified, inhuman way many businesses are advertising or parading Vietnamese girls (86% do it to get out of poverty) in their premises like they are selling branded shoes.
The economic crisis has delivered a sharp blow to the practice, resulting in further insults.
One outlet advertised a half-price discount – from S$8,000 to S$4,000 – for the prospective husband.
The supply of cheap, virgin brides from hard-hit countries seems inexhaustible. Cambodia has banned marriage brokers.
Vietnam, however, can’t stop its poor, rural families from “selling their daughters” as long as poverty exists.
However, to stop the exploitation, the Hanoi government is considering setting up a government centre to handle the marriage of Vietnamese women abroad.
An estimated 15,000-20,000 Vietnamese do so every year. On the positive side, the families often get a better life, or have debts repaid or may receive a steady allowance from their sons-in-law.
In one Vietnamese island nearly every peasant – or his neighbour – has a daughter who is married abroad in an Asian country.
There is also another downside for the Vietnamese. The average Singaporean man who is seeking a bride in China or elsewhere has a high-educated profile today.
One agency said that five years ago, its clients rarely had more than a secondary 2 education. Now, seven out of 10 have at least a bachelor’s degree.
This doesn’t appear to apply to Vietnam, where the “husbands from Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore are often older, unskilled workers who are unable to attract a woman back home”, said a Hanoi official.
That would imply that because the price is so affordable that more of the elderly bachelors in the state are making a beeline for the women there.
As Vietnam gets richer, the number of its women willing to be sold into marriage will drop.
But, as a British Telegraph columnist wondered, what would happen if the UK were to slide into prolonged recession, and economic power continues to shift to Asia?
“I wonder if 10 or 20 years down the line, (whether) it will be British women coming to Singapore, Beijing or even Hanoi to find a rich Asian husband,” he quipped.