Building A Strong Future

by Mr Benny Bong

We have a very stunning report card of our nation recently - with double-digit growth in our economy. Our leaders are so worried that they tried to tamper our expectations, not to expect too much but to keep working hard. The report also says that we are still a cohesive society even though we have many things that may tear us apart as there are differences in religions, cultures and nationalities among our citizens. Yet the message still goes out that we are a strong cohesive society. Despite all the good reports, we are tampered by one bad report. We are still facing a declining birth rate, which we could not solve. But as innovative Singaporeans, we have found a solution by importing talents whom we ourselves cannot grow, thus we have a growth of available talents.
However, there is another type of report, which I will call the worrying report. It is a report of a society that is departing from traditional beliefs and values, and of its citizens who are obsessed with recreation and personal gratification. The cost of living is spirally upwards so fast that young couples are finding it hard to start a home. It is a report that speaks of widespread infidelities and a rise in homosexuality, and individuals clamouring for more and more freedom. They want to do their own things, with a constant clamour for democracy and live in a society of plummeting birth rates. Which society are we talking about? The report is taken from Tim Lahaye’s book, which was published in 1996’s about the situation in the United States (US) in the mid-1990s with all the characteristics mentioned above. It could be reflective of the situation in Singapore but he is definitely not talking about Singapore but about America in the late 1990s. The statistics that we saw were reflective of the situation in the Greek and Roman civilisations before their fall and the characteristics were also evident in the great Roman civilisation at the point of their decline. The message that Tim Lahaye is saying is that if you see some of these characteristics evident in society, be careful as it is at the point of decline.
State of marriages in Singapore
The central thesis, if I may reflect upon Tim Lahaye’s book, is that great nations fall when key societal institutions are weakened. A pivotal institution of society, and in fact, one of the three institutions that God has given us is the institution of marriage. How is the institution of marriage in Singapore doing? Strong marriages are essential because strong marriages meet the needs of two adults that come together. Marriages are blessings to us. It is an opportunity where we find someone who can also satisfy our needs and nourish the well-being of the adults. Strong marriages provide a secure foundation for the development of our children. When we have strong marriages, we are able to take care of the needs of the children. Strong marriages lead to strong families. What is the state of families or marriages in Singapore? Just how strong are marriages in Singapore? We have an increase in divorce rates in Singapore. Let us look at some of the numbers:
a) Increase in the number of divorces (based on civil marriages):
- 1996 with 3,004 cases; 2006 with 4,705 cases; and 2008 with 5,155 cases
Comparing divorce rates:
- Singapore 0.8 divorces per 1,000 population; United Kingdom (UK) 3.08; and US 4.95
If you look at the comparison with the UK and US, Singapore’s divorce cases are still low. However, we should not just look at the raw figures. It is fact that these figures are rising. It is the lives that these raw figures represent. Let us look at some of the facts:
- Average length of years married was 14.3 years
- Half of sample reported problems within the first 4 years
- Majority had 1 to 2 children, with the eldest within primary school or less
- At least half had a degree or diploma level of education
(Subordinate Courts Research Bulletin, 2003)
Thus, the average length of marriages in Singapore was 14.3 years before divorce compared to the US, which has an average of 7 years. Does this mean that the marriage stays well for 14 years and then fail? Not true, the report shows that half of the sample surveyed reported of problems within the first 4 years. So we can conclude that the marriages in Singapore that have ended in divorces are long-suffering marriages and that couples have experienced distresses and conflicts but for whatever reasons, they have hung on for a good number of years and in this instance, for another 10 years. When we think about these marriages that ended acrimoniously, one other fact stands out and that is a majority of these families had 1 or 2 children who are still very young with the eldest within primary school going age. We are therefore talking about young marriages.
Not too long ago, the community speculated that we are seeing more divorces because of the Central Provident Fund (CPF). When a man reaches that age when he can cash in on his CPF, then perhaps he is more likely to go astray, so it will seem that the marriages are ending at this point of their declining age. But the statistics do not quite show that. If about half of the 6,800 plus divorces (including Muslims and civil law marriages) have children, what we are seeing is that every year, a minimum of 3,000 plus young children are growing up in households where there is only one parent parenting them on a regular basis. And the number is accumulative as it goes on and on. There are roughly 300 schools, which mean that there are about 10 children in every school and 10 every year, are added.
The last statistics I will share with you show that at least half of those who ended up in acrimonious divorces had an education that saw them through tertiary level institutions. They had diplomas and degrees. I want us to be very clear that we are not talking about people who are uneducated that ended up in divorces. They had the benefit of education and yet in spite of it or hopefully not because of it, they had decided to divorce each other. So what do we draw from this?
No difference in Christian marriages
Let me share from a therapist’s vantage point of view. In my work of counselling couples, I noticed that Christian couples do not differ from non-Christian couples with respect to the reasons for marital distress. In other words, being Christians, you do not wear a bandana or a special invisible bullet- proof vest that say “I will not have a bad marriage”. All of us who are married are exposed to the same challenges, difficulties, temptations and stresses that non-Christian couples experienced. The second observation is that with regards to their marital distress, they are not protected from it. God did not say that once you are a Christian, you would not have marital distress.
When Christian couples come in and talk about it, they seem to be in greater anguish. Part of the anguish is the fact that they were married in church where they made their vows before every one and how could this happen? Christian couples often are hesitant to discuss this with the leaders of their church. As a rule, I would often ask them whether they have spoken to their pastor or church leaders. Often their answer is “no” and the reason for their hesitation stems from fear of being judged and being misunderstood. They have a presumption that they know what their pastor or cell group leader would say. It may not be true but that presumption nevertheless exists. It is sad and what that means is that they now go outside of their church for help. Sometimes, I regard the counselling profession as a very sad profession because we only exist because clients, as people in distress, do not have friends, families and churches they can go for help. They somehow feel that they should go to a complete stranger for help.
Christian couples who decide to divorce experience problems with re-integrating back to their own churches. Many feel that now that they are divorced, how can they go back to their own church? Some may feel that they do not want to have anything to do with the other party. This is the situation of Christian marriages in Singapore.
Violence in marriages among educated
I like to share another point and it is that in the last 20 years of looking at Singapore society through families and couples experiencing conflicts, they became violent to each other. In January 2010, the Society Against Family Violence in collaboration with the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore conducted a door-to-door survey on family violence. We concluded and shared the following findings:
- 9.2 per cent of women experienced lifetime violence victimisation
- 6.2 per cent lifetime physical violence
- 4.2 per cent lifetime sexual violence
- 58.8 per cent experienced repeated victimisation with 13.4 per cent having been hurt 10 times or more
- 42.2 per cent felt that their lives was in danger
- 28.9 per cent needed medical attention
The survey found that 30.2 per cent of victims had university and post-graduate qualifications. When we saw this finding, we were shocked to say the least. Again, we have presumed that violence only happens more to those with lower income levels, who have no other means of resolving their problems. But one out of three said that they had tertiary education and should know how to handle this but they are still finding themselves in relationships where their husbands are using violence on them. The number of victims who were Christians was no different from the national average. Why? Aren’t Christians brought up in the doctrine of love, tolerance and treasuring relationships and when they came forward and sealed that bond in marriage, they promised a lifetime of love. Yet, we have the same number of Christians using violence on each other as the national average.
Christian victims often reported that they feel entrapped in their relationships where they experienced violence. They feel entrapped because they are reminded that they have to submit to authority. They are sometimes told that why they are subjected to violence is because their spouses (often the men) are exercising leadership and control over them. The victims are supposed to forgive and to turn the other cheek. Christian perpetrators often use teachings from the Bible that focus on an unquestioning obedience to their authority. Oftentimes, the leaders are unaware or choose to deny the extent of the problems. In preparing for a conference, I went to a few Christian bookstores and could not find any Christian books written about domestic violence. There are books on gambling and anger but it seems that somehow, there is no concern for this problem.
Rebuilding families and marriages
So what shall we do? I want to end by sharing from the book of Nehemiah where there was a call to go back to “Rebuild the city walls”. In those days, city walls are essential for the defence of the city. City walls also serve as a tool to project power. Many of the walls lasted centuries after they had been built. Today, city walls do not have the same effect. In fact, many of us do not need city walls and many cities do not rely on city walls. So the strength of our city today relies on the combined strength of families and marriages. There is a need today to build strong families and strong marriages for a strong future in our society. Christians can play a key role as we have been given the first blueprint of what makes a strong marriage. The very One who designs the institution of marriage and family, the very One who knows what it is all about, has given us His blueprint on how to have strong marriages and strong families.
We can begin by re-affirming our commitment to our own marriages first. We also need to walk closely with God because loving your spouse is a supernatural act that requires supernatural patience and love. These are attributes we can draw from a supernatural source and that come from a close walk with God. We should encourage married couples to maintain a balanced work life. And lastly, to speak in support of those who are living in oppression, we should not keep silent about those who are facing violence at home.

(This is talk was given at the Graduates’ Christian Fellowship 55th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner held on 3 September 2010 at National University of Singapore Society Guild House)