Regulating sexual citizenship in Singapore

Since 1985, the state has manifested a steady trend towards greater awareness of the need to show respect for personal autonomy as opposed to class bias and eugenics. But why so?
Ann Brooks Lionel Wee
8 February 2011

The state in Singapore has tended to operate with the ‘modern conception of citizenship as merely a status held under the authority of a state’ (Isin and Turner 2002: 2), treating citizenship as an abstract or highly schematic template that can be suffused with whatever normative imperatives it deems necessary. Here, we examine the difference between a series of events in 1984 and 1985, on the one hand, and the developments in 2004 and 2009, on the other, which signals a change in the state’s beliefs and attitudes vis-à-vis the responsibilities that sexual citizenship might entail. This difference is significant because it signals a change in how the state goes about engaging its citizenry. 

Reproduction in Singapore 

The state in Singapore set up the Social Development Unit in 1984 because it was concerned that graduate women were marrying later and even worse, giving birth at a rate that was too low to make up for the decline in population numbers. Even though non-graduate women were apparently reproducing at a healthy rate, this was not considered an acceptable solution to the problem because according to the state’s reasoning, it was ‘graduate mothers [who] produced genetically superior offspring, [their] ability to complete a university education attesting to superior mental faculties, which would be naturally transmitted to offspring through genetic inheritance’ (Heng and Devan 1995: 197). 


Graduate men were also chastised by the state for contributing to the crisis, because of their ‘ignorance and prejudice’ (Lee Kuan Yew, 1983 National Day Rally Speech), which led them to prefer women who were less educated than themselves. This preference meant that, even if graduate women were willing to marry and have children, finding husbands who were comfortable with their high level of education would not be easy.  This tendency for Singaporean men to avoid marrying women with higher educational qualifications remains a feature of Singapore marriage patterns (Brooks 2010).

To address the problem, the state introduced a number of measures that favored graduate women over their non-graduate counterparts. Graduate women were promised tax breaks and even priority in admission for their children to some of the top schools in the country. Non-graduate women, in contrast, were encouraged to refrain from having more than two children, and were also offered monetary incentives of S$10,000 if they underwent tubal ligation. These measures were clearly elitist in that they discriminated according to class – at least, as manifested in terms of educational qualifications and income – and thus attest to the highly stratified nature of citizenship in Singapore. They also relate to the exclusive nature of Singaporean citizenship, i.e. its extent, which we touch on below.

However, the general unhappiness with the ways in which the state tried to differentially encourage childbirth according to presumed levels of genetic superiority had a number of repercussions, including the outward migration of Singaporeans – which, ironically, resulted in the loss of the specific kind of citizens (educated, affluent, professional) that the state valued – and the loss of electoral votes that allowed members of the political opposition to gain entry into Parliament. 

Towards reregulation and consultation

The state in Singapore learnt quickly and adapted accordingly, in the light of the citizenry’s response (or lack thereof) to its attempts at encouraging marriage and reproduction among graduates and non-graduates. Since the developments in 1984 and 1985, the state has been steadily fine-tuning its measures, all of which indicate a steady trend towards greater awareness of the need to show respect for personal autonomy and to shy away from class bias and certainly eugenics. Thus, 2004 saw a new tack being adopted by the state. In contrast to the earlier line of argument, the state now emphasized that marriage and children were important for personal fulfillment rather than for the wellbeing of the nation. As a reflection of this new approach, the measures introduced in 2004 included longer maternity leave (up from the previous 8 weeks to 12 weeks), a five-day work week in the civil service, financial support to encourage companies to develop family-friendly work practices, and tax rebates for working mothers that dispensed with any reference to the mothers’ educational qualifications. These measures have proven more palatable to Singaporeans because they no longer reflect any bias towards class or a belief in eugenics. This does not, however, necessarily mean that they will be effective. The fertility rate continues to remain at about 1.5 (considered sub-optimal for population replacement), because many Singaporeans still find it difficult to reconcile marriage and children with the pursuit of a successful career, and even those who are keen to start a family are concerned about the financial costs involved in raising a child.


From the perspective of sexual citizenship, what the state’s measures in Singapore indicate is a sea change in its attitude towards gender equality. Specifically, the state has had to decrease its regulation of sexual citizenship, and, in doing so, give up on the arguments that reproduction is a national obligation.

It is also worth noting that unlike the earlier initiatives, the 2004 measures were arrived at only after the state had gathered extensive feedback from the public (Thang 2005: 95). This is significant because it indicates a greater willingness (however nascent) on the part of the state to engage with Singaporeans in some form of dialogue before formulating policies that would affect their lives. The willingness to actively consult the citizenry and to back away from heavy-handed regulation, when taken together, indicate a growing appreciation by the state that citizens are not ‘inert blocks of wood to be moved here and there according to someone else’s grand design’ (Sowell 2004: 7-8). 

The mode of citizenship

Faulks (2000) proposes that the study of citizenship benefits from paying attention to the dimensions of ‘extent, content and depth’. These respectively refer to what individuals are included/excluded in the category citizen, what kinds of benefits/obligations accrue, and the degree of commitment involved compared to other kinds of social-political identities. From the foregoing discussion, we suggest that it is also useful to recognize ‘mode’ as another dimension, by which we mean the capacity to participate in public discussions and debates, which has been given increasing attention by scholars such as Benhabib (1996), Dryzek (1997), and Gutmann and Thompson (1996). The mode of citizenship in a society where the state attempts to unilaterally impose a set of values or beliefs onto the citizenry is fundamentally different from the mode of citizenship where the state is prepared to engage with citizens and perhaps even insist on their active participation.

Citizenship has sometimes been described as the set of practices that help to define membership in a shared community.  We must certainly include the ways in which citizens are enabled or encouraged to participate in public discussions, either via institutionalized forums, media outlets or informal gatherings. This also means that the mode of citizenship should not be seen as extraneous to the other three dimensions. Rather, it interacts with them in critical ways, since those citizens who see it as part of their identity qua citizens that they ought to actively participate in public discussions are likely to have a different understanding of their civic rights and responsibilities than those who do not.



For references and a fuller account of the issues: 

Benhabib, S. (1996)’ Toward a deliberative model of democracy’, in S. Benhabib (ed.) Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Bohman, J. (1996) Public Deliberation: Pluralism, Complexity, and Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 

Brooks, A. (2010) Social Theory in Contemporary Asia: Intimacy, Reflexivity and Identity. London/New York: Routledge    

Dryzek, J. (1997) The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Faulks, K. (2000) Citizenship. London: Routledge. 

Gutmann, A. and Thompson, D. (1996) Democracy and Disagreement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Heng, G. and Devan, J.(1995) ‘State fatherhood: The politics of nationalism, sexuality and race in Singapore’ in A. Ong and M. G. Peletz (eds) Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia. California: University of California Press.

Hill, M. and Fee, L.K. (1995) The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore. London/New York: Routledge.

Isin, E. F. and Turner, B. S. (2002) ‘Citizenship studies: An introduction’ in E. F. Isin and B. S. Turner (eds) Handbook of Citizenship Studies.  London: Sage. 

Ong, A. (2006) Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Sowell, T. (2004) Affirmative Action around the World: An Empirical Study. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Thang, L. L. (2005) ‘Private matters, public concern: Procreation issues in Singapore’, The Japanese Journal of Population 3(1): 76-108.

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