When is a Family Not a Family?

Gwee Li Sui

On days when my mind strays into abstraction, I find myself baffled by terms such as “pro-life”, “pro-choice”, and “pro-family”. We all know what these mean, but, as words that purport to describe positions, they are not very precise. “Pro-life” and “pro-choice” may be opposites, but a person objecting to abortion is not standing against choice, nor is someone who supports fertility control contemptuous of life.

But these terms, in how they are being wielded by activists today, have specificities not contained in a general meaning. To understand what each means, you need to have already grasped the agenda that predefines the concept. In other words, these terms actually perform the act of partisan thinking that underlies their use: for “pro-life” or “pro-choice” not to sound gratuitous or silly, what “life” or “choice” must strictly mean has to be accepted first.

“Pro-family” is yet another of such fascinating terms. It seems commonsensical to say that no person of clear mind will consider himself or herself seriously “anti-family”. This assumption nonetheless plays down how some sectors have already interpreted the most common form of family as also its most legitimate. When a timeless general idea can even suggest the threat of some contrary position, we must be quick to realise that a specific definition is at play.

Thus, during the AWARE EGM earlier in May, the voters who came dressed in red T-shirts declaring “pro-woman, pro-family, pro-Singapore” were present for a very specific showdown. After all, was there anyone in this organisation advancing the rights of women in Singapore who could be deemed “anti-woman”, “anti-family”, or “anti-Singapore”? Here then is how ideology appears at its clearest, when the opposite of each operative concept is not a real opposite but has the same content, seen only from a different perspective.

As long as we allow general ideas to be kept in straitjackets, we are bound not to be heard with general understanding. To begin with, what is a family? The Anglican archbishop Rev Dr John Chew recently announced that his congregation must promote “classical compositions” of family, defined as heterosexual married couples with children or at least an intention to procreate. He warned that, unless sufficient babies were produced, mainstream norms and ethos would be threatened with increasing erosion by “alternative values”.

The goal of this religious stance – marriage and procreation – is uncannily in sync with the means through which the Singapore government regularly projects its plans for economic renewal. This confluence can give us the impression that only a specific form of family deserves proper attention and obscures a whole range of legitimate family structures not captured between the ideals of religion and the convenience of politics.

Fiction-writer Suchen Christine Lim tells many tales of such unconventional families and of conventional ones cut up in equally ambivalent ways. In one story, she contrasts a pregnant teenage girl’s struggle to keep her baby against her traditional family’s wishes with her own counsellor’s abortion of a third child to secure a five-room flat for the sake of family.

In another story, a girl learns to come to terms with the taboo love of her two mothers, two amah jieh, or traditional Chinese domestic servants. She eventually realises that their loving commitment to each other for over fifty years is a thing as wholesome as their relationship’s other nonconformity, the gift of new life they have granted her when they adopted and reared her.

But we do not need to go too far to see the natural and necessary complexity of family around us. When we are not trying so hard to tell ourselves that its irregular forms cannot work, we are even celebrating them with our own loved ones, rooting for their fight against those who wish for them to fail. In many Disney and Pixar animated movies from A Bug’s Life to Finding Nemo, we are exposed to – and seem able to comprehend – the possibility of happy atypical families, forged through unforeseen circumstances and defined by difference.

Is a childless married couple then any less of a family? While single parenting may be difficult, need it be less functional or fulfilling than the work of two heterosexual parents? What about divorcees with children who have no intention or chance to remarry or unmarried siblings who have become sole co-dependents? In those Singaporean families where the maid has become an indispensable pillar, is she part of family too? What can PM Lee Hsien Loong mean when he describes Singaporeans as belonging to “one big family”, “the Singapore family”?

Since we are also in the season of Christmas, I should point out how Christians believe Jesus to be the Son of God conceived by Mary and that Joseph was not his biological father. But imagine how the Holy Family must have looked to those of the time who knew it simply in terms of a union between a man and a young girl already with child before marriage. This context of having to raise Jesus under suspicious social eyes blind to extraordinary inner resource is sometimes missed by Christians who celebrate his good news of God’s unconditional love.

The sooner we can see family as just the smallest intimate unit of belonging and co-dependence, the sooner it becomes clear to us what a healthier idea of helping families entails. The project of upholding family values should focus less on policing external forms than on strengthening internal ties and enriching the commitment of persons to persons. We should be looking not to blame particular kinds of people but to improve work-life relations, make family counselling less mechanistic, and offer more comprehensive and realistic help to families of any formation.

We should conversely realise that demanding a gay person to go straight for the sake of family actually does harm to family confidence. Hurrying a couple into marriage when they have not attained a sufficient level of mutual trust and understanding may create a potentially volatile setting for family. Bringing up a child in a loveless or even abusive relationship between a man and his wife may have adverse consequences on the lives of all involved.

The Anglican Diocese of Singapore has every right to define family values according to what it considers best for its members and their faith. But, as Singaporeans, we ought to make room in our hearts and minds for all kinds of family that have come into being by choice or by quirky circumstance. It is this difference that provides yet another reason why the politics of secular society should never be overrun by values from a religious sector.

This essay first appeared on The Online Citizen on 5 December 2009.