During his 1994 National Day Rally Speech, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong expressed a deep anxiety about liberal Western values damaging the moral fabric of Singaporean society by disrupting the traditional family unit. He referenced the United States’ Aid for Families with Dependent Children as an example of a state-sponsored welfare program that had allowed the government to step in to fill the economic role of the husband (and father), asserting: “[These countries’] social troubles—a growing underclass which is violence-prone, uneducated, drug-taking, sexually promiscuous—is the direct result of their family unit becoming redundant or non-functional.” He then assured the population that the government had amended a Housing Development Board (HDB) policy “slip-up” that had allowed single, unwed mothers (SUMs) in Singapore to purchase subsidised public-housing directly from HDB—“This rule implicitly accepts unmarried motherhood as a respectable part of our society. This is wrong,”— to ensure these mothers could now purchase housing only on the resale market.
Twenty-five years later, the government’s explicit sentiment against SUMs has been traded for a vague promise to them instead—in a September 2019 parliamentary response to an adjournment motion by MP Louis Ng, in which he advocated for more housing provisions for single unwed parents, Senior Parliament Secretary for National Development Sun Xueling declared that “single unwed parents and their children are our valued citizens. We are committed to do better and to engage with them better.” Yet, the discrimination against SUMs in housing policy seems to endure today in HDB’s selectively-allocated subsidies. In this essay, I examine the Singaporean state’s provisions, or lack thereof, for these women and their children, using housing as the central issue to demonstrate the ideological assumptions driving the state’s policy—that is, the seemingly Dworkinian belief in forcing individuals to take responsibility for their choice to become a SUM. I then move into a critique of the housing policy, drawing from Elizabeth Anderson to show how the state’s current approach fails to treat its citizens with equal respect and concern, by ignoring that that these mothers’ choices were likely limited by their circumstances, making intrusive judgements about these women, and largely only providing for them on the basis of pity and inferiority.
The Singaporean state has never shied away from manipulating its housing policies to encourage and reward a particular kind of family—one containing a married couple heading a dual-parent family (Wong & Yeoh 2003). Because SUMs do not fit this state’s ideal of the “family nucleus”, they are ineligible to purchase HDB flats under the regular Public Scheme, and are instead forced to buy resale flats under the Singles Scheme upon turning 35-years-old. (HDB 2020). SUMs are even distinguished from other single parents who are divorced or widowed, for the latter still receive government-support through flats set aside for them, and rental housing provided as they await their flats’ construction (HDB 2020). As such, the state treats the vast majority of SUMs simply as single people when it comes to housing allocation. In order to bypass these schemes to access public housing, then, SUMs are expected to approach HDB directly, which “will assess each request holistically, based on… individual circumstances”, and “exercise flexibility” to determine whether the women are eligible to purchase flats from HDB or the resale market, or be considered for public rental flats. (HDB 2020)
Otherwise, SUMs are left to purchase or rent private housing without the aid of government subsidies. Those with nowhere else to turn might even end up in NGO-run shelters like the Association of Women for Action and Research’s (AWARE) Support, Housing and Enablement Project (S.H.E.) which provides free housing for two years to single-mother families (Hingorani 2020). More likely, however, they become reliant on their network of family and friends to house them and their children until they can afford to move into their own place—59 of 88 single parent families interviewed by Glendinning et al. fell within this category (2015)—, often resulting in their families shuttling constantly between homes.
The long-term negative consequences for mother and children who lack a permanent, affordable home has been well-studied: the endless stress and uncertainty causes a toll on the mental and physical health of the family, the housing insecurity makes it hard for the women to hold a job to earn a steady income and for their children to focus and perform well in academics, having to live in other people’s homes exposes the families to potential abuses, and the lack of privacy in often overcrowded homes—Glendinning et al. found that 27 of 88 families interviewed were living in flats considered overcrowded by the government’s HDB subletting recommendations—leads to a loss in dignity (Glendinning et al. 2015; AWARE 2016).
Given all these potential harms to SUMs and their children, then, why does the Singaporean state continue to cling to a housing policy that systematically fails to provide for such families? In this regard, the state seems to take a Dworkinian approach to allocate housing, such that the fate of SUMs and their children fall generally out of their purview. By such an approach, a just and equal distribution of state resources has to be “ambition-sensitive”, but not “endowment-sensitive” (311)—that is, the state’s role is to compensate for differences in the life circumstances of its citizens that would arise due to luck (e.g. injuries from car accidents), while ensuring that the individual still takes responsibility for the things they do have control over. By the state’s logic, then, being a SUM is a choice these women have made. Hence, society does not owe these women support in this regard, and can leave them to assume moral responsibility for it. The result is that the state provides little to no support for SUMs beyond what they are owed as citizens, providing no direct path to subsidised home-ownership or rental on the basis on them being a SUM.
That said, even Dworkin appeared to be concerned about SUMs, particularly with ensuring that the fate of their dependent children are not tied to the mothers’ imprudent choices. In a section of his book, he briefly discusses the reform that ended the Aid for Families with Dependent Children welfare program referenced in PM Goh’s speech, claiming that such a measure will “almost certainly produce great harm to infant children” (2002: 338). Dworkin then goes on to say that a welfare system should not “condition distribution to one group—children—on the conduct of another—their parents” (2002: 339), reflecting his worry that an attempt to force SUMs to accept the responsibility for their choice to become a SUM will inevitably put their innocent children in harm’s way. In this manner, the Singaporean state’s inclination to “punish” these women may very well end up generating long-term negative consequences such as those I outlined above, creating intergenerational implications for the family (AWARE 2016).
More importantly, however, are the failings of the Dworkinian assumption that an “ambition-sensitive” and “endowment-insensitive” distribution of housing would be most just and appropriate to create an equal society. Even if a welfare scheme could somehow be designed to only provide for the dependents of SUMs, but not the SUMs themselves, the ideology underpinning the Singaporean state’s housing allocation for these women—of making the individual responsible for their choices but not their circumstances—fails to truly “express equal respect and concern for all citizens.” (Anderson 1999: 289)
To begin with, the policy ignores how choice and circumstance cannot always be cleanly-separated, seeing as mothers might have faced circumstances that limited their choices and led them to become a SUM. These women might very well have been fleeing an unsafe home environment, or might have chased out by an abusive partner, such that they were ultimately making what was the best choice for their families given their dire circumstances. As such, a housing policy aimed at forcing individual responsibility for “poor choices” does not reflect how those choices might not have been isolable from their circumstances, but might have been the most prudent choice in the situation. Therefore, the housing policy abandons SUMs and their children, availing them to the harms that may come their way owing to a lack of housing, resulting in the “abandonment of the prudent” (Anderson 1999: 298) and a failure to show equal concern for all citizens.
Furthermore, the Singaporean state makes “demeaning and intrusive judgments of people’s capacities to exercise freedom and effectively dictates to them the appropriate uses of their freedom” (Anderson 1990: 289). It does so, firstly, by attempting to control what families look like and manipulating its citizens to fit this ideal through its conditional provision of housing. This is also seen in the ambiguous, case-by-case process it has created to determine which SUMs can purchase or rent flats. Such a system gives HDB free rein to reject applications using “seemingly arbitrary factors” (Poh 2019) without transparency or accountability to its citizens, allocating housing only if deemed appropriate by its own standards. Ultimately, its lack of provision for SUMs is a way of condemning these women’s “deviant” lifestyles, demonstrating that the state does not value different conceptions of life equally.
Finally, even when the state does provide housing to SUMs, it is only done on the basis of “contemptuous pity for those…[stamped] as sadly inferior” (Anderson 1999: 289). This is seen most obviously in HDB’s public rental system which requires SUMs’ families to have a household income less than S$1500 in order to qualify. SUMs find themselves caught between trying to earn more for the family, and not earning too much so that they cross that arbitrary mark that forces them out of the affordable rental housing (AWARE 2016). They are trapped in a state where they have to paint themselves as pitiable in order to justify public provision—a reflection of the state’s neglect of equal respect and concern for all.
In the name of a just distribution of resources across society, the Singaporean state has embarked on a quest to force SUMs to assume responsibility for their choice through its housing policy. Along the way, the state seems to be losing sight of what an equal society looks like—one where there is equal respect and concern for citizens and their individuality.
Anderson, Elizabeth, 1999. What Is the Point of Equality?*. Ethics, 109(2), 287-337.
Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). 2016. “Single Parents’ Access to Public Housing Findings from AWARE’s Research Project, December 2016.
Dworkin, Ronald. 1981.“What Is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 10, no. 4 (1981): 283-345. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265047.
Dworkin, Ronald. 2002. “Chapter 9: Justice, Insurance and Luck” in Sovereign Virtue. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Glendinning, Emma; Smith, Catherine J.; and Md Kadir, Mumtaz Md. 2015. “Single-Parent Families in Singapore: Understanding the Challenges of Finances, Housing and Time Poverty.” 1-34. Lien Centre for Social Innovation: Research.
Goh, Chok Tong. 1994. “Moral Values: The Foundation of a Vibrant State.” 21 August 1984. Prime Minister’s National Day Rally Speech, Kallang Theatre, Singapore. Available from: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/1994NDRenglishspeech.pdf
Hingorani, Shailey. 2020. “The road to single, unwed mothers is clearer but still bumpy.” AWARE, March 8th 2020. https://www.aware.org.sg/2020/03/the-road-to-housing-for-single-unwed-mothers-is-clearer-but-still-bumpy/
Housing Development Board. n.d. Helping Single Parent Households. Accessed November 25, 2020. https://www.hdb.gov.sg/cs/infoweb/about-us/news-and publications/ publications/hdbspeaks/helping-singleparent-households
Ministry of Social and Family Development. n.d. “Housing And Flat Rental Assistance For Single Unwed Mums”. Accessed November 25, 2020. https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/Housing-and-flat-rental-assistance-for-single-unwed-mums.aspx
Poh, Charmaine. 2019. “Singapore is small. For single mothers, it’s even smaller” April 28th 2019. https://www.ricemedia.co/culture-people-singapore-single-mothers-spaces-housing/
Sun, Xueling. 2019. “Reply by SPS Sun Xueling in response to Adjournment Motion by MP Louis Ng Kok Kwang on ‘Providing Housing for Single Unwed Parents’”, September 2, 2019. https://www.mnd.gov.sg/newsroom/parliament-matters/speeches/view/reply-by-sps-sun-xueling-in-response-to-adjournment-motion-by-mp-louis-ng-kok-kwang-(nee-soon-grc)-on-providing-housing-for-single-unwed-parents
Wong, Theresa & Yeoh, Brenda. 2003. “Fertility and the Family: An Overview of Pro-Natalist Population Policies in Singapore.” In Asian Metacentre Research Paper Series, 12.