Example 51 Malaya Marriages 2 - Humanities and Social Studies

Women and Marriage.
Oral history interview and summary by Hajjah Seriyati
The following is the report of the interview.
Marriage is an interesting topic. There are many aspects of this topic that can
be discussed. Actually before I started, I had a slightly different idea and was
not very sure on what to write for the report. I had prepared some very
general questions about marriage but as I was interviewing Mdm Kas and I let
her talk about her personal experiences and her perspective about marriages of
long ago (in the 1960s) I added a few more questions that are more specific.
I have included extracts from the transcript of the interview.
Mdm Kas was just 16 years old when she first got married. She came from a
strict Muslim family and her mother is ‘strict and headstrong’. Although her
sister got married to the man of her own choice for Mdm Kas both her
marriages were arranged. She said that she didn’t mind it because she knows
that she wants to be an obedient daughter. She also mentioned that around
that time arranged marriages were common. Her aunts and cousins also had
arranged marriages. Her sisters-in-law also had marriages arranged for them.
Her family is quite conservative. She was taught to obey her parents. She said
that “in Islam women cannot go dating with men who are not our ‘muhrim’.”
She got married to the second husband who was more than 10 years her
senior. She said that her “husband was a filial son who had looked after and
done his duty as a son and a responsible brother to all his sisters. He agreed to
get married only after all his sisters were married”. From here we can deduce
that Mdm Kas is definitely a filial daughter herself.
She said that at that time people tend to marry at a young age - about 18 to
20 years old, as compared to now and it is interesting to note that she was
married at just 16 years old – younger still. According to her, her mom was
married at just 13 years old. A research conducted in 1989 mentioned
‘Singapore remained a society in which it was assumed that everyone would
marry, and marriage was a normal aspect of fully adult status’.1
I cannot help thinking that probably Mdm Kas’ mother, who went through the
Japanese Occupation, thought that marriages of her daughters should be
arranged as in the wartime period because marriages in wartime conditions
were perceived as a way of protecting daughters from rape and abduction by
the invaders.
The data that I got from the periodical ‘Statistics on Marriages and Divorces
1998’ shows that the mean age at first marriage of brides (Muslim Law Act)
hovered about the 20.5-year old mark in 1968 and it has risen to the 25.2 year
old mark in 1998. The data from the report that I got from the Yearbook of
Statistics Singapore 1967 states that in 1967 marriages (Muslim Ordinance)
registered for grooms 19 years old and under were 79 and for brides were
1 019.
In the same year marriages registered for grooms 20- 29 years were 1 324 and
for brides were only 710, grooms 30- 39 years were 338 and for brides were
122 only .
As you can see at that time more Muslim marriages took place when the brides
were much younger.
The periodical ‘Statistics on Marriages and Divorces 1998’ also mentioned that
‘On average, Muslim grooms and brides were younger than their non-Muslim
Mdm Kas also mentioned that she had a divorced after one child. She said that
she did not know the exact reason that the divorce took place but cited her age
as one of the possible reason. In a research ‘A country study’ by Federal
Research Division, Library of Congress in December 1989 it was revealed that
the Malays in Singapore ‘had traditionally had much higher rates of divorce and
adoption than other ethnic groups, and the distinction continued in the 1980s
although the divorce rate was lower than in the l940s or through the l960s.
More significantly, for the Malays divorce was regarded as a realistic and
normal, although unfortunate, possibility in all marriages.’3
Mdm Kas also mentioned that in any marriage the couple would encounter
challenges. The couple must work and be committed to maintain a successful
marriage. ‘Couples must be inspired to view marriages as lifelong processes
and to take responsibility for sustaining them.’4 In fact in the recent years
namely 2001, public education strategies and initiatives aimed at promoting
positive attitudes among Singaporeans towards the family were introduced.
She also mentioned that marriage preparatory courses are available now.
These programmes are “important to help newly weds get used to married
life”5 Getting to know and accepting our spouse and ‘mother-in-law’ are part
and parcel of marriage. These are challenges that we can manage and should
not be viewed as problems.
Mdm Kas also mentioned that her sisters- in-law were married at a young age
because they were not highly educated and only working as seamstresses and
selling homemade cakes. I think the general impression at that time was the
brides were married young and had little education. Those who had better
education delay their marriage and some even remain single. That was the
impression of the 1960s but in fact recent reports revealed a similar pattern.
‘More Singaporeans are remaining single, delaying marriage and having fewer
children. Many place priorities because of careers and other life goals, while
holding high but often unrealistic expectations about their life partners’.6
Mdm Kas’ personal experiences are interesting. She is a friendly woman who is
willing to tell her personal lifestory but she cautioned me many times that other
people experiences may not be the same as hers. Although unsuccessful in her
first marriage she remarried and had a wonderful life with her second husband
and her three children. According to her she maintained good contact with her
ex husband and her ex mother-in-law when she was still alive. All her children
are now grown up and have their own family. I am thankful to her for agreeing
to my request to interview her for this project.
a country study Federal Research Division Library of Congress. Edited by
Barbara Leitch Lepoer. Research Completed December 1989
Statistics on Marriages and Divorces 1998’
a country study Federal Research Division Library of Congress. Edited by
Barbara Leitch Lepoer. Research Completed December 1989
Family Matters. Report of the Public Education Committee on Family pg 5
Family Matters A Report of the Public Education Committee on Family(Abridge
Version) pg 18
Family Matters. Report of the Public Education Committee on Family. Executive
summary pg 11
A country study Federal Research Division Library of Congress. Edited by
Barbara Leitch Lepoer. Research Completed December 1989
Family Matters. Report of the Public Education Committee on Family Jan 2002
Family Matters A Report of the Public Education Committee on Family(Abridge
Version) Jan 2002
Statistics on Marriages and Divorces 1998 Singapore Dept of Statistics Printed by
Integrated Press Pte Ltd.
Yearbook of Statistics Singapore 1967 Chief Statistician Dept of Statistics
The Ties That Bind In Search of the Modern Singapore Family AWARE 1996 Armour
Profile of the Interviewee:
Name of the interviewee: Mdm Kas A. 56 years old
Race & Religion: Malay Islam
Nationality: Singaporean
Language used: Malay and some English
Transcript For the Oral Interview Project
Can you tell me about yourself?
I am 56 years old. I have three children and they are all grown up now. All of
them are married and have their own house. They don’t stay with my husband
and me.
Do your children have their own kids?
Oh, yes. My eldest son has five kids. My daughter has three kids. My youngest
son will soon have his own children.
Can you tell me about marriage during the olden days that is during your time?
My marriages… I was married the first time at the age of 16. It was an
arranged marriage. It did not last long. I had a son from my first marriage.
Two years later I got married to my husband until now… I have the other two
What about your second marriage, is it an arranged one also?
In which year did you get married?
1963 and 1966
Is it common for the people at that time be match made?
Yes, arranged marriages are common at that time. There are others that were
married … of their own choice. My sister got married to the man of her own
choice. But she was actually match made to another man but it seemed she
didn’t like the man and then she talked to the man and broke the engagement.
You mean she was already engaged? How old was your sister at that time?
Yes, but she really didn’t like the man. He was not good-looking and much
older than my sister. My sister felt that he just couldn’t be her husband. I
remember my mother was quite angry but she also didn’t really like him. So
she agreed quietly. Not long after the engagement was broken, my sister told
my mom about another man who wanted to marry her. My mother accepted
grudgingly. My mom is strict and headstrong. She wants all her children to
listen and obey her. She lets my sister get married but she warned her if there
should be any problem in the marriage my sister will have to settle the problem
herself. My sister was about 22 years old when she got married and for my
mom - my sister was an old maid.
Can you tell me about your marriage?
My mother somehow always gets worried when her daughters do not get
married at a certain age. I know that is her reason for arranging my first
marriage. I was young at that time but still she was worried. Actually my mom
herself was married when she was about 13 years old. I know that her mother
also arranged her marriage. Actually if you ask me why my first marriage fail, I
really cannot tell you what was the reason because I really don’t know. Maybe
…because I was young. I remember that my first husband and I had a few
arguments. He was a good man but I guess we were not fated to be together.
My marriage to this husband was also arranged. My father’s friend knew that
my mom was extremely worried because I was a divorcee with a son. His
wife’s brother was already about 30 something and still single. His mother-inlaw was looking for a wife for her son. My husband was a filial son who had
looked after and done his duty as a son and a responsible brother to all his
sisters. He agreed to get married only after all his sisters were married.
When your mom arranged your marriage for you, didn’t you say anything?
No. We are not like the youngsters nowadays. I was not educated.
You didn’t go to school?
I went to school but stop halfway at Primary 6. My family shifted to another
place. I attended the Arabic school after that but didn’t do well. I was not
clever… Around that time it was quite common to have arranged marriages.
Marrying at such a young age for a girl was also acceptable although not at 16
but around 18,19, 20. Nowadays girls at that age are busy schooling.
Just now you said that it was common to have arranged marriages?
Yes, around that time as far as I know we women do not mix and socialize with
the opposite sex as you all do nowadays. Maybe my family and relatives and
people that I know … Different from now…I didn’t have any boyfriends.
My uncle told me that I will be engaged to a 20 something man.
How long were you engaged? Can you tell me how did you feel at that time?
I was engaged for 6 months but did not go out with him. At that time,
marriages can also take place and the bride and the groom do not see each
other until the wedding day you know. For me… he visited my house a few
times and we talk a bit but always with other people in the house. I didn’t feel
anything …I just accepted that he would be my future husband.
Why didn’t you go out together?
At that time not like nowadays… We are quite conservative. We do not disobey
our parents. We listen and respect our parents and elders. In Islam we were
taught to obey our parents. In Islam women cannot go dating with men who
are not our ‘muhrim’. The Malay custom also encourages the men to ‘look for’
the ladies in marriage and not otherwise. Somehow my mom didn’t have any
reason to reject the proposal of the first man. I am an obedient daughter. I
don’t know about others but I didn’t go out with him. In fact when I was
engaged to my second husband, I went out with him on one occasion and we
were accompanied with my younger brother. I remembered that my sister also
had to bring my younger brother along when she went out with her fiancé just
before they got married. Like I told you, my mom was strict.
You mentioned that you had arguments with your first husband. What were
the arguments about?
One of them is living with mother-in-law; coming back late … he is a very
friendly man and enjoys chatting with friends. He has lots of friends. Don’t
know… I think I was too young at that time… I had a very strict upbringing…I
was not used to my first husband’s character and somehow we didn’t get along
well. I also didn’t know why I didn’t want to stay with my mom-in-law. She was
also a nice woman.
Actually in any marriage you will encounter challenges. Both the husband and
wife must work and be committed to make the marriage a success. Especially
in the first year the couple should have time to get to know each other – give
and take. There is a Malay saying ‘even the tongue gets bitten’ - arguments are
part and parcel of family life. Now it is much better. I heard there are marriage
preparatory courses that couples can attend before they get married.
Anyway I believe strongly in fate.
Besides yourself, do you personally know of other people that had arranged
marriages at that time?
Yes, I know. My husbands’ sisters’ marriages were all arranged except for the
youngest sister. The youngest sister was English educated and was working as
a nurse but the others received Arabic education and working at home. They
were seamstresses and sold homemade cakes for a living.
My aunts and my cousins were also match made to their husbands. Most of my
friends had arranged marriages too. They got married at about 20 years old.