When is a Family Not a Family?

December 5, 2009

A slightly shorter version of this essay first appeared on 5 December 2009 on The Online Citizen and was reproduced on New Asia Republic.

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 in the season of Christmas, I should also 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.

Should I further highlight how Jesus’s own idea of family might be, as a friend reminded me not too long back, more radical than we normally imagine? On one occasion mentioned in the Gospels when Jesus was preaching, his mother and brothers came to the door wanting a private audience with him. Alerted to their presence, he pointed instead to his disciples and called them his mother and brothers, announcing: “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother!”

The sooner we can set aside tricky questions of how a family must look and just see it as the smallest intimate unit of belonging and co-dependence, the sooner it becomes clear 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.

Gwee Li Sui

11 Responses to “When is a Family Not a Family?”

  1. Arix Says:


    Waiting for you to start…

    MY full para-by-para (numbers in brackets are paragraph numbers) commentary for this article:-

    (1) True in the broad sense, but then the devil is in the details, as always.

    (2) I agree with the main point that political slogans tend to drop nuances of various topics.

    (3) No-one would wish to be considered anti-family, but one’s desire does not equate to the truth necessarily.

    (4) That is a wise observation.

    (5 & 6) While your surface points may be valid, the implied connection between the government and the Anglican Church stands on shaky ground. Regardless of the motives and policies of the government, I am certain that Rev Chew would hold on to his perspective. So, for Revd Chew the “convenience of politics” will not apply.

    (7 & 8) Suchen-Christine Lim is an excellent writer, and she does her characterization very well. But still, “coming to terms” is not equal to “endorsing”.

    (con-d in next post – b4 firefox crashes yet again.)

  2. Arix Says:

    (con-d from previous)

    And of course there is nothing that indicates that Suchen-Christine Lim gets the whole picture. The thing is – and this is the tough part – whilst the love between the two amahs and the interpersonal relationships between the members in the adopted family are wholesome, the structural condition of the lesbian family and of the foster family are not wholesome.


  3. Arix Says:

    That is, the lesbian family and the adopted family are societal ills. I choose to use the term “societal” to indicate that they are structural defects in society, as opposed to the faults of individuals.

    The adopted family is a societal ill because the need for the young protagonist to be adopted indicates the existence of conditions that persuade or compel her biological parents to voluntarily or involuntarily give her up; this being an unnatural state of affairs.

    (truncated because of technical difficulties – sigh, I will just use linux next time!)

  4. Gweek Says:

    Arix, the discussion is on the TOC site. Nothing much happens here. It’s more for archiving.

  5. Donaldson Says:

    TOC and Gwee have written in individually to request for John Chew’s speech transcript. So far, there is no response.

  6. Arix Says:

    Gweek, Donaldson,

    well, perhaps we should make more happen here then.


    Terence said that you were moderated because you said something “controversial”.

  7. Gweek Says:

    Yea, I was moderated on TOC too! Anyhow, I did’t write in to request for the speech. I think someone else did.

  8. Donaldson Says:


    I didn’t make any post in the TOC thread, so how could I be under moderation? Strange…

  9. Donaldson Says:

    Andrew wrote in to the Anglican Diocese to request for John Chew’s speech transcript.

  10. Gweek Says:

    I’ll be happy and surprised if the Archbishop shares the transcript or video. But now it seems the buck has been passed to the ST interview…

  11. marialing Says:

    Reblogged this on Past(or) Imperfect and commented:
    I appreciate Gwee’s thoughtful position. It’s not about right or wrong, left or right, sinful or without sin…what about learning to discern God’s Gospel for the chaotic world we live in?

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