Monday, March 7, 2011

On Polygamy

Mar 3, 2011

Why polygamy should be allowed

By Andy Ho, Senior Writer

IN JANUARY, Dr Gordon Tan suggested in this newspaper's Forum that Singapore's low fertility rate was perhaps 'reason enough for us to revisit polygamy'.

Busy husbands with equally busy wives should be able to have younger wives who stay home to bear lots of children, he mused. All things being equal, polygamy should lead to more babies.

However, the gynaecologist's idea first requires the decriminalisation of polygamy, which the 1961 Women's Charter outlawed for all except Muslims.

South African President Jacob Zuma has four wives as the law of the land permits customary plural marriages. French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy says she prefers polygamy to monogamy. The Canadian government is studying if polygamy should be decriminalised. And Big Love, an HBO series about a polygamous community, has given the cause a worldwide audience.

Proponents urge that we should cease regarding marriage as a state-ordained institution. Someone is not married just because the state says so, they argue. Instead, marrying someone is an 'intimacy right' that pre-existed government.

Thus, decriminalising polygamy would simply mean getting government out of marriage. The state should play the role of only the keeper of public records - in this case, of the contractual arrangements that consenting adults have a natural right to make as partners.

Opponents counter that polygamy is inherently unstable. Monogamy enables couples to bring up their children and fulfil their intimacy needs in a committed relationship between two adults.

By contrast, a polygamous set-up is no menage a trois or menage a quatre. That is, each adult in these plural set-ups is not symmetrically 'married' to each of the other adults. It is only the women who would be married to one man and this asymmetry is structurally unstable.

Suppose Ah Beng is married to Ah Lien, who proves to be childless, and Ah Mei, who bears five kids. Suppose Ah Lien remains healthy but Ah Mei contracts cancer. Or Ah Lien is a corporate high-flier while Ah Mei, though equally credentialled, stays home for the children and feels of less worth as a result.

Even if Ah Beng were the fairest of husbands, the ill and depressed Ah Mei will need more of his time, so Ah Lien gets less. Even monogamous marriages fall apart when a spouse does not get enough of the other's time. If so, Ah Lien is not likely to hold up under such stress.

The children would also be neglected as they are not really Ah Lien's, who is too busy wheeling and dealing out there anyway. Since polygamous families are structurally defective in all these ways, it is right to ban such marriages, opponents surmise.

But these harms, especially the adverse effects on children, are to be found in 'serial polygamy', which is what easy divorce leads to. Yet not only is divorce not banned, it is in fact protected legally.

Advocates say there would be more warm bodies in a plural marriage to support the household economy, which can include real companionship among the many wives. In what is, in essence, an extended family, the children can benefit from having more parental caregivers and half-siblings.

Past the child-rearing stage, we age and ail. But in our dotage, death can remove the one who would have been our caregiver. In this sense, polygamy is a self-help form of social insurance.

While polygamists are made out to be abusive, so are some monogamists, which does not make monogamy bad per se. And it is not empirically known if there is more abuse in one than the other.

But it is the stigmatisation by anti-polygamy laws that makes for an environment in which any abuse in polygamous arrangements can go undetected and unpunished. Victims are afraid to get help from law enforcement, which might use the evidence gathered against the abuser to prosecute the whole family unit for polygamy. Children might then be removed from parents, thus breaking up such polygamous families.

Interestingly, three women in polygamist marriages - Ms Mary Batchelor, Ms Marianne Watson and Ms Anne Wilde - have collected personal essays from more than 100 other similar wives who see polygamy positively. The trio published these essays as Voices In Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage (2000).

In it, Ms Leanne Timpson writes: 'I am a product of the civil rights movement, of feminism, and of education... To tell us that as women we don't have the right to marry the man of our choice is amazing.'

Or take Ms Marlyne Hammond, who says: 'I don't see why (polygamy) has to be a crime, when other people... indiscriminately have (sexual) associations with other women and not take care of the children.'

The book was so well received that the three women went on to found an advocacy group called Principle Voices. Ms Batchelor, a well-educated, articulate woman, has become the movement's mainstream female face. She defies the stereotype of the victimised and exploited plural wife. Technically a felon, she mounts court challenges to overturn laws that criminalise polygamy.

If you are Singapore's very own Batchelor willing to step out to fight for the decriminalisation of polygamy, you could well be the key to ending our baby dearth. Whether the majority will support your quest remains an empirical question.

Mar 5, 2011

Next family slogan: Stop at two... wives?

IT HAS been a while since Dr Andy Ho encouraged a certain course in his columns, rather than highlighting negative aspects of issues ('Why polygamy should be allowed'; Thursday). Thank you, Dr Ho.

I have a friend whose mother died when he and his brother were a few years old. His father's second wife took over the burden of the young family almost immediately. Is any woman prepared for this now?

I also know of a woman who married her late sister's husband soon after her death to take over the care of two young children. She later bore two children of her own and they all live harmoniously together.

Is any woman ready for such an eventuality now?

The point of these real-life vignettes is not to ask why polygamy should be allowed, but how.

No amount of legislation will ensure harmony in a family setting when so many matters may require settling.

Raising and loving children who are not one's own require sacrifices and the indescribable quality of give, give and give. Perhaps, our next family slogan should maintain the 'Stop At Two' format.

Yes, please stop at... two wives if the birth rate does not go up.

Will my wife nail me to the wall when she reads this? No, because I stopped at one.

Chen Sen Lenn

Forget impractical polygamy, lower cost of raising kids

MORAL or ideological arguments aside, demographics do not support the wide practice of polygamy ('Why polygamy should be allowed'; Thursday). The latest census states that there are 974 men for every 1,000 women. Even if we allow for those who would wish to remain single, there may not be many women ready to entertain the idea of polygamy.

What to do then? Well, the demographics would have to be changed drastically if polygamy were to take root here. Singapore would have to take in more female immigrants.

But if the purpose of accepting these immigrants is to have them serve as stay-at-home second or third wives to Singaporean men, it is very likely we would succeed in attracting only women who are not very educated or urbanised, thereby rendering their integration a big problem.

Moreover, as male citizens with the best means to afford to be in a polygamous marriage are likely those who are more educated, matching them with wives they cannot connect with on an intellectual level is hardly a recipe for stable marriages.

It is unlikely that educated modern women in foreign countries would choose to live in Singapore by playing second or third fiddle to their Singaporean husbands. It is also unlikely that educated Singaporean men will want to marry poorly educated women from foreign countries.

Given the above, decriminalising polygamy would most likely see only an insignificant number of polygamous marriages.

So rather than resort to wayward and impractical ways to raise our fertility rate by complicating our social make-up, we would be better served by continuing to think of more ways to make raising children more affordable.

Jack Chew Yong

Marriage is about love too - not just making babies

DR ANDY Ho's commentary ('Why polygamy should be allowed'; Thursday) raises deeper questions about marriage and society without adequately addressing them.

The main reason for revisiting the issue, it seems, is the seemingly innocuous idea that decriminalising polygamy 'could well be the key to ending our baby dearth'.

But Dr Ho ignores a pertinent question: Is marriage subservient to our economic needs (in this context, producing more babies), or are there deeper philosophical-moral principles about monogamous marriage worth preserving, even at the expense of our fertility rate?

The very suggestion that raising the fertility rate is good grounds for permitting polygamy conceives (pun intended) the woman's primary role in marriage as a baby-making one, a stand many married career women are likely to resent.

If raising the fertility rate were the main objective, there is nothing to stop governments from abolishing marriage and its attendant civil rights.

Let consenting adults live with multiple partners and reproduce as freely as they please because this would logically produce far more babies.

Who will take care of the resultant children? Surely there will be those adults really in love who will live together and provide a family for them.

This would be the logical result, if not for a further consideration which Dr Ho's column does not address: whether there is any intrinsic worth in monogamous marriage that surpasses mere economic thinking.

In other words, is marriage about love before it is about sex and babies? Nowhere does married love feature in Dr Ho's commentary, which reduces marriage to a purely economic institution.

Dr Ho perhaps reasonably proves that monogamous marriages are not necessarily more stable or less abusive than polygamous ones, and how these stereotypes are often a consequence of anti-polygamy laws.

But this reasoning proves nothing more than the fact that polygamy is possibly stable and non-abusive; it avoids discussion of fundamental principles.

It shows us that polygamy can work, but does not prove that polygamy is morally acceptable or right. Neither does telling us that South African President Jacob Zuma has four wives and the French President's wife Carla Bruni supports polygamy, for that matter.

Michael Cyssel Wee

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