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Research Project on

Transnational Labour Migration and the Family in Southeast Asia

Principal Investigator : Shirlena Huang
Department of Geography
National University of Singapore

Collaborators Lai Ah Eng
Institute of Policy Studies; Singapore

Paulin Straughan
Department of Sociology
National University of Singapore

Brenda Yeoh
Department of Geography
National University of Singapore

Funded by: The National University of Singapore


In this age of globalisation where borders are increasingly permeable, core social institutions such as the family are constantly being reshaped by larger economic, social and political forces, emanating not just from within but beyond national boundaries. It is thus important that the dynamics which shape the family – notions of what constitutes the ‘normal’ family, motherhood/fatherhood/childhood, spousal relations, and the socialisation of children – are not viewed in isolation but constantly re-evaluated in the light of broader, transnational structures that shape experience and meaning.

Empirically, the aim of the study is broadly conceived as an investigation of how the Singapore family has been affected by and has responded to the intersecting forces of labour market restructuring, the accompanying social changes, and state ideologies and policies which influence familial relations in direct and indirect ways. It also examines how families of overseas domestic helpers in the Philippines (re)define and (re)negotiate familial roles in the domestic arena – a sphere generally associated with women rather than men – in the prolonged absence of wives and mothers.

The project also aims to investigate the conceptual implications of how specific roles in the family, such as fatherhood/motherhood/childhood, are being redefined and renegotiated in different family structures in both labour sending and receiving countries to enable cross-cultural comparisons.

In terms of policy implications, it analyses state policies of labour sending and receiving countries to draw out their direct and indirect impacts on the family.

Empirical material for the study was collected through a representative sample of 1,000 households in Singapore; a small-scale survey of 120 households in the Philippines which had had at least one female member who had worked as a foreign domestic worker in Singapore in the last two years; half a dozen focus group discussions with married women (both working and non-working); and 36 in-depth personal interviews with current and return Filipino migrants, and their family members.

In terms of the impact of labour-related travel (whether as short-term postings, contract work, or as part of overseas business trips) on the family:

Travel abroad as part of work is becoming more common for breadwinning family members (mainly male members but also including female members) given the pressures of globalising workplaces.

While family relations need to be negotiated to adapt to the increasing transnational mobility of these family members, there has been no significant shift of the gender division of labour, and the domestic sphere remains very much women’s responsibility.

On the one hand, the pressures of globalisation have led to more dual-income households, and this has resulted in domestic work increasingly being passed on to foreign domestic workers. While Singapore women have gained new opportunities to commit themselves more fully to the workplace, they also face new challenges of how to deal with the domestic front. One key challenge identified is the struggle that Singapore women face in redefining their identities as homemakers and mothers vis-à-vis the foreign domestic worker.

On the other hand, some Singapore women have chosen to leave the workforce and become full-time homemakers because of their husbands’ increased absence due to demands of the workplace. The research has established that the homemaking identities that these women take on in this age of globalisation are no longer the traditional identities of homemakers of the past, as is commonly assumed. Instead, today’s homemakers make specific plans to re-invent themselves in many ways: to return to work once the children are older, and to reconstruct their spousal relations towards equality, while at the same time struggling with the loss of an “economic identity”, fears of their husbands’ infidelity, and a sense of social isolation.

From the point of view of the Filipino family, the research has found that Filipino women who take on work as domestic workers in Singapore face similar and constant pressures to reconfigure their identities as mothers, daughters, and sisters, not only in relation to their families in the Philippines but also vis-à-vis the families into which they are inserted in Singapore. Additionally, family members ‘left behind’ in the Philippines also have to (re)negotiate new gender roles and identities for themselves.

In terms of marital satisfaction and family ideology in Singapore:
There is empirical support for a “normal family” ideology in Singapore. However, when lived family lives deviates from “normal family” ideology, marital satisfaction suffers as women continue to bear the bulk of domestic responsibilities despite paid work activities.
Wives who enjoy a higher level of marital satisfaction are those (a) who uphold traditional gender ideology; and (b) whose husbands are more involved in domestic chores. Conversely, work has a significant impact on marital satisfaction, with long working hours as well as husbands’ overseas business travel leading to lower marital satisfaction on the part of the their wives.
The project also validated the two important measurement scales of gender ideology and marital satisfaction in the sociological study of family.


Lai Ah Eng and Shirlena Huang (forthcoming, 2003), “Homemaking: Sequencing as a Work-Family Strategy among Married Women in Singapore”, in Thang Leng Leng and Yu Wei Hsin (eds.), Old Challenges, New Strategies? Women, Work and Family in Changing Asia, Brill Academic Publishers: Leiden.

Maruja M.B. Asis, Shirlena Huang and Brenda S.A. Yeoh (forthcoming, 2004), “When the light of the home is abroad: Female migration and the Filipino Family”, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, Special Issue on “Southeast Asian Women in the Context of Transnational Migration”.

Theresa Devasahayam, Shirlena Huang and Brenda S.A. Yeoh (guest editors) (Forthcoming, July 2004), Special issue on “Southeast Asian Women in the Context of Transnational Migration”, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography.




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