Commentary: Are university-educated women in Singapore asking too much for marriage? No
Almost one in five female university grads in their 40s is single. Three such women tell Tracy Lee why.
SINGAPORE: Every decade, the unveiling of the latest Singapore Population Census data holds some delicious morsels of information of who we are as a nation.
The latest 2020 iteration surveyed 150,000 households. One finding that jumped out at me was singlehood becoming more common among males with lower educational qualifications, and among females with higher educational qualifications.
More specifically, 21.1 per cent of men aged 40 to 49 who did not complete secondary school were single in 2020, compared with 12.3 per cent of men in the same age group who went to university.
Similarly, 8.7 per cent of women aged 40 to 49 who did not complete secondary school were single in 2020, but 18.7 per cent of women in this age group who went to university were single – a figure that was roughly the same 10 years ago.
READ: Slowest decade of population growth in Singapore since independence: Census 2020
According to the book The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture by anthropologists Jerome Barkow and John Tooby and psychologist Leda Cosmides, characteristics that women link to high mate value include economic status, willingness to invest in relationships, security, and control of resources.
So it is not difficult to see why men who only completed primary school and may be more likely to have lower paying jobs, remain unattached. Especially in a country like Singapore where cost of living is high, and where the economy is driven by high-knowledge industries such as finance, info-communications, and value-added manufacturing.
Factor in the sky-high cost of housing, cars, and raising children who need tuition to survive the system – it’s no wonder there are so many dual-career couples. In fact, they form the largest group among married couples, increasing from 47.1 per cent in 2010 to 52.5 per cent in 2020.
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ENTER THE EDUCATED WOMAN
Given how expensive and competitive life in Singapore is, you would think a university-educated career woman would have sky-high mate value. She’d be in the best position to help foot the bills, teach the children heuristic math models and give their partners helpful career advice and contacts.
But no – one in five university-educated women in their 40s is single. What gives? Are they too picky, too busy, too independent, too intimidating?
Since quite a few of my girlfriends fall into the “single, tertiary-educated 40-something careerwoman” demographic, I reached out to three of them for insights.
Media consultant Hwee, who’s 48 and in a long-term relationship (neither she nor her partner wish to get married), admits she can be hard to handle even though she never had trouble getting dates, or entering a series of long-term relationships.
“Since my 20s, I’ve had guys tell me that I’m too outspoken, too independent, too intimidating,’’ adding that while she’s mostly “fun to be with, low-maintenance and chill” she still ended up in big arguments with past boyfriends over ideological differences and broke up with them.
“One said if we were to get married, I’d have to convert to his religion. Another said he would get married only if we had kids, knowing full well I didn’t want any. Then he got an overseas posting, but there was no way I was going to give up my job to move with him if we weren’t getting married.”
“Yet another was all for my career, except that he enjoyed gloating over how much more money he made than me,” she recalls.
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It’s something she can’t help, she says. “If I do encounter b*******, I call it out. I don’t see why I have to defer to someone who’s clearly wrong, unreasonable, or idiotic,’’ she says emphatically.
“Maybe I’ve been unlucky in love? Too unwilling to compromise? Bad at picking the right kind of guy? Missed some invisible ‘critical deadline’ for marrying by 35?” she muses.
One guy she went on a couple of dinners with told her point blank she was too smart for her own good.
“He said I was good company but it was hard for him to imagine being in a relationship with me. He said I was better off dating foreigners who could ‘tahan outspoken women’.”
“Can you imagine that comment came from a top lawyer in his 50s? So if even smart, successful, outspoken, older men are intimidated by me, what about the average dude?” she wonders.
GIVING UP TOO MUCH?
But dig deeper and you find a whole host of other concerns. Women like Hwee earn a good keep, they have apartments and are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.
Marriage is about kids at the end of the day, she tells me. And that’s where the biggest rub lies.
Let’s get real about who does the heavy lifting, she says. “I feel in marriage and motherhood, the woman gets the short end of the stick. It can hold back her career, while burdening her with the lion’s share of household responsibilities.”
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At 45, she finally met someone who admires her independent mind and lifestyle but is not about to step into the Registry of Marriages anytime soon.
Dee, a 43-year-old project manager has these exact sentiments – she’s had five long-term relationships but they ended when the men wanted a family.
“Many friends say I should have gotten married, then I will change my mind about having kids at a later stage. I don’t agree. I have also seen my married friends fighting over frivolous things, and going through divorces, and I don’t understand why did they put themselves through this,” she observes.
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She says she doesn’t have an ideal guy, and is open to dating someone who earns less than her – she’s done that before. But she’s had a fair share of the proverbial frogs in the dating scene.
For my educated female friends, dating is a hit and miss in Singapore – they come across angry men on the rebound, nervous wrecks who think women are out to cheat them and the downright weirdos who send pictures of their genitalia.
The sheer tedium of it means many of these women simply go on leading the rich, full lives they’ve always had – working hard, exploring the world for work or play, tending to dogs, cats and plants, and taking up interesting hobbies. Those who enjoy the company of children (without the full responsibilities of parenthood), dote on nieces, nephews and friends’ kids.
But for many, like my friend Melanie, a senior advertising executive in her early 40s, poor relationships in her past have made it very clear what she won’t settle for.
Are her standards unreasonably high? No, she says and proceeds to give me a list.
- Not abusive and no cheaters
- Ideally two to five years older than me
- Have spent time / worked overseas
- Decent looking (let's get real... there is only one Robert Downey Junior and one Hugh Jackman in this world, and they are both taken)
- Is financially self-sufficient/stable
- Loves and respects his parents (but no mummy's boy please)
- Willing to have open conversations, not afraid to laugh at himself and is fairly sociable.
- He must be able to get along with my friends. Oh, and it’s important that he has his own friends too
- Confident, not the jealous type, willing to give me space
- Is well spoken and carries himself well
- Able to accept that I love my job, and leave me to it
Will she accept that potential dates may find this a high bar and so she may be forever single?
“If it doesn’t happen, it’s fine. No one will die. I’d rather be single and happy, than attached but irritated.”
Tracy Lee is a freelance writer who writes about food, travel, fashion and beauty.
Editor's note: The headline has been edited to better reflect the substance of the Commentary.