No box around families - they are all different

The Health Promotion Board advisory sparked quarrels about the notion of family. Given this context, how should we define family?

I don't think we should draw a box and say families are defined as X,Y,Z. You can't pigeonhole family, because if you did, then you're sure to leave someone out.

There is a conventional idea of father, mother, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, but if you think about it, who is family?

Family comprises the people around you, the people you were raised with, the people who brought you up, who are there for you. They are your loved ones. You don't define them by sexual orientation, race or religion.

There is one camp that says you cannot be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender)-friendly and still be pro-family.

I recognise that everyone has different views. Both camps are very passionate in how they feel and the views expressed at the moment are extreme views. You will probably never get these two groups of people to reach middle ground.

But I don't think that is any reflection of what the majority of Singaporeans think. Some voices are more strident than others, and these are the voices that we hear.

So does this affect the family as a building block of society?

That's thinking too much into what family is. To me, simplistically, family are the people who surround you and, in most cases, love you.

So, not at all. Everyone is born into a family, no matter what. Whether or not there are differences in views, it doesn't affect what the core of family is. You will always have a mother and father.

As a parent (with publisher husband Goh Eck Kheng, 58) of two teenagers, how have you approached this issue with them?

We teach them that mutual respect is important. To remember that: I may not agree with them but that does not mean I condemn their views. They are fully entitled to their own views.

We've raised our kids to be colour-blind and sexual-orientation-blind. I don't think they've ever thought of themselves as being Chinese, or seen their friends as being Malay, Indian, English or Chinese, and they've never seen someone as being straight or gay.

But the thing that we've always taught them - and this is within the confines of our personal faith (as Methodists) - is that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Notions of marriage seem to be changing. Anecdotally, there seems to be more infidelity. Has there been a shift in values?

At heart, we still have very traditional Asian values. Sex before marriage and having a child out of wedlock, infidelity - these are still frowned upon.

That's why single mothers in Singapore still don't get an easy time.

But there seems to be greater acceptance of divorce. In a recent Institute of Policy Studies study, only 43 per cent of respondents felt it was always wrong.

I was surprised that it was as conservative as it was. People still cling to the more traditional values of being married.

I don't think divorce rates have really gone up if you look at these over the last few years. They even went down last year.

The basis for divorce I can't tell - it could be unreasonable behaviour, incompatibility, infidelity. I don't think I can say there is an increase in couples being unfaithful.

What I was more concerned about was that the ones who got divorced were those married between five and 10 years. What is important is being better prepared for marriage before you go into it.

When you're really prepared to stick it out with a person, through thick and thin, if you're in a secure marriage, you will be able to resist temptation.

Will TV shows like American series Desperate Housewives affect attitudes towards marriage?

It has not happened yet, but in a generation to come, two generations, with the power of the media, stuff we used to think as wrong, we may think is more acceptable. Especially to the younger folk, they may think that's the norm.

But if we have strong family values, we will take a cue from that. What's holding us together in our society is really family values - a sense of what is right and wrong within the context of family. If we lose that, we lose our moral compass.

So we talk openly with our kids about them getting married, having children. But we say: "We don't want children before you get married; if you have underage sex, you'll end up going to jail, so don't do things like that."

Again, the influences are there, so it's incumbent on parents to set the OB markers. If we bow out of that responsibility, there'll be a vacuum and something has to fill that - that's where the weakness lies.

You once thought you would never want to get married. Why?

In my 20s, I said, "Forget it, there's no way I would get married", because I didn't want kids. The most irreversible decision you can ever make is having kids.

Are children necessary for setting up families?

I wouldn't say that you must have kids to make a family work.

There are some couples who may choose not to have kids. There are some couples who can't have kids, and they may really want to. I'm very mindful of that.

Just because a family unit doesn't have kids doesn't make it less of a family unit than anyone else's. I don't think Families for Life will draw a box and say families are defined as X,Y,Z.

What's constructive is for Families for Life to provide ideas and avenues for families to shore up themselves, and we leave it to each individual to define what his own family is.

And what has it been like bringing up two children?

Having kids is probably the best thing I ever did, next to having married my husband.

I've really enjoyed it, and I surprise myself because I was never the world's most maternal person.

If you gave me a baby or a puppy dog, my preference is a dog!

Do your kids know that?

Yes. But they know my sentiments about dogs!

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