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Op-ed: So, got boyfriend yet?

The dating game is hard anywhere, but in Malaysia, societal and family pressures make it even more exasperating. Here's a look at what single women (and men) are up against

By Jamie Khoo | Published: 23 Oct 2014

Got boyfriend yet?
Photo: Hongqi Zhang/Dreamstime

Renee is a family friend who lives in a small house an hour outside the city and spends her days creating magnificent art. In her early twenties, she held a high-flying job with the United Nations, lived in London, drove a sports car, had beautiful, long hair and was, by her own admission, “almost promiscuous!”

One day, she decided to pack it all in, cut her hair short, return to KL and live in her parents’ garage while she plotted her next move. This evolved into a lifelong decision to become an artist, live on her own and remain single.

Renee is now in her sixties, living a life that most girls in this part of the world have been taught to fervently avoid – for how could a woman remain unmarried?

Just writing that last sentence makes me feel like I’m composing a manual for women in the 1920s. It sounds so ridiculous, but let’s not kid ourselves. Millions of women today may champion independence (Career! Interests! Personal space!), yet there remains a subplot to the story, particularly here in Asia, where marriage is still considered central to a girl’s identity. Outwardly, Asian societies are rapidly modernising and opening up to new ideas, however traditional expectations and cultural values still largely dictate the form and flow of our relationships.

My own life abounds with stories about my marital status. It also provides an endless topic of discussion for my family, who always look upon me, the only single girl in my generation of cousins, with a slight air of pity.

Every Chinese New Year is fraught with awkward conversations. As aunts, uncles and married cousins hand out ang pows, they can’t resist saying, with a patronizing lilt, “Aren’t you embarrassed to still be accepting ang pows?” or “This is the last year that I give you ang pow, okay? Must find a boyfriend, lah!” I wonder what amuses them more – my accepting their RM10 red packets, or the fact that I’m still so stoically single.

On another occasion, a relative asked my parents why they had spent so much money on my education. “After all, she’s just going to get married, wat,” she said.

And when I get married, what then? I’ll no longer be my own person, not really. Among many Chinese families, there’s still the thought that once a daughter is married, she “belongs” to her husband’s family. This might seem archaic, but we need only look to major festive holidays to see the truth in this. A woman is often expected to spend the first day of Chinese New Year with her husband’s family, for example; she visits her own family only on the second day.

Yes, things are changing and there’s more flexibility now in what people choose to do (some leave the country during holidays and do their own thing); but for now, this is more the exception than the norm.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s filial piety, an unquestionably significant part of Asian culture. In some families, a child never has the chance to leave the nest completely and parents always have the last word in their lives and relationships. It’s not unusual for many Malaysians to still live with their parents well past their wedding day and the birth of their own children. Sometimes, it’s not so much a choice as an obligation. Friends report horrifying stories of mothers-in-law who wreak havoc on their marriage because they believe they still have total jurisdiction over what their children (and therefore, spouses and grandchildren) do. Others have endless tales about the overwhelming family pressure to marry quickly in case they become too old to have children, or because it isn’t proper to be seen in the frequent company of a man who isn’t your husband or your relative. This usually results in couples rushing into marriage and parenthood at a very young age, often before they’re ready. Could tales such as these perhaps account for Malaysia’s rising divorce rate? Statistics from the Syariah Judiciary Department Malaysia state that, between 2004 and 2012, the number of divorces among Muslim couples rose by 2.3 times, and 2.7 times among non-Muslim couples. With 56,760 recorded divorces in 2012, this averages out to one divorce every 10 minutes.

Despite this, the number of marriages has also increased. It seems, after all that, the ultimate destination for an Asian girl is still the wedding. Having a partner doesn’t seem to be good enough. If you’ve been seeing someone for a while, relatives start haranguing you about marriage. “Why you don’t want to get married?” they demand, sounding almost offended that you haven’t walked down the aisle yet. “Faster, lah. I’m waiting for you to belanja me (treat me to) your wedding dinner.”

And these wedding dinners? Obnoxiously lavish affairs that have become more social spectacle than true celebration of what a marriage is really about. In most instances, the married couple won’t even know half the room; they’re all guests of their parents.

This seems an apt metaphor for this whole business of relationships and marriage – that they’re more about what it’ll look like to our enormous extended Asian families, than about the sincere connection between two people committed to a life together.

It’s also not enough to (finally) get married. There’s little appreciation for personal space in Asia, as family members make it their business to enquire after intimate details about the person you’re marrying – where he works, what car he drives, what his father does.

They will most definitely want to know your partner’s race. “Chinese, ah?” is inevitably among the first three questions I’m asked. In Malaysia, racial politics extend to our personal lives. We might think that we’re beyond all this, that we’re accepting and “muhibbah”, but we all know that every family quietly hopes that their children will marry someone within the same race. In such cases, marrying a person of another race would be seen as being beneath them or even, “a waste”.

I still hear stories today, in modern KL, of an Indian mother refusing to step out of the kitchen as long as her son’s Chinese girlfriend is in the living room; of Chinese/Malay couples being forced to break up because their parents don’t approve of interracial marriage; or of biracial children being subject to racist comments from both sides of the family.

We might think it’s easy enough to just stand up for what we really want and for whom we love, but sadly, I hear more about people caving in to the demands of their families than staying loyal to their hearts.

The greatest irony in all of this is that the very people who have nagged me about finding a husband have often had the unhappiest marriages I’ve seen. I wonder if perhaps they’re trying to live a vicarious romance through me, or if they’re so entrenched in these age-old customs and habits that they just don’t know any other way of living.

But there is another way of living – it is Renee, alone in her small house, creating art, painting her toenails in two colours, and driving into the city sometimes to see friends and the theatre. It’s a life that stays true to what she wants. It is – in the midst of all the dating, attachment and marriage scenarios constantly flashing before me as the only way of being – the happiest alternative I know.

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of ELLE Malaysia.

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