Let’s Celebrate! Your body, your rights!

I do … no, I don’t

By RASHVINJEET S. BEDI and HARIATI AZIZAN

sunday@thestar.com.my

There was a time when getting married at a certain age was part and parcel of life. Now, it seems, more Malaysians are delaying making their marriage vows for a variety of reasons. YOU finish your SPM or STPM and get shipped off to college where you spend up to five years to get a degree. With that paper qualification in hand, clinching the right job is next on the to-do list. Then it is time to purchase that dream car and dream house. Only when you feel secure enough do you start thinking of settling down and getting married, with the 2.5 children target as part of the package.

This is the path set for most Malaysians, to be achieved usually before they even turn 30. However, going by the findings in a recent survey, many are falling off the track in their race to achieve it all, with the marriage bit of the “plan” taking a back seat to the other aspirations. A survey by the National Population and Family Develop­ment Board (LPPKN) on population trends between 2000 and 2007 revealed that Malaysians are now marrying later, or not at all. The average age at first marriage for men and women rose from 25.5 and 22.0 years respectively in 1970 to 28.6 and 25.1 years in 2000. Meanwhile, the number of those who had never been married between the ages of 25 and 29 years had more than doubled for women from 13% to 29.8%, while for men it rose from 32% to 54.9%. The survey also indicated that the average marrying age of Malaysians would increase to 33 years by 2015. This, according to the LPPKN, is causing a decline in the fertility rate of Malaysians, which will have an impact on the country’s population growth and workforce in the long run. The findings, not surprisingly, caused some commotion on both sides of the fence.

Some factions implied “choosiness” and “over-ambition” among single women as the root of the “problem”. Others like Abby de Vries, programme officer at the All Women’s Action Society (Awam), objected to the fuss. “This sounds a lot like that tired, shoe-worn scare tactic deployed against women, warning them that infertility and spinsterhood await them if they continue on this ‘self-centred’ and ‘choosy’ path of work and career advancement. “Isn’t it curious that although the study showed that men too are marrying later, it was posited as a women’s problem? The sub-text is that if you’re a woman, your education and career aren’t as important as getting married and making babies,” she points out. Empower executive director Maria Chin Abdullah concurs. “This indirectly reinforces the notion that woman’s natural inclination is towards making a home for her children and husband. In their eyes, a woman’s ability to maintain a home while pursuing a career threatens the family structure as it means fewer babies,” she says.

Career comes first This phenomenon, however, is not confined to Malaysia alone. Various reports indicate that all around the world, people are getting married much later. Consultant psychologist Valerie Jacques does not believe that Malaysians are delaying marriage on purpose. She thinks that most people are busy focusing on a career, which leaves them very little time for building relationships. “With little time to build a relationship and share, people are not certain about their family life. So family life and marriage end up being something in the mind or at the back of the mind as the worklife balance is affected,” she says, adding that marriage decisions and relationships take a longer time to develop. Prof Dr Rohany Nasir, a lecturer in counselling psychology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), agrees with Jacques and believes that people are generally becoming more focused on their careers. “Careers are more demanding these days and the new grads would like to prove themselves in the working world,” she says.

At 38 and still single, Raja Azwa Petra is already far beyond the average age at which Malaysians are expected to get married. “When I first started working, what was more important was that I was in a job I believed in, not just one that paid a salary at the end of the month,” says this human rights officer at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner who is now based in Geneva, Switzerland. “So I focused all my effort into finding the area that I wanted to work in.” Marriage is still in her sights, she adds, but it will be on her terms. “For me, marriage is a case of meeting the right person. I do not have a plan to get married at a particular age. If you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you should be able to do so at any age.”

Filmmaker and actor Mien Ly, who is 29 and also still single, feels that the findings should be celebrated as it shows how women are getting better educated and having wider horizons. “It is a sign that Malaysia is heading towards a more civilised society. Women are getting more empowered to decide on issues pertaining to their lives and their bodies, which is a basic right for any human being, regardless of gender, sexuality, educational background, and abilities. It should not be treated like bad news,” she says.

Counselling lecturer Assoc Prof Dr Saedah Abdul Ghani of Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia believes that the higher ratio of women than men getting university education (an average of 65:35) is making it hard for women to find someone who is compatible with them. The situation causes unwillingness among women to marry down or for men to marry up, says Assoc Prof Dr Rumaya Juhari of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Universiti Putra Malaysia. “For women, marrying someone with a lower social economic status is not appealing enough, while men fear losing the title ‘King of the household’ due to social stigma,” she says. And she is right: according to the survey, the main reason quoted by women for marrying late is the lack of the right candidate (40%). However, as Raja Azwa points out, getting married is a question of choice. “What is more important is doing it for the right reason. You should not be forced into it or think it is the only option you have. It is more dangerous if you marry the wrong person and have children. More importantly, marriage is not only for having children. You can still decide not to have children when you are married,” she shares. The right person for her, she adds, is someone whom she can trust and love. “It depends on compatibility. It should be someone who can get me, appreciate me and accept me for me. Other factors are secondary.”

Economic worries Then there is the simple yet important factor of economics. As the survey shows, financial problem is the main reason men marry late or don’t marry at all. This is exacerbated by the rising costs of living and raising a family. “A lot of people want to be stable before taking the plunge into marriage,” Dr Saedah highlights. With prices of goods and services increasing all the time, starting a family can be an expensive affair. Even the marriage ceremonies alone cost a lot of money. Faris Maswan, 31, for instance, wants to be financially stable before he marries his girlfriend of nine years. They had plans to get married a few years ago but postponed it because of financial concerns. In fact, Faris does not see himself getting hitched within the next five years. He says he has just bought a house and there is not much money left for a wedding. He could take a loan for the wedding but he does not want to go down that road. “When I get married, naturally I would want to start a family and I would want the best for the kids. I am barely surviving now, so it would be unfair to the kids,” he says. Faris says that only about 20% of his friends are married while the rest are still bachelors. “People are getting scared because of the economic situation,” he says.

No to marriage. There are also those who have closed the door completely on the institution. Linda Tan*, 27, does not believe in marriage because of personal experience. Her parents are divorced, and she has seen the marriages of the parents of many friends break down. She says some of her friends’ parents are still together but they don’t sleep in the same room. For Tan, marriage means that you are obligated to love someone for the rest of your life. And this obligation only takes out the sincerity of everything that you do, she says. Tan has been dating her current boyfriend for nine years and says that things are fine the way they are. “I don’t see how putting a contract will improve things. Love is not a contract,” she says, adding that having a child together would be the next step for her.

According to Dr Rumaya, people who prefer to be single don’t want to get married because they want to “enjoy” life. In some cases it means travelling the world, while for others it would be the freedom to do anything with anyone at any time without strings attached. Dr Rumaya says there are also the “push” factors which include fear of commitment, fear of marital failure and bad experiences in past relationships.

Hamid Husin*, 35, shares Tan’s cynical view as he has seen some of his close friends suffer after going through ugly divorces. “I don’t want to be part of this. It’s more of a trap and your hands are cuffed. Most marriages end up in loveless shells,” he opines. Hamid, however, believes that marriage is a beautiful thing but many people give up their dreams and ambitions because of it.

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