Dating in Singapore (part 1)

Singapore has a distinctive dating culture. A great many of the expectations and conventions here parallel those in a major USA city (pop culture and its depiction of dating — a major USA export — probably has something to do with this). But there are a few points of serious contrast between dating conventions and expectations here (as they have shown up in my own experience and that of my friends, at least) and those in the USA. For lack of a better word, the dating culture here is “conservative”. But let me be more specific:

Most single adults live with their parents. This is huge. Singapore is a small island; the supply of real estate is limited. Studio and one-bedroom flats are in the minority (to encourage family-building). And demand is high, with foreign money constantly creating upwards pressure on prices. So housing here is some of the most expensive in the world. Single Singaporeans, furthermore, are not generally eligible for government-subsidized housing until they reach the ripe old age of 35. Most single Singaporeans, accordingly, live with their parents. As one might imagine, this has fairly wide consequences for single living in Singapore. The most obvious upshot: there isn’t much of a hook-up culture amongst locals here (would you really want to take a man back home to your parents’ flat?). But there are more subtle consequences too. For example: those who live with their parents have to take their parents’ schedules and nosiness into account when crafting a social calendar.

Some young and single Singaporeans (especially those who’ve lived or studied abroad) are anxious to change this. They can’t wait to move out, if only they could afford to do so. But a great many, in my experience, are perfectly content to live with their parents. Filial piety is more talked about than embodied here, I think, but this is one way it actually takes shape on this island. You show respect to your parents by living with them well into adulthood. (More cynically: you mooch off of them as long as possible, extracting as much free food, laundry, and child care as you can).

By contrast: I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18. Since then, I’ve spent one summer at their place, and then a random week or so here or there (longest stay of three weeks). Living with my parents now seems unimaginable. I live alone with a hundred square meters to my name, and I prefer to do so. This is not the Singapore way!

PDA is frowned upon. Singapore is, again, a small island. Vigilant and nosey uncles and aunties loom around every corner. And there’s a fairly well-developed call-out culture (fostered especially by STOMP) that keeps smooching on the MRT well within PG bounds. It is, accordingly, rare to find couples feeling each other up in public, even after, say, a night of serious clubbing or drinking.

More generally: though Singapore is a metropolis of 5.3 million, it can feel quite small at times. It is not remotely unusual to take an MRT ride across the island and on that ride to see a handful of familiar faces. So if you don’t want folks to be talking about your dating life, you’d best be careful about what you’re seen doing in public (and with whom). A virtual ban on PDA, for sure, is one aspect of this; but the more general effect, I think, is pressure to be risk-averse and conservative in public behavior. You never know who might be taking a picture of you for STOMP or who might bring up your Sentosa hijinks at work next week.

Clearly delineated gender roles. Gender roles are largely “conservative”. Men are expected to initiate many or most interactions. Men are also expected to pay for everything. Those who breach these rules risk fairly strong disapproval. Women who initiate amorous conversation, for example, will be met with confusion or embarrassment. And men who go Dutch on dates may quickly find themselves without dates. Aberrations amongst younger Singaporeans largely stem from those who have lived abroad or who have spent a lot of time with foreigners (at, e.g., international schools).

One ¬†convention I’ve observed (I don’t fully understand it) is this: when a heterosexual couple holds hands in public, it is often the woman whose hand is on top. It is unclear to me whether this body language has the same meaning here as it might in, say, NYC (there, the partner whose hand is on top is typically leading an outing and when walking stands slightly in front of the other).

Dating without alcohol. Despite Singapore’s liberal alcohol policies (there are virtually no open container laws, and booze is widely available, though expensive), many Singaporeans (especially those who are ethnically Chinese) don’t drink at all. Dates, accordingly, often lack one of the usual sources of social lubrication. Those sprawling and booze-fueled OKCupid first dates that creep into the early morning (common enough in, say, NYC) simply are not a fixture here. Getting to know someone while dating, accordingly, can be a slow and laborious process.

Online dating is frowned upon. Tens of thousands of Singaporeans populate dating sites like OKCupid. But most of them are at least mildly embarrassed to be on there. To resort to online dating is somehow a sign of being desperate (or something like that). And so, frank dialogue about online dating can be difficult to sustain, despite the fact that everyone’s doing it.

National Service. This deserves a post of its own. Every Singaporean man serves two years in the military. This has all sorts of consequences for life here, including an age-skew in the heterosexual dating pool and unique culture of machismo. But that is a topic for another day.

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