June 16, 2007

The Economist: The Frayed Knot (1)

First in a series.

In late May, there was an interesting article in The Economist about marriage and divorce in America. The main thesis of the article is that "As the divorce rate plummets at the top of American society and rises at the bottom, the widening 'marriage gap' is breeding inequality." The article has a lot of information that is pertinent to both Islam and marriage and divorce trends among Malays and Muslims here in Singapore (and worldwide), so I thought I'd share a number of the more interesting parts of the article. Due to the length of the original article, I'll be splitting this post up into several segments, insha'allah.

There is a widening gulf between how the best- and least-educated Americans approach marriage and child-rearing. Among the elite (excluding film stars), the nuclear family is holding up quite well. Only 4% of the children of mothers with college degrees are born out of wedlock. And the divorce rate among college-educated women has plummeted. Of those who first tied the knot between 1975 and 1979, 29% were divorced within ten years. Among those who first married between 1990 and 1994, only 16.5% were.

At the bottom of the education scale, the picture is reversed. Among high-school dropouts, the divorce rate rose from 38% for those who first married in 1975-79 to 46% for those who first married in 1990-94. Among those with a high school diploma but no college, it rose from 35% to 38%. And these figures are only part of the story. Many mothers avoid divorce by never marrying in the first place. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among women who drop out of high school is 15%. Among African-Americans, it is a staggering 67%.

Clearly, education is a significant factor in the likelihood of whether a couple will get divorced or not. As the side graphic shows, even the difference between attending college vs. obtaining a Bachelor's degree is significant. In fact, divorce rates for couples married between 1990-94 are almost equal for women who went to college but didn't graduate vs. women who never went to college at all. Less significantly, women who had obtained a Bachelor's degree and those women who obtained a post-graduate degree have an almost equal percentage for divorce. In other words, it doesn't really matter whether a woman has a Bachelor's degree or a post-graduate degree, that couple's divorce rate will be roughly 15-17%. However, without that Bachelor's degree in her hands (notice that the study focuses on the woman's level of education, not the man's), the divorce rate jumps dramatically to about 36% for women who've gone to college but didn't get their degree, 38% for those women who've only gotten a high school diploma, and a whopping 46% for women who are high school dropouts. So, women should be strongly, strongly encouraged to complete their college degree prior to marriage if a society is to keep the divorce rate down.

Now, unfortunately, Statistics Singapore, which normally analyzes everything (and does a wonderful job at it), doesn't have any stats on divorce rates with level of education. They do have some of those statistics with regard to marriage, and they have divorce rates with the occupations of the bride and groom, but neither of those sets will work in this case. So, we'll look at several other sets of statistics and make our own conclusions.

Some base numbers to keep in mind: Among the resident population, the Malay community makes up 13.64% of the population (per the most recent, 2005, study). The Chinese make up 75.56%, the Indians 8.70% and "Other" (such as us Caucasians) are 2.10%. The number of Muslims in the country make up 14.9% of the country (per the 2000 census). The reason why the Muslim number is higher than the Malay number is because there are a significant number of Muslims who are of other ethnicities. 25.6% of all Indians here are Muslim, as are 22.3% of the "Other" (only 0.3% of all Chinese have become Muslim).

Now, in Singapore, there are two laws by which couples may become married or divorced: the Women's Charter and the Muslim Law Act. Obviously, we're concerned with the latter. In 2003, 2004, and 2005, the percentage of all marriages done under the Muslim Law Act was 17.63%, 18.47%, and 17.18% respectively. Not bad; all three years' percentages are above the percentage of Muslims (14.9%) in the country. We Muslims in Singapore are getting married a little more frequently than people of other religions. The bad news is, we're getting divorced far more often as well. The percentages for divorce under the Muslim Law Act are 32.08%, 29.04% and 27.11% for the same years. Almost twice as many divorces as marriages; that's far too many a number to be comfortable with.

Let's look on the educational side of things. The government splits out the non-student population (aged 15 and older) by their highest qualification obtained and by ethnicity. In 2000, among the Malay community, the number whose highest qualification was a secondary (high school) diploma was 32.1% (compared to the national average of 24.6%). Among those whose highest qualification was a university degree, the Malay community came in at a mere 2.0%, compared to the national average of 11.7% (the Chinese percentage is 12.6, the Indian is 16.5%, and "Other" comes in at 27.5%).

Generally speaking, most Malays in Singapore get through high school, but only 17.8% go on for an Upper Secondary, Polytechnic or University education. This is in contrast to the national average of 32.8% of the country that further their post-high school education.

Moreover, the situation isn't likely to get better any time soon. In 2005, Malays made up 2.48% of the Singapore university students. Remember, Malays make up 13.64% of the population! Compare this to the other ethnic groups: Chinese university students: 81.05% compared to 75.56% of the country; Indian university students: 11.54% compared to 8.70% of the country; and "Other": 4.93% compared to 2.10% of the country.

If the study mentioned in The Economist's article applies to Singapore as much as it applies to the U.S. (and I have no reason to think that it doesn't), then the Malay/Muslim divorce rate in Singapore is likely to remain at a very high rate for many years to come. The Malay/Muslim community in Singapore (and other countries) needs to drum into the heads of Malay/Muslim children - especially girls - that they MUST go on for a university education. Only then, maybe 15-20 years from now, may we see the Muslim divorce rates dropping, insha'allah.

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