Negotiating Work and the Future: Aspirations and Autonomy of Migrant Wives in Singapore

Dr Theodora Lam1

1Asia Research Institute, National University Of Singapore, , Singapore

Feminist and other critical scholars have argued that pathways to integration for marriage migrants are precariously ridden with negotiations around gender, ethnicity, nationality and class within host societies. Drawing on a study of Southeast Asian female marriage migrants in Singapore, this paper makes two arguments. First, it examines the gains and pains that foreign wives are confronted with in taking up paid work. While joining the labour force as waged workers enhances women’s financial status, autonomy and networks, it also recalibrates marital and family relationships. Second, the paper explores women’s aspirations for their own futures in Singapore. While some pursue citizenship papers in order to facilitate rooting themselves in their host country, others choose to retain their original citizenship to keep the door to return migration open.  By drawing on life-story interviews with both paired and unpaired cross-national marriage partners, we foreground the women’s perspectives as they develop new statuses as foreign wives, daughters-in-law, new mothers and wage-earning workers whilst fulfilling their roles as dutiful daughters. At the same time, we highlight their spouses’ reactions and responses – whether facilitating or inhibiting – to their aspirations and strategies for work, as well as to their familial plans for their own future.


Theodora Lam is a Research Fellow at Asia Research Institute, NUS. She obtained her Ph.D. in Geography from NUS and her research interests cover transnational migration, children’s geographies and gender studies. Theodora is currently involved in several multi-country research projects including Child Health and Migrant Parents in Southeast Asia (CHAMPSEA).


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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