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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Globalization

Il/licit Intimacies: Why The State Regulates FDW’s Intimate Lives

In Singapore, Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) on Work Permits are subject to various biopolitical restrictions; namely, restrictions that govern who they can marry and whether they can be pregnant. Briefly, FDWs are subject to the Marriage Restriction Policy, which forbids any migrant worker on a Work Permit from marrying a Singaporean Citizen or Permanent Resident without prior approval from the Ministry of Manpower[1], while the pregnancy restrictions refer to a clause in the terms of the Work Permit which forbids any foreign domestic worker from becoming pregnant. Pregnancy is sufficient grounds for immediate deportation, and domestic workers are subject to compulsory pregnancy screenings biannually to prove they are not pregnant. What explains these biopolitical restrictions and the state’s investment in the policing of private intimacies?

In this essay, I trace through parliamentary debates, newspaper articles, and migrant writings to show how restrictions are informed by a neoliberal philosophy that increasingly informs how we view citizenship, and explore the consequences of these policies. While “neoliberalism” is an increasingly ambiguous word that has become a catchall, I use it in this article to refer to the philosophy that celebrates free market competition, characterized by privatization, individualism, and a shift away from state welfare provision. Citizenship on the other hand is typically conceptualized of as a set of rights and duties one owes to a bounded community, often thought to be the nation-state. When put together, neoliberal citizenship refers to how citizenship is increasingly commodified, thought of in economic rather than in political terms. In the next two sections, I focus on unpacking the two policies mentioned: the Marriage Restriction Policy, and the pregnancy restrictions.

Regulation of Marriage

According to the Ministry of Manpower, migrant workers must “not marry a Singapore citizen or permanent resident in or outside Singapore without approval from MOM” and “not get pregnant or deliver a child in Singapore during the validity if their Work Permit unless they are already married to a Singapore citizen or permanent resident with the approval of MOM” (MOM, n.d.a.). Both restrictions apply “even after their Work Permit is expired, cancelled, or revoked”, and those who breach the policy are permanently banned from Singapore (Singapore Parliament, 1988). Work Permit holders intending to marry a citizen or permanent resident are required to submit a “Marriage Application Form” to the “Work Pass Division (Marriage Screening Section)” in the Ministry of Manpower (MOM, n.d.b.)

For the uninitiated, the existence of an entire section dedicated to adjudicating the legitimacy and thus, legality, of migrant marriages may seem puzzling at best, and absurd or disturbing at worst. The “Marriage Screening Section” illustrates the sheer institutional capacity of state bureaucracy, and the draconian extent to which that is directed towards policing the migrant workers’ intimate lives. This begs the question of why the state is so invested in the project of regulating intimacy, to the point where national resources are diverted towards the creation of public bureaucratic apparatus designed to monitor and enforce the private intimacies of non-national subjects.

Combing through parliamentary debates over the Marriage Restriction Policy, it appears that the restrictions emerged from a desire to “control the population size of Singapore” (Minister of Manpower, 2004). Yet, it is not a simple matter of population size, for Singapore has, in the last few decades, struggled with the problem of a low birth rate. What explains the emergence of a dual vocabulary used to describe the state’s philosophy towards population management – where on the one hand, articulated population restrictions for domestic workers as necessary to avoid the depletion of Singapore’s “limited resources”, while on the other hand, framed the country’s declining population as a serious threat? The answer lies in whom the population is – for “state anxieties over reproduction center not only on rapidly falling fertility rates overall, but more specifically on who exactly is reproducing the nation.” (Yeoh and Chee, 2015).

According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), “the rules are there to discourage and prevent a large pool of unskilled or lower skilled migrant workers from settling here through marriages with Singaporeans” (The New Paper, 2015). Thus, in a neoliberal migration regime, foreign domestic workers are seen as less worthy candidates for citizenship for they are thought to perform “unskilled” labour (even though our perception of domestic work as “unskilled” is often related to the systematic undervaluing of gendered care work).

In adjudicating cases, officials consider factors such as “the economic contributions of the applicants, the ability of the applicants to look after themselves and their family without becoming a burden to the society or state” (The New Paper, 2015). The focus on “economic self-sufficiency” translates into policies that tie the deservingness of marriage to household income. In 2008, The New Paper reported on how a Singaporean Kumar Kanna failed after twenty appeals in four years to obtain permission to marry his girlfriend, Pacita Vallejos Tibayan, a Filipino who had worked in Singapore as a foreign domestic worker. According to Kanna, an MOM officer rejected their application for marriage because his monthly income of $1,700 was deemed too low to support a family. Restrictions to intimacy are thus couched in neoliberal language of economic self-sufficiency, where foreign domestic workers are framed as potential burdens to and parasites of the state. The fear that domestic workers would simply “leech” off state resources is thus invoked to legitimize the institutionalization of government controls over domestic worker’s bodies.

Kanna points to some of these paradoxes and internal contradictions when he explained to The New Paper, The government keeps encouraging us to get married and have babies. I want to do that, but the government is also standing in my way. Unlike others who cannot find a partner, I have already found my love, but I am unable to be with her due to certain unclear rules from MOM.” NMP Steve Chia also pointed to this acute contradiction when he made the case in parliament, “In view of Singapore’s declining population, is it not a helpful addition to the population when we have some new children being born for the sake of Singapore?” (2004) However, it is important to note that the NMP was not advocating for a revision of the marriage restrictions per se, but making a more limited argument that called for leniency in exceptional cases – particularly in appealing for the children born to Singaporeans and former Work Permit holders.

In defending marriage restrictions, the need to “protect” Singaporean citizens was often cited as a justification for limiting marriages. The Minister for Manpower Mr. Hawazi Daipi argued, “we have to protect the interests of Singaporeans… imagine if every other ex-work permit holder were to marry a Singaporean, we would not be able to manage our social services and social system. Singapore is a small place and we have limited resources” (2004). Thus, foreign domestic workers are viewed as threatening Others whose inclusion in the body politic undermines the value of Singaporean citizenship itself. If marriage is a pathway to inclusion, then it needs to be regulated such that only valuable bodies gain access to citizenship: the Minister put it mostly clearly when he explained, “Marriage approvals are given to work permit holders who have skills or qualifications of value to Singapore” (Singapore Parliament, 1988).

Biopolitical restrictions on issues of marriage and pregnancy under Work Permit regulations are thus designed to ensure foreign domestic workers’ transience by excluding them from having any connective ties to Singapore once their employment sojourn ends (Tan, 2014). The marriage restrictions represent how the state attempts to systematically deny “undesirable” migrants from pathways to citizenship, circumventing constitutional laws governing the transmission of citizenship by effectively banning the mechanisms altogether. Article 120 of Singapore’s Constitution provides for the acquisition of through one of four means: by birth, by descent, by registration, or by naturalization (Tan, 2014). Citizenship is accorded broadly on the principles of jus soli (by birth) or jus sanguinis (by descent), although on a limited basis (Tan, 2014). Crucially, unlike Western countries like the United States or Canada: “Singapore does not subscribe to the principle that a foreigner, by virtue of having worked and lived for an extended period in Singapore, acquires a moral or legal entitlement to rights of membership, including citizenship” (Tan, 2014). Thus, once typical grounds of citizenship (residence, birth, descent, naturalization) are systematically denied to foreign domestic workers, the state is able to protect the exclusionary boundaries of citizenship through the technologies of alienage itself.

In defending the Marriage Restriction Policy, the Minister Mr. Lee Yock Suan argued that foreign workers “Under normal immigration controls, they would not have been allowed into Singapore for extended periods of stay, let alone given opportunities to sink roots through marriages with Singaporeans. Their purpose here is to seek employment and they are allowed in on a short-term basis as part of a revolving pool of foreign workers” (1988). Foreign domestic workers are expected to be grateful for opportunities to enter Singapore, where the ability to “sink roots” is framed as a privilege that only the state can confer, rather than an independent choice the domestic worker is able to exercise through private intimate arrangements. Because marriage confers a pathway to potential inclusion through citizenship, it has to be subjected to the gaze of the state in order to prevent “unwanted” migrants from becoming citizens. In this way, the law “pre-empts their presence in Singapore from becoming a site for contestation over rights, privileges and belonging” (Tan, 2014: 3). Thus, laws governing private intimacies “are aimed to prevent the permanent influx of those who are not good candidates for citizenship” (Constable, 2019: 14). The policy can hence be seen has an example of a gatekeeping mechanism that justifies exclusion, maintains inequalities, and enforces status hierarchies. In effect, the law generates a hierarchy of marriages, tiered according to migrant workers’ relative potential economic contribution to Singapore and projected dependency on the state.

Regulation of Pregnancy

The bodies of foreign domestic workers in Singapore are also directly subjected to state surveillance: domestic workers have to attend compulsory medical examinations for pregnancy, where a failure to comply results in deportation.

Prior to 2011, employers were responsible for maids who violated work permit conditions; thus, employers were liable to forfeiting a $5,000 security bond in the event that their maids were found pregnant. This security bond arguably explained why employers felt entitled to micromanaging the intimate life of domestic workers, for it was most often cited as the reason why employers were reluctant to give domestic workers a day off (MOM, 2011). Employers associated time off from home with deviance, because it meant that there was a small window of opportunity in which maids were no longer subject to employer’s perpetual surveillance. Employers were worried that rest days would facilitate the development of “unwanted intimacies”, imagining that domestic workers would spend that extra time getting a boyfriend and thus, lead to unwanted pregnancies that would cause them to forfeit their security deposit.

In effect, the security bond transferred part of the onus of regulating the law from the state to the employer, where employers enacted and reproduced state power even in the private sphere of the household. The bond also had the effect of infantilizing domestic workers, for it placed them under the “ward” of employers, reducing them to vulnerable subjects incapable for making their own decisions that required the protective gaze of employers. The bond arguably created a similar sense of “ownership” amongst employers on ”their” domestic workers, thereby commodifying the domestic worker as the property of employers. In this way, domestic workers came to be viewed not as fully autonomous human beings capable of making their own choices, but are instead only seen in relation to employers.

The pregnancy laws produced intimacy as “illicit” or “deviant” in two ways: first, in outlawing pregnancy itself (formal deviance) and in shaping public norms (informal deviance). Because the security bond held employers responsible, employers were socialized into viewing any form of public intimacy engaged by domestic workers with suspicion. The moral panic employers had surrounding domestic workers is perhaps best epitomized in a tabloid article published in The News Paper, September 1988:

Fig. 1 Article from The New Paper (September 1988)

The article reported on five detective agencies that were tasked to follow maids to ensure that maids did not engage in “vice” activities, such as “[selling] sex in hotels” or “[having] affairs with their boyfriends in their partners’ homes.” In this way, foreign domestic workers came to be associated with sex, vice, and immorality, transforming “intimacy” into a site where employers’ asserted their moral superiority and justified surveillance.

Although the Ministry of Manpower amended laws over the security bond in 2011, the use of private detectives to surveil domestic workers is still in practice today. An article in Singapore’s national newspaper The Straits Times described how more employers were getting private eyes to trail maids. According to the article, most employers were motivated by a fear of their maids having boyfriends, or moonlighting as prostitutes on Sundays. One employer, Miss Devi, explained, “I didn’t know if she had a boyfriend and I was worried for our safety if she brought her boyfriend home. I kind of expected her to have a boyfriend but I was shocked that she checked into a hotel with her boyfriend. What would happen if she got pregnant? So I sent her home.” Another employer, Mr Ng, said he “trailed a Filipino maid in her 20s and found that she would check into different budget hotels with different men on a Sunday. She spent her days as a sex worker, with three to four clients each day.”

The continued surveillance by employers highlights how even when laws – even when amended – have afterlives of their own: in this case, the pregnancy restrictions (even when decoupled with employers’ security bond) continue to create a sense of entitlement amongst employers over the right to police the intimate lives of foreign domestic workers, and discursively constructs foreign domestic workers as immoral Others. The Singaporean public’s disgust and aversion towards any display of public intimacy by migrant workers is also reflected in Deni Apriyani’s poem, Murderers: “What was in your mind? / Did you see them? / The ladies who were sitting there? With the men holding their hands? / “Yuck, disgusting,” you said. / “They must be from those countries. “(78) Deni, a domestic worker from Indonesia, thus critiques the public’s moral policing, where any form of intimacy is seen as deviant and anti-normative.

Echoing Parreñas’ citing of Foucault in the Uses of Pleasure, “morality supplies a set of norms and rules that govern everyday experiences” (11). However, the mapping of public intimacy as deviant is intimately connected to questions of citizenship and race – “holding hands” is not an act typically frowned upon in Singapore, but it becomes deviant because the bodies engaging in acts of intimacy are perceived as deviant in some way. This shows how enactments of biopower create moral orders that normalize behaviour and construct deviant intimacies amongst racialized Others, for acts of public intimacy are not inherently deviant in themselves, but only become deviant through the apparatus of citizenship and migration law.

Similar to debates over marriage restriction, the pregnancy laws also reveal the state’s anxieties over domestic workers’ reproductive potential. These anxieties are rooted in an exclusionary logic of citizenship that seek to limit the reproductive capacities of “undesirable migrants” in order to limit the state’s responsibility in including them as citizens. Here, intimacy is policed because of its heteronormative reproductive potential: the state fears that allowing pregnancy would create a class of children who can lay greater claim to residence in Singapore and thus, claim rights to “citizenship”, contrary to its neoliberal migration policy that has already marked out some populations as more deserving of citizenship than others.  The production of illicit intimacies through technologies of law and public morality should thus be seen as an example of how “the state safeguards the boundary between citizen and noncitizen by ensuring the transient status of foreign workers and the temporary infertility of migrant women” (Lan, 2008: 854).

As Foucault (2011) argued, sexual control is a site of state power where the sovereign state disciplines not just individual bodies but also entire populations. Just like how sexual control was used to enforce boundaries between colonized and colonizer by preserving racial lines (Stoler, 2002), sexual control of foreign domestic workers’ bodies demonstrate how “interior frontiers” are build within national frontiers through intimate spheres of marriage (Lan, 2008). Because women reproduce nations not just biologically but also culturally and symbolically, their bodies become sites for the construction of “imagined communities” (Anderson, 1983). Foreign domestic workers’ bodies thus serve as “boundary markers” (Lan, 2008) that reify the divide between unworthy racialized aliens and deserving Singaporean citizens, where the enactment of pregnancy regulations transforms their individual bodies into national sites of immigration control and border policing.


By tracing and unpacking laws governing private intimacies of foreign domestic workers in the realms of marriage and pregnancy, I have shown how such laws are an example of biopolitics that produce notions of “deviant” intimacies in order to reinforce and sustain neoliberal ideologies of citizenship. These ideologies operate on the assumption that people can and should be segregated and hierarchized according to the “value” they bring to a nation-state, manifesting itself in migration policies like Singapore’s which create differentiated statuses that in turn confer differentiated legal statuses and rights to different people according to their “worth”. In effect, the regulation of intimacy represents how the state seeks to maintain neoliberal principles of citizenship by preventing “undesirable migrants” from becoming citizens, where “desirability” is articulated in entirely economic terms.

My goal in highlighting the hidden histories behind these two restrictions is thus to show the just how invasive the state can be just to achieve its exclusionary goal, and ask if we are willing to bear the (moral) consequences of adopting neoliberal citizenship wholesale. For these restrictions apply only to low-wage migrant workers on Work Permits – the same restrictions are not extended to migrants on other kinds of visas, nor are they extended to Singaporeans (even if other kinds of biopolitical policies like the HOPE scheme exist). The dogmatic belief in neoliberal citizenship can cause us to think it is perfectly acceptable to regulate the intimate lives of some populations, and not bat an eye over restrictions that govern what I would think are fundamental human rights – the right to marry whom we choose, and the right to decide whether, when, and with whom to procreate.


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[1] The policy is ostensibly gender-neutral, in that it applies regardless of whether the worker is a male migrant worker or female domestic worker. However, evidence from parliamentary records suggest that Members of Parliament tended to map gendered ideals of work and marriage onto applicants – in applications for foreign-local marriages, foreign applicants on work permits were assumed to be female, in line with notions of hypergamy that assumed women to “marry up”.

Image Source: The New Paper