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Cross-border marriage, transgovernmental friction, and waiting.

Abstract. This paper examines how discrepant governmental rationalities and processes produce friction and shifting experiences of subjectiflcation as transmigrants cross borders. Using the experiences of mainland Chinese marriage migrants in Singapore as an example, the paper explores the notion of 'transgovernmental friction' and how it reinforces state boundaries, reshapes body politics, and animates waiting as an active practice that transforms migrant subjectivities. Locating the workings of governmentality, mobility, and space in the domain of transnational marriage and family, the paper brings to light the friction and crevices of governmental processes across borders and the embodied politics of im/mobility.

Keywords: mobility, gender, marriage, governmentality, friction, waiting


"Friction reminds us that heterogeneous and unequal encounters can lead to new arrangements of culture and power." Anna Tsing (2005)

"In our village (in China), as soon as a woman gets married, she should have children right away and stay home or help with farming. That is a difficult life. I have worked and lived outside (the village) before so I know I could have more. Life outside is better because there is no farming. As long as I am willing to work, I will be fine. So I told my mother, okay, I can go and get married in Singapore. I want to venture out and see what I can do."

Ah Xin, wife and hair-salon owner

When 32-year-old Ah Xin was approached by a matchmaker in her natal village in Fujian Province, China to marry a Singaporean man whom she had never met before, she agreed without hesitation. Marrying a Singaporean man, for Ah Xin, was a straightforward way out of an uneventful life burdened with the difficulties associated with childrearing and farming. Getting married abroad was a pathway for paid work, freedom, and adventure. Little did she expect that once married in Singapore, she would be 'trapped' in the small Housing Development Board (HDB) apartment*1' belonging to her husband's family because she was not permitted to work, given her immigration status as a 'dependent' foreign spouse. Ah Xin said that she knew she had to be patient and wait--for gradual acceptance into her marital family, for her immigration status to change after repeated applications to become a Singapore Permanent Resident (PR), and for a future when she could work, have a regular income, and even start a small business of her own.

Ah Xin is among the thousands of 'foreign brides' who began to arrive in the city-state of Singapore from the 1990s onwards when working-class Singaporean men found it increasingly difficult to win the hand of Singaporean women (Jones and Shen, 2008). Ah Xin's waiting is both ordinary and exceptional. It is ordinary because most of the foreign brides in Singapore have to go through indefinite periods of waiting before they can eventually become 'nonmigrants' in anticipation of "lives worth waiting for" (Gray, 2011). It is exceptional because marriage migrants' experience of waiting illuminates the dislodging effects of border crossing and the ambiguities of their status as both 'wife' and 'nonresident' in Singapore. Scholarship on migrant women traversing borders and boundaries has much to say about these dislodging effects in light of their marginality and the exclusionary politics operated through gendered, sexualized, classed, ethnicized, and nationalized apparatuses (Gaetano and Yeoh, 2010). While these women possess agency, they have to constantly negotiate their subject positions within the dominant social structures and rules ordered largely by state regimes, patriarchal norms, and gender ideologies at home and beyond. Border crossing and transnational mobility, as feminist scholars show, do not suggest the weakening of the nation-state but its reworking through more sophisticated power apparatuses and techniques of inclusion and exclusion (Mountz, 2011; Pratt and Yeoh, 2003).

In this paper we build on this body of scholarship by developing an analytical framework on transnational processes and transgovernmental politics to shed light on the 'subaltern experience' of waiting (Jeffrey, 2008), exclusion, and negotiation. Our use of the term transgovernmental draws inspiration from Foucault's thesis on governmentality, which formulates the art of government as the ensemble of practices, strategies, and logics of calculation that operate through institutions, policies, and the manipulation of complex forms of power relations at both the structural and everyday levels (Foucault, 2007). To understand migrants' border crossing as not only transnational but also transgovernmental, we direct our analytical attention to discrepant and shifting governmental techniques and practices across borders. We examine how mismatched governmental processes produce and encourage conflicting aspirations and actions, pinning transmigrant subjects in a jagged situation of displacement and uncertainty in their migratory journeys.

This situation is produced and experienced through what we call transgovernmental friction--the often awkward, unequal, and unstable rubbing of contrasting and diverging apparatuses of governmental regimes. By /ramgovemmental we mean to describe the mobile effect of governmental regimes and the changing relational ensemble of power codifications enacted upon individual bodies as they cross borders. While the prefix 'trans-' often refers to processes that move across or through spaces, it does not suggest that such 'moving across' or 'moving through' is smooth or seamless. We use trans- to specifically signal that such 'moving across' can be jarring, dislodging, and alienating, as changing governmental processes and rationalities shift focus, operate transversely, and apply different forms of power codification with the aim of governing more effectively. This jarring, and often sticky, process of 'moving across' entails what we call friction, a concept borrowed from Tsing (2005). Although friction slows down movement, it also keeps movement in motion. When transmigrants cross borders, they encounter new realities ordered by unfamiliar power structures and relations manifest in different institutions, procedures, governing logics, sovereign strategies, and processes of subjectification that work not only through state apparatuses but also in the mundaneness of everyday life. Transgovernmental friction thus illustrates a particularly awkward yet potentially productive state of interstitiality where transmigrants negotiate with new relations of power that operate in banal ways in their daily encounters. This is where they carefully inhabit the space in between, and engage with new forms of governmental powers, gender rules, uneven terrains of transnational geopolitics, and hierarchical processes of exclusion and differentiation.

To provide an ethnographic account of transgovemmental friction, we use narratives of Chinese marriage migrants in Singapore that speak to women's waiting and their negotiation of periods of mobility and immobility as they encounter different governmental practices and rationalities with their marriage and migration. From mobile subjects in China to homebound wives in Singapore, Chinese marriage migrants participate in new modes of subjectification as they become governable under new sets of governmental schemes and power relations. Transnational journeys do not guarantee a seamless transition in the course of life trajectories, or a coherent sense of self as migrants move from one place to another. In sum, this paper brings to light the friction and crevices of changing regimes of governmentalization and explores how transmigrants relocate a sense of being as they confront multiple borders, restrictive politics, and ambivalent relations in the more mundane domains of work, marriage, and family.

In what follows, we first provide more detailed discussions of transgovemmental friction by engaging with Foucault's (1991; 2007) and Tsing's (2005) work. We then illustrate transgovemmental friction by drawing on the experiences of Chinese marriage migrants as they grapple with the unsettling conditions of immobility, the unexpected encounters with HDB rurality, and the uncertainties of waiting that they face in the host city. Becoming immobile for Chinese marriage migrants proves to be one of the most disabling realities they have to learn to come to terms with. Being a mobile citizen in China is as essential for self-recognition as being productive and useful. The sudden loss of mobility in Singapore, resulting from government restrictions to paid work for those relegated to dependent status, often casts self-doubt and creates tremendous anxiety for migrant women. Immobility is an effect of transgovernmental friction where migrant women are forced to take a long pause-- or even stop completely--after border crossing before they can regain both social and physical mobility. For migrant women from China, being mobile entails the ability not only to move around, but also to move upward and forward. Encountering rurality in cosmopolitan Singapore is comprehended as a form of entrapment, an unquestionable exclusion from the desirable life that these women dreamed of before migrating. Being stopped and trapped, rather than moving upward and forward, also challenges these women's sense of self. As transgovernmental friction slows down motion, it creates moments of inactivity where waiting takes center stage. Waiting defines the necessary interstitial state where migrant women map out new configurations of social relations and animate self-making in line with the aims and regulations of a new regime of governing.

Transgovernmental friction

In Foucault's original thesis on governmentality, his main analytical focus is directed at the heterogeneous, decentered, and dispersed forms of power that work as strategic codifications and particular calculating rationalities through the governmentalized state (Dean, 1999; Elden, 2007; Foucault, 1991; Jessop, 2007; Lemke, 2007). Rather than looking at hegemonies from 'above', Foucault and theorists of governmentality explore the concrete and specific forms of how power exercises its effect on institutions, networks, communities, and individuals. In formulating transgovernmental friction, we pay particular attention to the shifting biopolitical processes as individuals encounter different 'projects of subjectification' (Huxley, 2008). These processes are fashioned by diverging rationalities of governing over the making and remaking of selves as citizen and noncitizen subjects.

The field and exercises of power become even more complex and malleable when individuals cross borders set by nation-states. With people on the move, new sites and transnational pathways become emerging spaces of governmentalization (Ferguson and Gupta, 2002; Lamer and Waters, 2004; Lippert, 1999). To understand how different regimes of governmentality work transnationally is a new challenge to the already complex formulations of governmentality within and around the territorially bound nation-states. Ferguson and Gupta (2002) were among the first to suggest that the working of 'transnational governmentality' goes beyond the territorialized nation-state as the domain for governing. John Urry's engagement with the 'new mobilities paradigm' propounds that "governmentality involves not just a territory with fixed populations but mobile populations moving in, across and beyond 'territory'" (2007, page 49). In a similar vein, we examine how power relations between governmentalized states and mobile individuals are exercised and negotiated in often banal yet diverse ways, especially when these individuals experience borders and exclusions and experiment with the remaking of selves under new circumstances.

Going beyond Ferguson and Gupta as well as Urry, we examine how governmentality operates transnationally at the scale of mundane encounters and everyday experiences. Taking a view from 'below', we mean to avoid a top-down approach that examines state-like and suprastate-like institutions and structures that seemingly dominate the ordering effect of everyday living. Such an approach does not provide us with sufficient conceptual handles to look beyond governmentalized migration as a map of smooth pathways and untroubled intersections. We thus borrow Tsing's (2005) notion of friction to move away from the presumption of a holistic apparatus of governmentality that travels transnationally, and to look at multiple, emergent, and competing forms of power operationalized through states and how they come into contact through the productive forces of friction. Friction, according to Tsing (2005), illustrates how the motivating dreams of the universal--prosperity, knowledge, freedom--are constantly rubbed against local surprises, impediments, and barriers. Friction disrupts and connects, resists and fastens. It shows the sticky encounters in movements, and the unexpected moments of resistance, abrasion, and tension that constantly shape and reshape these shifting formations of power relations.

In proposing transgovernmental friction as an analytical concept that helps to illuminate the complex workings of power relations in and through individual lives as mobile subjects who are nationalized, gendered, and classed all at the same time, we emphasize three points. First, transgovernmental friction describes a particular condition in which migrant subjectivities and experiences can be understood through their constant negotiations with different exercises of sovereign and disciplinary power as they cross borders. By highlighting friction, crevices, and uneven encounters with various social and cultural borders, we focus on the specific sites of tension and how individuals reconfigure power dynamics as they are intimately embedded in new networks of social relations. Rather than portraying friction in a negative light, we stress its generative potential and the polyvalent forces that shape and are shaped by institutions and individuals through whom power operates in mundane ways.

Second, by examining the mobile effect of transgovernmental friction, we avoid treating governmentalization as a top-town, state-driven process. Rather, we pay attention to how individuals become subjects of the state as they leam to equip themselves with 'appropriate' desires, outlooks, and capabilities, and engage with state institutions in various forms as governable citizens and citizens-to-be. Governmentalization in this regard is not merely an exterior disciplinary project that dominates the individual, nor is it simply an interiorized process of subjectification and integration; rather, it depicts the dynamic flows that connect the individuals to larger institutional, global capitalist forces, gaining power and traction as these multiple projects animate one another in productive ways.

Third, transgovernmental friction depicts multiple governmentalities and power relations enacted at the level of the everyday, particularly in emergent forms and continuous (though not at all smooth and seamless) ways. Governmentalization does not stop at borders, as individuals carry with them aspirations, strategies, and conducts of rationalization as they move, until these become destabilized by the changing governmental regimes that operate through a new set of calculating strategies and logics. It thus requires individuals to adapt to, improvise upon, and interact with existing and emergent forms of power relations in their daily encounters. In this process, renegotiating a sense of self becomes a crucial exercise in inhabiting the changing social and cultural terrains created and sustained by the multitude of power relations.

The stories we tell of Chinese marriage migrants in Singapore who are 'trapped' in the homespace within the confines of HDB heartlands and waiting to become 'useful citizens' show the nuanced differences in governmental subjectification processes and shifting power dynamics as migrant women cross borders to become wives and mothers, dependents, and noncitizens. Their experiences of anxiety and waiting indicate how different forms of power relations collide as these women migrate. The friction, manifest as a sudden loss of mobility, frustration with nationalized stereotypes, unexpected encounters with rurality, and uncertain periods of waiting, can be productive in animating new social fields of meaning and hope. Migrant women's experiences, therefore, should not be simply interpreted as the common tales of 'global (paradoxical) hypergamy' (Constable, 2005) where marriage migrants strive to marry into imagined desirable destinations but end up with decreased mobility and unfulfilled ambitions. A new perspective that looks at variable governmentalization processes across nation-states sheds light on the continuous production and transformation of nationalized and gendered subjectivities and on how individuals engage with shifting formations of power relations and their dislocating effect in the everyday realm of marriage and family life.

Research background

This paper draws materials from a collaborative research project on "State boundaries, cultural politics and gender negotiations in international marriages in Singapore and Malaysia" (2008-11), which studied the recent phenomenon of rising cross-border marriage rates between Singaporean and Malaysian husbands and foreign wives (96% of whom come from Asia, including China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar). In 2011 alone, out of 22 712 marriages registered in Singapore, close to 40% were between a Singaporean groom and a foreign bride (SDS, 2012). In order to map out the evolving social landscape of transnational marriages and related issues on family, care, labor, citizenship, and mobility in transnational contexts, we carried out two years of fieldwork (2010-11) and interviewed (in Chinese and English) migrant wives and husbands, relatives and family members, matchmaking agents and NGO activists, immigration officers and social workers selected through convenience sampling. News reports in Singapore are used as secondary sources of information that help to provide context and a more general perspective on how issues related to cross-border marriages are depicted and received locally.

This paper is based extensively on the experiences of twenty-two Chinese wives who come from various provinces in the northeastern, southwestern, and central regions in China. (2) We maintained frequent contact with five wives in particular, through various types of get-togethers (eg, lunch and dinner, shopping, church visits, English tutoring, and visiting doctors and lawyers). Most of the wives were from rural or semirural areas, and four were raised in cities. Their educational level varies from a few years in primary school to top-tier university education. All of them had previous experiences of migration within China, mostly for work and education. Three of them had work experiences in Hong Kong, Macau, and Dubai as helpers in the kitchen or waitresses in restaurants. Four of them met their husbands when these men worked or traveled in China; eleven of them were introduced to their overseas husbands by matchmakers, relatives, or acquaintances in their native villages in China; three found their husbands while they were students in short-term programs in private English training institutions in Singapore; and the other four were married after working in Singapore as factory workers, waitresses, travel agents, and company clerks. One woman is now working as a real estate agent, four opened small businesses such as food stalls and hairdressing shops, and the rest are housewives who are either taking care of children or still waiting to be granted PR status in order to look for work. Among these twenty-two women, by the time the research was completed in 2011, ten had become Singapore citizens, two obtained PR status, two applied for work permits (WPs) and became 'low-skilled workers', and eight were still holding long-term visit passes (LTVP) and waiting to receive the results of their PR applications.

Becoming immobile in mobile city Singapore

"People are always driven by their curiosity. Once you make the first step outside, surely you wish to go one step further, right? In every person, there is always an ambition (yexin) to fulfill, isn't there?"

We met Wang Jia at her family-owned chicken rice stall in a food court in Eunos in 2010. She came to Singapore in 2006 to get married, and she described her migration to Singapore as a fulfilment of her 'ambition', or yexin, literally 'wild heart'. Originally from Shenyang city in northern China, she left her hometown after high school and moved to Beijing in the hope of finding a good job with a decent salary. For three years she interned in an interior design company, which transformed the way she dressed and talked but offered only bare wages for her to make ends meet. After living in Beijing, Wang Jia hoped to explore the 'outside world' while she was still young and unburdened by family obligations. She soon learned that going to Singapore was one of the easiest and most affordable options, and paid 20000 yuan (approximately US$3200) to enroll herself in a private language school in Singapore as a student learning English. Not able to work given her Student Pass status, Wang Jia moonlighted in karaoke bars for a year as a singer, until she was introduced by a fellow entertainer to a chicken rice vendor who later on became her husband.

Wang Jia's journeys entail multiple border crossings. From a provincial city to the cosmopolitan capital in China, and from there to Singapore, she has moved upwards along an imagined social-spatial hierarchy from China's hinterland to the global city with alluring prospects of wealth and opportunity. Wang Jia's 'ambition' is in fact symptomatic of a particular kind of transnational imagination that has taken hold among a new generation of Chinese migrants who are determined to move not only from rural areas to the cities, but also from cities to desirable overseas locations. Since the 1990s, with China's opening and economic reform, the restrictive household registration (hukou) system has loosened its control as more people have begun to explore and experiment with their newly unleashed mobility. (3) As the Chinese state encourages the population to be more mobile in order to attract people from rural areas to supplement the urban labor force, migration and mobility are becoming synonymous with better opportunities and exciting self-exploration.

In contemporary China mobility has become a new governmental rationality and a regime of self-practice as individuals strive to achieve self-care and self-betterment through migration (Xiang, 2007). Women (and also men) are encouraged to be mobile and entrepreneurial so as to lift themselves up from unfavorable socioeconomic conditions and be transformed into capable, productive citizens (Gaetano and Jacka, 2004). By the late 1990s being mobile was by itself indicative of an individual's resourcefulness and flexibility, which was deemed by many as a precondition for personal success in the postreform era (Sun, 2002).

While it is important to highlight individual agency embedded in the personal decision to move, the fact that mass migration in China has been largely directed or facilitated by state projects should not be overlooked (Xiang, 2007). With three decades of state experimentation with modernization and development, population mobility has become one of the most useful tools to produce a generation of modern citizens (Jacka, 2006) who are disciplined to be more productive and better oriented towards the global market economy. This active production of the mobile citizen-subject entails particular logics of governing (Jensen, 2011). As mobility becomes fundamental to the rationalities embedded in the Chinese state's project of economic development, the politics of mobility start to play an active part in the constitution of everyday life and become crucial in the processes of governmental subjectification. Jensen and Richardson (2007) point out that mobile subjects are produced by particular governing rationalities and normalizing practices that order actions, imaginations, and representations. These rationalities and practices cultivate particular modern urban citizens who presumably "crave for more mobility and more cosmopolitan networks at higher speeds and with less friction" (Jensen, 2011, page 261).

For ordinary Chinese, especially those in rural areas, the possibility of transformation from 'peasants' into 'modern citizens' through migration is highly desirable (Murphy, 2004). As more and more people learn to be mobile, they also learn to see their modern selves emerging with new appearances, lifestyles, behaviors, habits, ideas, and agencies (Gaetano and Yeoh, 2010; Zheng, 2004). For women in particular, the experience of migration "contributes to their 'makeover' from the so-called rustic peasants to modern girls, which expands their labor market options, develops their confidence, and enhances their social status" (Gaetano, 2008, page 630). Moreover, migrant women often feel empowered by their relative autonomy away from the patriarchal authority of parents and families (Gaetano and Jacka, 2004), and feel they are taking control of their own lives (Pun, 1999).

For Ah Xin, the woman from Fujian whose story we introduced at the beginning of the paper, getting married in Singapore was both a way out of the patriarchal controls in her family and village, and a new possibility to expand her mobility. Since she was young, she had learned that migrating out of her village would give her independence, confidence, and a purpose for living. She told us that every young person in her village wanted to migrate to big cities for work and personal opportunities. Those who did not want to leave were ridiculed as lacking motivation and drive (shangjinxin). Moreover, "once you've seen the outside world", Ah Xin said, "you don't want to be trapped inside, surrounded by farming tools, diapers, and cooking pots." Although she knew little about Singapore prior to her arrival, she was confident that with her skills in hairdressing it would be easy to find work in Singapore and earn good money. Shortly after her arrival and her marriage, she realized that, being a foreign wife admitted into Singapore on the LTVP, she could not work. Undeterred by the immigration laws at first, she sought help from her tongxiang (people from the same town or same province) and obtained casual work (earning $10 per hour) as an assistant in a hairdressing shop. After a few days she had to quit her job because of her inability to speak English and her fear of being caught working illegally and the prospects of deportation. Unable to use her skills to generate income, Ah Xin became confused and frustrated. Back in China, she told us, even though she might not have a proper residential permit (zanzhuzheng) in the city where she worked, she could still earn a living.

"No one bothered to check whether I had identity papers or not, as long as I worked hard. No one cared about where I came from. But in Singapore, it's different. Everything is so strict. People may report you to the authorities if they find out that you are not allowed to work because you are a 'China bride'."

Apart from Ah Xin, all the other women we interviewed in one way or another expressed difficulties in reconciling two different realities. On the one hand, they see themselves as modern Chinese women crossing borders to pursue dreams and opportunities in forging their own lives; on the other hand, they are seen as foreign brides who should be dependent on their husbands and prohibited from working, and whose main responsibilities remain in the home. In China being mobile even after marriage gives them the possibility to transcend some of the cultural stereotypes tied to rural backwardness and the lack of drive for personal success typically associated with women. In Singapore, however, their mobility is curtailed in many ways because of the restrictive immigration status they are given, the local cultural expectations of how a foreign bride should live, and the diminished prospects of converting their prior skills and social capital in a new setting.

The reality that many Chinese migrant wives face is constituted not merely by their foreign, migrant status, but also by conflicts arising from the growing polarization among local Singaporean citizens because of class-specific socioeconomic status and differences in values and outlooks considered appropriate to Singapore's cosmopolitan vision. As the Singaporean state consciously 'cosmopolizes' (Yeoh, 2004) both the nation and its citizenry as part of its active governing project, the aspirations of making and living in a global city are translated into everyday relations where Singapore's citizen-subjects have learned to judge who is likely to contribute to Singapore's cosmopolitan ambitions and who is not. Residents of Singapore are loosely classed into different subject categories in both the official discourse and vernacular articulation on the basis of learned assessments of residents' cosmopolitan potentials. The 'heartlander' versus the 'cosmopolitan' discourse (Goh, 1999), for example, used to be at the center of public attention until the mid-2000s, when the state constructed two types of citizen subjects equally important for Singapore's nation-building. (4) The 'heartlander' in Singapore is caricatured as living in HDB heartlands, lacking global orientation and interest, less mobile, speaking Singlish, and rooted in traditional family and community values. The 'cosmopolitans', in contrast, are those who are highly educated and are fit to meet the demands of the global market. These two subject categories are often pitted against each other, and as a result an invisible yet effective line has thus emerged that separates the educated, high-income mobile elites from those who are 'holding Singapore back' amidst the swift pace of global processes.

Although the Singaporean state maintains that both the heartlanders and cosmopolitans are valuable to Singaporean society, the very precise categorization of citizenry based on specific traits and orientations indicates a particular governmental logic. Unlike the Chinese governmental logic, whereby mobility is encouraged across the board as an egalitarian self-improvement endeavor through which ordinary individuals can seek self-transformation without burdening the state for provision, the Singaporean rationality is to put everyone in their 'rightful place' according to carefully calibrated visions and plans. In China it is still possible for low-skilled migrants to imagine themselves as 'modern' by the simple fact of their movement; in Singapore heartlanders of a lower socioeconomic status can rarely lay claim to a modernity associated with mobility, especially since they embody 'traditional values' and 'rootedness' (Tan, 2003).

This dividing subjectification process is exercised not only on the Singaporean citizenry, but also on its growing migrant population, which accounts for more than a third of the total population according to the 2012 statistics (SDS, 2012). While the state has opened the doors to recruiting 'foreign talent' who can easily join the nation's cosmopolitan class, it continues to exercise an unabashed strategy of exclusion to keep the unskilled migrants away from securing long-term residency status (Thompson and Zhang, 2009). This kind of governmental technique that relies on differentiating logics and exclusionary policies puts foreign wives in Singapore in a precarious situation. The Singaporean state has adopted very different disciplinary techniques in terms of managing migrants and governing wives. As migrants, they fall outside of the talent-worker classification and are deemed as not making any contribution to the 'knowledge economy' or, through their physical labor, to building or servicing Singapore. As wives living in the heartlands, they are reinscribed with parochial 'heartland qualities' that work to exclude them from participating in the nation's cosmopolitan ambitions. Chinese migrant wives therefore are caught in friction and trapped in the crevices of discrepant governmental rationalities and practices between China and Singapore. They are confronted by an unfamiliar set of disciplinary policies according to which they are no longer the desirable mobile subjects in China embodying productivity and the drive for self-care and self-betterment, but immobile housewives in Singapore expected to conform to patriarchal rules and gender norms in the family and in the heartlands.

Encountering HDB rurality

As wives to Singaporean men living in the heartland, Chinese women find themselves not only losing 'value' but also restricted to the confines of the homespace. Their confinement has less to do with hegemonic patriarchy and direct state control, and more to do with the confrontation of a different governing rationality according to which their prior resourcefulness and agencies cannot be converted into something useable after transition. For example, a few women who had ample experiences traveling and working overseas complained that although they had gone out and seen the world, and although they were able to work in transnational environments and make connections, these facts were often ignored by Singaporeans who regard them as 'country girls' unfamiliar with modern living. Wang Jia told us that when Singaporeans saw that she married a chicken rice vendor, they looked down on her and took her for an uneducated woman from rural China. Another woman who worked in Dubai prior to her marriage said that her Singaporean family and neighbors saw her only as a foreign bride from a 'low-class country' (diji guojia) and showed her little respect. Although she felt hurt and frustrated, she said that she understood why Singaporeans behaved in this particular way. Most of her neighbors had never traveled outside of Singapore, this woman told us, and some of them had only traveled to places as far as Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. In China young people are used to traveling and working in different places not only for money but also in search of wider horizons, she reasoned; but in Singapore, especially in the old neighborhoods with aunties and uncles, their views are stuck in the past.

Another wife who used to work in Guangzhou (a major city in southern China) concurred: "It doesn't matter how much I try to make them [her Singaporean in-laws] understand that many Chinese cities are very developed and people are rich, they hold on to outdated ideas and believe that Singapore is far superior. Although they live in an old, tiny HDB apartment, they think this life is much better than my life back in China."

She agreed that the cosmopolitan face of Singapore was indeed very attractive--in fact, that was exactly what she imagined living in Singapore would be like before she migrated there-- but everyday life in the HDB neighborhoods reminded her constantly how far removed she and her Singaporean family were from cosmopolitan living. In her view, her in-laws and neighbors were 'traditional' to the point of being unreasonable in the sense that they still believed that, as the wife and daughter-in-law, her main responsibility was to serve the husband and his family, and to bear children.

"They don't even think about whether their son's salary is enough to support the entire family! In China, we would do anything to improve the quality of life; but they seem to be happy with how things are. They don't want me to work. The government does not allow a 'foreign bride' to work, so they don't want me to even step outside the apartment. I can't go to the restaurant or visit beauty salons like I used to in China."

Many wives described similar 'suffering' (chiku) after migration and marriage in Singapore. Coming from a well-off family in a small city in Jiangsu province, Lilin ended up living in an HDB flat in Yishun New Town in the hinterland. Half in jest she said, "people usually migrate from rural areas to the city, I migrated from a city to the rural area (xiangxia) in Singapore." To attribute rurality to Singapore's heartlands, many wives even call Singapore 'Po xiari ('Singapore County') to describe its smallness and provinciality by deliberately disassociating it with cosmopolitan urbanity. While Chinese wives' 'suffering' could be interpreted as a matter of cultural clash or the problematic process of assimilation or acculturation in their everyday living, the extent of their disappointment and frustration, and the strong language that they use to describe the lack of knowledge, vision, and drive of Singaporeans in the heartlands, indicate the intimate effect of transgovernmental friction in transnational processes. This is where migrant women are confronted with unfamiliar norms of cultural conduct and rationalization logics and develop new sensibilities to engage with different exercises of disciplinary power in family life. Encountering HDB rurality can be productive in the sense that transmigrants experience self-authoring in unexpected ways--reassessing social circumstances, relearning the craft of self-conduct, and mapping new fields of possibility. From mobile agents in China to immobile wives in Singapore, migrant wives experience transgovernmental friction as they traverse boundaries between mobility and immobility, and negotiate new relations of power within the family. Migrant wives' self-authoring is not the same project as the making of an assimilated new citizen who is motivated or disciplined to behave just like any other citizen of the state; rather, it is an embodied project of 'governmental self-transformation' (Dean, 1994), which sees transmigrants develop new awareness and tactics of self-conduct that make sense to themselves and are compatible with their personal histories and ambitions.

One particular example that shows the reworking of self-conduct as Chinese wives encounter HDB rurality is the way in which they change their physical appearance in order to be seen as appropriate daughters-in-law inhabiting heartland spaces. After marriage in Singapore, most of the wives describe a significant 'relapse' in their physical appearances. In their HDB neighborhoods, they said, everyone wears oversized T-shirts, unflattering shorts, and sandals, a style which would be quite inappropriate for a young woman to wear in public in China on most occasions. Indeed, studies have shown that migrant women experience not only a subjective transformation (eg, becoming a mobile citizen) with their migratory journeys but also a physical transformation. Pun Ngai (1999) notes that rural migrant women often take inspiration from popular culture magazines and actively change the way they dress and talk in order to act like a 'modern young working woman'. Gaetano (2008) also describes the makeover in appearance and attitude of migrant women after working in the cities as they become more attentive to fashion and style, and grow more sophisticated and confident. In Singapore, however, instead of having a makeover, most of the women we talked to had to conduct themselves in a less attractive way so as to act the part of a demure daughter-in-law.

Lin Na from Sichuan province told us that in her hometown Chengdu only those who work in the market wear sloppy clothing like T-shirts and shorts, and a city girl would never dress down. In Singapore, she had to pretend that she was not interested in makeup and nice clothes so her husband and in-laws would not watch every step she took. Once in a while, if she got a chance to meet her friends, she would dress up at her friend's place before going out and change back before heading home. Similarly, Chen Ming from Fujian province, who has been married to a contractor for ten years, said:

"Chinese girls like to dress up and look pretty. When we go out with friends, we like to wear nice dresses and high heels. We like to put on makeup and jewelry. When we dress up, we feel very confident, and 1 think we are adding 'face' to the husband and his family because we look good. In China this is normal. How am I supposed to know that Singaporeans are not like this? During the first few months [of my marriage], I always dressed up whenever we went out. My husband didn't say anything; but his parents and sister were bitching about what I wore. They asked me: what are you dressing up for? Why do you wear a short skirt when we are just going to the neighborhood shop? I didn't know that in Singapore people only wear their good clothes for important occasions; and usually they just wear shorts and flip-flops. So they always misunderstand [wuhui] me, accusing me of dressing up to attract other men's attention."

Chen Ming rationalized this as a 'cultural difference' (wenhita chayi) between China and Singapore, and dressed down according to the 'Singaporean customs' to appease her in-laws. (5) Although not happy, she said that she had come to terms with looking plain (tu) just to have some peace in her marriage.

To a certain extent, rurality in the HDB neighborhoods is heavily embodied and disciplined: Chinese migrant wives rarely wear makeup or accessories; they put on sandals rather than heels; they hide their figures with oversized clothing; they speak more dialects with in-laws and less Mandarin; and their behaviors are constantly watched by the in-laws and the older uncles and aunties in the HDB block. Moreover, domestic conflicts often take place within the tight living spaces of HDB flats. Lin Na, for example, complained about her Singaporean mother-in-law, who constantly criticized her for using too much water and shampoo during showers, and insisted on teaching her how to flush the toilet using only soiled laundry water. Lin Na said that her own family in China stopped doing that in the 1990s, and she would never have imagined that her Singaporean family would be so 'petty' and 'stingy', traits that she strongly associated with 'heartland rurality'--in stark contrast to the prosperity and opulence in downtown Singapore. While having to become unattractively plain, change habits to be more modest and frugal, and contend with a lack of freedom and financial means are far from ideal, most wives consider these changes a short-term setback and a necessary compromise in order to gain legitimacy in the community as the obedient daughter-in-law whose main focus is on the family.

It is within the HDB homespaces that Chinese migrant wives are resubjectivized to become 'proper' housewives in the 'proper' space of the HDB heartland--a space designed and disciplined to produce particular kinds of urban existence in Singapore. While the norms of conduct in HDB neighborhoods are not deliberately fashioned to control migrant wives' behaviors and self-expressions, their governmentalizing power is exercised effectively and invisibly through spatializing processes that segregate the social space for the family from other spaces of cosmopolitan pursuits. Within the domain of the family, patriarchal rules and 'Asian family values' promulgated by the Singaporean state prevail (Jongwilaiwan and Thompson, 2013), casting marriage migrants as domesticated subjects while promoting their "specialized inferiority to men" in the household (Yeoh and Willis, 1999, page 361). Faced with hampered mobility, regressed modernity, unexpected rurality, and pervasive patriarchal ideologies in marriage and family, Chinese wives have to learn to carefully negotiate a position from which they can still exercise agency through everyday politics revolving around personal aspirations, family relations, and immigration regulations.

Waiting as an engaged practice

"[As a migrant wife in Singapore,] you cannot work. Of course you can work secretly, but don't get caught! You see, when Chinese women come here, what we really want to do is to find work, to earn money. But you have to wait for your PR first, and the waiting takes at least a few years! Can you wait? You will have kids during this time, can you wait? You see, what my husband brings home is not even enough to buy milk powder for my daughter. You want to go downstairs and eat [at the food court], you wait and wait for your husband to give you money, but he only gives a few dollars for vegetables so you can cook at home. When he's hungry he can go out and eat, but he doesn't realize that the money he takes home is not enough for his wife and kids to eat. I remember when 1 had to stay home and wait all day long. I had nothing to do but watch the birds flying by the window. I didn't dare to work as I didn't want to be sent back to China. I really thought about jumping off this building at that time when I was waiting for my PR."

For Ah Xin and other Chinese wives, one of the challenges in transnational marriage is the troubling sense of uncertainty resulting from losing both physical and social mobility after marriage. This suspension of mobility can last a few years--until they obtain PR status, or for much longer if the wife is deemed ineligible by state authorities for long-term residency. The first few years after marriage are usually the most difficult, when distress grows as a result of restrictive immigration status, curtailed freedom at home, and disillusionment with the better life in Singapore.

The current LTVP that foreign wives hold does not allow them to take any form of paid employment. If reported, they may face deportation. (6) The LTVP in many ways serves as a governmental tool to keep foreign wives in their rightful place within the domestic space of the family and in Singapore's heartlands. In national discourses on family ideology, women as homemakers and childbearers have been assigned a particular responsibility to uphold family values that are believed to be crucial to Singapore's social stability and economic viability (Teo, 2010). When it comes to Singapore's female citizens, the state is adept at sending mixed messages that encourage women to be both the cornerstone of family values and active participants in the workforce to make economic contributions to society (Teo, 2009). In the case of foreign wives, given immigration restrictions, they have very little choice but to stay home and perform the traditional roles of wife and mother. There is an effective double bind in this logic: as foreign wives, their rightful social place remains in the domestic realm, where their obedience and immobility are expected to play an important part in strengthening family ties. But precisely because of this domestic emplacement, foreign wives are seen as 'burdens' or even 'parasites' on Singapore's social welfare system rather than as (economically) contributing members of the local workforce or useful members of the population.

The only way for foreign wives to work legally in Singapore is to apply for relevant work passes on the basis of their own professional qualifications. In most cases, without proper English skills or education certificates, Chinese wives usually end up with low-skilled work such as waitressing and cleaning and are eligible only for a WP--the bottom category of Singapore's hierarchical work pass system. Some wives believe that with a WP and its lowly status it may be even more difficult for them to secure PR status than with the LTVP they are already holding. They are therefore convinced that the best strategy is just to wait a few years until PR status is granted, even though the waiting process can be taxing. Others believe that holding a WP may actually enhance the chance of getting a PR status, because, as one wife, Hui, puts it,

"the government likes someone who is working. If the wife is working, the chance of getting the PR is higher. A housewife makes no contribution to society. But with a WP, at least you show that you are doing something."

No one outside the governing authorities knows for sure which option warrants a higher winning chance.

The experience of waiting and guessing is a recurring theme in the narratives of these Chinese wives. For many, achieving PR status is synonymous with winning the lottery. There is no clear answer as to how long one has to wait during the PR application process, or whether one's waiting will yield positive results in the end. One wife, Jin, said that, at the time of our interview, she had been waiting for over ten months for the result of her second PR application. She has a college degree in early childhood education, and her husband is a navy officer (locally known as holding a 'government job') earning over $6000 per month. Even though on paper their qualifications fit the bill, she felt extremely anxious about the waiting. She said that without PR, she could not work, which meant she could not buy a new apartment, without which she could not even think about having children. Forced to stay home all day, she lamented the situation with a pinch of wry humor: "There is nothing to do at home so I have to watch TV all day; I think my eyes will go blind very soon. By then I will become even more useless to Singapore."

Yet precisely because of this lack of certainty, waiting becomes an engaged exercise as wives experiment with various ways through which one's waiting may be shortened or turned into a period of strategizing productivity. Li Mei, who came to Singapore from Hubei province seven years ago to get married, was denied PR status twice by the government with no specific reasons given. In the long years of waiting, she tried to figure out the government's logic in granting PR, experimented with many 'tricks' that she believed would work, and endured the boredom, anxiety, and disappointment when nothing made a real difference. She pushed her self-employed husband to contribute regularly and bulk up his Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts. (7) In three years, she gave birth to two children, believing that if she produced babies the government would give her favorable consideration. Suspecting that her high school education was not enough to gain her PR, she even took the risk of producing a fake vocational college diploma in her subsequent applications so that her chances of success might be increased. Eventually, after five years, her third attempt was successful, by which time she was convinced that children and diplomas mattered most as evidence of 'productivity' and 'contribution' that the Singaporean government wanted to see.

As Chinese marriage migrants wait to become productive residents who will be recognized and accepted by Singaporean society, they experiment with refashioning their bodies and identities in anticipation of how the state and society may evaluate their potential and usefulness. When they come to be familiarized with Singapore's unspoken yet powerful subjectification rationalities that categorize 'talents', 'mothers', and 'workers' as contributing members of society, they try to become 'talents' (by producing certificates and diplomas), 'workers' (by converting an LTVP to a WP with paid low-skilled work), and 'mothers', rather than 'idling wives' who might be perceived as consuming too many social resources (eg, requiring constant spousal or community support) without contributing much to society. In doing so, migrant wives try to demonstrate their worth and potential by fitting into the highly valued subject categories hinged on citizen productivity through which the Singaporean state effectively governs its population.

But the uncertainty keeps migrant wives on edge, perpetuating their waiting as a 'subaltern experience' (Jeffrey, 2008) that shapes their sense of being as 'doing nothing'. Jeffrey rightly points out that "it is this potent combination of extreme investment in particular modes of self-transformation and long-term exclusion from possibilities for real mobility that underpins feelings of waiting in many contexts" (2008, page 954). Periods of pauses, inactivity, boredom, and quietness often constitute a considerable part of everyday life where border crossing leads not to an enhanced mobility but to hiatus. The gaps produced by frictions from their transnational migration and marriage create a particulate state of ambiguity where migrant wives continue to find themselves invested in the promises of 'real mobility' yet constrained by a different mode of governmentalization that deflates their mobile ambitions.

As Chinese wives wait to pass the indeterminate period of stagnancy and inactivity, they also try to actively 'animate waiting' (Bissell, 2007) to bring forth the possibility of change by readjusting their appearances, their expectations, and their personal and social strategies to enable a new space of resemblance and possible inclusion. When Das (2006, page 7) wrote about the voices and actions of the relatively powerless in the realm of the everyday, she argued that the remaking of selves is revealed not by grand gestures of transformation, but through a "descent into the ordinary". Waiting is inherently such a descent into the ordinary and the everyday in anticipation of something to come that could eventually change the conditions of living. It is an active process that requires considerable conscious effort in negotiating frictions and self-authoring through patient inactions. Chinese migrant wives know that waiting is part of the pathway, and the necessary transitional interstice where they learn to become and be recognized as useful governable subjects in a new state. The agentic potentials in waiting, as demonstrated by some of the Chinese wives, are not an escape from the eventless or the ordinary, but a descent into it by allowing new governmental logics to be folded into intimate relations and their sense of being. Migrant wives' waiting, therefore, shows how relations of power are not dictated by the external state, but are operated in banal ways as Chinese women negotiate their subject positions as the migrant Other, the wife, and potential workers and mothers in the heartland spaces of Singapore. In other words, waiting is 'socially produced', and "actively encountered, incorporated and resisted amidst everyday spaces that migrants experience" (Conlon, 2011, page 353). The embodied politics of waiting reveals the powerful ways in which multiple governmentalities and power relations are enacted at the level of the everyday, particularly in emergent forms that involve the individual, the family, and the state. Migrant women's waiting also elucidates how they come to terms with the indeterminacy of immobility caused by transnational processes and transgovernmental friction, and how they carefully develop strategies of anticipatory preparation for a future to come.


In this paper we develop a new analytical framework that examines the ways in which transmigrant subjectivities, their embodied experiences of im/mobility, their encounters with spatialized disciplinary regimes, and gender and family ideologies are closely intertwined in transnational processes as they produce transgovemmental crevices. In proposing transgovernmental friction as a useful concept that illustrates how new sites and cross-border experiences become emerging spaces of subjectification and governmentalization, we focus on the effects of being mobile within governmental regimes that are particular to Singapore and China. These effects collide and clash, and ultimately upend migrant conceptions of modernity and rurality, mobility and immobility, and subjectivity therein. We show how, through mundane encounters in their daily lives, mobile individuals are nationalized and gendered as they are subjected to existing and emergent exercises of power, and how their agentic engagements are enacted through practices of negotiation, self-remaking, and active waiting. Transgovernmental friction reveals how discrepant subjectification processes and disciplinary rationalities across national borders produce various sociocultural barriers and biopolitical borders. It also illuminates how individuals refashion themselves with appropriate appearances, outlooks, and behaviors through banal encounters in order to be recognized and governed as contributing members of society. Paying particular attention to how individuals inhabit the changing social and cultural terrains created by the at times jarring and at times smooth governmental processes, we show that in transnational contexts, multiple governmentalities and power codifications condition new possibilities for individual self-authoring--not in the sense of becoming assimilated citizens, but as transcultural and transgovernmental subjects who actively engage with the polyvalent forces of power that operate around them.

As they enter Singapore as marriage migrants, Chinese wives aspire to pursue mobile practices with the knowledge and confidence gained from previous experiences of traversing spatial and social boundaries. Marriage and migration to cosmopolitan Singapore, to a large extent, is a mobile strategy aimed at furthering a transformative journey that turns 'rural girls' into 'modern women' as the ideal female citizen subjects modeled by Chinese society and the Chinese state. However, the pathway of their transformative journey is not always a straightforward one.

At first sight, Chinese women's transnational marriage appears to follow the familiar logic of global hypergamy as they strive to marry up from small towns and cities in China to the global city of Singapore. However, the developmental unevenness across borders, which underpins the condition for global hypergamy, continues to shape and define spatial hierarchies that produce new spaces for body politics and new governing rationalities of inclusion and exclusion. For Chinese women, getting married abroad becomes desirable because the idea of cross-border romance is compatible with their cosmopolitan outlook as mobile individuals and modern women. Once married, however, they realize that the mobility they pursue is reined in by new realms of familial, social, and sovereign regimes operationalized through Singapore's immigration regulations, patriarchal family practices, nationalized and gendered stereotypes, and disciplinary politics that blatantly differentiate Singapore's mobile cosmopolitan class from the parochial citizens rooted in the heartland.

As Chinese wives are dislocated from the familiar subjectification orders where mobile practices have been fundamental to self-value and self-identity, they encounter a disparate disciplinary reality where being mobile subjects is no longer expected of them; on the contrary, they are expected to be nonmobile wives in order to 'stabilize' Singapore families (Ong, 2013). Chinese migrant wives therefore learn to restructure their anticipations and ambitions, and patiently yet actively engage in waiting as a necessary step before being recognized as useful and valuable again by the Singaporean state. Although transnational processes and transgovernmental friction produce gaps and barriers, these women are hopeful that once they gain a foothold by becoming compliant and productive, possibilities of change for the better could take place and the suspended momentum of social mobility could resume.

Jensen (2011) in her critical analysis of mobility, space, and power describes the ways in which mobility intermingles with experiences and desires of the modern self, and how power operates and is framed through mobile practices. Her analysis provides a sophisticated account of how mobility should be seen as part of a governing logic, and how "governmental practices of normalizing, disciplining, forming modern selves and also rationalities relating to mobility rely on particular measurements, conceptualizations, imaginaries and productions of urban spaces" (2011, page 262). Along this line, we see im/mobility as a governing logic operating transnationally in the domains of marriage and family, while transgovernmental friction produces awkward and potentially productive encounters. Moreover, we argue that contrasting governmental rationalities and disciplinary strategies create various biopolitical borders and enforce a sense of hiatus that produces spaces of confusion and sites of exclusion. For Chinese migrant wives, the homespace and the HDB neighborhoods in Singapore where their waiting is practiced implicate the power geometries of everyday life (cf Yeoh and Huang, 2010). Their embodied waiting and negotiation of transgovernmental politics highlight the ways in which mobility and immobility are reinscribed in everyday life as they reconstruct transmigrant subjectivities, geopolitical boundaries, and gendered experiences of being both a wife and migrant within family and society. Their experiences also show how complex relationships between marriage, migration pathways, and governmental regimes that operate transnationally are constantly challenging and changing the social landscape of family, gender, and citizenship in transcultural contexts.

doi: 10.1068/d24111

Juan Zhang

School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2350, Australia; e-mail:

Melody Chia-Wen Lu

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, PG42, Pearl Jubilee Building, University of Macau, Av. Padre TomasPereira, Taipa, Macau SAR; e-mail:

Brenda S A Yeoh

Department of Geography and Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore 117570; e-mail:

Received 21 November 2011; in revised form 13 October 2014; published online 3 March 2015

Acknowledgements. Funding for the research project was provided by the Singapore Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund (MOE AcRF Tier 2 Grant No: T208A4103). The Asia Research Institute rendered valuable support in both research and writing. We thank Dr Chee Heng Leng and the journal's reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.


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(1) Over 80% of Singaporeans live in low-cost public high-rise apartments built and managed by the HDB of Singapore.

(2) This core group of respondents was chosen on the basis of their places of origin, household registration status in China, educational background, prior marital and migration experiences, and their immigration and citizenship status, which help to show the diverse factors that influence their channels of mobility and conditions for migration.

(3) China's household registration system, which was instituted in the 1950s, prohibited Chinese citizens from changing their permanent place of residence. Since the early 1980s, when China began the economic reform, and especially since the 1990s, when the pace of reform accelerated, national and local authorities have relaxed certain restrictions on obtaining urban residence permits to encourage and facilitate rural-urban migration.

(4) In recent years the 'Singaporeans versus foreigners' discourse has gradually replaced the 'heartlanders versus cosmopolitans' discourse and become a new issue of contention. The governmental logic of producing bifurcated categories of productive and contributing residents, however, remains largely the same.

(5)Yeoh and Huang (1998) argued that Singaporean employers enforce a similar 'dress code' on their foreign domestic workers, to make them look unattractive so as to remain 'asexual' and 'invisible'.

(6) For a detailed analysis on citizenship rights during the naturalization process and the criteria for obtaining PR, see Yeoh et al (2013). In 2012 the Singaporean government started to issue an enhanced long-term visit pass-plus (LTVP+) that allows foreign spouses to stay for three years and to work. But to be eligible for the LTVP+, the length of marriage and whether the couple has produced children will be considered. Only 35% of the foreign spouses in Singapore were granted the LTVP+. From the point of view of foreign spouses, this has become another arbitrary residential category that is no more transparent than the PR system.

(7) The CPF is a compulsory savings plan for working Singaporeans and permanent residents as a pension system to fund their retirement, healthcare, and housing needs.
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Author:Zhang, Juan; Lu, Melody Chia-Wen; Yeoh, Brenda S.A.
Publication:Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
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Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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