The Institution of the Family

By Bakri Musa

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

The family is the most important social institution. To sociologists, it is the basic unit of social structure. Article 16 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, and is entitled to protection by society and state.” It is in the family that the young are acculturated and imbued with the values and norms of society. One learns what is right and wrong and differentiates the good from the bad through the family. Thus no matter now noble and moral the values of a society are, all that would be naught if those very same values are not transmitted to the young because of the breakdown of the family.

President Reagan in his State of the Union Address in 1985 following his landslide reelection declared, “For an America of wisdom that honors the family, knowing that as the family goes, so goes our civilization….” The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed that the biological role of the human male would be similar to that of other male species, that is, to impregnate and disappear after having fulfilled his duty to propagate his specie. “And yet,” Malinowski wrote, “in all human societies the father is regarded by tradition as indispensable. The woman is to be married before she is allowed legitimately to conceive… An unmarried mother is under a ban, a fatherless child is a bastard. This is not by no means a European or Christian prejudice; it is the attitude found amongst most barbarous and savage people as well.” Malinowski’s observation is one of the few universalities of human social behavior.

Related to the institution of family is that of marriage. Marriage is the genesis of the family; it is an institution universal to all cultures. The centrality of marriage can be attested by the fact all cultures have elaborate ceremonies to sanctify this matrimonial union between man and woman. It also signifies that all societies place a premium on the importance of the family. While marriage is universally recognized as a heterosexual union, there are notable exceptions. In America, with the greater acceptance of homosexuality, same sex marriage is increasingly recognized by many states, and with it such rights as the ability to adopt children and of survivor benefits. Among the Dahomey of West Africa, one woman could “marry” another, with the first woman being the “father” of the children (by other men) of the second woman. A comparable phenomenon is seen in wolfs where when the male leader of the pack is killed, and in the absence of another adult male, the most senior female assumes the role of a male, or “father” of the pack.

Sociologists may have a variety of normative descriptions of what a family is as viewed by different cultures. Such variations notwithstanding, the central element remains with the father and the mother, together with all their children. Western cultures may emphasize this nuclear family; Eastern cultures may expand that to include the extended families (comprising of members of one or more generations).

Regardless, the primacy of parents—father and mother—remains. The oft quoted African saying to the effect that it takes a village to raise a child does not in any way absolve parents from their primary responsibility of raising their own children.

Much can be learned about a society by studying the state of the family. Many of the social problems encountered today – delinquency, child and spousal abuses, school dropouts, and incest – can all be correlated with the breakdown of the family. The deterioration of American society, in particular minority groups, can ultimately be traced to the disintegration of the American family. The statistics are alarming. In 1960, 7 percent of White and 17 percent of Black babies were born out of wedlock, but by 2000 the figures skyrocketed to 27 and 77 percent respectively. In 1960 about 45 percent of American families were the traditional nuclear family, but by 2000 the figure dropped to only 23 percent. There has been an alarming increase in the number of single parent families.

In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while serving in President Johnson’s administration, issued a report highlighting the “tangle of pathology” in poor urban Blacks that was in part traceable to the rapid breakdown of the Black family. This prescient observation, widely criticized at the time for being racist, predicted that this trend, unchecked, would portend a more general disintegration of society. The wisdom of that insight is now obvious, and its truth universal. It applies not only to Blacks and other minorities but also to Whites. Although there are no rigorous sociological studies in Malaysia comparable to the American ones cited by Moynihan, I am convinced that many of the social problems can be traced to the breakdown of the Malaysian, in particular Malay, family.

Such studies are complicated by the lack of uniformity in the definition of the family. Although legally in Malaysia a husband with multiple wives would be considered as an intact family, in dynamics and reality it is a broken family. The children of the “senior” or abandoned wives are in all respects living in a fatherless home. Those children rarely see their father; they lack the all-important father figure not only to tell them right from wrong but more importantly, to give them the much-needed words of encouragement and a pat on the back when the inevitable mistakes are made. Or when they simply need some warm tender hugs! And when they grow up and get married, they will continue the same pattern set by their absentee fathers. They will also in turn abandon their own children. And the pattern would continue, inflicting damage on subsequent generations.

Although I have not seen any empirical studies, I predict that the sons of men with multiple wives will also more likely to have multiple wives of their own. I also hypothesize that juvenile delinquents in Malaysia are more likely to be the products of broken homes and or families with multiple wives.

The only reason Malaysia’s problems are not much worse than those in America is because Malaysia still has a strong extended family system to take up the slack. Thus abandoned children still have their uncles and aunts to fall back on. It is in urban areas where the bonds of the extended family are not as strong or nonexistent that we see the most sinister effects of the breakdown of the family. No surprise then that incest, lepak (loitering), bohsia (delinquency), drug abuse, and other indicators of social disintegration are primarily urban phenomena.

In America, if a child is born into an intact family, that is the best predictor whether he or she will succeed in school and end up in college. The reverse is equally true, that is, a child from a broken family is more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

The popular media often cite researches done by Malaysian academics on the racial differences in the academic performances of pupils. The impression left from many such studies (and certainly the interpretation of the media) is that race is a major causative factor. Yet when I examine the original publications and scrutinize their statistics and methodology, I am always disappointed in their basic design and conclusions.

Malaysian social scientists are trapped by the race bugaboo. I have yet to see published studies comparable to the Moynihan Report that factor in the status of the family, income, and location (urban or rural), that is, variables other than race. It would not surprise me that such a study would confirm Moynihan’s observation that a broken family is a major predictor of a host of social pathologies, instead of, as frequently noted, race.

Such studies are not difficult to undertake, but their designs and interpretations would require the researchers to be well versed with modern statistical tools like regression analysis. For the most part, Malaysian social scientists, especially those locally trained, are mathematically challenged.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 12:25 pm

    Don’t waste time quoting politician Reagan’s “For an America of wisdom that honors the family, knowing that as the family goes, so goes our civilization….” – that’s nonsense. He wanted families’ votes! In US out of 3 marriages 1 goes to divorce courts, UK 2 to 1, and in most developed nations (including S’pore) people are either postponing marriage, stay unmarried or if married get divorced. The trend is in part due to the stress on personal autonomy, women getting educated, won’t settle for less by marrying down men economically, socially or intellectually ranking less, and everyone going for independence not needing the other for livelihood, more and more don’t mind being single at outset or single parent thereafter. With onward march of civilisation, marriage/family is casualty but the diminuition of marriage/family does not mean death of civilisation, but a beginning of a new one where even marriage is not a prerequisite of having family. One can have family without marriage, and the commitment put in there to bring up children can exceed those who are parents within marriage who fight and impose strain on their chidren’s emotional develiopment!

  2. #2 by k1980 on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 1:01 pm

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 1:07 pm

    //the biological role of the human male would be similar to that of other male species, that is, to impregnate and disappear after having fulfilled his duty to propagate his specie// – Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.

    Well we now know from Malinowski why we males have no higher meaning & purpose in life. If Malinowski were right then marriage confined to 1 woman is in mortal conflict with that biological imperative/impulse to sow wild oats!

    Yet marriage promotes family, ensure the sexually profligate father is around to provide financial and emotional resources to the fruits of the sexual union. It is social engineering – for society’s purpose not necessarily your personal. When social need conflicts with biological need which prevails? How to balance esp fight biology? Maybe CSL can explain.

  4. #4 by k1980 on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 1:16 pm

    A funny though just occured to me. Had the US been ruled by putrajaya, Barak Hussein Obama would be rotting in Pudu Jail for being an apostate. His 2 children would had been seized, converted and put in orphanages, while his wife Michelle would be barred from seeing them. His Vice President Joe Biden would be banned from office for being a Jew, and the NEP been applied only for members of a certain religion.

    The CIA members involved in the killing of Geromino in Abbottabad would also be jailed for murder, and a statue of Abbottabad’s Geromino be raised at the site of Ground Zero.

  5. #5 by wanderer on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 1:23 pm

    How about the children? don’t they count? Having children without a marriage license, how do “unlicensed bed mates” justify to their children that they are parents but, not a committed couple…shaggers?
    I belong to the old fashion clods, rather be, a modern

  6. #6 by Jeffrey on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 1:33 pm

    To reconcile the conflict some married men of higher testosterone, unrestrained by teachings, availed themselves to commercial sex which does not detract his other husbandly responsibilities nor unravel the primary marital relationship with unsuspecting wife. That’s why prostitution is oldest profession, hand in glove with the other institution, marriage of mongamous definition. Polygamy seeks to resolve this conflict by providing more legal partners, if needs be. Neither solves problem in entirety. Monogamy is circumvented by commercial sex if not clandestine adultery with mistress. Those who claim to be honest, resort to divorce and marry the other which is “serial” monogamy not much better than polygamy except its serial (consecutive not concurrent liaison with more than 1 woman). But whatever, being responsible parent is important. Though philandering and having another woman or family on the side (assisted by urban anonymity & many encounters with opposite sex in work & leisure) generally dilute time and financial resources of male (that’s why wife won’t coutenance it, besides the insult & sexual jealousy), one should look at case to case. It cannot be simplified that their children of an adulterous father will necessarily grow up not integrated or will necessarily have multiple wives or factured relationships on their own as Bakri expects. Its difficult to generalise because too many factors at play. A faithful husband may not be a good father either. Per #5 commitment is a thing of the heart that is not necessarily buttressed by rituals and legalities of marriage form, as the many empty or broken marriages evince.

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 1:44 pm

    Bakri is concerned about social problems afflicting the community. The Singapore Straits Times reported “Muslim couples get divorced every 15 minutes in Malaysia, a startling number that has the government worried. The latest statistics from the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) showed there were 27,116 divorces in 2009, up from 17,749 in 2005. It appears divorce rates among Muslims are now at an all-time high, making up about 82 per cent of total divorces in Malaysia, though Malay Muslims comprise 60 per cent of the population. National Population and Family Development Board (NPFDB) show that the divorce rate is highest among Muslims, with 16,509 couples going their separate ways in 2004.
    Its not necessarily due to polygamy allowed for by religion. People don’t take on more than they could chew just because law allows. It could be social pressures (eg not to be seen in parks alone), so the young with raging libidoes are proned to marry early before they are ready as a means to fulfill biological imperative, and in process to conceive beyond their capacity to concentrate sufficient parental attention due to belief in the State NEP to provide the cushion of scholarship and other needs, cradle to grave.

  8. #8 by boh-liao on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 2:31 pm

    D language dat gives us AMOK or AMUK also gives us another appropriate term 2 account 4 d high divorce rate: GATAL
    CSL would certainly testify 2 dis beautiful word

  9. #9 by wanderer on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 3:26 pm

    In a civilized world, let’s just stick to the basic…the so called intellectual arguments are excuses for human failings…having extramarital sex outside the family home. The only point, which may still be acceptable that we came from the animal kingdom is,
    when we are no talking but, allowing our blood pressure runs to the “sensitive tip”!

  10. #10 by Jeffrey on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 4:49 pm

    Everything is an excuse for human failing – not only sex outside marriage or for that matter, the current issue of Tambatuon village needing a dam to make Sabah self sufficient in padi or Lynas refinery of rare earth ore in Malaysia is OK etc What is not an excuse??? The point is whether we continue with excuses and pretexts or own up the reality of the elephant in the room that the blood pressure runs to the sensitive tip is more urgent for resolutrion than the dos and don’ts that every one prescribes that you do or don’t do but which they themselves don’t pratise the same standards! It is “harsh reality” and its better to accept than deny it, because acceptance is first step to resolving or mitigating the problem opening the way to find practical and longer lasting solution.

  11. #11 by wanderer on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 4:59 pm

    My simple mind does not allow me to venture outside the boundary of basic human behavior. Perhaps, we wonder why UMNO goons are left so far behind…still have not discard the skins worn in the animal kingdom.

  12. #12 by Jeffrey on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 5:13 pm

    The so called UMNO goons are left so far behind precisely because of the same problem – denial of reality. The world is changing – survival depends on competition and sharpening one’s wits and doubling one’s efforts – and yet they want political protection of patronage for their livelihood; they accuse others of homosexual and heterosexual misbehaviour as if they themsleves are free of these human weaknesses…They also deny the young including young and educated Malays now want better governance, and still think they can be persuaded to accept corruption as trade off for race privileges. It is denial of reality that is a problem, whether it relates to issues of sex or politics we talk today. Though denial is a human trait (one of the severate inborn defence mechanisms in psychological terms) it is a barrier to rationality which is important for confront problems as they are and then find permanent solutions around them.

  13. #13 by wanderer on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 10:28 pm

    My dull brain is rot, I leave the wise men do the thinking and solving the unbalanced approaches faced
    by ordinary folks. No matter how much we try, there are always some who will try to split hair and make excuses for their their own interest and agenda. You may have a valid point to dissect human weakness, unfortunately, it all depends on which side of the fence you are in. I wish you well and hope you can bring forth your valuable points to compromise some of the problems facing this troubled nation.

  14. #14 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 10:38 pm

    It is agreed that intelligence is not endowed on any one community though the Bell Curve thought otherwise. The basic tendency towards certain behaviour seems prevailing in many societies at all levels of development. A child will eventually become more “competitive” if he/she is being equipped with the right approach at a young age. Whereas, if a young mind is imbued to fear its own shadow, you stop that mind from exploring beyond what the community imposes. Then, surely one can hardly expect that mind to think out of the box! Isn’t that is the direction our educational policy is gearing at? Progress can only come from open competition with those who are better equipped in any sense; not just among your selected peers. This is what you see everywhere under the dogma of endowment rights! this formula is not going to work and will never ever work. National schools were and are associated for the fear of subjects associated with spatial understanding. Why? because of poor grounding at the primary school level. Even their teachers are afraid of simple mathematical problems and this fear is transmitted to the pupils just by oozing through the look in their faces! I know because I spent my 5 contracted years trying to get them to enjoy that subject.

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