Education and the Transnational Family: A Study of China’s Study Mothers in Singapore

This project was undertaken in response to the rapid increase in the extent and complexity of transnational migration within and out of Asia over the last two decades which has had a great impact on reconstituting the institution of the “family”. In the context of shifting global patterns of immigration and settlement, the “transnational family” – generally regarded as a family where one or more constituent core members are distributed in two or more nation-states, but who continue to share strong bonds of collective welfare and unity – has become a more common feature across a wide spectrum of societies in Asia. For many middle-income Asian families from the region’s less developed countries, the education of children in a more developed country has become a major “project” requiring the transnational relocation of one or more members of the family.

As an aspiring global education hub, Singapore has been a recipient of many international students. The project examined the case of mothers from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – known locally as pei du ma ma (study mothers) – who accompany their young pre-teen and teenage children to Singapore during the course of their study, while leaving their spouses (and parents) at home, a phenomenon which has recently become an issue of public debate and concern. These women have to not only negotiate their transnational family situations, but also struggle to maintain their lives in Singapore, taking on a variety of low-end service sector jobs including, sometimes, sex work because of employment restrictions placed on them by the Singapore state.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with the study mothers and their children who are in Singapore, the project has already yielded one internationally refereed paper (Huang, S and Yeoh, B.S.A. (2005) ‘Transnational families and their children’s education: China’s “study mothers” in Singapore’, Global Networks, 5(4), 379-400) which examines how the transnational project of education for these young Asian children hinges crucially on the nation and realization of the “sacrificial mother”. It was found that unlike the women in elite Chinese transnational families who enter western countries as potential citizens and are able to regain relatively privileged lifestyles after a period of transition, the study mothers are admitted to, and remain in, Singapore as transient sojourners whose lives are characterized by continuing challenges and fluidity. A future paper will explore how these women and children negotiate their “fit” into Singapore society, given the Singapore state’s current strategic thrust of attracting foreign students to stay on and become Singaporeans to augment the nation’s talent and population pools.

Awarding Body:
Ministry of Education

Brenda Yeoh
Shirlena Huang


Huang, S. and B.S.A. Yeoh, 2011. Navigating the terrains of transnational education: Children of Chinese ‘study mothers’ in Singapore. GeoForum, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 394-403.

Yeoh, B.S.A. and S. Huang, 2010. Sexualized politics of proximities among female transnational migrants in SingaporePopulation, Space and Place, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp.37-49.