Little Drops: Cherished Children of Singapore’s Past

Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
Penguin Random House
Reviewed by: 

a fascinating collection of case studies of cross-cultural adoption . . .”

The title of this engaging ethnography of cross-cultural adoption in Singapore between 1920s and 1970s is taken from a Tamil phrase meaning “small drops make a great flood,” by which the author, Theresa W. Devasahayam, wishes to indicate how the love showered upon the adopted child by the adoptive parents develops incrementally over time “forming an ocean of love engulfing the child.” However, in several of the 15 case studies included in this volume, 14 of them centred on adoption of girls, the picture is somewhat more nuanced, and the seas a little choppier than that phrase suggests.

This is a pioneering work in the sense that there are very few studies on cross-cultural adoptions, most of which cases involved the adoption of Chinese girls by Malay and Indian families.

The story of Devasahayam’s own mother, Jane, whose childhood photograph adorns the cover, ignited her interest in cross-cultural adoption during the stated period. Her mother was born to Chinese parents but adopted by an Indian family. “The book’s narratives showcase the adoption of Chinese girls and boys by Indian or Malay parents for various reasons—superstition, astrological beliefs, poverty, patriarchy, deaths, fear of Japanese soldiers targeting Chinese.” Chinese families also adopted children, but most of these adoptees were Chinese.

Salient political and socio-economic characteristics of Singapore during the period in question, are that it was a society in a state of volatility, pre-Independence and under Japanese occupation. Many of the families surrendering their children were marginalized and impoverished, though the immediate impulse to give up their child might come from astrological indications or the mother’s ill-health, as well as an already heavy burden of children. Devasahayam mentions the rare and difficult access to family planning and reproductive health services during this period. In general, there was a strong son- preference in the Chinese community that made it more likely for biological parents to give up a girl.

Key aspects of the socio-economic background to these cross-cultural adoptions are scattered across the chapters. But it would have been helpful, for readers not familiar with the history of Singapore, to have had a more coherent and comprehensive presentation of the overall situation rather early in the book, including some more detailed background on the internal dynamics of the different ethnic communities concerned, and the nature and extent of their interaction. Perhaps this can be provided in the hopeful event of any update or future study.

In some cases, the biological and adoptive parents already knew each other, or knew of each other, whereas in other cases informal intra- and inter-community social networks carried the news of the availability of a child for adoption, and the reciprocal interest of the potential hosting family. Other “intermediaries” between supply of and demand for a child were hospitals and a convent where children were placed for adoption. Very rarely was there any substantive financial component and the only document to change hands was the birth certificate usually revealed to the adopted child only when the time came to apply for an ID card or other bureaucratic instrument.

In general, the children were kept in ignorance of their adoptive status until the parents were obliged to come up with an explanation of the fact that, unavoidably, the name of the biological mother appeared on the birth certificate. One adoptee, Evangeline, who asked her adoptive father who was the woman named on her birth certificate, received the astonishing and inaccurate explanation that it was the name of a woman with whom he had had an affair, who did not want anything to do with her child and ceded to him full responsibility. Evangeline was not convinced and set out to find the truth with some difficulty. Both sets of parents had sworn at the time of her transfer never to tell her that she was adopted.

For many children the revelation that they were adopted, even though they may have had their suspicions, often generated by the fact that they looked so different from their adoptive family, was traumatic and they reacted and worked toward recovery of equilibrium in a variety of ways. Only a few managed to establish warm relations with and between their two families.

Devasahayam’s excellent ethnographic approach provides intimate portraits of the adoptees, and to a lesser extent of the biological and adoptive parents, and like all such bottom-up approaches, particularly relating to previous eras, provokes many questions which may never be answered. How does the number of cross-cultural adoptions compare with those transfers that took place within the cultural community? To what extent were cross-cultural adoptions actively sought by biological parents motivated by the higher status or superior financial position of the adoptee family and community? What does the cessation of cross-community transfers say about any change in overall social solidarity?

The author states that the 1960s saw a gradual rise in formal adoptions through legal arrangements, though this the reasons behind this are not fully clarified. She also states that during this general period cross-cultural adoptions came to a halt as “a small committee was formed in 1972 . . . and agreed that prospective adoptive parents could not adopt children from outside their ethnic group,” on the stated grounds that the committee felt that the trauma of adoption was greatly compounded by the cross-cultural content. Perhaps the consideration that during this period, children, particularly girl children, could also be “adopted” into servitude or prostitution was also a factor in their deliberations.

Whatever the complex socio-economic and political factors leading to this change, gradually “the idea of a transferred child became a phenomenon of the past, etched in the collective memory of the older generation, never to repeat itself.”

This is a fascinating collection of case studies of cross-cultural adoption from a lost era that leaves the reader wanting more!