Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: The Women’s Charter was passed in 1961. It is a historical and significant Act. It instituted the rights of women, and protected vulnerable women and girls exposed to vice. The Women’s Charter was also pivotal in strengthening the family institution, which is a key pillar of our society. It upheld monogamy and outlined the rights and duties of married persons. Strong marriages and families are as important and relevant today, if not more so.
Our social policies, infrastructure and legal provisions must be regularly updated to support families. My Ministry has been doing so. The proposed legislative amendments we are making to the Women’s Charter today is one part of this larger effort.
Specifically, the proposed amendments to the Women’s Charter will, firstly, help support younger couples in their transition into married life and parenthood; secondly, better protect the interest of children affected by their parents’ divorce; thirdly, allow incapacitated husbands and ex-husbands to apply for spousal maintenance when there is a clear need; fourthly, void marriages of convenience; fifthly, better support vulnerable persons in family violence and crisis situations; and lastly, strengthen law enforcement against online vice.
First, we must continue to strengthen marriages and families. This is, and will remain, one of the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s key priorities. We have different services, programmes and public outreach initiatives towards this objective.
However, notwithstanding these efforts, divorces are becoming more common. This is very much a global phenomenon. To cite a statistic, for example, 20.3% of our 1998 marriage cohort had dissolved before the 15th anniversary, compared to 12.3% of the 1987 marriage cohort. Marriages involving couples where one or both parties are very young face higher risk. A fair number are not adequately prepared for marriage. Those who become parents shortly after marriage do face additional stress.
In 2011, the Women’s Charter was amended to require minor couples to attend a Marriage Preparation Programme if one party is below the age of 18 years, or if both parties are minors below 21 years old. About 200 minor couples have gone through the programme. We are very heartened that over 95% of them found it useful.
We will now amend the Women’s Charter rules to extend the Marriage Preparation Programme to all marriages where one party is a minor. Agencies that currently conduct the Marriage Preparation Programme will do so for this additional group of couples. This will take effect for marriages on and after 1 October 2016.
Beyond legislation, we will also enhance the pre- and post-marriage support continuum for this group of couples. We will put in place group marriage education programmes, one-on-one marriage assessments and post-marriage support sessions by 2017.
Even as we try to strengthen marriages, there will be those that have irretrievably broken down. Divorcing couples and their family members go through periods of anger, anxiety, grief and stress. The children are often the ones most adversely impacted when caught in the middle of their parents’ fights.
Let me cite you some examples that we had picked up while working with families. There was a child whose paternal grandma told her that if she really loved her daddy, she should stop thinking of mommy. The little girl grieved over this but hid it from her dad and grandmother because she did not want to disappoint them; she did not want to make them angry.
Another example. There was a child who was told by her mother that her daddy did not love her anymore, as he had a new family with a new baby. The child felt abandoned, unloved and insecure. She asked whether her mommy would also not love her anymore if she had a new baby herself. These are stories which the children shared with some of our workers who work with families. And these stories tell us that we must always make sure that children's voices are heard and their interests and needs are taken care of during divorces.
In 2011, the Ministry amended the Women’s Charter to require divorcing parents with children to attend mandatory mediation and counselling after a writ of divorce has been filed. This has been quite effective in helping some divorcing couples reach agreements on children matters in less acrimonious ways.
But going for mandatory mediation and counselling on children’s issues, after first battling it out in Court to settle the divorce, is really not ideal. Many divorcing parties have become hardened in their positions or too caught up with their emotions, by then. Social workers, counsellors and lawyers have told us it is much better to have divorcing parents consider their children’s well-being early, before the divorce process formally starts.
We are, therefore, introducing a new section 94A in the Women’s Charter to require divorcing couples with minor children who are not able to agree on all matters of divorces to attend a mandatory parenting programme before they can file for divorce. For a start, those with at least one child aged below 14 years will be required to attend the programme. We plan to eventually extend this requirement to those with children aged below 21 years old.
The new pre-divorce mandatory parenting programme will cover a range of issues that will have a tangible impact on children such as housing, school, care arrangements, and bread and butter issues. These practical aspects, when overlooked, add unnecessary turmoil to a child’s life post-divorce.
The new mandatory programme will also stress the importance of positive co-parenting after divorce. Even though a marriage ends, parental responsibilities remain. And I think it is important that parents remember that. Children need both parents to co-parent even after divorce. Allow me to say this with the best of intentions. I know that co-parenting is not easy. But, in many cases, it is probably the best “gift” that divorced parents can give to their children – the certainty that they still have both parents to love them despite everything. Then, the children do not feel that they have to take sides; they do not feel they are to blame; and they do not feel guilty.
The process where divorcing parents go through in applying for the mandatory parenting programme will also include self-reflection questions − questions that focus parents’ minds on their children’s well-being. For those who may still have questions about their marriage and divorce, we will also point them to agencies that provide marital counselling. I hope that with this, perhaps some, upon reflection, may actually reconsider divorce and seek help for their problems.
During our public consultation on the Bill, some members of the public expressed concern that the new mandatory requirement could lengthen the divorce process. They felt that in some situations, for example, where there is family violence, the divorce process needs to be expeditious.
Let me assure the House that our intention is not to make it more onerous for parties to be granted a divorce. Neither do we aim to make it easier. But the objective is to better equip parties with knowledge and awareness of the issues arising in a divorce that will affect their children. It will enable couples to be more informed and make child-centric decisions during the process of divorce.
The pre-divorce mandatory parenting programme will be funded by my Ministry and conducted by the Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs). These four agencies offer a range of programmes and services. Since they started operating a year ago, they have served over 3,000 divorcing couples. The feedback from the couples and their children, as well as from judges and community partners, has been positive.
I will now move on to the next area of amendments, which is on maintenance. Today, under the Women’s Charter, maintenance may be ordered for two broad categories. The first is maintenance for children. Both fathers and mothers are responsible for maintaining or contributing to the maintenance of their children. This is so even after a divorce, and whether or not they have custody of the children. A mother may, therefore, seek child-maintenance from the father, and vice versa.
The second category of maintenance is for a spouse or ex-spouse. This is the focus of the proposed amendment. Today, a woman can seek spousal maintenance from her husband or ex-husband. The law, however, does not enable men to seek spousal maintenance from their wives or ex-wives. This is something that is increasingly being questioned and debated, and my Ministry has certainly received a broad range of opinions.
At one end of the spectrum, some Singaporeans have argued that spousal maintenance should be gender-blind and based on needs. Let me cite you an email feedback that we received during the public consultation; and I think it sums it up quite neatly. The writer wrote, "I find it hard to believe that Singapore, a First World society, is unable to accept that women should be our equals and should provide towards maintaining their ex-spouse equally if he is unable to do so."
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel strongly that men should be the main breadwinner – and by and large they remain so – and spousal maintenance should be reserved for women only. After all, a wife is more likely to give up her career to care for the family. She is also more likely to be financially more vulnerable post-divorce. Allow me to quote from two emails we have received to illustrate.
One said, “Despite the call of gender equality, we must face the reality that there cannot be absolute equality between the two genders. Moreover, it remains in our culture and in fact among men themselves, the notion that the husband is deemed the "protector" of the family.”
Another argued: “Remember that the Women's Charter is supposed to protect women's rights and not allow women to fall prey to the irresponsibility of men who wilfully refused to work, in the name of providing care for the family.”
Clearly, there are very emotive and strong responses from various ends of the spectrum and in between them as well. I do not honestly think there is one decision that can satisfy all the differing views. This is one issue that there will be a range of issues. There is merit on both sides. Indeed, there are more women today with more successful careers. Some of you may have read about a recent Court of Appeal judgement which disallowed a woman’s claim for a nominal maintenance order of $1. The Court found her “more than capable” of taking care of herself.
On the other hand, we still have many women who are struggling to provide a decent home for herself and her children, after years of being a homemaker during the marriage. As Members of Parliament, I think many of us would have encountered such real life examples during our Meet-the-People Session and when we meet our residents.
After extensive discussions with stakeholders and internal deliberations, we have concluded that, our society is not quite fully ready for gender neutrality on spousal maintenance front and we will not rename the Women’s Charter as a Family Charter at this time, despite some calls to do so, in line with the philosophy of gender-neutrality.
There remain many vulnerable women, and many women who hold rank and file jobs, who need to be able to rely on their husbands or ex-husbands for maintenance for themselves and their children. However we do note the feedback provided and we will keep this issue on watch and consider them in the future.
Recently, one of our divorce support specialist agencies highlighted a case they handled. This concerns a man with a professional job. He was unfortunately struck with a debilitating illness while on an overseas work assignment. The illness left him mentally incapacitated and unable to work. His wife, equally successful in her career, divorced him, and now he has no way to support himself.
In yet another case, my Parliamentary Secretary met a male resident who became severely disabled after a serious work accident. His wife divorced him. He is very bitter because he has no recourse for support, despite years of having provided for his wife and family.
We are proposing amendments that will allow, for the first time, spousal maintenance to be extended to such husbands and ex-husbands. This is part and parcel of the mutual help and support expected when a man and a woman enter into a marriage. Stories such as what I have shared reinforce our sense that this is one area we should do.
We have set three clear criteria that must all be met. Only a man who is (i) incapacitated before or during the course of the marriage, (ii) unable to earn a livelihood and (iii) unable to support himself, therefore can claim maintenance. He must also be unable to support himself at the time when the maintenance application is heard.
During our public consultation, we also received a lot of feedback on maintenance enforcement. I think many of us feel very strongly about this issue – I certainly do. We have received many heartfelt appeals and letters talk of maintenance payments slipping, being irregular or not being paid. I can understand how frustrating this can be for an ex-spouse who is not only entitled to but who relies on the maintenance to keep the family going after divorce.
At the last round of amendments in 2011, we introduced several measures to strengthen maintenance enforcement. Today, the Court may order a defaulter’s employer to pay maintenance directly out of the defaulter’s salary, mandate that a defaulter attend financial counselling and even sentence a defaulter to jail.
To this end, my Ministry has been working closely with the Family Justice Courts and the Community Justice Centre to strengthen the working relationship between our agencies. We find that there are basically two broad groups of defaulters: Firstly, those who "cannot pay"; secondly those who "won’t pay". We will need to address them differently.
We will extend timely financial assistance to vulnerable wives and ex-wives and their children in cases where the husband or ex-husband genuinely cannot pay maintenance. For example, he could be in jail, or has had a serious accident and cannot work. Such wives or ex-wives will be directed to my Ministry's Social Service Offices (SSOs) for financial assistance. Our SSOs will also refer them to the Community Justice Centre for legal assistance should there be a need.
Our focus here is on the women and children, as they are often the victims. But that said, we will also help a husband or ex-husband whose circumstances have changed such that he genuinely cannot pay maintenance. For example, if he has a serious debilitating illness and is not able to work for a sustained period, he may approach the Community Justice Centre for legal assistance to review the maintenance orders. He may also approach the SSOs. The SSOs will help not only the man, but also his wife or ex-wife, with financial assistance so that the family may tide over the difficult period and get back on their feet.
In contrast to this more empathetic approach, we do intend to be very much more firm with these recalcitrant maintenance defaulters in the so-called “won’t pay” group - this means those who have the means but choose not to honour their maintenance payments. This is where there is much distress, anger and bitterness in the part of wives and ex-wives especially. They know their husbands refuse to pay maintenance for themselves and their children and we intend to seriously stop such irresponsible behaviour.
So, we are working closely with the Courts to appoint a Maintenance Record Officer (MRO). This officer will assist the Court in certain maintenance enforcement applications so as to identify those who can afford but refuse to pay maintenance. With the assessment of the individual’s ability to pay, Judges will be in a better position to make full use of the range of enforcement levers introduced in the 2011 round of amendments. Judges can impose tougher penalties against these recalcitrant individuals and I hope that they do.
Related to maintenance are child access issues. As a Member, and many of you can relate to this, we have encountered many heart-rending appeals for divorced parents to see their children. Often, it is the fathers who have been denied access. By July this year, the Divorce Support Agencies will double their capacity of supervised exchange and visits for children. With an increase in capacity, our agencies will be better able to facilitate child access arrangements. Very importantly, they will work with parents to co-parent more effectively.
As a husband and a father, I would like to take this opportunity to remind all men to be responsible, especially when you have child maintenance to pay. Parenting your child does not stop even when the marriage is over. You can still and always be a loving father by not neglecting your responsibility to provide for your children. Even if your marriage is over, a caring relationship with you as a father will help your child to heal and learn to trust all over again. So not only in terms of maintenance, spend time.
Earlier, I mentioned that there are more marriages between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans. The numbers of marriages between Singaporeans and non-residents have been increasing from 5,411 in 2004, and a decade later in 2014, 6,686.
The vast majority of such marriages are genuine. But there are instances where parties enter into a sham marriage for immigration purposes. In 2012, MHA introduced a provision in the Immigration Act criminalising such marriages for immigration advantage. Parties convicted can be fined or imprisoned, or both, with their immigration facilities revoked. As of 2015, 218 parties have been convicted.
It is an offence for parties to abuse marriage laws for immigration advantage. It follows therefore that such marriages should be void. The new Section 11A will now make a marriage void if one party to the marriage is convicted of the marriage of convenience offence under the Immigration Act.
Let me move on to the issue of protection. Men, women and children who experience family violence require help. Today, in the event of violence within the family, a married man or woman below 21 years of age has to rely on others such as a parent or a guardian to apply for a protection order on his or her behalf.
Given that most married persons below 21 years old already have familial responsibilities such as care for children, Section 65 is to be amended to provide for married or previously married persons below 21 years old, to apply for protection orders for themselves and their children. This is similar to the provisions in the Act that govern the parties allowed to apply for maintenance orders.
Some women and girls in crisis situations may, at times, need temporary emergency accommodation at places of safety such as crisis shelters or residential facilities. The Bill introduces new community-based care options by allowing the Director of Social Welfare to also place a vulnerable woman, or girl below 21 years of age into the care of a ‘fit individual’. This could be a relative or friend who could provide support in a “home environment”, and not only in residential facilities or shelters.
Some professionals that my Ministry works with in protection work include the staff in Family Service Centres, Family Violence Specialist Centres and crisis shelters. We will provide immunity for such professionals when they assist vulnerable individuals or discharge their duties in good faith and with reasonable care. In this way, they are protected against lawsuits or other legal proceedings in their personal capacity when carrying out a court order, acting under the direction of the Minister or the Director of Social Welfare in discharging duties under the Act.
The rise of online platforms and social media also pose new dangers to victims of abuse and challenges to the professionals who protect them. A new section 177A will prohibit the publication or broadcast of any information in the mass and social media that would reveal or is likely to identify the location of the shelter, residential facility or its residents. This is to better prevent perpetrators of violence from harassing, intimidating or harming persons residing or working at places of safety. The State may also act against serious breaches by the media which compromises the safety of the residents and staff.
The rise of online media has also allowed vice syndicates to take their businesses online to widen their reach to clients, while hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet. This makes it challenging for the Police to prevent and detect criminal groups conducting such a business. Sexual services at hotels and residences arranged by vice syndicates using new technologies also affect the public’s sense of safety and security.
The proposed amendments will enhance the Police’s levers to address online vice. They will make it an offence for persons in Singapore to operate or maintain in Singapore any website or other remote communication service that offers or facilitates the provision of sexual services in return for payment. They will also enable the Police to take action against a person who aids or will aid the prostitution of another person by providing any service, such as setting up a website to advertise such services, and who receives any gratification, whether cash or in kind, for providing that service.
Let me now conclude. The family remains the key pillar in our society. As families continue to change in Singapore, we will also have to continue to review our policies, services and programmes. We will also regularly update our legislations. The legislative amendments I am proposing to the Women’s Charter today is one part of this broad effort.
Many Singaporean organisations and individuals have contributed to this exercise. Some have generously provided their professional knowledge and expertise. Others have given their inputs and feedback during our consultation. And I would like to thank all of them for their contributions.
I believe that this set of amendments we are proposin, and the other changes we are making to policies and services, will help strengthen marriages, support families and render protection and assistance to those who are more vulnerable. With that, Madam, I beg to move.
Er Dr Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon): Mdm Speaker, gender equality has long been a heavily debated issue across national borders, cultures and generations. Regardless how far we have come, how much further we should go, one thing is for sure – as a nation, we pledged to build an equal and democratic society. Prejudice against either gender is frowned upon in the workplaces and public domains. Yet, it is common to find that cultural baggage from the past continues to hinder our progress in the pursuit of gender equality. There is a Chinese saying, 男主外，女主内. This continues to be presumed and desired as the default relationship dynamic.
The Women’s Charter was established in 1961 to empower the law to protect women who were seen as the weaker sex. Back in those days, many women did not pursue higher levels of learning, and they would marry and become stay-home moms almost after leaving school. Or, they would quit their jobs when they decided to have a family. Granting maintenance to women in a divorce has been the rightful thing to do in appreciation of her contribution to the family when she has sacrificed her youth and potential incomes. Today, the female demographic is vastly different. Labour force statistics last year showed that employment rate for woman in Singapore was 76% for the prime working ages of 25 to 54.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has for years called for the extension of spousal maintenance to men. This is in line with alimon y laws in societies where gender equality is actively pursued, such as Britain, the US and Canada. But the Ministry deduced from talks with various groups that our society is not ready for women to shoulder the same responsibilities as men, and so up till today, men are still not able to claim alimony, apart from a small group of men in genuine need that can get spousal support. Hence, with this Bill I would say any progress is good progress. It is good that we have made this small step out.
I strongly believe that men who quit their jobs to become house-husbands on mutual consent and perform their designated roles adequately, should also be entitled to maintenance. Please note "mutual consent" because I also have residents who told me that their husbands are lazy to work and, hence, they are forced to become the sole breadwinner and some of them have to work day and night, taking on more than one job and their husband goes out jalan-jalan. So, for cases like this, when it comes to divorce, the husband should not be entitled to any maintenance, even though he is not fit to work.
I also believe that the Courts should weigh carefully in cases where the wife is better off than the husband, and has not been financially dependent on him during their marriage. I refer to the case where Justice Choo Han Teck, who, in 2014, generated somewhat of a debate when he rejected a woman's $120,000 maintenance claim from her former spouse after their 10-year marriage ended in 2012. The wife in this case earned slightly more than the husband, grossing $215,900 in annual income. She also had more than twice the assets he had. Justice Choo had rightly said that to award the woman even a token sum "would be wrong if it was merely symbolic. That symbol for women has to be torn asunder, in fact and in spirit". It is unfortunate that not every man in a similar situation gets a fair resolution.
Mdm Speaker, what is equally important, if not more important, is to make maintenance claims more straightforward. More resources and enforcement should, in fact, be dedicated to spouses who are truly deserving of maintenance and alimony. We have to find a more effective means of prosecuting ex-spouses who default on maintenance fees that they are rightfully supposed to provide. I have encountered cases in which the women had to spend a lot of time frantically trying to secure much-needed child support and financial support from their irresponsible ex-husbands.
Sometimes, a woman has to go to court every few months to get her ex-husband to pay up. In one of those cases, a woman had her case drag on for 10 years and heard by over 20 judges. Imagine! Ten years! Ten years of suffering! Ten years of uncertainty! She had given up her career for the sake of their four children, and upon divorce, was left to raise them on her own without monetary contribution from her ex-husband. Imprisoning the man for a token few days as a punishment is hardly beneficial if he is determined to make the life of his ex-wife very difficult. I think a woman should not have to haul her husband off to Court repeatedly if he is habitually paying maintenance fees late or not paying up at all. His poor track record should be more than enough for immediate tougher action. Right now, it is by definition the men who are defaulting, but in the future we could see women default as well. Reforms in this aspect will benefit spouses who are awarded alimony, whether male or female.
In 2014, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam shared his concerns. He said that a faster, simpler and more effective system is being planned to get defaulters to pay up. I look forward to an update about this new system. The process of seeking maintenance from an unwilling hand is undoubtedly a gruelling and worrisome one. I hope more support can be given to those long-suffering spouses. There should also be pro bono lawyers to help with the legal matters. There should be readily accessible support networks that they can tap on, with counsellors who can offer guidance and help to find fuss-free assistance for a range of related issues from financial aid to housing, health and school matters.
A marriage may not be salvageable, but both parents can, and should continue to conduct their parental responsibilities, assist their children to adapt to the changes, and possibly continue to carry significant responsibility in the later part of the children’s lives. Here is where I want to touch on visitation rights to children. This is something that needs to be addressed in the parenting programme as part of a post-divorce plan where all the arrangements concerning the child are mapped out, from visitation schedules, decision- making to parenting responsibilities and more. Additionally, make counselling and support programmes for children of divorced marriages comprehensive and easily accessible. Counsellors must work closely with parents to ensure that the children are attending the sessions and programmes as regularly as required with the goal of adapting well to their new life with one parent.
To conclude, we cannot prevent divorces, or the hard feelings that some divorces will bring. But we need to minimise the adverse effects of divorces to our society, especially the children. An equal maintenance regime, where ex-spouses can easily seek arrears, and encouragement to cooperate on childcare are all factors that bring about this positive change. Mdm Speaker, let me summarise in Chinese as well.
(In Mandarin): [Please refer to Vernacular Speeches.] : The amendments have two changes which can help families that unfortunately are going through divorce. First, those ex-husbands who cannot work due to health reasons will be able to seek maintenance from their ex-wife. Today, there are many women who are as successful as men in the workplace. Hence, we can gradually move towards gender equality in terms of paying maintenance. Second, we will make it mandatory for divorcing parents to attend specialised Parenting Programme to minimise the impact of divorce on their children.
On the other hand, there are still many women who face the problem of their ex-husband not-paying maintenance. The Minister for Law said before that the Ministry was studying some changes in this area. I hope the authorities can simplify the relevant procedures and give these women greater help. I support the motion.
On strengthening maintenance, enforcement and support, I agree with what the Minister had shared that it is not about increasing legislation and that we should consider the efficacy of the processes which are supposed to deliver the objectives espoused in the Women’s Charter. I would like to highlight some instances where we should make the implementation more seamless.
For instance, where there is a default in the payment of the maintenance order, the aggrieved party has to make an application in person at the Family Courts to make a maintenance complaint and the Court will then serve a maintenance summons on the defaulter.
However, sometimes in the case of persistent serial defaulters, the aggrieved party may be so tired out by the process of having to physically attend Court each time the defaulter defaults, that she eventually gives up claiming the maintenance amount due to her. This is especially relevant for those who face financial difficulty in the first place and can ill afford to take leave from work or from taking care of their children to go to the Family Courts to make the application in person and attend Court for the subsequent mentions or for the trials. And in the case of “incapacitated husbands”, I am not sure if he is physically able to make the application at the Family Courts should his ex-wife default.
Further, should the defaulter fail to turn up in Court, he or she can be found in contempt of the Court and a warrant of arrest issued. However, what in reality happens is that no arrest is actually made as warrants of arrests are issued for a variety of reasons including non-payment of parking fines or service and conservancy charges and it is impossible to task the Police to arrest every person who has a warrant of arrest issued against him or her.
Lastly, though a garnishee order can be made to secure maintenance payments against bank accounts, each garnishee order is once off, meaning, that the aggrieved party typically bundles months of arrears owed to him or her, before making an application for a garnishee order to the courts and in the meantime, the aggrieved party faces financial difficulties without the maintenance payments. There are also instances where the bank account is closed by the defaulter and there is no information on his other bank accounts.
As such, while I listen with interest what the Minister has shared with regards to the appointment of a Maintenance Record Officer, I would like to urge further the following considerations. That, number one, the application process for maintenance complaints to be made more convenient for an ex-husband or ex-wife who wants to serve a private summons on their ex-spouse who has defaulted on maintenance payments. An example could be to have the application done at family service centres and in the case of an incapacitated husband, that a proxy should be allowed.
And in the case where there is a warrant of arrest issued for an ex-spouse who can pay and refuses to pay, that an agency or system of bailiffs and perhaps the MRO that the Minister has spoken about, be tasked to enforce the actual arrest of the defaulter to give teeth to the charter. With that, I support the amendments to the Bill.
On maintenance for incapacitated husbands, whilst I consider it as a right and humane thing to do, there are some who argue that we are drifting towards the equal rights issue where, in the past, such responsibility rested solely on the men with the traditional role of men supporting women instead of the vice versa. Some have also asked if this is going to be the beginning of change towards equal rights with more amendments to come on the Women’s Charter to equalise in all aspects. I can understand this argument because with our Asian-values based society here, we have yet to reach the level of gender equality to be looking at equal rights in all aspects. For example, women are still under-represented at senior management levels, child-rearing and care-giving responsibilities are still considered roles for women with many young women having to put their jobs on hold and also, some women are not paid equally as their male counterparts for similar jobs and so on.
Another issue with this amendment, Madam, is the resultant burden being too excessive for some, if not all, of the divorced wives with incapacitated spouses. This would be especially so for those with young children. It will definitely be doubly difficult for a wife to look after the children and also the long-term needs of the incapacitated ex-husband. In the past, the siblings or even the parents will take care of or share the care of the incapacitated spouses. With this Bill, this past norm of extended family's responsibility will be shifted to the ex-wife and thus the possibility of leaving the entire long-term care to her. Another point is that the extra long-term burden on the wife may indeed disadvantage her in getting into another relationship. It is because the potential new partner may not be comfortable with having his future wife supporting another person permanently.
Putting the child’s interest first in a divorce through Mandatory Parenting Programme for divorcing parents with children below 21 years is welcome indeed. Children do suffer from broken marriages through no fault of theirs. Studies have shown that children suffer from physical and psychological repercussions from the divorce of their parents. Such children are at a higher risk of social and psychological problems later in their adult lives.
Studies have also shown that children whose parents are married throughout the early childhood years are less likely to suffer from breathing problems such as asthma, from becoming overweight and from being injured in accidents before they are five years of age. On the other hand, children troubled with parental divorce are particularly prone to develop problems with anger, disobedience, rule violations, prolonged sadness and even depression. Their performance in school can be adversely affected too. The emotional, social, health and economic costs associated with marital conflict and family dissolution causing delinquency, depression, poverty and crime and, especially, the devastating harm done to children have been well documented.
The number of children below the age of 18 years who were affected by the divorce of their parents in 2014 was 5,172 and 1,689 for marriages under Women’s Charter and Administration of Muslim Law Act respectively.
May I ask Ministry for Social and Family Development (MSF) whether there is any support scheme, with professional assessment and assistance, in place to help especially the more vulnerable children during the transition stages of divorce proceedings? Most children are stressed and do not want their parents to divorce. Can school counsellors be roped in to assist and work with social workers of MSF to better help these children?
According to studies by Amato & Keith in 1991, the long-term consequences of parental divorce for adult attainment and quality of life may prove to be more serious than the transitional short-term emotional and social problems in children. Stress states have been noted to be prolonged for many children, especially those in lower income families with financial instability following the divorce of their parents. Many children also have difficulty adjusting to new environments and perhaps new step-parents and step-siblings from any subsequent marriages.
Is it possible for MSF to set up a register to keep track of vulnerable children from divorces and to assist these children, especially the more disadvantaged ones, on a long-term basis? I feel that this will be an important step to ensure keeping these children on MSF’s radar in order to give them a better footing in life subsequently and thereby prevent future problems for themselves and for society.
Concerning the new section 94A of the Bill on extending the Mandatory Marriage Preparation Programme to marriages where at least one party is a minor, I read it as MSF trying to apply the tenet of “prevention is better than cure”. This is a good thing as divorces here are on the rise. The absolute number of divorces was 1,551 in 1980 and 6,861 in 2014, 7,307 including annulments. MSF had previously published that marriages involving younger grooms, regardless of the age of the brides, were particularly vulnerable to divorces. Thus, this Mandatory Marriage Preparation Programme may be useful in preventing divorces. I feel that we should particularly take the opportunity at this early stage to identify couples with high divorce potential and counsel them accordingly.
Over the past two decades, the US government-funded researchers have declared that they can predict, with about 90% accuracy, which engaged couples will divorce. An early researcher in the field, regarded by many as its reigning genius, is John Gottman. Other researchers have developed programmes that can significantly change the odds for marriages that appear doomed.
May I ask whether MSF can take this one step further and identify those marriages, where at least one party is a minor, that seem to be starting on wrong footings or having higher chances of divorce so as to, under this new section of 94A, proceed to mandate three more marriage counselling courses at the end of the first year, second year and fifth year of their marriages as well as mandate additional parenting tips for such couples should they have children by then? This will strengthen marriages more before they deteriorate or start to breakup. Thus, I am suggesting not just giving pre-marriage courses but three further subsequent marriage courses in communication, conflict resolution and marriage enhancements together with parenting courses for minors. Can MSF also set up a fund to make it easier for couples to have such courses without monetary constraints?
Regarding section 57C, I agree that we should strengthen our regulations to avoid marriages of convenience. In our small country with limited resources, we cannot afford to allow this immigration loophole.
Will MSF explore further preventive measures at the very beginning when requirements for marriages are being considered? When certain characteristics or signs, such as wide age gap, foreign bride and lower income, of a marriage of convenience exist, there should be extra measures in place to determine such applications. Madam, subjecting such couples to interviews or to filling-up questionnaires separately would be one such measure. Very often, conflicting answers to the same questions posed to such couples can give clues to such marriages of convenience.
Can our registrars of marriages be given the authority to investigate and form opinions on whether the marriage applications are genuine and perhaps to refuse issuance of certificates for fraudulent marriages? Can the registrars or, for that matter, any other Ministries refer with ease any suspected cases of marriage of convenience to MSF or ICA for follow-up?
Most times, it is the public or people in the community that is in the know about any marriages of convenience between couples. Therefore, we should try to make it easier and convenient for the public to inform on such couples so that the relevant Ministries can follow up. I hope MSF can further facilitate these areas.
I also feel that publicity on our rules and punishments concerning marriages of convenience can be made clearer. This should especially target the nationals that frequently use this route to gain permanent residency here. Maybe our embassies in the countries of these nationals should publicise this information and help to discourage them from using this route to gain permanent residency in Singapore. Thank you, Mdm Speaker. I support the Bill.
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, this Bill takes steps to adjust the 55-year old legislation to the changing social environment affecting family life. When enacted in 1961, the Women’s Charter was a momentous and courageous legislation that swam against the tide of opinions and the traditional values of society. I would like to remind the House that the traditional values of Asian society just 60 years ago was the patriarchal treatment of women and the widespread acceptance of polygamy. The preservation of the so-called traditional family was not the original intent of the Charter. On the contrary, the Women’s Charter instituted the modern moral view of the family as a cooperative partnership between husband and wife who have equal rights as independent individuals and have equal responsibilities in caring and providing for the children.
It is a waste that the present and recent amendments are cautious reactions to rising divorce rates. These were opportunities to replicate the visionary spirit of the framers of the original Charter in using the law to shape society for the empowerment of its members. The main changes proposed by the present Bill attempt to deal with two sets of problems besetting the modern family following the principles of the original Charter. The first set concerns the better protection of the well-being and interests of children and follows the principle of parental responsibility. The Bill gives the Courts powers to order divorcing parents to attend the Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP) and restates who can apply for a protection order in situations of family violence. The second set follows the principle of gender equality and makes incapacitated ex-husbands eligible for receiving maintenance from their ex-wives. The proposed changes, each on their own and on the whole, do not go far enough to plug the widening cracks and empower the modern family in increasingly trying times.
On the matter of parental responsibility and better protection of children, I would like to make four points. The first point is on the MPP. My worry is that divorcing parents would go through the motion of attending the MPP. To be effective, the MPP should be tailored to parenting in divorced situations targeting both custodial and non-custodial parents. It should be integrated with mandatory mediation and counselling of divorcing parents at the Child Focused Resolution Centre and should stretch across the pre-divorce and post-divorce periods.
Furthermore, the MPP and the counselling should try to involve the children as much as possible. Children should not be treated simply as passive victims whose problems could be solved by positive parenting. Article 12 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child states that we should “assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child” and that these views be “given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child”. In divorcing situations, children should be and could be active stakeholders whose participation in the process could help to protect their interests and help them achieve some emotional closure.
The second point I would like to raise is that while parental courses, mediation and counselling are good soft solutions persuading couples to go through amicable divorce in the interest of their children, they do not solve the hard problem of ex-husbands defaulting on maintenance support. The 2011 amendments to the Charter giving the Courts powers to impose financial counselling, community service, attachment of earnings and credit bureau recovery have only managed to cause a dent in the problem. It has been reported that the number of applications for enforcement orders on maintenance had only dropped from 1,900 in 2009 to 1,700 in 2013. This means thousands of children remain at serious financial risk.
Repeated stalling and refusal to pay maintenance could be the continuation of abusive relationships, specifically economic abuse to deprive other members of the family the sustenance to maintain a decent standard of living. The Charter continues to fail to recognise this as a form of family violence. Even if we allow that most ex-husbands who default on maintenance simply failed to put responsibility to their children as priority in their economic affairs, this goes against the Charter’s core principle of equal parental responsibility. Whatever it is, the children suffer and may grow resentful of their parents.
The principle of equal parental responsibility requires the law to make sure that the cost of recovery of maintenance does not reach unreasonable levels and is not laid on the single parent with custody of the children. There have been cases of mothers who have to drag their children to visit the Courts many times to get their maintenance, as they cannot afford legal representation. Many families end up in economic hardship because social service organisations are unable to help as long as the maintenance order is there to be enforced. The problem is precisely enforcement.
This is not a new proposal, as women’s organisations have proposed it previously. The Government can help tremendously vulnerable divorcee families to protect the interest of the children by setting up a central agency with strong enforcement powers to recover maintenance on behalf of the families. These powers could include intensive debt collection, investigative surveillance, litigation and overseas travel bans, as in the Australian example. A central agency, let us call it the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Families, could also serve another purpose, which is to provide support to divorcee families dependent on maintenance so that they would not fall into the poverty trap while waiting for the recovery of owed maintenance. The Commissioner for the Maintenance of Families could provide means-tested advance support capped at a quantum to meet basic needs while the owed maintenance is being recovered.
My third point concerns maintenance for single unwed parents. The Charter could also give the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Families powers to take a proactive approach in helping single unwed parents, especially the mothers, to claim child maintenance from the biological father. This is in line with the principle of parental responsibility, as the onus for raising children out of wedlock should not fall on the women while men easily avoid taking responsibility. It is also important for the protection of the children since they are the ones who suffer most and should not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. Many single unwed mothers, because of their socio-economic background or due to the difficult situation of stigmatisation and isolation they are caught in, are not aware that they could apply for child maintenance from the fathers.
If the worry is that helping single unwed parents will cause the moral hazard of promoting more children born out of wedlock, then the Government should know that studies have shown that enforcing child support for single unwed mothers, when coupled with widespread education and publicity, can reduce the rate of non-marital pregnancies. Enforcing men’s parental responsibility has the knock-on effect of making men responsible in their overall behaviour towards women.
My fourth point concerns the tackling of family violence. Is there any evidence that the “Many Helping Hands” approach has helped to reduce family violence? It seems that spousal violence, which makes up the majority of family violence cases, is taking place earlier in the first five years of marriage rather than in the later years of marriage. Family violence remains a pernicious problem. The Government’s approach is to strengthen the touch-points that help identify family violence so that early intervention through counselling can be achieved. It is said that the legal route is not the best solution, so the Courts and applications for Personal Protection Orders (PPOs) should be the last resort.
Notwithstanding this, access to the legal route is an important insurance to give victims a strong sense of security as well as provide an assured deterrence against repeated abuse. This Bill restates the persons who can apply for PPOs, which remain severely limited to the very victims of violence or the persons responsible for the victims if they are below the age of 21 years. However, women and mothers responsible for children being abused are often trapped in precarious positions of recurring violence. They often experience helplessness and cannot act to protect themselves and their families.
We need to expand the range of persons empowered to apply for PPOs. Family members, relatives and friends who are explicitly authorised by the victims are in a good position to know when violence takes place and should be empowered to apply for PPOs. Doctors are also an important touch-point. Right now, the onus is on victims to tell doctors about abuse and request a report for possible PPO application. By the time the violence results in physical injury, it is at the critical stage. Doctors should be empowered to report cases to the Police and draw up medical reports without request. In many jurisdictions, mandatory reporting by doctors to law enforcement has helped to mitigate family violence.
Other than the victims of abuse, children witnessing family violence are the worst affected. Most of them would try to intervene and a survey shows 10% called the Police. We need to protect the children and tweak the “Many Helping Hands” approach to allow children to become a trip-wire for early intervention.
Last and definitely not least, like in many jurisdictions overseas, the Police, to whom social workers, doctors, victims and children of victims turn to as the trusted investigative and enforcement agency, should be empowered to apply for protection orders.
Gender equality. Allowing incapacitated ex-husbands to claim maintenance from their wives is a belated concession to the principle of gender equality. The call to allow ex-husbands to apply for maintenance was first raised in 1996. The Government rejected it on grounds of tradition, that it is the duty of husband to maintain the wife. The same call was rejected six years ago on account that society is not ready for gender equality when it comes to maintenance. This is a double irony since the Women’s Charter was enacted regardless of whether traditional polygamous society was ready for the modern nuclear family. Gender equality was enshrined in the Charter despite tradition or the readiness of society.
Gender equality in 1961 meant giving women equal rights in marriage. Thus, the division of matrimonial assets must be made in “just and equitable” proportions giving due credit to non-financial contributions to marriage. Realising this principle of gender equality today means doing two things. Men should be given full rights to being eligible for maintenance and we should allow the Courts to make gender-neutral decisions regarding asset division and maintenance based on discernments of financial and non-financial contribution to the matrimonial household and also potential earning power. Second, the law should factor in opportunity cost in lost earnings due to being a homemaker in the determination of maintenance, especially given that men and women have full access to the labour market.
In the same spirit of gender equality, but also because this is the hard reality today, we need to include boys and young male persons under Part XI, which protects women and girls from prostitution, sexual exploitation and trafficking. This Part is even more outdated than the Women’s Charter as it reflects the old colonial Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance. The world in the 21st Century has changed, and as scandals regarding the sexual grooming and sexual trafficking of boys indicate, we need to update this Part urgently. In fact, Part XI is an anomaly and its inclusion in the Charter conflates prostitution and sexual exploitation with the family. I believe this Part is best taken out and its provisions integrated with the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act and the Penal Code.
Once Part XI is removed, and the principles of parental responsibility and gender equality are re-affirmed, future revisions of the Women’s Charter provides us with the opportunity to do something progressive and leading the times, shaping society for the better like what the original Charter did in 1961. There have been calls for the Women’s Charter and all other legislations dealing with the family, including the Children and Young Persons Act, to be combined into a landmark piece called The Family Charter. I support this proposal. This is not just for the rationalisation of the law, but it will serve two important purposes.
First, this Government has reiterated that its ideology and policy is to protect, preserve and promote the modern nuclear family as the bedrock of our society. We should continue to do so. Nowhere else in the law is the modern family so well and morally defined as in the Women’s Charter, as equal cooperative partnership with independent rights and parental responsibility, which has paved the way for families to thrive for 50 years now. It is time to rename the Charter to enshrine even more visibly the ideology of safeguarding families.
Second, the renaming does not just give symbolic effect to the moral view of the family. The Family Charter will form the basis with which we institutionalise the family further in the era of ageing, globalisation and consumption culture where the norm of non-marital unions and mixed family forms become increasingly prevalent. It will be the basis for positive legislation to empower children, men and women to lead healthy family lives if they so desire. It will signal to society that families are here to stay and that the Government is committed to protecting the vulnerable, especially when it comes to our children, to ensure that they do not suffer our failures.
Mdm Speaker, we like to tell our children to emulate the bold and progressive spirit of our Pioneer political leaders. The Women’s Charter is a testament to that spirit, but it is in need of a bold revision that would do justice to its core principles of gender equality and parental responsibility. The measures in this Bill try to do this, which is reason for me to support it, but they do not go far enough.
There is no reason not to be bold. Treat children as stakeholders in the divorcing process, set up a central agency to help single-parent families collect maintenance, help single unwed mothers obtain child support to reduce poverty and wedlock pregnancies, tackle family violence by empowering the police and persons who can help the victims to apply for protection orders, allow all ex-husbands to apply for maintenance and let the courts decide on gender-neutral grounds, and consolidate the legislation as the Family Charter to establish a firm foundation for families to thrive into the 21st Century.
The year 2021 will mark the 60th year of the enactment of the Charter. A bold revision will revive and honour the core principles of the Charter, and this Bill paves the way for the revision. All that is needed now is the courageous spirit. Thank you.
Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson): Mdm Speaker, the Women’s Charter is an important piece of legislation in Singapore. It was passed in 1961 to protect and advance the rights of women and girls in Singapore. At that time, the typical household division of labour was such that women would take care of the family at home, while men go out to work and bring the bread home. Many women, due to the lack of education and little control over or access to resources then, were often bullied and in worse instances, faced domestic violence. Therefore, I believe the Women’s Charter passed in 1961 was a progressive and much needed piece of legislation.
Fast forward more than 50 years to today, Singapore has progressed significantly and women today have made huge leaps on many fronts. Singaporean women today are driven and well educated. We are capable of holding our own at workplaces. And with jobs, this means that we are or can be financially independent, generally speaking. Moreover, we have also observed a small, but growing, group of men who give up their jobs to devote their full time to caring for their families. Therefore, it is timely to review the Women’s Charter and update parts of the Charter to offer somewhat more gender balance. In this case, inserting a provision to allow men, very specifically incapacitated men who cannot work and support themselves, to apply for maintenance from their ex-wives is a step in the right direction.
While we need to take bold steps and to recognise that the society has indeed progressed and evolved, and that there is greater gender equality that we observe now in our society, and that with that, I support the provisions in principle, I do have a few concerns that I hope that MSF can address.
Firstly, what safeguards will the MSF put in place to ensure that even though the applicant is incapacitated and appears to be the weaker party, maintenance will be granted only on legitimate grounds? For instance, what if the applicant had not even contributed to the raising of the family before he was incapacitated?
Secondly, how will MSF ensure that this provision will not overburden the ex-wives, who are also granted custody of their children precisely because they are now the more abled party? These ex-wives may be in financial difficulties themselves. They are also most likely the sole breadwinner supporting their children.
Let me cite an example. I have a resident. Let us call her Mdm Foo. She has two young children, two sons still in Primary school. Her husband decided to divorce her for various reasons, but through no fault of hers. She has been working, she has been financially independent but her financial prowess and position were simply not strong enough for her to afford the payment of the home after the divorce because of the compulsory, mandatory requirement to sell off the matrimonial flat. And having custody of her two sons means she will have to take care of them. Yet, despite her being financially active, economically active throughout her working life, she was not even able to afford the extra $3,000 to settle the final payment for the home that she was desperately trying to secure in order to continue to provide a stable and normalised life, post-divorce.
So, in the likes of Mdm Foo, in the event that her ex-husband happens to be incapacitated and would like to demand for maintenance from her, how would she be able to afford? This would no doubt impose too much a burden on the likes of Mdm Foo and, in turn, would also impose great burden and great stress, to the disadvantage to the young children.
Thirdly, what about the divorced women today who are still not receiving their monthly maintenance? While the provision is a step in the right direction, I do urge MSF to continue to strengthen its implementation and support to the ex-wives who need but have yet to receive their monthly maintenance. Otherwise, while we may have moved a step forward on the gender equality front, we risk regressing a step backward in terms of protecting vulnerable women – the very group of people this Charter was enacted to protect in the 1960s. We must recognise and support the group of women who had sacrificed the prime of their lives to care for their families and raise their children and, as a result, left themselves in a very vulnerable position. This is made worse-off if they have to also take on the role of being a breadwinner to support their children.
Fourthly, I would like to ask whether MSF would consider putting in requirements to demand for maintenance from the irresponsible person who may have impregnated a women resulting in her becoming a single and unwed mother.
I say this because I have a resident whom I feel very sympathetic towards. I understand the controversy, issues and concerns that the general society may have towards unwed parents, but in this case, I have full sympathy towards this resident who is just a young lady. When she was much younger, she met a man who impregnated her and they had three children together. Every time she got pregnant, the man would promise to marry her, but every time that promise never gets realised. Finally, as she was pregnant with her third child, this man impregnated another woman and was getting ready to marry this other woman, leaving her in the lurch. This poor lady had to fend for herself and to take care of her three children whom she loves dearly.
Thankfully, her own family is supportive but they too are in financial difficulties. They came to me in tears because they were very upset that this man is going to leave her in the lurch while he marries this other woman whom he felt more attracted to, or for whatever reasons, he felt more strongly about. The three children will now have to face the consequences and the fate of having to depend on only a single source of resources and that is the mother. This mother is really struggling on her own.
In such instances, I feel very sorry for the three children. This is unfair and, therefore, I would like to ask whether MSF can do something to make a provision such that in such instances, the demand for maintenance from the very irresponsible parent will be made available to the single unwed parent who has to take care of the children. I think in this case, the focus is really on the welfare of the children; they are innocent and they too deserve to have an equal and good start in life because they too are born Singaporeans and they are the children of Singapore.
Now, any end to a marriage can inflict great pain on both the man and woman who once loved each other and chose to be together till death do they part. However, if they have a family, the greatest pain is perhaps borne by their children. Children are born to their parents; they rely on, grow to love and share a deep bond with their parents. In a separation, children usually have no say in the decision and yet they are compelled to deal with the pain.
Therefore, I am encouraged to hear that MSF is trying to better protect the interest of children affected by their parents’ divorce through the Mandatory Parenting Programme. But besides targeting divorcing and divorced parents, are there efforts to enhance support for the children affected? Also, the Mandatory Parenting Programme is only for parties who cannot agree on the divorce or ancillary matters. What about divorcing couples who can agree on all matters? Their children will still be affected by their parents’ separation. How will MSF help them?
On a related note, I believe that ensuring the children have continued access to both parents is important to their development. However, in some acrimonious divorces, the custodian parent may find ways to disallow the other party’s access to the children, despite the agreement made. In some cases, the custodian parent hovers around and makes it difficult for the visiting parent to spend quality time with the children. In some cases, the custodian parent and visiting parent continue to fight during the visitation period. And in some cases, the custodian parent simply hides the children and refuses to reveal their whereabouts to the visiting parent.
There is another example that I came across at the Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS). The poor mother came crying to me because she could not have access to her two children as the father decided to smuggle the children out of Singapore to Malaysia. Since it is out of our jurisdiction in Singapore and she has no relatives or contacts there, she was at a total loss, not knowing where to find her children, but yet she misses them and wanted to make sure they are okay. These no doubt will only worsen the already detrimental impact on the children.
Currently, I am glad to note that some Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) have taken the initiative to address this issue. Thye Hua Kuan, for example, has a Centre for Family Harmony at Circuit Road in MacPherson. I have visited the centre and have also come to understand the plights of some of these divorced parents. This centre allows supervised visitations so that despite a divorce, both parents can continue to be present and be a responsible father or mother to the child. In this respect, could MSF share whether such a service will be scaled up and whether MSF has other plans to complement such an effort?
Finally, while I am encouraged by MSF’s move to provide more protection and support to children affected by their parents’ divorce, the ideal must be to build strong families in Singapore. As I have said earlier, the biggest victim in a divorce would be the children. Not only do they have to cope with the immediate pain and anxieties, instability and other adjustment issues, they also risk suffering longer term effects, such as trust and relationship problems in their adulthood. Hence, we must not subject innocent children to such pain as far as possible.
There is another group, another category of Singaporean families that I feel we must continue to support as well – families with foreign parents. In most cases, there are genuine marriages involving a foreign spouse. While a marriage of convenience cannot be tolerated nor condoned, as it violates the sacredness of marriage, but we must do more to recognise and support genuine marriages with foreign spouses. Love cannot be ordained; nobody should tell us who we can or cannot marry. Hence, I believe that supporting a family in which most are Singaporeans, that means perhaps with a foreign parent, we are no doubt helping to build strong Singaporean families.
Hence, I hope that MSF will continue its work in anchoring the ideal of strong families, and work closely with other Ministries to ensure that our policies help young couples build strong families that can stand the test of time.
Some things the Government cannot and should not interfere, but some things the Government can do to try to facilitate and help. For instance, we can try to allow or facilitate couples getting access to flats in matured estates near their parents so that they can have parental and familial support when they eventually have children. This, set against the background where the demand for childcare is increasingly high, I believe, is important. This is just an example, but I hope that MSF can continue to work with the various agencies and Ministries to look at how we can better support and help our young Singaporean families take root in Singapore. At the end of the day, the foundation of a strong Singaporean society would be to continue to have strong families and therefore, helping them would no doubt help to build a stronger Singapore for the future.
Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee): "This Bill is making a very great change in the personal lives of the greater majority of our citizens. It marks a complete break from the past and it is a big step forward. And it is just for that reason that we have thought it important that we consider this piece of legislation as something outside the ordinary stream of legislation that we consider it to be, in the real sense of the word, a Charter for the women of our State."
Mdm Speaker, these words were spoken in earnest by our first Labour and Law Minister Mr K M Byrne during the Second Reading of the Women’s Charter Bill on 6 April 1960. The Bill was the culmination of the People’s Action Party (PAP) rallying call in the 1959 Five Year Plan – “The Tasks Foward”. To give a sense of how important a subject it was, the Five Year Plan dedicated an entire chapter called “Women in the New Singapore”. Mdm Chan Choy Siong, the late hon Member for Delta, should be lauded for her tireless efforts in making the Women’s Charter possible.
We last made amendments to the Women’s Charter in 2011 to enforce maintenance in divorce cases. But now after five years, more amendments are needed to fine-tune the Women’s Charter, in view of the evolving needs of women and child. This Bill has seen numerous and seismic amendments, a sure sign of the importance of the Bill and the difference it has made in society. The proposed amendments in the Bill are largely focused on five key areas: (i) taking care of the child/children’s interests through the Mandatory Parenting Programme for divorcing parents; (ii) maintenance for incapacitated men; (iii) enhanced protection for women, and professionals at places of safety; (iv) voiding marriages of convenience; and (v) remote communications facilitating provision of sexual services.
Mandatory parenting programme. Mdm Speaker, in any divorce, to say that the child or children suffers the most is an under-statement. A broken home does no wonders to a child’s self-confidence, esteem, educational development and health, and many studies attest to this.
Divorce is a battle of attrition as the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has rightly pointed out. Children are the losers as they bear the brunt of the collateral damage in any fight between father and mother. It is not fair to the children. Some may be more resilient and march on bravely in the face of a newly radicalised family environment but there are many more out there who are left broken, bitter by divorce. In many of the cases I have seen at MPS and at block visits, and I am sure many Members can attest to this, it is the children who need the most help.
Over the years in various Parliamentary Questions, the MCYS and subsequently the MSF has provided various statistics on children affected by divorce. Between 2005 and 2009, an average of 6,025 divorces was filed at the Family Court and 1,780 at the Syariah Court. It was stated that half of Family Court’s and 70% of Syariah Court’s cases involved families with children and these figures continue to climb. Back then 4,700 and 2,600 for marriages Women’s Charter and Administration of Muslim Law Act respectively, and the figure for 2014 has gone up even further.
These are alarming figures indeed. One can only imagine the fate of the child pre and post-divorce. The mental and physical nature of the fights, the ensuing loneliness and ultimately the feeling of abandonment would have the child traumatised.
According to a noted psychologist and researcher, Dr Judith S. Wallerstein, who carried out studies on the effects of divorce on the children over a 25-year period, “Divorce is a life-transforming experience. After divorce, childhood is different. Adolescence is different. Adulthood – with the decision to marry, to have or have not children – is different. Whether the outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience”.
The Mandatory Parenting Programme under section 94A is a welcome move. Our current law requires parents with children under 21 years of age to attend mediation and counselling after a divorce writ is filed. But the proposed amendment makes it compulsory to attend the programme before filing for divorce; this is welcome. Through this Mandatory Parenting Programme one can only hope that the child’s physical and mental needs are taken care of by both parents. The programme would be more fruitful if feuding parents could patch up after these counselling sessions, which should be introduced to those considering divorce.
It is encouraging that the mandatory programme at the Child Focused Resolution Centre (CFRC) has been quite successful in helping divorcing couples focus on the best interests of their children. The Family Justice Courts' CFRC programme has been extended to cover all divorce cases with children below 21 years of age.
But I would like to suggest and urge the Ministry to consider pushing this even further. To take a bold move which matches the historic impact of the Women’s Charter and that is to move this Mandatory Parenting Programme upstream together with the Mandatory Marriage Preparation programme.
Before I got married to my wife, we needed to attend a compulsory marriage preparation course call Engaged Encounter. Though it was just one weekend, it was intense and it was emotional. It made us realise that courtship and marriage are two very different kettles of fish. With the support of counsellors and experienced couples who journeyed with us, all of us “junior” couples had the opportunity to ask each other questions that would be too unromantic for courtship but all the more important for a life to be spent together.
To be truthful, through the many marriage preparation courses that are available out there, there are couples who spilt up after attending the courses, but I feel this is for the better. I hasten to add that many of these whom I know remained friends with one another.
With that in mind, I therefore strongly believe that just as courtship does not prepare you for marriage, a wedding does not prepare you for parenthood. So, a mandatory course will equip couples with the ability to stay together and raise a happy family together.
On maintenance for incapacitated men, I feel this is an important step but I hope that at some point we reach parity beyond just providing for those who are incapacitated. As many Members before me have pointed out, it is not just for parity's sake but it also points to the fact that women in society have improved their social standing by leaps and bounds and this must be applauded.
The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in his 1983 National Day Rally, mentioned that our economy is dependent on women and their contributions to Singapore and this is invaluable. He said: "We’ve got to go one step beyond and try and fit in the problems in a new context. In other words, how do we so reshape our policies that we can educate them; that they will have full career opportunities that the valuable well-educated, whilst making a big contribution, will at the same time ensure their contribution to the next generation".
The generation that Mr Lee referred to so stirringly in that speech made more than 30 years ago, is this generation. Since then, women in Singapore have been breaking, in fact smashing the glass ceiling. The Women’s Charter is about empowering our Singapore women and their financial standing has grown in tandem with their contributions to our nation from bread-makers in the kitchen to breadwinners in this generation for their families.
This amendment also finally lays to rest the anomaly of Section 46 of the same Charter, which states that both husband and wife are both “mutually bound to co-operate with each other in safeguarding the interests of the union and in caring and providing for the children” and under Section 46(4), “have equal rights in the running of the matrimonial household”. Before this amendment, there was mutual obligation under the Charter but not when deciding maintenance. This amendment will also put an end to the dysfunctional carryover from common law that will fully restore equality to women in marriage.
Although such an amendment to the Women's charter was not considered in 1996 nor subsequently in 2011, this is an important first step. I however hope that at some point we reach parity just beyond, as I mentioned, providing for those who are incapacitated.
Therefore in all fairness, if the wife is earning more, maintenance payments to incapacitated ex-husbands must be in order. I would however like to know if the Ministry could share - if available - the number or estimated number of incapacitated ex-husbands in Singapore who would benefit from this proposed amendment.
What are the parameters as well, as alluded to by the hon Member Ms Tin Pei Ling, to determine the level of incapacity and how will ex-husbands be deemed to be fully incapacitated? I hope the Ministry would shed more light in this area.
An upgrade from the proposed single MRO under the set of amendments, as mentioned by the Minister earlier, is a suggestion to set up a formal Tribunal, akin to the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents, to free the Courts and to determine and enforce maintenance payments for both ex-husbands and ex-wives. The late Mdm Chan advocated for Marriage Counselling Courts in 1959, this came only to fruition in 1995 with the setting up of the Family Justice Courts. I do hope that while maintenance for husbands took 19 years and the family courts took 36 years to find realisation, it will not take another similar length of time before a Tribunal is considered.
With regards to enhanced protection for women, and professionals at places of safety, According to a 2013 report on the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) conducted in Singapore, the prevalence of violence against women in Singapore shows that nearly one in ten of the 2,006 female respondents surveyed, or 9.2%, reported having experienced at least one incidence of violence by a man in their adult lifetime, since the age of 16.
I believe that for some their ordeal does not end there. The Minister in his proposed amendment has indicated that in certain circumstances, women and children can be placed in the care of a fit personnel. But in cases like these where they are not placed in places of safety such as a residential care home or a crisis centre, will their safety be compromised, because they do not have a proper set up for security measures.
With regards to voiding marriages of convenience, it is timely that deterrent action has been taken to reign in the numbers of sham marriages. The numbers of those convicted have gone down – from 284 in 2013 to 170 in 2014. This is a positive development.
The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority has mentioned that the women in some of these marriages are sex workers or are made to prostitute themselves after the so-called legalities of the sham marriage.
Under the amendment proposed in this Bill, would a statutory declaration be enough to further deter such sham marriages. Agreed, it will void the marriage of convenience but more proactive action is perhaps required by the respective agencies, in ensuring that the matchmakers involved in bringing over foreign brides are bona fide and are not mere pimps in disguise, masquerading as arrangers of marriages of convenience.
With regards to remote communication, facilitating provision of sexual services under the new section 146, I would like to seek clarification from the Minister on how the Ministry will deal with sites that are posted overseas? A simple Google search will reveal that there are many such sites but there are no provisions under section 146 for this.
Mdm Speaker, we have come a long way since the original Women’s Charter was passed in 1961. Women form the core of a family and are the pillars of strength of society. They have contributed much and will contribute even more, as the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew has stated. This is one Bill that has brought by-partisan support from across different parties. It is therefore incumbent upon us to honour and treasure this Charter and timely that we make the necessary amendments so that it protects not only women but their families, and marriages too. In the words of Mdm Chan Choy Siong, in her opening remarks on the debate on the Women's Charter, “[The Women’s Charter] will bring about revolutionary change in society.”
I believe that this Charter continues to be revolutionary and all the more so with these amendments. I would not call them belated, but perhaps a timely evolution. While we make small steps with each amendment, women have taken giant leaps forward and therefore in this context, Mdm Speaker, I support this Bill.
Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong): Thank you, Mdm Speaker. At the outset, I would like to declare that I am a family lawyer. In my practice, I have assisted many clients in their divorce proceedings. One of the issues that is usually very difficult for couples to deal with is the arrangements in relation to the custody, care and control and access of the children upon divorce. We have often heard stories of how the children become embroiled in their parents’ acrimonious battles in Court and become emotional pawns in the situation. The Minister earlier alluded to some examples.
I have also encountered first-hand parties who let their children read their affidavits and those of their soon-to-be former spouse on the pre-text that the children should know what is happening. Or those who make their children write notes or letters to Court to say that they do not want to be with the other parent.
In my view, such actions are harmful to the children’s mental development in the long run. The negativity which the parents show towards each other can have a traumatic impact on the children and usually, these children are unable to voice out their emotions to the parents. I recall a Family Court Judge sharing in one of the lectures I attended some years back. As adults, when we are unhappy or stressed, most of us can reach out for help, talk about our emotions with our family and friends. However, children may not be able to articulate their emotions as well and may not even have the opportunities to do so. Therefore, the divorce process should be child-centric and protect the interests of the children.
I would often advise my clients to try to put aside their grievances when it comes to matters relating to their children and always give paramount interest and consideration to their children. For the parents, this is actually easier said than done. I have come to realise that most times, parties are too caught up with their emotions to be able to think rationally in the situation. They are angry, hurt and sometimes even vengeful. It is important to put them in the right state of mind before they begin their divorce proceedings.
Over the years, there have been many developments at the Family Court to gradually introduce mandatory counselling and mediation for parties with young children. Parents are encouraged to resolve the issues on custody, care and control and access as early as possible. I am pleased to see further developments in the form of the proposed amendments to the Women’s Charter, in particular the addition of the new section 94A to prescribe a Parenting Programme for appropriate parties before the commencement of divorce proceedings. I believe that the introduction of a Parenting Programme will be useful to remind parents of the impact of divorce on their children and the need to prioritise their children’s interests in their decisions.
I note that in the proposed section 94A, provisions are made for exemptions from the Parenting Programme. This is clearly necessary as such programmes may not be relevant for divorcing parties who do not have children and there is also some room for the Court to make appropriate orders in certain circumstances, for example, when a case needs to be expedited where there is domestic violence. I would like to seek clarification though on the phrase "excluded party" at the proposed section 94A sub-section 3(b) and the group of people who would fall into this category, aside from those without children. I think it is useful to clarify the intent of excluding certain groups from the Parenting Programme, especially if we want to ensure that as many parents as possible are educated about the impact of divorce on their children.
The intent of introducing a Parenting Programme is clearly noble. However, for the initiative to be truly successful, the Parenting Programme itself must be effective. In implementing this programme, I hope attention will be given to develop a curriculum that goes to the core of the problem and is going to be useful for the parents. I thank the Minister for earlier giving an insight into some of the items that would be covered in the programme. Such programmes should address the parents’ needs, cater to the various family situations and be simple enough to be understood by all.
I would like to add that the execution of this programme is important, otherwise it will be seen as just another procedure that the parties would have to go through to obtain their divorce. In fact, the Minister mentioned that there were concerns raised during the public consultation exercise.
I would like to highlight that there must be sufficient capacity to schedule parties for programmes in a timely manner so that the divorce proceeding is not delayed. If there are insufficient slots, for example, parties would have to wait before they can attend the programme and they may be delayed in filing their divorce papers. This can cause angst and frustration amongst the already stressed and highly emotional couples. Divorce is an agonising process and we should not delay or complicate the procedures unnecessarily.
In keeping with making the divorce process more child-centric, I also welcome and appreciate the proposed amendments to section 50 of the Women's Charter. Where children are involved, whether they like it or not, couples will continue to be in a long-term relationship. An adversarial Court process can be damaging to parties and, in particular, their children. It is, therefore, important to have processes that in some way "heal" parties to help them cope with the situation.
I believe that counselling and mediation are key "healing" processes. It is useful to extend the variety of such processes. I note that section 50 also extends to all proceedings under the Women’s Charter. These involve disputes between families, between spouses or former spouses, between siblings and between parent and child. Familial relationships cannot be terminated and family members who are in dispute need processes which help to repair their relationships. I, therefore, support the proposal to empower the Court to also direct parties or their children to attend family support programmes and activities in appropriate circumstances.
The Family Court has, over time, taken a lot of effort in developing many aspects of the Family Justice System, including having mediators specially trained in family mediation. We need to continue building the family justice ecosystem. In particular, for divorce, we need to continue on the existing efforts of developing specialised lawyers who are equipped with appropriate knowledge and skills to handle divorces and other family disputes. Specialised lawyers can promote collaborative divorce, which encourages parties to discuss and resolve their disputes amicably. When parties can resolve matters on their own and avoid litigation, there is a greater chance that the relationship can remain cordial and their children are spared from the acrimony.
I would, lastly, like to touch on the proposed amendments to sections 69 and 113 of the Women’s Charter. These amendments relate to the extension of maintenance to an incapacitated husband or former husband, a point which has been raised by fellow Members of this House.
I thank the Minister for sharing the spectrum of views garnered during the public consultation. I personally have some concerns about the call for allowing husbands in general, or former husbands, to claim maintenance from their wives. Yes, as a divorce lawyer, I also have male clients, and some have indicated unhappiness with the current regime in the Women's Charter. I acknowledge that while many Singaporean women have made good progress, this has not been uniform across all groups of women.
While the Ministry takes steps to keep pace with societal changes, I believe there is a need to recognise that the majority of women still lag behind their male counterparts, especially financially. A wife is more likely to have given up her career or job advancement, to care for the family. Very often, we still see the traditional dynamics of the woman being the principal care-giver to her children, even when both husband and wife are working. So, post-divorce, such women are financially usually more vulnerable.
I, therefore, appreciate that the proposed changes are calibrated, nuanced and limited to incapacitated husbands. It is important that we move towards addressing gaps in the law, addressing their grievances for these husbands who may have difficulties in maintaining themselves. However, I think it is important to be cautious of any further move to allow husbands to claim maintenance from their wives, at this juncture.
Currently, I believe there is still some way to go in developing parity of financial status between men and women, especially across various income levels. The developments in the law, while it should be robust, need to be relevant and reflect the current state of affairs in society.
I am of the view that it is lofty to think that we should advocate gender equality without testing it against the actual realities of the society today. I am, therefore, grateful and heartened that most of the proposed changes are dynamic and in tandem with societal developments. I welcome and support the proposals in this Bill.
Ms Jessica Tan Soon Neo (East Coast): Madam, thank you for allowing me to speak on this Bill. The Women’s Charter was enacted in 1961 with the intent to protect and advance the rights of women and girls in Singapore. It included regulations on the relationship between husband and wife, and the relationship between parents and their children, termination of marriages, division of matrimonial assets and maintenance. The Women’s Charter also provides protection against family violence and penalty for offences against women and girls. Several amendments have been made since 1961, with the latest amendment made in 2011 to strengthen the enforcement of maintenance orders, provide improved support to those affected by divorces, as well as address emerging trends on marriages and divorce.
Section 94A mandates that divorcing couples with children who cannot agree on all matters of divorce will need to attend a parenting programme before they can file for divorce. Like many who have spoken before me, I think this is a very important step as it does take the interest of the child that is involved in the divorce, at the centre. The Minister has shared that much of the content of this programme is around the care of the child, housing and schools, which are very important. But I do want to ask for more elaboration on the duration of the Mandatory Parenting Programme. The amendment also indicates that the person appointed to conduct the parenting programme will determine whether any person that attends the programme has completed the programme. Although an appeal against the determination can be made to the Minister, what measures will be put in place to ensure that the primary objective of protecting the interest of the children involved is met and that the case can be resolved effectively?
I would like to touch on the maintenance for incapacitated men. The amendment proposed in sections 69 and 113 of the Bill is to allow incapacitated husbands or ex-husbands to claim spousal maintenance from their wife or ex-wives if they are incapacitated during the marriage to the extent that he is unable to work to support himself and at the time of the application for the maintenance is heard.
I feel that this amendment is fair as it recognises the support expected of husband and wife during times of illness and disability. This is in line with the spirit of the Women’s Charter, as outlined in the Rights and Duties of Husband and Wife in Part VI, clause 46, where it says that “Upon the solemnisation of marriage, the husband and the wife shall be mutually bound to co-operate with each other in safeguarding the interests of the union and in caring and providing for the children.”
I have personally seen several cases during my MPS where wives have left their husbands after they were diagnosed with serious illnesses like cancer and they were left with no means to support themselves. This amendment, however, does assume that the wife has an income and the means to be able to afford the maintenance. This may or may not always be the case. And as the wife will most likely need to provide for the children as the husband is incapacitated, this may also put a heavy financial strain on her, even if she is working. We must also recognise that many women do make career choices to either slow down their careers or even leave their jobs for some period of time, if not permanently, when they have young children. This does disrupt their career, re-entry to the workforce, as well as their income. The Court, in deciding whether to order the wife to provide maintenance for her husband, I do hope will take into account her financial circumstances and the need to provide for herself and her children.
Regarding protection for women, girls and residents at places of safety, and professionals engaged in protection work, while all of us are talking about the progress that we see in Singapore, I think the Bill recognises the need for protection of vulnerable women and girls. The sad reality is that they do need protection as their abusers are usually their family members.
Based on a study done by PAVE in 2013, the most common form of family violence in Singapore is spousal abuse victims and these victims who are physically or psychologically abused by their spouses made up 72% of all new cases. The study also discovered that while victims of spousal abuse came from all age groups, the majority are females in their 30s and 40s. The study also found that spousal victims and abusers were better educated. As the abusers in these cases are men, they will be, in all probability, considerably physically stronger than them, and, as they are family, they will have also emotional control over the women. Thus, a shelter or safe place which provides for their requisite safety is imperative for them, not just to ensure that they are physically safe, but that they are also given peace of mind to pick up the pieces so that they can continue with their lives. They do need reassurance that their abusers will not be able to locate them when they are having sanctuary in shelters.
TheStraits Times news article by Janice Tai published in November 2013 on the study also helped to give some insight on the rise of family violence. I quote: "The worsening problem of family violence can be seen by the rise in the number of such cases that went to court. In 1995, the Family Court heard 978 such cases. By last year, the figure had more than tripled to 3,200."
Recognising the realities and the increasing use of social media, the amendments made in sections 177A and 153 seek to protect the identity of vulnerable women and girls and persons in protection work and, hence, ensuring their safety. Section 177A also prohibits the publication or broadcast of any information in the mass and social media that would reveal or is likely to identify the location of the shelter or residential facility or their residents. This will prevent perpetrators of violence from harassing, intimidating or harming the persons residing and working at these places. This amendment does provide for the State to also take action against serious breaches that would compromise the safety of residents and staff. Section 153 is also amended to extend prohibition on the publishing of information which may lead to the identification of women and girls in certain in-camera Court proceedings to also include online media and social media.
When the Women’s Charter was passed in 1961, the intent was to protect the rights of women. We must recognise that, since then, there has been much progress made in Singapore and we have seen strong advancement of women; from education to their participation in the workforce. Some may then argue that there is not a need for the Women’s Charter or that this is discriminating against men.
I agree that there has, indeed, been great progress in the advancement of women in Singapore in education, health, employment and income. However, there are still several areas that women lag behind men. Many of our hon Members have touched on this, and this includes salary, labour force participation, especially in the economically productive years, in senior management, in decision-making roles in organisations, including Boards. While we are all seeing a trend in Singapore of men increasingly playing a bigger role in the family and involvement in care giving, in the majority of households, women still play the primary care-giver role.
In Singapore, there are almost the same numbers of men and women attending university and obtaining degrees. But we still do, however, see many women leaving the workforce to take care of their children and family members. There are still fewer women in senior leadership roles in organisations as compared to men. While we see greater participation in the workforce, and the numbers have been very encouraging especially in the last few years − the female labour force participation rate rose significantly from 51.3% in 2004 to 58.6% in 2014 − but if we actually look at the female labour force participation of women aged 25 years to 39 years, this has dropped significantly as compared to the total number of women and single women labour force participation.
So, it is likely that these women left their work during their prime years in their career to take care of their children and family. We are also seeing greater participation of husbands in the home, as I have shared earlier, and some have even chosen to be stay-at-home parent. However, while this trend will likely increase, for now, women continue to take on a greater role and family caring responsibilities.
The Women’s Charter is more than just about the relationship between husband and wife and that of between parents and their children, and division of matrimonial assets when marriages fail. There are still vulnerable groups of women and girls that need protection. So, I believe that there is continued relevance of the Women’s Charter in Singapore today. The amendments proposed in this Bill are balanced and seek to recognise the spirit of the Women’s Charter while addressing the changing realities in society and the family. Madam, I support the Bill.
Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade): Mdm Speaker, I am in support of the proposed amendments to the Bill. The last time this Bill was debated in January 2011, I also spoke on this Bill. Then, amongst other things, I was asking for men to be given reasonable access to their children by their ex-wives.
With the latest amendments, I find it encouraging and progressive that, amongst other things, the proposed amendments will include allowing for incapacitated men to seek spousal support from their ex-wives. I believe the numbers to be small, though the Ministry does not reveal the figures of those that may be impacted. Moreover, the Court will still take into consideration the financial ability of the woman first before deciding if her ex-spouse is legally entitled to maintenance from his wife. I think this is the right thing to do.
Mdm Speaker, today, I would like to speak about two red herrings on this issue. I am mindful that it is still mostly women and their children who need help to recover maintenance/alimony fees from their ex-husbands. Hence, the critics of this Bill who say that we should be more concerned about this larger group rather than the smaller one, I think, missed the point. First, the amendment does not change this level of help. Second, the group may be small, but their cause is no less just.
Before I proceed, I should declare my interest as a board member of the Centre for Fathering – a non-profit organisation with IPC status and a champion for the "Dads for Life" movement. I have been on the board longer than I have been in politics. It is commonplace when we speak of gender equality to think that we speak on behalf of women. But there is something unusual about male dependents.
In 2014, 10,200 male Singaporeans and permanent residents cited "family responsibilities", such as childcare, care-giving to family members and housework, as the main reason for not working. This is triple the number from 2006. One thousand and six hundred of them cited childcare as the main reason for being out of the workforce − more than double the number in 2006. Again, this is the minority, and 47,000 or 25% of females aged 25 to 54 cited childcare for their not being in the labour force.
In parallel, labour force participation rate since 2011 increased more for women (from 55% to 60%), versus men (from 75% to 77%). The gap is still there, but it is steadily narrowing over 30 years. Certainly, nothing wrong nor surprising with these trends. Empirically, the argument is irrefutable. First, there are increasing role reversals. Second, the economics of home care and paid work follow this reversal. And when it comes to recompense, men should not be unjustly denied.
Back in 2011, it was raised in Parliament that role reversals were increasingly common; the wife takes on the sole breadwinner and the husband stays behind to take care of the house and family. If the couple were to divorce, the husband should be allowed to claim maintenance from the woman.
In that year, that is, 2011, in response to calls for gender equality for men to be able to claim maintenance from women, the then-Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said, and I quote, "14 years ago, the Select Committee said we were not ready yet. I am afraid at this point in time, the answer is still we are not ready yet. I hope it will not take another 14 years but I am sure every time we review the Women's Charter, this question will arise."
I say, let us recognise the contributions of stay-at-home men and the notion of shared participation between two equals. This year, we mark the 55th anniversary of the Women’s Charter, a piece of legislation made for a time when women needed special protection. Such protection remains needed today. Perhaps in another 55 years, at a time of true equality, we would not need such a Charter. But until then, let us make the law a little more equal, by offering men the same protection as women. In the eyes of the law at least, we all ought to be equal. Mdm Speaker, I support the Bill.
Firstly, on Parenting Programme on Divorce – domestic violence situations. The new section 94A implements the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF)’s proposal that parties with children must complete a Mandatory Parenting Programme before they can file for divorce, if they have not agreed on divorce and all ancillary matters.
In particular, I believe that special consideration should be given to cases of domestic violence. I understand from AWARE that their experience is that the abused spouse is usually the one who wants the divorce whereas the abusive spouse may resist. In this situation, since the couple would not have agreed on divorce and all ancillary matters, according to the proposed amendment, they would have to go through Mandatory Parenting Programme unless this is dispensed with by the Court.
I am concerned that the abused spouse could end up being trapped in a legally perpetuated situation of domestic violence. This will not be in the interest of the child as, in addition to spousal abuse, there may also be child abuse in such a situation.
Although the proposed section 94A(4) allows Court's discretion in waiving the requirement of the Mandatory Parenting Programme, in my view, the law should explicitly and clearly state that no parenting programme needs to be attended in cases of domestic violence, rather than leaving the question up to the discretion of the judge.
Second, on Spousal Maintenance for Men, which many Members have spoken about. The Bill amends the Charter so that spousal maintenance is available to men, but only where they have been incapacitated and are unable to support themselves. I believe that spousal maintenance should be based on the principle of fairness, rather than gender. Maintenance should also be available to men in other appropriate cases, for example, where men make economic sacrifices to take a primary role in household labour and caregiving, even if such cases are rarely encountered.
Third, Violence against Women. At the moment, section 160 allows the Director of Social Welfare to detain girls aged between16 and 21 years on the following grounds: (i) if her lawful guardian requests the Director to detain her; (ii) if the Director considers her to be in need of protection and whose lawful guardian cannot be found; (iii) if the Director believes her to have been ill-treated; and lastly, (iv) if the Director considers her to be in moral danger.
Even if the lawful guardians have their charges’ best interests in mind, after the girl has been brought into detention, the Director can detain her until 21 years old, according to the amendment, and the guardian would have no control. It is problematic that girls can be detained against their will when they have not committed any criminal offences and, in fact, are in vulnerable situations at times.
The provisions of sections 160, 161 and 163, even after the amendment, are still overly vague, broad and open-ended. There is still no clear information about the Director of Social Welfare’s decision-making process concerning whether or not to bring a girl into detention, how long to detain her and what the conditions of her detention should be. What are the factors and criteria used for decision-making?
I also hope that there will be submissions of the decisions of the Director of Social Welfare, with justifications, to the Family Court with a court review and a court order required for continuation of protective shelter to the woman or girl at risk, with the duration of the stay stipulated as well. At the end of the period of stay, the case should be reviewed by the Court.
On the PPO regime, I note the amendment to section 65 to allow married or previously married persons below the age of 21 years to apply for a protection order and expedited order for themselves and specific dependents. This is commendable, but it does not follow that a wife under 21 with her dependents can easily find shelter in a place of safety.
Will shelters for victims of domestic violence now accept married girls and women under 21? If not, what provisions are there for a wife who is under 21 and a victim of domestic violence to be housed in a place of safety?
In addition, I suggest that other than those who are married, all individuals under 21 be allowed to apply for Personal Protection Orders (PPO) and Domestic Exclusion Orders (DEO) so that they can be protected from all forms of domestic violence, that the need for parental consent be removed in such cases and that the application for protection can be made against anyone in their household.
Lastly, on Marriages of Convenience. I seek more clarity as to the process by which a marriage would be found void under the proposed new section 11A. The new section 11A(3) makes it clear that marriages will be deemed void if certain immigration offences are committed, but are there other circumstances in which section 11A would be invoked? If so, is there a court process involved or is it just an administrative determination? In my view, a decision of such gravity should be subject to judicial process.
Third, section 160 allows the Director of Social Welfare to detain girls aged between16 and 21 years is extremely vague, broad and open-ended. I seek more clarifications on this and also for the submission of the decisions of the Director of Social Welfare under this section to be reviewed by the Family Court.
Fourth, I note the extension of the PPO regime to married under-21s and would like to raise the question of whether these people will now be able to access shelters and “place of safety” if they become victims of domestic violence.
Madam, I do feel that the proposed amendments are appropriate and timely. We, however, cannot legislate everything. Legislation is only one piece of the puzzle. There are also policies, support programmes and services and public education. They are all part of the overall effort. Family and community also have a strong role to play in strengthening and supporting families. Madam, my request for the Government to review the above points I raised, notwithstanding, I support the Bill.
Like many Bills and policies, all of us would like more to be done. Some of us would feel that we could go further, especially on matters such as maintenance of men, marriages involving minors and enhancing maintenance enforcements for wives, ex-wives and children.
These are options we considered but as I mentioned, societal attitudes, while changing in the directions of which many of you highlighted, are also not uniform. From our consultations, it was clear that there were a fair number of Singaporeans who will feel that it would be too fast and too far if we move further at this stage. This is the dilemma. On one hand, while some of us may feel that to make some of these important changes represents a bold direction, but I think it is also about being effective, being relevant and calibrating the different sensitivities involved because a lot of these issues are in many ways emotive.
I would like to thank Mr Louis Ng for highlighting that it is really an entire effort. Legislation is an important part but it is not everything, because you cannot legislate everything. What we plan and what we do intend to do and carry out is, to make sure that where there are needs to be met, the needs will have to be addressed. It need not be addressed fully necessary by legislation itself, but programmes, services to be there. And especially, as highlighted, family and community play a very important part as well.
I would also like to highlight that this idea of a Family Charter, was something our Ministry has looked at as well. It is something, as pointed out by Assoc Prof Daniel Goh, that we keep on the table. We have looked at it intently, and as we have mentioned, there are different views on how we should interpret this.
But what I would like to highlight is this: the emphasis on the family remains. Just because we do not call it a Family Charter does not in itself mean that we are not placing emphasis on the family. For all intents and purposes, the bulk of what we are setting out in the Women's Charter is aimed at supporting families, and moreover, whilst the Act is so named, its provisions are in fact gender-neutral, except in the areas of maintenance – which many Members have raised your views on as well – protection of women and girls, vice, prostitution activities. In other areas of the law, others are also covered. For example, boys are covered under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act and also under Children & Young Persons Act (CYPA).
We noted the points raised and this is something that we will continue to review as time goes by. We have made important changes. The Women's Charter, when it was first launched, was a landmark Charter. Over the years, important changes have been made. This time round, important changes are being made as well.
While in some areas, we are taking calibrated steps forward, society, like I said, is not static. We will continue to monitor how society evolves, we will continue to consult and we will continue to look at the suggestions and ideas brought up by many Members. We do not preclude future changes.
Members have given their support to mandate marriage preparation programme for minor couples. Mr Alex Yam suggested that these young couples also attend a parenting programme. Indeed, the mandatory marriage preparation programme covers aspects of parenting. It also helps the couple to understand how their relationship will evolve when they start a family and have children. If the bride is expecting, grandparents are also invited to join in as extended family support is critical to the soon-to-be young parents.
Dr Lily Neo would be pleased to know that our enhanced marriage support framework will also help young couples to address challenges during their marriage. This includes link-ups to appropriate parenting programmes and support.
Ms Rahayu Mahzam and Ms Jessica Tan spoke on the importance of child-centricity, and I really could not agree more. This is why we want to amend the Women’s Charter to require parents contemplating divorce to attend the Mandatory Parenting Programme. Dr Lily Neo shared about the negative impact on children and highlighted the need for assistance to ensure that children do not fall through the cracks.
I would like to thank Ms Rahayu Mahzam for sharing with us her experiences on the realities of what actually happens. Many of us come into contact with such cases as well, either through friends or the residents we meet.
I think it is important that children remain the centre of our efforts. Giving voice to children comes in many ways but we need to be careful because as we all know, sometimes in an acrimonious divorce process, children become part of the game. They are being pitted, back and forth, between the couples. That can be very disturbing and can have a tremendous impact on the children.
What we want to make sure is that throughout the whole process, the children's interests are looked after. We want to make sure that they can undergo individual counselling. They may also attend an evidence-based programme called "Children-In-Between", which equips children with the skills to manage their feelings and develop resilience. Parents are also asked to attend, so that they reinforce the skills learnt by their children. Some of the stories I shared were very much surfaced through some of these processes where the children are encouraged to speak up so they could articulate their concerns and the things that trouble them.
Since the programme started in 2015, close to 150 children and their parents have benefited. The overwhelming majority – about 96% – reported a reduction in stress. But that is not something that we take for granted; it is something that we need to continue to work on.
Ms Jessica Tan asked for some details of the divorce support programmes. I will just very quickly run through how we are approaching it. We have four Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs). The Mandatory Parenting Programme will include a couple of things: to make sure that there are considerations on financial challenges involved; housing and living arrangements in a divorce; child custody and child access; and joint agreement on a workable parenting plan.
There are face-to-face sessions. There are also counselling made available to rebuild the marriage and, as mentioned earlier, the "Children-in-Between" programme. There is also a Parenting PACT which is a consultation session for divorced parents with minor children, designed to help parents understand the impact of a divorce on their children, learn co-parenting strategies and so on. There is a whole range of support being brought to bear, before filing for divorce, during the whole process itself and thereafter. We will be quite happy to explore other measures that we can put in place to support families in this process.
Mr Louis Ng suggested that the Mandatory Parenting Programme should be automatically waived for victims of family violence in order to expedite the divorce proceedings and highlighted the particular profile of the families undergoing these difficulties.
Firstly, families facing family violence will attend this programme at the Family Violence Specialist Agencies where the staff are trained to handle cases involving family violence. Secondly, in cases where it is beneficial to the family and child for divorce proceedings to be expedited, section 94A(4) empowers the courts to allow divorce proceedings to continue even when the parent has not completed the programme.
The idea is that while we do recognise the challenges that families face when violence occurs, we also recognise that these families need help and to intervene where we can. We also make sure that clauses are available, steps are available for families to be assisted even when this violence is perpetuated and continues to be perpetuated.
Another area that garnered much interest was spousal maintenance. Members have put forth a wide spectrum of views. Members such as Mr Seah Kian Peng, Er Dr Lee Bee Wah and Assoc Prof Daniel Goh and Mr Louis Ng spoke about moving towards a more gender neutral approach. I hear you. I fully understand because we do see instances where there might seem to be a compelling need to move along these grounds while on the other hand, as I have highlighted, there are also other views.
Ms Rahayu Mahzam expressed her concerns against it, reminding us that many women are still vulnerable. Her sentiments echoed a The Straits Times commentary in October last year which was titled “A Reality Check in Gender Equality”. Let me quote:
I also heard concerns about extending maintenance to incapacitated husbands such as those shared by Ms Tin Pei Ling. The scenario of a woman of lesser means struggling to support herself and the children is a big concern. What more if such a woman had to maintain her incapacitated ex-husband. To reiterate, the incapacitated husband must meet all the criteria set out before he can apply for maintenance from the wife.
Even if all these criteria are met, it does not mean that the husband or ex-husband will automatically be entitled to maintenance. Dr Lily Neo expressed concerns for women who may be caught up in these situations where it will be a strain for them to provide maintenance for incapacitated husbands as well. So, the Court will have to consider all circumstances of the case, including the income and earning capacity of the wife or ex-wife, the financial needs of both parties and the needs of the children. This is no different from the considerations for maintenance for wives and ex-wives, where they are also not automatically entitled to maintenance, as highlighted by some of the examples that we have mentioned earlier.
As rightly pointed out by Er Dr Lee Bee Wah and Ms Sun Xueling, there must be a clear priority to better enforce maintenance payments and to improve the process. And indeed, I fully agree with many Members who have cited many examples that you have come across. It is very agonising for an individual to repeatedly go to the Courts because the ex-spouse vindictively does not want to pay up. This is why the way we want to approach this – is to set in place to introduce in the Courts the Maintenance Record Officer which would take place later this year. The purpose of this Officer is to assist the Courts to better assess if a defaulter is incorrigible, and therefore allow the Courts to take firm action against him, if so. Let me assure the House that we are going to do more to stop such irresponsibility.
We will also constantly and continually explore how to improve the processes and to make it less onerous for all those affected. This is something we recognise and we work closely with the Family Justice Courts on this as well.
Let me now address the issue raised by Dr Lily Neo on upstream measures to prevent sham marriages. All couples marrying under Women’s Charter must undergo document verification and make a statutory declaration on matters relating to the intended marriage. Where there are doubts, ROM staff will interview the couple separately and explain the consequences of entering into a marriage of convenience. We have found this useful, intervening at this stage. Also, the Registrar will not issue any marriage licence to the couple unless the Registrar is satisfied that the intended marriage meets the conditions under the Women’s Charter.
Mr Louis Ng asked if the decision to void a marriage should be subjected to the judicial process. Marriages are void only when at least one party is successfully charged and deemed guilty by the Courts under section 57C of the Immigration Act for entering into a marriage of convenience. Such cases would have been scrutinised through the judicial process. It is only consistent that such marriages are consequentially and automatically void, given that the act of entering into such a marriage is an offence.
Mr Louis Ng suggested that all persons under 21 years be allowed to apply for a Personal Protection Order (PPO) and Domestic Exclusion Orders (DEO) for themselves against anyone in their household, without the need for parental consent. It would be in a minor’s interests to have a reliable adult apply on their behalf. The application may be made by the parent who is not the perpetrator of violence. If the parents or guardians are themselves the violence perpetrators, a relative or any social worker appointed by the Minister, can step in, without the need for consent from the minor’s parents or guardians.
Mr Louis Ng also asked about the circumstances in which the Director of Social Welfare can detain vulnerable female minors aged 16 to 21 years old in places of safety. All cases which come to the attention of the Director are thoroughly investigated. A girl will only be admitted to a place of safety if the Director is satisfied it will be in her best interests. For example, if it is unsafe for the girl to remain with her immediate family or if she may engage in morally risky behaviours.
Mr Alex Yam asked about incidents where the security of places of safety was compromised and measures to protect the residents and professionals. For the safety of its residents, crisis shelters are housed in secured premises with closed-circuit television cameras. Thus far, there have been no serious breaches. There were two instances of disturbances at the shelters known to MSF in the last couple of years. In both instances, the Police took swift action as the shelters had established good networks with them. No one was hurt in both incidents but I do take on-board your concerns.
In conclusion, Mdm Speaker, our family provides us meaning, hope, support and an anchor in life. The Women’s Charter is a piece of legislation with historical significance that seeks to balance the interests of different groups – the rights and protection of spouses, ex-spouses and their children. Members such as Ms Jessica Tan have also reaffirmed its relevance.
We will work closely with stakeholders as well as this House to shape our legislation to better reflect the changing Singapore society. At the same time, notwithstanding legislation, we will make sure that there are programmes in place to support Singaporeans who do have need for help. At the same time, I encourage families and the community to play an active role to support families in need.
Our efforts obviously must not end with the legislative changes. We all have a collective responsibility to support good marriages and positive parent-child relationships. Strong families are indeed a haven for each and every child. With that, Mdm Speaker, thank you very much.
Mr Alex Yam: Thank you, Madam. Just three quick clarifications for the Minister. I note Minister's point on the mandatory parenting component for minor couples. Will Minister consider extending both programmes for all couples before marriage and not just minor couples?
Lastly, I thank the Minister for clarification on safety at crisis shelters but how will this be ensured for those who are under the care of fit persons who do not have the benefit of security measures or CCTV?
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, with regards to the mandatory parenting programme as to whether we should extend it to all couples and not just minor couples, what we are looking at now is just minor couples. We believe that there are counselling, programmes and support made available for all couples who are seeking help or who are looking for support. At this moment, we do not envisage making it mandatory but what we do want to make sure is that the support programmes are in place for those who do need the support. For adult couples, we do encourage them to come forward. We are not at that stage where we plan to make it mandatory for non-minor couples.
With regards to Tribunal, that is one possibility but we do believe that the approach that we plan to take in terms of putting in the MRO, working with the Family Justice Courts, would be one way to address this issue. It is very much the responsibility of parents to see through their responsibilities. As we all know, there are those who fail to do it.
I want to highlight again, it is important to remember, that while we do encounter frustrating cases where individuals do not receive their maintenance, there are two scenarios. One, there are fathers who are not able to pay because of the circumstances in which they find themselves in, and I think it is important to remember that, and it is important for us to understand and to check to fully understand the background, and extend the appropriate assistance.
The latter group, which I have less sympathy for, are those who can pay but refuse to pay. Setting up a Tribunal is one approach but we believe that actually the laws are in place. What we intend to do is to use the MRO to work the processes to make sure that it is as expeditious as possible. We will run all the necessary checks, so that we will try to minimise the burden on the women who are affected, and then having the law to come in. That should have a salutary effect on those concerned. We will continue to keep this on watch because we do recognise that it is frustrating and difficult for the women involved and their families.
As for the safety of crisis shelters, we do hear your perspectives. For those who we feel are particularly vulnerable, we would place them in crisis shelters. We do also conduct checks in terms of those families and other safe places we put the children up in. Basically, what we have is a graduated approach to security. For those who do need a much more secured environment, we will make sure that crisis shelters are available for them. While for the others, we have slightly more step-down provision.
Dr Lily Neo: May I ask the Minister whether he would consider a register to keep track of children from disadvantaged families, from divorces, so that we can keep them on MSF's radar to give them long-term assistance, hopefully, to adulthood, so that they do not get into problems due to their circumstances, and for a better society?
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, I fully understand the intent that Dr Lily Neo raised in terms of maintaining a register for all children who are caught up in divorce. In fact, if we extend it further, there will be vulnerable children in other scenarios as well whom we should think about tracking. This is something that I have discussed with my colleagues in MSF, especially for troubled youths who have fallen afoul of the law, who have encountered problems, and whether we should track them and subsequently when they are looking at settling down, for example, do we also provide them counselling support, and so on.
As you would realise, with the numbers of divorces taking place and children being affected, to maintain a register of the affected children and to track them over the years, it is quite a heavy responsibility. We do not plan to do this at this point in time.
What we do want to make sure is that the support programmes are in place, whether by divorce or other circumstances. That means that for those who do need help, for those who do need support, counselling, support programmes, are available, so that they can provide both the children and also the families support, and for them to come forward to seek it when there is a need. To track them and to ensure that they are constantly being provided this support, that is a very different order of magnitude. At this point in time, we are not looking at that but I take the Member's suggestion on-board.
Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang: Can I ask the Minister for a clarification with regards to section 160. Is it solely the Director of Social Welfare who makes a decision to detain a girl or is it up to a team of people? If it is solely up to one person, then may I ask if we could have a proposed amendment to make it a team of people that makes this decision?
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong: May I ask the Minister what are the calibration considerations when it comes to not extending the Protection Order application powers to family members beyond the victims, immediate relatives and, perhaps, the Police? Because in other jurisdictions, when the Police are able to apply for protection orders, it does have a salutary effect on the perpetrators in reducing family violence, especially when it is coupled with early intervention such as counselling and what not.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, the consideration we have is this: if the family members are perpetrators of violence, it would obviously not be appropriate for them to be involved in the application process. That is why we want to make sure that help is available for the concerned minor and that other adults can be brought to bear. Our Ministry can also direct individuals to support them. Where family violence is involved, it can be very emotive. Where the family member is the perpetrator, we do want to make sure other parties are able to advise and help them make the application.
Dr Lily Neo: I just like to qualify that, earlier on, what I said was a register more for vulnerable children, and I did not really say for all children of divorces. So, would the Minister at least consider identifying such children, disadvantaged children, and then keep them on MSF's radar, so that we can give them assistance on a long-term basis.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, as I had mentioned, there are many different vulnerable children, so I hear the Member's point that it is not just all children who are affected by divorce. We do not have plans at this point in time to put all these children on a register. Like I said, the key thing is to make sure that the support programmes are in place, that assistance can be provided to children who are affected, and for them to come forward or for their families to come forward.
I do take the Member's perspective that whether this is something that we should track. We are looking at the possibility of tracking individuals who are affected in different ways, not just by divorce but vulnerable in different sense, because there is a long social tail of issues that can happen if the support is not provided and, indeed, whether some of these intervention should be brought to bear even if the individuals do not come forward.
That is something that we are looking at but at present time, no immediate plans to put them on the register. We do recognise that vulnerable individuals, especially when they are young, do have serious concerns and whether we should play a much more active role on that front. That is something that we are looking at.
Ms Sun Xueling: I have a question: would the Maintenance Record Officer have any enforcement ability? I read that the role of the MRO is to obtain information on parties' financial circumstances to assist the Court in its fact-finding process and also have a standing in Court to tender the information obtained. So, is the ultimate penalty still a warrant of arrest on the defaulter and who then enforces this warrant of arrest?
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, the MRO is to facilitate the legal process of the Courts and to bring to bear. There is a range of options available. Jail will be one option. Basically, the MRO would be directed by the Court to investigate and to find out the background to the individuals concerned, especially in the cases where they are able to pay. If they are deemed to be able to pay and not actively paying their maintenance, that is when the Courts will enforce some of these measures.