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Singapore

Changes to Women’s Charter, including option for couples to divorce by mutual agreement, passed in Parliament

05:07 Min
Amendments to the Women's Charter will allow couples to divorce by mutual agreement, reducing fault-finding and "unnecessary agony" that families usually go through. Heidi Ng with the story.

SINGAPORE: A Bill to allow married couples to divorce by mutual agreement was passed on Monday (Jan 10), to allow couples to take “joint responsibility” for the breakdown of their marriage.

Debating the Bill in Parliament, members of the House raised concerns about the proposed amendments possibly making divorce an easy way out of marital issues, and the necessary support for divorcing parents and their children. 

Currently, the sole reason for divorce to be granted is the “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage. 

This must be proven by one or more of five facts - adultery, unreasonable behaviour and desertion, separation of three years with consent, or separation of four years without consent. 

With the passing of the Bill, divorce by mutual agreement will be introduced as a sixth fact that can be cited in divorce proceedings. 

“This aims to reduce acrimony in divorce and better allow the family to heal and move on. Irretrievable breakdown of the marriage will remain the sole ground for divorce,” said Minister of State for Social and Family Development (MSF) Sun Xueling in Parliament, during the second reading of the Bill. 

“With the current divorce regime, we have found that where parties agree on the divorce, having to cite one of the existing effects may force parties to point fingers at each other as they cite reasons to prove one of the three fault-based facts or dredge up past hurts to prove the facts,” she added. 

Children could be caught in the middle when parents make allegations against each other, she added. 

“If parties were to cite separation as a fact so as to avoid blaming each other, they have to put their lives on hold for three to four years, which can be harmful to the couple and their children as the relationship between the couple would likely be tense and unstable during the period of separation,” said Ms Sun. 

“Many divorcees we spoke to shared that until the divorce is final, they could not focus on their children, though they wanted to.”

Those who file for divorce by mutual agreement must agree that their marriage has broken down irretrievably and explain the reasons for their conclusion, she added. 

They must also detail reconciliation attempts, and considerations for arrangements for their financial affairs and children after the divorce, said Ms Sun. 

The court will reject the agreement if it remains a “reasonable possibility” that the parties may reconcile, she added. 

All safeguards in the current divorce framework will also continue to apply - this includes the three-year minimum marriage period before divorce can be filed, and the three-month period before the divorce is finalised. 

LESS ACRIMONIOUS PROCEEDINGS

Speaking during the debate on the Bill, Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim (WP-Aljunied) was supportive of the inclusion of divorce by mutual agreement. 

“Currently, the potentially acrimonious nature of divorce proceedings can be traumatic,” said Ms Lim, who is a lawyer by profession. 

For example, she has seen cases of children pressured by one parent to give evidence against the other parent to prove that they were unreasonable or irresponsible. 

Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah noted that the new introduction will help avoid dragging out the divorce process for “couples who are already trapped in an unhappy marriage”, aiming for a peaceful resolution and are just waiting for legal processes to be completed. 

“In addition, this also aims to protect the children’s interest. By not needing to state the fault of a divorce and having to prove or disprove such allegations thereby causing further tensions, children may be spared the trauma of such experiences. This will help children of divorce to better adapt and cope with the divorce process,” she added. 

Singapore should reduce unnecessary time and stress where possible on divorce proceedings, MP Carrie Tan (PAP-Nee Soon) said. 

She recommended that the time bar for divorce be reduced to one year for all couples. 

“At the risk of sounding utilitarian, and my intention is not to undermine the sanctity of marriage but to take a pragmatic view, we must note that couples are getting married at older ages compared to 40 years ago,” she said. 

With the current Charter only allowing couples to apply for divorce after three years of marriage, "precious time" is lost for those who realise they are not the right lifelong partners for one another after getting married, she added. 

She also pointed out cases where individuals find out “intolerable issues” about their spouse only after marriage, like chronic infidelity, a tendency towards violence or a history of debilitating financial debt.

CONCERNS ABOUT MAKING DIVORCE EASIER

MPs were also concerned that the changes would make divorce easier, leading to a spike in divorce rates.

With the introduction of divorce by mutual agreement, parties can agree to divorce where the situations could have come under the other facts, but where the usual timeframe requirements have not been met, Ms Lim noted. 

For adultery and unreasonable behaviour, the offended spouse must not have continued to live with the offending spouse for more than six months up to the last incident, Ms Lim noted. 

With divorce by mutual agreement, spouses who have been living apart may agree to divorce if they’ve been separated for much shorter periods than three years, she added. 

“Since the purpose of allowing mutual agreement is to do away with onerous requirements of the traditional grounds, the parties can override what was required previously, and set their own personal threshold for concluding that their marriages failed," she said.

“Some will have lower thresholds. Is there a risk then that divorces will become too easy?” 

Although the three-year minimum marriage period requirement will be maintained, the requirements for divorce have “arguably been relaxed” with the introduction of divorce by mutual agreement, said Ms Lim. 

“Should we then expect an increase in divorce rates?” 

Ms Hany Soh (PAP-Marsiling-Yew Tee) asked Ms Sun to elaborate on what types of reasons would be deemed acceptable to substantiate that the marriage has irretrievably broken down under divorce by mutual agreement. 

“I hope that the particulars to be mentioned to support this fact need not require parties to cite each other’s misdeeds, as that would require them to rehash their marital disputes again. In my opinion, these do not assist in reducing the acrimony between parties,” said Ms Soh. 

“Moreover, I do hope that parties avoid attributing the children as reasons for the breakdown of marriage.”

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (PAP-Mountbatten), who is a practicing lawyer in the area of matrimonial law, said: “My concern is whether the new section… would make it easier for couples who cannot work out their disputes to take the easy way out and apply for divorce based on mutual agreement.”

He continued: “I’m not anti-divorce. I recognise that sometimes, despite the best efforts, marriages don’t work for a variety of reasons. In such cases, the law should allow couples to exit from an unhappy marriage.” 

The simplified track for uncontested divorce was introduced in 2015. This is already an option where parties “have to be less acrimonious” if they want their divorce to proceed smoothly, he added. 

Noting that divorce rates have remained fairly constant, Mr Lim said: “Given the above facts and circumstances, may I ask Minister of State why is there a need to introduce this new clause to allow divorce by mutual agreement? What is the change in circumstances that trigger the need for the introduction of this provision? 

“Does the Government not acknowledge that a divorce may have serious consequences for the children?” 

PRIORITY IS TO SAVE MARRIAGES

Responding to these concerns in her closing speech, Ms Sun stressed that divorce must be a last resort. 

“Where possible, we aim to save the marriage and help couples resolve their issues… Where there is no other option apart from divorce, we aim to help couples heal, and we also ensure that the welfare of the children is protected,” she added. 

MSF also does not expect the number of divorces to increase significantly with the introduction of divorce by mutual agreement, said Ms Sun. 

Spikes or long-term increase in divorce rates occur when a divorce regime switches from fault-based to no-fault, she added. 

Singapore transitioned in 1980 from a purely fault-based to hybrid regime with no-fault grounds, and introduced the simplified divorce track in 2015. There were no significant increases in divorce rates in both instances, said Ms Sun. 

She also agreed that a balance must be struck between making it too difficult for couples to divorce and making it too easy to give up their commitment. 

This is why the safeguards leading up to the decision to divorce remain, and the divorce process remains “largely the same” no matter which of the six facts are cited. 

In submitting reasons to substantiate a divorce by mutual agreement, this could include reasons such as a “deep-seated difference in values”, said Ms Sun. 

“The intention is to avoid reasons that point blame only at one party, and children should not be cited as the reason for divorce.” 

MSF will not reduce the three-year minimum marriage period, said Ms Sun. 

“The three-year minimum period is an important safeguard to ensure that couples do not enter or exit a marriage lightly. The first year of marriage is often not an easy one given the many transitions and adjustments for couples,” she added.

COUNSELLING FOR COUPLES, CHILDREN

MPs also pushed for more support to be made available for couples, in the form of marriage counselling.

MP Yip Hon Weng (PAP-Yio Chu Kang) noted this can help couples to identify potential problems early and be better prepared.

But there remains a stigma among some that seeking marriage counselling is a sign of failure, he added, stressing the need to “normalise” counselling and “destigmatise the shame”.

MP Melvin Yong (PAP-Radin Mas) said authorities could make marriage preparation courses “more extensive” and even mandatory for all. At the moment, such courses are only made compulsory for couples where at least one party is below the age of 21.

Ms Sun replied that the Government “strongly” encourages all couples to attend marriage preparation programmes, and that rebates are already available to those who attend such workshops or programmes.

MPs, including Mr Yip, also mooted making pre-divorce counselling or parenting education courses mandatory for couples. In her reply, Ms Sun said that with the amendments in the Bill, all divorcing couples with minor children will have to attend a mandatory parenting programme before filing for divorce.

At this programme, counsellors may assess the couple’s suitability for reconciliation and refer them for further support, she added.

In addition, Mr Yong asked if such pre-divorce counselling could be extended to those who cite “unreasonable behavior” as a reason for divorce.

Ms Sun said: “We agree it is good to do so, but our priority at this point is to extend the (mandatory parenting programme) to all divorcing couples with minor children, regardless of the fact they cite. We will explore extending pre-divorce counselling further at a later stage.”

It is also important to extend similar support to children, other MPs said. 

For instance, MP Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) called for the MSF to make its “Children-in-between” programme mandatory for all children whose parents are undergoing a divorce.

The programme is an “exceptionally good” one but at the moment, less than 2 per cent of children affected by their parents’ divorce attend the programme, he said.

“We should do a lot more to make this number as close to 100 per cent as possible,” Mr Ng added. “My proposal is that the court should, by default, order that all children of divorced parents participate in this ‘Children-in-between’ programme. Parents can appeal to opt out.”

PUSHING FOR GENDER NEUTRALITY

Meanwhile, Ms Tan and MP Ang Wei Neng (PAP-West Coast) raised the issue of allowing maintenance applications to be made for husbands without the condition of incapacity.

Ms Tan said: “We can go beyond that to allow for husbands to apply for maintenance from wives if the distribution of labour between the spouses during marriage favoured the earning potential of the wife to be realised, instead of the husband’s.”

While men have traditionally taken on the roles as primary breadwinners and women being the primary family caregivers, times are changing rapidly, she added.

“If women expect men to pull their weight in domestic and caregiving chores in order to free us up to pursue our career aspirations, it follows logically that in cases where a woman earns much more than her husband and the husband has been taking on more of the domestic responsibilities, husbands should also be able to access maintenance after divorce.”

Ms Tan also noted that she has come across cases of men having suffered physical or emotional abuse from their partners. But these are “rarely reported due to the stigma around men showing their vulnerability”.

“Men deserve protection equally and clauses should provide for that, even if the number of occurrences of men being victims are significantly lower than women,” said Ms Tan.

In her closing speech, Ms Sun said that even with women being “in a much better position today”, it remains more likely for married women to give up their careers to care for the family. This means that women tend to be more financially vulnerable following a divorce.

“The current provision therefore provides maintenance for the parties that tend to be more financially vulnerable post-divorce – women and incapacitated men. While we want to move toward gender-neutrality, those who are more vulnerable must be protected,” said Ms Sun.

“In any case, the courts refrain from granting high amounts of maintenance to wives who are able to work, even if they had not worked or stopped working for some years,” she added, noting that the courts’ goal is to “award reasonable maintenance”.

There were also calls to change the name of the Women’s Charter to Family Charter.

The reasons raised by Mr Ng include how the latter would be “more appropriate” in reflecting changes to the Women’s Charter, which now “protects not just women but men and children as well”.

There is also a “rising, incorrect sentiment that the Women’s Charter is bad for men”, he said, citing a research by AWARE which “found that one of the main narratives in online misogyny is that ‘men are unprotected by the law’”.

“Undoubtedly, we know these voices are wrong. But renaming the Women’s Charter to accurately describe its scope can help defuse the anger,” he added.

Ms Tan noted that renaming the Women’s Charter would “correct the prevailing impression that family law in Singapore favours women over men”, and “send an important signal to reduce the animosity seen too often in divorce proceedings”.

In response, Ms Sun said the current provisions on marriage and divorce are “gender neutral and do not discriminate in favour of men or women”.

“The Women’s Charter also provides for protection of women and girls in the areas of vice (and) prostitution activities, for which there is good reason for this distinction as women are disproportionately affected,” she added.

“And while Singaporean women today are better educated with better employment opportunities, there are still vulnerable women who require the protection of the Women’s Charter,” she said.

Source: CNA/sk(gr)
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