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Mr Speaker, Sir, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a Second time”.
Sir, the Women’s Charter is now 50 years old. Most of us in the House probably take it for granted. However, it is worth reflecting that it was, in a sense, legislation ahead of its time. Today it sounds almost quaint that fifty years ago, the Legislative Assembly had to pass a law to impose monogamy on our population. This law also provided for the rights and duties of married persons, the protection of family, the maintenance of wives and children, and the punishment of offences against women. This has been one of the defining pieces of social legislation that has shaped our society and created an impact on our family relationships. It is worthwhile today even as we contemplate amending this law for us to reaffirm the family as the key pillar of our society. The family still forms the best foundation for nurturing our children. It is the nest from which we pursue our hopes and dreams, a shelter from the vicissitudes of life, and hopefully a haven for us to spend our last days in dignity and serenity.
But the family is under strain. Mirroring global trends, divorces in Singapore have been increasing over the last 2 decades. There were 1.3 divorces per 1000 people in 1990. This has now increased to 2.0 divorces per 1000 of population in 2003. While these crude divorce rates seem to have stabilized around this figure of 2.0 since then, overall numbers are still high. Between 2005 and 2009, an average of 6,025 divorces was filed every year at the Family Court and 1,780 at the Syariah Court. More tellingly, recent cohorts of marriages are divorcing faster and earlier. If we look at people who married in 1987, 3.2% had divorced within 5 years. If you fast forward 15 years to 2002 – of those married in that year, 5.3% had divorced 5 years later. So the point is that the survival span of marriages is falling. Equally worrying is the high incidence of defaults on maintenance payments. Over the last 4 years, there were about 3,400 applications for enforcement of maintenance orders every year.
Beyond the statistics, we also must bear in mind that the fallout from broken families is felt most keenly by the children involved. It is important therefore for us to mitigate the negative impact of family breakdown on children as far as possible. Parents play the most crucial and irreplaceable role in this. The maintenance of children is not the be all and end all of parental responsibility, but it is the starting point, it is an absolute necessity inasmuch as both parents are capable of doing so. This responsibility cannot be abrogated to the larger community or to the State. Children need to be assured of their parents’ love and commitment despite the marital breakdown.
Consequently, one of the key objectives of this Bill is to enhance the divorce and maintenance enforcement procedures so as to empower individuals and the Courts with more options to in order to resolve the issues and to mitigate the impact on children. In addition, this Bill also updates our laws pertaining to the requirements for marriages between Singaporean and permanent residents.
Sir, I am aware that these family issues cut across all strata of society and affect most people veru deeply. These can be emotive issues on which many people have strong views. That is why we embarked on extensive consultation prior to the moving of the Bill. Many organizations and members of public had, at various points of the review of the Charter, taken their time to develop and submit detailed recommendations for my Ministry’s consideration. I would like at this point to thank everyone for their valuable contributions. Naturally, we could not adopt every single recommendation, as there was a diversity of views, and sometimes even conflicting or contradictory views. It is not possible to detail our response to each suggestion here, but for those who are interested, please log on to the REACH website, a more detailed response is available there. I would say that generally in assessing possible options, we were guided by the overall thrust of the Charter in protecting the vulnerable family members, and also in keeping with our philosophy that the family should be the first line of support for all of us. At present, the Bill has incorporated much of what was submitted, during the last 2 years of consideration. And I think the Bill is all the better for it.
Mr Speaker, Sir, let me now explain the amendments in this Bill, starting first with the marriage laws. CONTENT OF BILL
The current law requires at least one party of a couple intending to register their marriage in Singapore to have resided in Singapore for at least 15 days before a notice of marriage can be filed. The rationale is to ensure an appropriate nexus between marrying parties and our local marriage jurisdiction. Basically we do not want Singapore to become a place for a marriage of convenience. With more Singaporeans and permanent residents residing overseas however, this requirement may create unintended difficulties. Together with the minimum of 21 days required between filing and solemnization of marriage, overseas parties may have to take extended leave of at least 36 days if they wish to marry in Singapore. Clause 2 amends section 17(2)(a) to waive the 15 day residency requirement for overseas couples where both parties are either Singaporeans or permanent residents. This eases marriage procedures for such couples, while the law continues to safeguard our marriage regime against abuse by people who have no relevant connection to Singapore.
Sir, the Bill also seeks to reduce the risk of divorce and to mitigate its impact. There are 4 main changes as outlined in clauses 2-5 and clauses 12-16.
First, the proposed amendments to section 17(2)(f), section 21(1)(a) and the new section 17A empower the Minister to require certain categories of persons to attend a marriage preparation programme before they can be issued with a marriage license. Let me quickly reassure the House that the intention here is not to prevent anyone from marrying, but to better equip people who are getting married or who may face a higher risk of divorce for the challenges of married life. It is acknowledged that minors, as young people who have less experience in life and are less prepared to cope with the stresses that come with marriage, such as managing inter-personal relationships, bringing up children, managing finances, handling conflicts, and so on, are at greater risk of divorce. Statistically, analysis of marriages and divorces in Singapore has shown that an individual marrying at the age of 20 is 1.4 - 1.8 times more likely to divorce than if he or she married at the age of 25, assuming other characteristics are the same. Marriage preparation programmes for minors will help them to better prepare for marriage, both psychologically and in a practical way.
Second, the amendments introduce a new requirement in section 50(3A)-(3E) for divorcing parties who have children to undergo counseling and/or mediation at the Family Court after they have filed for divorce. Unfortunately, the interests of children are sometimes compromised by acrimonious battles between divorcing parents, on custody and other related issues. With this measure, trained counselors and mediators familiar with both the legal as well as the emotional/ psychological dimensions of disputes can help these parties to work out effective arrangements in the children’s best interests. I urge parents to regard their children’s welfare as paramount when settling ancillary matters pursuant to a divorce.
Third, the Bill makes related amendments to the Children’s Development and Co-savings Act to allow the court to transfer matrimonial assets divided between parents into a child’s Children Development Account. This will safeguard the interests of children by earmarking some monies for their developmental needs.
Lastly, a new Chapter 4A of Part X will be introduced in the Charter to empower the Singapore courts to provide financial relief for divorces granted in overseas courts and which are recognized in Singapore. Under present law, the Singapore court has power to grant important ancillary financial orders for maintenance of the ex-wife and children and for the division of matrimonial assets if parties obtain a divorce from a Singapore court, but not if they have already obtained a divorce overseas. Sir, with the increasing number of Singaporeans working and residing overseas and more marriages between locals and foreigners, the proposed provision will help those made vulnerable by foreign divorces and who have a relevant connection with Singapore to seek relief.
Let me give you an example. A Singaporean woman marries a foreigner overseas and then lives in a matrimonial home in Singapore. Suppose the foreign spouse obtains then a divorce from a foreign court which is recognised in Singapore but for some reason makes no financial provisions. Currently, the Singaporean spouse will have no financial remedy in Singapore because the Singapore courts do not have power to make such ancillary orders. With this new Chapter, the courts here will be able to make orders on matrimonial assets in Singapore and maintenance for divorces that were obtained in foreign courts. This will plug an existing gap. Related amendments will also be made to the Central Provident Fund Act to effect this, as CPF monies may constitute part of the matrimonial assets to be divided between parties.
Mr Speaker, Sir, the other main thrust of this Bill is to strengthen the enforcement of maintenance orders. Members of the House may recall that I had spoken at length in March last year on how the Courts and my Ministry propose to make the enforcement process less onerous and address the high default rates. The Family Court has already reduced the number of trips a complainant has to make by exempting the complainant from the service of summons stage, and reducing the number of mentions where possible. The option to file a complaint via video-link at social service agencies will also be up and ready later this year, thus making it more convenient.
The Courts had also announced in February last year that more attachment of earnings orders will be issued to require employers of defaulters to pay maintenance directly out of their salary. However, these attachments of earnings may lapse when a person switches to a new employer. To address this gap, section 85 will now be amended to allow the complainant to obtain a disclosure order from the Court to get CPF Board to release information on the employment status of the maintenance payer. The court can then make a new order to attach the payer’s earnings from the new employer.
To enhance the processes further, clause 8 amends section 79 to allow a committee of judges and lawyers to make rules for maintenance cases including enforcement proceedings. This will facilitate the court in requiring parties to furnish relevant information, especially on finances.
To address the high default rate, clauses 2, 4, 6 and 7 will introduce new sanctions against defaulters. To begin with, the courts’ options will be expanded with more sanctions against recalcitrant defaulters. Currently, the courts may direct the arrears to be collected from the defaulter as if it were a fine, send him to jail or make a garnishee order against him. These sanctions are not imposable if the defaulter agrees to pay up at the last minute during a hearing. Imprisonment might also cause defaulters to lose their jobs and thereby exacerbate the problem of non-payment of maintenance.
Section 71(d)-(f) and new sections 71A, 71B and 71C introduce 3 new sanctions, namely, the imposition of a banker’s guarantee against future defaults; secondly, mandatory financial counseling; and third, community service orders. The banker’s guarantee is targeted at those who have the financial means to pay, including those who are self-employed or not on regular employment, for whom an attachment of earnings order may not apply. Mandatory financial counseling will be imposed on defaulters who claim to have genuine financial difficulties but lack financial prudence. It is hoped that with some guidance, such defaulters can make good their responsibilities. Community service orders will be meted out as a punitive deterrent against recalcitrant defaulters, such as those who default repeatedly and pay up at the last minute with no cost to themselves. It is also a useful substitute for jail, as it can be imposed without hampering the defaulter’s ability to work.
In addition, section 71(2B)-(2D) empowers complainants to report maintenance debts to designated credit bureaus. This aims to encourage defaulters to pay up or risk tarnishing their credit reputation and their ability to secure loans from banks and other financial institutions. Lastly, we have seen many defaulters who cite their obligations to a new family in order to justify their inability to pay maintenance to the previous family.As such, remarrying persons will now be required to make a statutory declaration on whether they currently owe any maintenance arrears. This measure signals to the remarrying party that obligations to one’s previous family, especially children, continue even after remarriage. It also keeps the potential spouse aware of the partner’s outstanding obligations. Whilst the presence of arrears will not bar the marriage from taking place, this measure provides an added impetus for defaulters to pay up.
Sir, finally, the Bill also updates the Charter with some technical amendments which I will outline in brief here. Clauses 9 and 10 spell out new options for the Court for service of summons and stipulate how attachment of earnings orders are to be served. Clause 13 makes a technical amendment to section 130 on the how the court should regard the advice of welfare officers, and clause 17 makes related amendments to align the Guardianship of Infants Act to section 130.Clauses 14 and 15 make consequential amendments to section 132(1) and related amendments to the CPF Act respectively to account for new Part 4A on financial relief for foreign divorces. Lastly, clause 18 empowers the Minister to make regulations of savings or transitional nature for period of 2 years, to account for any further technical amendments to the Women’s Charter or other Acts arising from this Bill.
Mr Speaker, Sir, let me conclude by emphasizing the intent of this Bill. This Bill aims to facilitate marriages of overseas Singaporeans and PRs, to better prepare at-risk couples for marriage, to mitigate the impact of divorces, and to strengthen the enforcement of maintenance orders. These amendments are aimed at making a real, positive difference in the lives of families, and especially the more vulnerable children and spouses.
It bears repeating here what I had stated during the debate on the Maintenance of Parents Act. The fact that the majority of us should not have to use the Women's Charter, the Children and Young Persons Act or the Maintenance of Parents Act does not in itself mean that there is no need for legislation which reflects the accepted values of the majority of Singaporeans. The law reflects what we stand for as a society, it reinforces and reminds us of our values and responsibilities. The law also sets some legal boundaries and liabilities, especially for the minority in society who may egregiously fail to live up to their familial responsibilities.
Today, we reaffirm the family as the fundamental pillar of our society, and renew our commitment that we will all fulfill our roles as parents, spouses and children.