SPEECH BY ER DR LEE BEE WAH, MP FOR NEE SOON GRC, AT THE SECOND READING OF THE WOMEN’S CHARTER (AMENDMENT) BILL IN PARLIAMENT ON 29 FEB 2016
Video of speech
Base alimony on needs, not gender
1. 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 work places 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. 男主外，女主内 continues to be presumed and desired as the default relationship dynamic. Husbands are expected to build their careers and take home the bread, while the wives handle the kids and household matters, regardless of their interests and professional abilities.
2. This amendment to the Women’s Charter is thus a much needed breath of fresh air that we now provide for a woman to pay maintenance to a husband or a former spouse who is unable to earn a livelihood due to disability or illness. Today, many women are financially capable, and this capability must be recognised. They should not be absolved of all financial responsibility when a marriage fails. In our pursuit of protection of gender equality for women, we must not seek to make policies unequal for men.
3. 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 mums almost after leaving school. Or, they would quit their jobs when they decided to have a family. Granting maintenance to women in a divorce had been the rightful thing to do in appreciation of her contribution to the family when she had 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 per cent for the prime working ages of 25 to 54. Many also held positions of authority in their workplaces. According to some divorce lawyers, between 30 and 50 per cent of women in divorce cases earn as much, if not more than the men.
4. 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 alimony 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 for 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 performed their designated roles adequately, should also be entitled to maintenance. There should at least be some reprieve as he seeks to get back into the job market after a divorce. Please note that “mutual consent” is essential here. I do have residents who tell me that their husband is too lazy to work, so they have to support the family. Such husbands should not be entitled to maintenance.
5. 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.
6. I have seen cases where men have clearly been taken advantage of. Instead of trying to mend the relationship, the women are more concerned about how much money they can milk out of the failed marriage. Wealthy men are vulnerable, as are men whose ex-wives refused to work despite being capable of landing decent employment. It is not uncommon for a divorce lawyer representing the woman to ask the Court for “nominal” $1 maintenance. This is given even to well heeled women. This gives the woman the right to return to court to ask for higher maintenance should her financial situation worsen some day.
7. The system is biased against the male, but reinforces the notion that women are incapable of standing on their own two feet without a man’s support. This is ironic, given what we have been trumpeting about gender equality and the independence and economic power of the modern woman. A woman who is independent and employable should not be able to use the letter of the law as an excuse to live off her ex-husband.
Make maintenance claims more straightforward
9. 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 the 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 this- 10 years of suffering and 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 avoid paying up. 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.
10. 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 these 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.
11. In a divorce, children are most vulnerable to negative emotions and negligence. I support the Bill’s implementation of a mandatory parenting programme for divorcing parents. 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. While mothers are quick to claim maintenance, there are frequent complaints that they deprive the father of opportunities to be with his 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.
12. 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 our future generations. An equal maintenance regime, where ex-spouses can easily seek arrears, and encouragement to cooperate on childcare are all factors that can bring about this positive change.
13. Let me summarise in Chinese as well. 这次修改法案，有两个改变可以帮到不幸离婚的家庭。首先，让因为健康状况无法工作的前夫，可以要求前妻给赡养费。现今的社会，不少女性在职场巾帼不让须眉，因此赡养费法律方面，我们可以渐渐走向平等。第二，规定要离婚的家长去上专门的育儿辅导课，可以尽量减低离婚对孩童的影响。此外，还是有许多妇女面对前夫不给赡养费的难题，律政部长之前说正在探讨这方面的改革，我希望当局能简化这方面的程序，并给予这些妇女更多帮助。议长女士，我支持这项动议。