Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Administration of Muslim Law (Amendment) Bill [Bill No. 27/2017]
Madam, I stand in support of this Bill.
I welcome these progressive and timely amendments to the Administration of Muslim Law Act, especially in relation to the amendments that seek to offer greater protection to children and minors and attempting to address the growing rate of divorces amongst young Muslim couples.
Role of Child Representatives
The Family Justice Act 2014 provides for the appointment of child representatives in the Family Courts. The amendment sought to be introduced by the current Bill seeks to follow this approach in the Syariah Courts.
This is a timely change. Often, in disputes between parents, the children are put in a position where they are forced to take sides. This may not be in the best interest of the child. The child representative scheme provides a good support system to the already available mechanisms to ensure that the child’s best interest is foremost in mind.
The Family Justice Act 2014 as well as the proposed amendments sought to be introduced by the current Bill do not set out the precise roles of the child representatives.
In the context of the Family Justice Act, this is set out in the Family Justice Rules. Similarly, I trust that subsidiary legislation on the proposed amendments, if accepted, will deal with the roles of the child representative through similar subsidiary legislation. Can Minister confirm if this is the case.
I also want to add that it will be useful to learn from the experiences of the Family Court in this regard.
Next, under Section 45(5) of the Family Justice Act 2014, the child representative has some measure of protection from suit. Clause 15(c) of the Bill similarly seeks to offer some measure of protection to the child representative from legal proceedings in the carrying out of their work. This is provided that the conditions set out therein are satisfied.
However, the wording adopted for the conditions in the Family Justice Act 2014 and the proposed amendments in the current Bill differ.
In the case of Section 45(5) of the Family Justice Act 2014, a child representative there receives protection as long as the act done (a) was done in good faith and (b) did not involve any fraud or wilful misconduct on the part of the child representative.
However, in the case of the proposed amendments in the current Bill, Clause 15(c) follows the language of the Family Justice Act 2014, but leaves out the words “on the part of the child representative” after the words “did not involve any fraud or wilful misconduct”.
Some lawyers have raised this issue with me and wanted clarifications on whether there is a distinction to be drawn between the protection to be given to a child representative under the Family Justice Act 2014 and the Administration of Muslim Law Act?
If no such distinction was intended, then the suggestion is that the wording of the Family Law Act 2014 be adopted? After all, there is much sense in lifting protection only where the fraud and misconduct is attributable to the child representative.
I should also mention that the same disparity in wording is also present in relation to the protection offered to medical practitioners, psychologists, social workers or mental health professionals in Section 45(6) of the Family Justice Act 2014 and Clause 15(c) of the current Bill. Again, may I propose that the wording in the Family Justice Act 2014 be adopted.
Syariah Court’s jurisdiction to hear ancillary issues in overseas divorces
Next, Sections 121A to 121G of the Women’s Charter created jurisdiction for the Family Courts to deal with financial provisions consequential upon a divorce where the divorce was obtained overseas.
In at least one area, dealing with the division of matrimonial property in Singapore, there is no similar provision for this in the Administration of Muslim Law Act or the amendments proposed under the current Bill.
In a recent case, the Syariah Courts have declined to exercise jurisdiction over such matters. In other words, where the divorce of a Muslim couple is finalised overseas, the Syariah Courts will not have jurisdiction to determine the division of matrimonial assets in Singapore. This becomes a problem when there is a divorce overseas and there are assets in Singapore which the overseas Court will not deal with.
The issue came up before the Singapore Courts in TMO v TMO  SGCA 14 (“TMO”). In TMO, the husband applied for, and obtained a divorce in the Johore Courts. This was done, apparently without the knowledge of the wife. The wife, having discovered this, later applied to the Singapore Syariah Courts for ancillary relief.
The Syariah Court granted certain relief as it found that it had the requisite jurisdiction. However, it refused to exercise jurisdiction over the division of matrimonial assets on the basis that the divorce was not concluded in the Syariah Court in Singapore.
Ultimately, the issue relating to the division of the matrimonial assets would fall to the Family Courts who had jurisdiction to deal with the same, but would not apply Muslim law in determining the division.
The oddity that would follow is that all other issues would be dealt with in accordance with Muslim law save for the issue of division of matrimonial property. While the decision in TMO means that such a Muslim couple is not without recourse, the recourse provided may not be satisfactory from that couple’s point of view.
Can I propose that further amendments be introduced specifically granting the Syariah Court jurisdiction in such cases?
Madam, overall, the amendments that have been proposed in the Bill seeks to learn from the positive aspects introduced in other legislation. This is done while still having due regard to the beliefs and practices of our Muslim brothers and sisters.
To this end, and the comments notwithstanding, Madam, this Bill can only improve the lives and interests of the Muslim community in Singapore, and I stand in support of it.