Speech by Ms. Carrie Tan, MP for Nee Soon GRC, on Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill
Mr Speaker Sir, the name “Women’s Charter” has given many the impression that it only benefits women. In reality, the Charter protects some men, women, and children from exploitation within the family. My colleague, MP Louis Ng, spoke on this earlier and I would like to reiterate the same point. We can still do more to promote gender equality, and also address the erroneous impression that the Women’s Charter protects only women’s rights, when what it aims to do is protecting the rights of individuals, pertaining to families.
My speech will focus on the matters around divorce, and I speak on someone who has been married before, had an annulment and now is dating a partner who was divorced with two lovely sons. And I speak because I believe that we can reimagine life post divorce, and that second chances can be better.
I support the current amendments to make divorce less acrimonious, to protect the well-being of all parties involved, and to enable better post-divorce emotional healing for all parties, especially for children. Hence, my first request is a change in the name of the Women’s Charter to Family Charter.
In the spirit of enabling better healing from the pain and trauma of divorce, re-naming the Charter would send an important signal to reduce the animosity seen too often in divorce proceedings. Firstly, it would correct the prevailing impression that family law in Singapore favours women over men. This common perception that there is a statute that protects women against men, gives divorce a “zero-sum” tone that induces a fear-based, and defensive approach, hence the mindset that divorce cases must be “fought”, and that someone must win and someone will lose.
In line with making divorces less acrimonious, renaming the charter to Family Charter can induce and forge a more collaborative approach to negotiating divorce settlements. And I said COLLABORATIVE. The aim of divorce proceedings should, and must be to ensure all parties’ well-being post-divorce, and not of anyone winning or losing. For that, the spirit of collaboration should, and can exist even in breaking up, when one seeks to ensure well-being especially that of the children’s.
My honorable colleague, Mr Lim Biow Chuan, mentioned earlier a variety of ways children are caught between acts of vengefulness by parents against each other.
With a change in name, no gender’s rights or interest is placed above another. Husbands would have less reason to perceive that the system is against them. Defensive or retaliatory behaviors stemming from acrimony mounted whichever way by husband or wife cause undue suffering most unfairly to children who have to witness ill-feelings between their parents. The emotional trauma and wounds on children from divorce can have long-lasting impact, as an MSF report has shown last year. Since, the intention behind the Charter is to protect People, Families and Children – the intention must be seen through by taking into account the perceptions that can arise from its name.
My second point is on maintenance of children and ex-spouse, and I believe it should go both ways. Husbands should be entitled to apply for maintenance from their wives where the circumstances are necessary and appropriate, both during and after marriage. In 2016, the Women’s Charter was amended to allow husbands to apply for maintenance from their wives if they are sick or incapacitated. We can go beyond that, to allow for husbands to apply for maintenance from their wives, if the distribution of labour between the spouses during their marriage favoured the earning potential of the wife to be realized instead of the husband’s.
In the past, it may have been the predominant phenomenon that men were the primary breadwinners and women were the primary caregivers. However, times are changing rapidly. In our efforts to uplift women and help women fulfil their career aspirations, I have championed the ungendering of care as a key tenet to free up women’s bandwidth from an overburden of care responsibilities. As a feminist, I believe there should be no double standards. 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. This will send a strong signal, and provide actual reassurance to men that their well-being and rights too are protected should their roles at home be shifted vis-vis their wives.
In fact, for the clauses around “Offences against Women & Girls”, we will do well to reword them to be gender-neutral. After all, not only women and girls get hurt, men can be victims of violence too, whether in domestic settings or in wider contexts. I have come across cases during my Meet-the-People sessions where husbands suffer physical abuse from violent wives, as well as mental abuse through emotional blackmail and threats. However, these are rarely reported due to the stigma around men showing their vulnerability. I will share here a quote in Mandarin from one of my residents. He said, “政府只要保护女人， 这个没有错。但谁会聆听我们男人的心声?”
To truly protect families, 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.
Finally, we should reduce unnecessary time and stress where possible on divorce proceedings. 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. The average Singaporean man gets married three years later, and the average Singaporean woman five years later. Much time is wasted because the current Charter only allows couples to apply for divorce after three years of marriage. This is precious time lost for those who find out after getting married and living together that they are not the right lifelong partners for each other.
I understand the perspective that marriages need to be worked at, and differences need some time to be worked through for marriages to work out, and i agree with Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s view that we should not offer an easy cop out. However, there are also cases where individuals may find out intolerable issues about their spouse only after marriage, such as chronic infidelity, a tendency towards violence that surfaces only after the honeymoon period, or history of debilitating financial debt that renders a marriage unreasonably difficult. While there currently is a clause that allows for “exceptional hardship” for divorce before 3 years is up, it is open to subjective interpretation. Those contemplating divorce while suffering in a marriage would be caught deliberating what would be considered or not considered exceptional hardship. What would be helpful could be a non-exhaustive list of factors / considerations of what would constitute exceptional hardship or depravity to serve as a guide for the Courts and for those experiencing suffering within their marriages within the first three years.
In cases where the individuals in the marriage have irreconcilable differences, a three years window of futile attempts at reconciliation is precious time lost that holds individuals back from pursuing a more fulfilled life. I recognize it is a difficult matter to choose and decide on, whether we should mandate time for the couple to work things out in order to “save marriages”, or allow people to move on to pursue possibility of more workable marriages. Some data would be helpful, and we should look into data on how successful the deed of separation has been in achieving reconciliation. i.e. what numbers of marriages get successfully salvaged and turned around after the “Deed of Separation” period? If the data shows that most of them end in divorce anyway, I recommend the time bar for divorce be reduced to one year for all couples.
In conclusion, I summarise the 3 recommendations for the Amendment bill in addition to the current amendments – 1) to change the name of Women’s Charter to Family Charter to see through its intention of protecting both rights for women and men in the context of family matters, 2) for maintenance applications to be allowed to both men and women without condition of incapacity or disability if domestic role is undertaken more by the husband, and 3) for the time bar of three years’ marriage for divorce to be reviewed and reduced to one year should the trend of futility in reconciliation be shown in relevant data.
Notwithstanding these, which I hope will be considered in future amendments, I support the bill. Thank you Speaker.
Watch the speech here.