Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, at the Second Reading of the Womens’ Charter (Amendment) Bill (Bill No. 43/2021)
Parting ways with someone you used to love or perhaps still love may not be an easy process. When a child is involved, it could get even harder.
Going through a divorce is an emotionally draining period and we should our best to help fellow Singaporeans. We should make sure that our policies don’t make the divorce process more acrimonious.
The proposed amendments to the Women’s Charter are a step in the right direction. They modernise our marriage processes, allow for no-fault divorces and expand divorce support programmes.
They acknowledge the reality that marriage, despite our best hopes and efforts, may break down. In such situations, our laws should help everyone affected, especially the children, move on.
But I hope we can do more, much more. I have three suggestions to make.
Resolving mutual consent for HDB flat during divorce proceedings.
My first suggestion is with regard to parents with shared care and control. Couples know that if they get shared care and control of their child, they will have to fight each other for who gets to list their child as an occupier in their application for a HDB flat. Essentially, who gets subsidised public housing. If one party gets sole care and control, then he or she is guaranteed this subsidised public housing.
Is it in the best interest of the child for their parents to have a more acrimonious divorce? We know that having a roof over your head is essential and perhaps one of the biggest worry following a divorce, especially for the lower-income.
Sir, will the government consider working with family courts and changing its policies to provide children of such parents with less housing instability?
We know that our courts are increasingly ordering divorced parents to have shared care and control. Such orders have almost doubled in recent times, comprising 9.5% of court judgments in 2020, up from 5.6% in 2016.
As mentioned, HDB requires such parents to obtain mutual consent from the other parent before listing their child as an occupier in an HDB flat application.
This creates three problems, all of which are bad for the children.
First, during divorce proceedings, parents may fight more aggressively for sole care and control to secure their right to apply for a subsidized HDB flat.
Second, after divorce, parents may continue fighting over this issue of mutual consent.
Third, when one parent refuses to grant consent, the other parent and their child may be stuck in housing instability. This affects the child’s material and emotional wellbeing.
I know those with difficulties can appeal. Since 2016, HDB has granted 13 out of 20 such appeals, and approved another 7 rental flat applications related to shared care and control cases.
But allowing appeals does not resolve any of the above three problems. Our policies may still create tension, conflict and instability as a default for children in such situations.
I have three proposals for fixing this policy.
First, the Ministry should work with the family courts to enable the courts to settle the question of mutual consent at the stage of divorce. If both parents reach an agreement, it should be stated in the Matrimonial Property Plan, and reflected in the divorce judgment. If they do not, each parent should present their reasons to the judge, who can make an order on which parent gets to list the child as an occupier.
This is not overly intrusive, as judges already settle property matters during divorce proceedings, such as by dividing the matrimonial property. Divorce rulings also already decide on custody, care and control, and division of matrimonial assets, which are equally contentious. So why not housing?
Second, HDB should drop its requirement for mutual consent as long as the other parent already owns private property.
Third, HDB should automatically allow both parents to list the child as an occupier if both parents are of lower incomes.
These proposals will help avoid adding housing instability to the children of divorced parents.
Children-In-Between as a default
My second suggestion is about the “children in between” programme.
It is an exceptionally good programme that provides counseling and support for children whose parents are facing a divorce.
I raised this previously and am again calling for the Ministry to consider making it mandatory for all children whose parents are undergoing a divorce.
In the past few years, many people undergoing divorce have approached me for help and many are in tears as they share their painful journey. Often, I see their child, at times very young child, hugging their parent, comforting them and providing tissue to wipe their tears.
The children step up but I often wonder if they truly understand what is happening to mummy and daddy and whether we are providing them with enough help during this very confusing, painful and distressing period for someone who is so young.
Sir, 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.
Currently, and unfortunately, less than 2% of children affected by divorce attend this programme. We should do a lot more to make this number as close to 100% as possible.
Renaming the Womens’ Charter as Family Charter
My final suggestion is about the name of the Women’s Charter.
When the Women’s Charter was enacted in 1961, it was instrumental in protecting the rights of women. Today’s amendments ensure that the Charter continues to do so, including by clarifying the rights and duties of husbands and wives.
As we modernise this law, we should also consider making its name more appropriate. My proposal is that we rename it to the Family Charter. This is for three reasons.
First, the bulk of this law protects not just women but men and children as well. This is true of the existing law. But it is also true of today’s amendments. No-fault divorces, children support programmes and modernised marriage solemnisations are all good not just for women but also for families in general.
Second, bundling family- and children-specific laws under a Women’s Charter has the unintentional effect of suggesting that women have some unique place in raising children.
It runs against everything else the Government is saying – that men need to contribute equally at home, that employers shouldn’t treat women and mothers differently. I know the Government doesn’t mean to send this message, but that’s what it looks like. This is bad for women, and it’s bad for families.
Third, there is a rising, incorrect sentiment that the Women’s Charter is bad for men. Research by AWARE and Quilt.AI found that one of the main narratives in online misogyny is that “men are unprotected by the law.” The problem is summed up by one of the examples cited in the research: “Where’s the Men’s Charter?” Undoubtedly, we know these voices are wrong. But renaming the Women’s Charter to accurately describe its scope can help defuse the anger.
I am aware that Part 11 and other provisions of the Charter are specific to crimes relating to women. We can move them to the relevant criminal statutes, such as the Penal Code.
Let me be clear. Renaming the Women’s Charter does not mean we have achieved the goal of gender equality. Data and stories make clear that there is still a painful inequality in everything, from attitudes to affluence.
The renaming would help reshape minds, but it would not be enough by itself. We will continue to need changes in laws and mindsets to make progress on the road towards gender equality.
In summary, my points today are, one, that the Ministry should make flat applications easier for parents with shared care and control; two, the Ministry should mandate the Children-in-Between programme for children with divorced parents; and three, that we rename the Women’s Charter to Family Charter.
Sir, notwithstanding my clarifications, I stand in support of this Bill.
Watch the speech here.