1. Mr Speaker, I thank Members for the robust debate, the pertinent issues raised, and their support for the Bill.
2. Important issues have been raised by Members regarding the proposals, and regarding the very institution of marriage and family in Singapore.
3. Let me first reiterate our core beliefs regarding marriage and divorce, which our proposed amendments intend to strengthen
a. Marriage is the cornerstone of family formation in our society. We must protect the institution of marriage by ensuring the significance of the solemnisation
and registration of marriages and that marriages contracted here are genuine.
b. Divorce must be a last resort. Our first priority is to save marriages where possible. Where there is no alternative but divorce, our aim is to help families heal and move on. Reducing acrimony and promoting of child-centricity in divorce is key.
4. The Women’s Charter is a significant Act, enacted in 1961. Ms Carrie Tan and Mr Louis
Ng proposed renaming the Women’s Charter to the Family Charter.
We will not be doing so in today’s amendments as, if we look at the provisions on marriage and divorce, the provisions are gender neutral and do not discriminate in favour of men or women. The Women’s Charter sets out how family and family relationships should be managed. To quote Professor Leong Wai Kum, School of Law SUSS, the Women’s Charter promulgated the idea of marriage as an “equal cooperative partnership of different efforts”. The Women’s Charter also provides for protection of women and girls in the areas of vice/prostitution activities, for which there is good reason for this distinction as women are disproportionately affected. And while Singaporean women today are better educated with better employment opportunities, there are still vulnerable women who require the protection of the Women’s Charter.
II. MARRIAGE-RELATED PROPOSALS
5. Moving on to the issues raised regarding the marriage-related proposals. In reviewing the marriage processes under the Women’s Charter, we sought to achieve two key things.
6. Firstly, we sought to enhance the marriage process to provide greater convenience to couples. The amendments will enable us to take the marriage process online via the “Our Marriage Journey” portal later this year.
a. Mr Gan
Thiam Poh raised concerns of marriages of convenience and I assure members that the Registry of Marriages will continue to perform due diligence. If there are concerns, the declaration would be performed in-person or via video-link (instead of
online) and the Registrar may decide not to permit solemnisation via video-link. Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked how many Marriages of Convenience we have seen and how many have been involved in vice activities.
Between 2014 and 2021, there have been 388 individuals convicted for engaging in or arranging such marriages. We do not track if they have engaged in vice activities.
b. Ms Joan Pereira asked if the digital certificates would apply to both civil and religious ceremonies, and who would issue the digital certificates. Digital certificates would apply to all solemnisations, and will be issued by the Registrar of Marriages.
c. Ms Ng Ling Ling voiced concerns that digitalising the solemnisation may downplay its significance. We understand her concerns. Hence, couples may choose to hold their solemnisation in-person. Indeed, we have seen that most couples still prefer to hold their solemnisations in-person. In addition, while a digital marriage certificate will be issued, a hardcopy ceremonial marriage certificate will also be provided as a keepsake.
Through the “Our Marriage Journey” portal we will continue to emphasize the importance of the solemnisation.
7. Second, we sought to update the necessary safeguards to ensure that the institution of marriage is not abused and continues to be protected.
8. Beyond legislative amendments, upcoming initiatives also boost our efforts to strengthen marriages and families.
a. We have brought together stakeholders, community partners, and Singaporeans to co-create and implement
solutions through the launch of the Alliance for Action to strengthen marriages and family relationships last year.
b. We have also woven support for couples into the marriage process.
Melvin Yong suggested more can be done to encourage couples to attend marriage preparation courses, including by making it mandatory. The “Our Marriage Journey” portal will recommend and encourage couples to sign up for such courses. However,
it is only mandatory where one party is below the age of 21, as the dissolution rates for such marriages are relatively higher. Nonetheless, we strongly encourage all couples to attend marriage preparation programmes and provide rebates of $140
for couples to attend the 12-hour PREP workshop, or $70 for supported programmes offered by the community.
ii. I also agree with Ms Joan Pereira that it is important that solemnisers are equipped with counselling skills.
We have started a pilot initiative, Journey with You (in short, referred to as JOY), which enables Licensed Solemnisers to mentor newlyweds in the first year of marriage. They will undergo training and are provided referral resources.
III. DIVORCE-RELATED PROPOSALS
9. Let me move on now to the issues raised on the divorce proposals.
10. I am glad that there is consensus between members on several areas.
11. First, as raised by many members, divorce is and must be a last resort. Where possible, we aim to save the marriage and help couples resolve their issues. I agree with Mr Yip Hon Weng that couples should be encouraged to seek counselling early before marital issues worsen.
Where there is no other option apart from divorce, we aim to help couples to heal and we also ensure that the welfare of the children is protected. Mr Melvin Yong brought up the worrying trend of more recent cohorts divorcing earlier. He asked why such a trend has emerged. We believe that this is due in part to higher expectations of marital satisfaction and greater stressors in the early years of marriage especially as more couples are dual income and juggle career and parenthood. This is a trend not just emerging in Singapore, but has been apparent in many parts of the world for some time.
12. Therefore, as raised by Mr Lim Biow Chuan, Mr Yip Hon Weng, Mr Melvin Yong and Mr Zhulkarnian Abdul Rahim, our commitment is to protect the marriage, and save it where possible. But we must do more, beyond legislation.
The legislative amendments must be seen in totality with non-legislative initiatives which will help couples resolve issues at all stages of their relationship.
a. When stresses begin to emerge, we have marital and family counselling under FAM@FSC to help families resolve
issues early. Mr Melvin Yong suggested that marriage therapy be made more accessible and affordable. Mr Yip Hon Weng also asked if there are sufficient trained professionals to cater to demand, what the average waiting time is for appointments,
and if there is remedial action if the couple does not attend subsequent counselling sessions. Ms Mariam Jaafar similarly asked about funding and resources for such services. I’ll like to say that by the end of this year, there will be 10
FAM@FSCs across the island that can support couples facing marital and familial stress, and they will be well equipped to manage the projected demand.
In terms of the waiting time, parties will be contacted by the agency within a week. As these counselling sessions are voluntary, there is no remedial action that can be taken by the Ministry or the FAM@FSC should the couple not choose to continue. Nonetheless, if counselling were ordered by the court, then in the case of non-compliance, the court may make any further orders as it deems fit, including staying proceedings until parties have attended counselling.
b. If couples are not able to resolve their issues, and are contemplating divorce, we are also working on a Family Assist portal which will provide couples with links to marital counselling and allow reflection and also information so couples can make an informed decision.
c. Finally, should couples choose to proceed with divorce, within the divorce process, couples are given opportunities to resolve their issues and to u-turn on their decision.
Mr Yip Hon Weng had asked if the Ministry would consider mandating pre-divorce
counselling for couples citing DMA. Ms Mariam Jaafar raised similar points on requiring divorcing couples to take parenting education courses and making counselling mandatory. With the amendments, all divorcing couples with minor children
must attend MPP before filing for divorce. At MPP, counsellors may assess the couple’s suitability for reconciliation and refer them for further support. Mr Melvin Yong asked if this pre-divorce counselling could be extended to those who cite
“Unreasonable Behavior”. We agree it is good to do so but our priority at this point is to extend MPP to all divorcing couples with minor children, regardless of the fact they cite. We will explore extending pre-divorce counselling further
at a later stage.
I also fully agree with Ms Shahira Abdullah that religious organisations can play an important role in mediation and counselling, and parties may choose to opt for counselling by religious organisations if they are of the same faith. I would like to thank Mr Zhulkarnian Abdul Rahim for sharing the Syariah Court’s experience with implementing the Marriage Counselling Programme. Indeed, it is through learning from the Syariah Court’s positive experience that we have decided to introduce pre-divorce counselling.
13. Members also agree that it is key that families are supported throughout the divorce process. On the Programme for Children,
Ms Joan Pereira raised the importance to support all children, including the older ones. We fully agree and as part of the MPP, the counsellor would encourage parents to sign their children up for suitable programmes.
b. To Mr Louis Ng and Mr Zhulkarnian Abdul Rahim’s queries on why the Programme for Children is not mandatory, what the types of interventions under the Programme for Children are, and whether there can be a national body to harmonise programmes for all children affected by Muslim and civil divorce, I would first like to assure Members such as Ms Shahira Abdullah, who also brought up the need for Muslim marriages to be supported, that MSF and MCCY work closely together to ensure the programmes offered to all children affected by divorce are similar. In addition, the Programme for Children is also available to children affected by Muslim divorce. There is therefore no need for a separate body to oversee this. The Programme for Children covers various component items. It includes an assessment of the needs of the child, counselling, psychological services as well as specific evidence-based programmes such as Children-in-Between.
MSF had considered
mandating all minor children whose parents are undergoing divorce to attend a programme to help them cope better with the divorce. However, we believe that parents, even as they undergo divorce, must still assume primary responsibility
for their children’s well-being, rather than have the Government mandate a programme for their children. We are also mindful that mandating counselling for all children may also cause additional stress and that not all children may be
ready to attend the programme.
14. Lastly, on the issue of child access enforcement, I agree with Mr Lim Biow Chuan and Mr Zhulkarnian Abdul Rahim that children should not be used as a negotiating tool in their parents’ quarrels and those who breach access orders must face consequences. Both Members also brought up the need for enforcement orders to be made judiciously, especially in the case of a term of imprisonment.
I assure Members that the court will take all aspects of the case into account in making its orders, including whether the child had refused access to the parent, and a term of imprisonment is intended to be imposed only on egregious cases of non-compliance. The court may reverse the grant of care and control to the access parent if it is in the best interest of the child to do so. On orders to make-up access, as with all orders related to the child, the court will make this order taking into consideration the best interest of the child. For parties with counselling orders, FAM@FSCs and DSSAs will work closely with the courts to support them in issues faced with access. The 10 FAM@FSCs set up by the end of this year will be able to manage the expected caseload.
15. However, we have also heard different views raised by Members, particularly on whether we should make the divorce process more expeditious, or whether doing so could lead to easier divorces and erode the institution of marriage.
16. I fully agree with Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Lim Biow Chuan and Mr Melvin Yong that a balance must be struck between making it too difficult for couples to divorce and making it too easy to give up their commitment. Beyond non-legislative efforts to strengthen the family and upstream measures to help families facing stress, we also want to ensure that the divorce process affords parties opportunities to save their marriage and u-turn on their decision, and the divorce process, even with the introduction of DMA, is not made easier nor faster. For this reason,
safeguards to ensure the decision to divorce is a considered one remains. This includes
i. 3-year minimum marriage period before divorce can be filed;
ii. Minimum 3-month period before divorce is finalized; and
iii. The existing 5 facts for parties who prefer to rely on them.
b. The divorce process also remains largely
the same no matter which fact is cited, including DMA. In fact, citing DMA requires further submissions to the court
i. The reasons leading parties to conclude that their marriage has irretrievably
ii. The efforts made by parties to reconcile; and
iii. Considerations given to the arrangements to be made in relation to the parties’ children and financial affairs.
17. It is also for this reason that we will not be reducing the 3-year minimum marriage period before a divorce can be filed, as Ms Carrie Tan has suggested.
The 3-year minimum period is an important safeguard to ensure that couples do not enter or exit a marriage lightly.
b. The first year of marriage is often not an easy one given the many transitions and adjustments for couples.
The 3-year minimum period will thus allow couples sufficient time to adjust, seek help, overcome difficulties, rather than leave the marriage just because things are difficult. If they truly wish to pursue divorce, the 3-year minimum period will allow them sufficient time to consider their decision carefully, and also make attempts at reconciliation.
c. Nonetheless, there are legitimate reasons where a party may need to exit the marriage before the 3-year minimum marriage period is up, and the Women’s Charter allows for that. In cases of exceptional hardship or depravity, parties may seek the court’s permission to file for divorce before the 3-year minimum marriage period is up.
18. However, where parties have made and failed every effort to save their marriage, and have no other option left but divorce,
there is a need and a place for DMA, in cases where parties agree on the divorce, to reduce acrimony.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan asked why DMA is needed when the separation fact allows couples to divorce without apportioning fault. Divorcees who filed for divorce on the simplified divorce track have shared with us in our engagments, how though they had agreed on the divorce and ancillary matters, having to cite a fault-based fact did dredge up pain and hurt, and the hurt deepened when parties read the affidavits from each other. They expressed how they wanted instead to be able to take joint responsibility for the marital breakdown instead of citing fault. They also told us they found it difficult to rely on the separation fact as they felt like their lives were put on hold during the separation period and they could not move on. This was not good for their well-being. It was also not good for their children’s well-being because try as they might, they admitted they could not focus on their children until the divorce was finalised. In the meantime, the children were exposed to the tensions in their relationship during the separation. DMA therefore allows such couples to jointly take responsibility for the breakdown of the marriage and heal and to move on from the divorce.
19. Mr Lim Biow Chuan raised concerns as to whether DMA would effectively reduce acrimony given parties must submit the reasons leading them to conclude the marriage has irretrievably broken down, and they may disagree on matters concerning their children and finances. It is inevitable that in certain cases, even with DMA, the couple will still face acrimony in the divorce process. However, providing the option for parties to jointly take responsibility rather than pinning the blame solely on one party would more likely set the frame and mindset for a less acrimonious and conflictual process. Thereafter, when parties proceed to the ancillary discussion, they are more likely to do so without the resentment of either having to bear full blame for the divorce, or the pain of having to dredge up past hurts. Having jointly taken responsibility for the breakdown of the marriage, they can begin ancillary discussions more amicably.
20. I would like to emphasise again and assure Mr Lim Biow Chuan, Mr Ang Wei Neng, Mr Melvin Yong and Mr Yip Hon Weng that DMA differs from the “no-fault” divorce that we see in other jurisdictions.
a. Unlike other overseas
regimes where parties are not required to prove that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, or where the filing for divorce by one party is sufficient to prove the marriage has irretrievably broken down, DMA is a sixth fact to
prove the sole ground of divorce and is done through an agreement that cites (i) reasons for the breakdown, (ii) efforts at reconciliation, and (iii) considerations for children and financial matters.
b. One party cannot unilaterally divorce the other. Some jurisdictions have removed the ability for a party to contest the proceedings. Under the Women’s Charter, the defendant is able to file a defence against a divorce application, irrespective of the fact cited.
c. I would also like to assure Ms Sylvia Lim that we do not expect the number of divorces to increase significantly with the introduction of DMA. Spikes or long-term increase in divorce rates occur when a regime switches from fault-based to non-fault based. We had made transition in 1980 from purely fault-based regime to hybrid regime with no-fault grounds and had introduced a simplified divorce track in 2015. We saw no significant increase in divorce then.
21. Members also raised queries on the divorce-related proposals. Regarding the details of DMA
Hany Soh asked what reasons are acceptable to substantiate that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This could include reasons such as a deep-seated difference in values. The intention is to avoid reasons that point blame only
at one party, and children should not be cited as the reason for divorce.
In fact, as Dr Shahira Abdullah has pointed out, one of the aims of DMA is to spare children the pain of having their parents make, prove, and disprove allegations against one another’s misdeeds, so children are better able to cope with the divorce.
b. Ms Ng Ling Ling asked how the Court would assess if a marriage is still reconcilable and whether MSF would be able to make recommendations to the court. Mr Yip Hon Weng similarly asked if the assessment would involve professionals in family matters. Ms Sylvia Lim expressed concerns about whether DMA would lower the threshold for divorce compared to the other five facts.
Ultimately the legal test for the granting of the divorce is the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. There are currently five facts with their own respective requirements. DMA is a broad ground, but parties will still have to meet the threshold of “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage”. If parties cite evidence relating to one of the five established facts but do not quite meet the prescribed requirements, it remains open to the court to grant the divorce on the ground of DMA. But before doing so the court will have to assess the facts carefully, bearing in mind that a divorce cannot be granted under DMA if there is reasonable possibility of reconciliation. The court will have to carefully consider whether or not to depart from the requirements of one of the 5 established facts, taking into account the specific circumstances of the case. DMA is a different fact on which you can obtain a divorce, but it is not an easier fact. The Court will have to assess the agreement based on the matters set out in the Statement of Particulars submitted by parties to the court, which contain the three requirements needed by DMA, and make an assessment that the efforts detailed suffice to satisfy a parties-centric test that parties have made best efforts and have done all things necessary to attempt reconciliation. This is not present in the current five facts, including for separation whether with or without consent. All this represents a paradigm shift that is different from, but not necessarily easier, than the current five facts. Over time, the courts will develop case law on DMA. In all cases, parties have to meet the 3-year time bar before they can apply for divorce. A party who relies on DMA will not necessarily be able to obtain a divorce sooner than a party who relies on adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour. It all depends on the facts.
c. For couples with minor children, they will have to attend MPP at the DSSA or FAM@FSC before filing for divorce or filing a Counterclaim when served
with divorce papers. We will enhance the MPP to encourage couples to consider reconciliation, if possible. For couples who are open to reconciliation, a counsellor can help to support them through this process; and otherwise, the couple
may proceed to divorce should they wish to do so.
At point of filing, should the Court assess that reconciliation is still a reasonable possibility, the court may refer the couple for counselling at the DSSA or FAM@FSC. After counselling, parties may continue with the divorce process should they choose to do so.
d. Ms Joan Pereira similarly raised concerns on the submission of efforts to reconcile to the court. In
particular, Ms Pereira was concerned that this would add tension to an already strained relationship. The premise of DMA is to allow divorcing couples to come together to help a broken relationship without further strain. We expect
that couples who cite DMA would have discussed their issues and how to resolve the dissolution of the marriage in an amicable manner. It is for this reason that the fact is founded on mutual agreement. If there is no consensus on all
matters, it is highly unlikely that the couple would opt for this fact.
The application therefore gives the couple space to discuss, communicate and resolve all issues including reconciliation efforts before presenting this application by mutual agreement to Court.
e. To Ms Hany Soh’s query on whether DMA may only be cited on the simplified track, and if divorces filed citing another fact can later be allowed to proceed on an amended claim under DMA, we envisage that most parties who cite DMA would file on the simplified track. However, DMA is not limited only to the simplified track, and those on the standard track may choose to cite DMA as well. As for whether parties who originally cited another fact can later be allowed to amend their claim and cite DMA, parties can apply for leave to amend the claim subject to fulfilling the requirements of the Family Justice Rules.
f. Ms Mariam Jaafar asked about a minimum time period for the proceedings to allow for reflection. Mr Yip Hon Weng also asked how long the process will take from the time divorce is filed, and if the couple can appeal the court’s decision. The average duration taken depends on the track that the divorce application proceeds on. For couples who contest the divorce or ancillary matters, the duration varies and could take some time. For couples who divorce on the simplified track, the time taken from filing to the grant of the interim judgement is approximately 6-12 weeks. Thereafter, there would be another minimum of 3 months to the final judgment. We envisage that couples who cite DMA would likely file for divorce on the simplified track, but citing DMA instead of the existing 5 facts, and that would not change the duration in any way.
As for appeals, as this is a consent application, it is unlikely there would be an appeal. Should one party change their mind, they can apply to set aside the grant of the Interim Judgment.
g. Regarding Ms Mariam Jaafar’s suggestion for a minimum period after the divorce is finalised for counsellors to check in on couples to ensure they are coping well, any family that has issues with the divorce or its impact can seek post-divorce support at the FAM@FSCs and DSSAs.
h. Ms Ng Ling Ling asked how the court will ensure that the agreement under DMA is entered out of the parties’ own volition. Ms Sylvia Lim also asked if the court would act as a watchdog in cases of vulnerable spouses who may be coerced into agreeing to a divorce under DMA, and to unfavourable terms under the divorce relating to their children and financial affairs.
As I had said earlier, we rely on family lawyers to prevent such cases. In addition, the Mandatory Parenting Programme*, or MPP, which is a mandatory pre-filing programme for parents, can act as a safeguard against such instances as the counsellor may identify and assist such spouses. Indeed, for an agreement to be made under DMA, the court must, among other things, assess that parties are acting voluntarily and have the requisite knowledge of the terms.
*Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP) has been renamed to Mandatory Co-Parenting Programme (CPP) from 15 January 2023
22. Members also raised queries on other aspects of the divorce process
a. Mr Melvin Yong asked about the penalties that may be imposed on parties should they be found to have divorced for financial benefits, such as
to own multiple properties without additional buyers’ stamp duties. I assure Members again that DMA does not make it easier for parties to get a divorce.
In fact, parties who choose to go on DMA have to satisfy the court
that there is no reasonable possibility of reconciliation. Lawyers must also do their part to ensure that divorces are genuine and their clients are not intending to enter into a divorce just in name.
Ng Ling Ling asked where one party refuses to attend MPP, whether the other party would be hindered from proceeding with the divorce, such as in cases of family violence where the perpetrator may be unwilling to attend. In
a case where one party refuses to attend MPP, the other party will still be able to proceed with the filing of the divorce after they have themselves completed MPP. As for the perpetrator, he/she must attend the MPP if he/she
wishes to file a Counterclaim to put forth his/her points relating to the divorce and ancillary matters to the court. The DSSAs and FAM@FSCs will also provide or refer parties for support if they disclose experiences with family
c. Regarding the issue of child access enforcement, I would like to assure Ms Hany Soh that should parties be ordered to take part in therapeutic programmes or counselling at the DSSAs or FAM@FSCs, that they will not incur any fees. As to increasing the number of complimentary sessions for parties to carry out supervised access at the DSSAs, there are no plans to do so as the intention is to foster a sense of responsibility in parents in managing their own relationship to co-parent effectively, by requiring them to contribute a sum for supervised access. Supervised Exchange and Supervised Visitation is intended as an interim measure to help parents work towards independent access.
d. I would also like to assure Members that should any parent face issues with access to their children, they are able to seek help at the FAM@FSCs and DSSAs. As Ms Mariam Jaafar has raised, there is no difference in services offered to men and women.
As to increased legal assistance to parents, the means test is reviewed at regular intervals (every 5 years or so), with the last amendment to the means test being done in 2019. The Ministry of Law will continue to review the means test regularly, in order to ensure that less privileged persons who need legal help continue to get it. The Legal Aid Bureau also has a merits test in order to ensure that legal aid is not given for frivolous, unmeritorious claims. Thus, it is not just about ensuring that those who need it get legal help for access matters, but that the manner in which they conduct the case, and the merits of their position in the case are reasonable. For access matters, court litigation should very much be the last resort.
e. Mr Zhulkarnian Abdul Rahim and Mr Lim Biow Chuan also raised concerns regarding the provision to allow the court to direct the bailiff to restore a child to the physical custody of a person in whose custody, or care and control, the child is placed.
The courts will only order the bailiff’s assistance in cases where their presence is absolutely necessary, and not in all cases. To safeguard the child’s wellbeing, the bailiff will be accompanied by the applicant (usually the other parent). Where required, the bailiff is also empowered to activate auxiliary police officers for support. It is pertinent to note that the same powers exist in the Guardianship of Infants Act and is available to all parents and guardians of a child. This proposal seeks to extend the same relief to persons who have divorce, nullity or judicial separation proceedings.
f. On the issue of maintenance enforcement, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Ang Wei Neng noted that the current maintenance enforcement process can be further enhanced. As I have said so earlier, MSF is working with the Ministry of Law and the Family Justice Courts to study how to provide more efficient and effective enforcement of maintenance orders and minimise repeat enforcement.
We are considering the feasibility of taking these amendments up under other legislation.
g. Ms Carrie Tan and Mr Ang Wei Neng also raised the issue of allowing maintenance applications to be made for husbands, without the condition of incapacity. We had considered this. However, while women are in a much better position today than they were many years ago, we recognise that even today, in a marriage, it is more likely for a wife to give up her career to care for her family, while her husband continues working. This means that post-divorce, women tend to be financially more vulnerable. The current provision therefore provides maintenance for the parties that tend to be more financially vulnerable post-divorce – women and incapacitated men. While we want to move toward gender-neutrality, those who are more vulnerable must be protected.
In any case, the courts refrain from granting high amounts of maintenance to wives who are able to work, even if they had not worked or stopped working for some years. The courts’ goal is to award reasonable maintenance that will meet the financial needs of the wife until she can secure for herself some form of employment and adjust to her post-divorce situation.
h. The issue of parental alienation was also brought up by Ms Mariam Jaafar. We do not think there is a need to define the term “parental alienation” in order to ensure that those who are impacted by it are supported. Rather, parents who believe that they and are victims of parental alienation are encouraged to seek help for themselves and their children at FAM@FSCs or DSSAs. And if such methods fail, parents may consider legal recourse.
23. We also recognise that there may be those impacted by divorce that require even more support, given the challenges of caregiving.
a. Ms Yeo Wan Ling, Mr Melvin Yong and Mr Seah Kian Peng brought up the issue of support for mothers who may be unemployed during the divorce. With the proposed amendments, all parents with minor children must attend MPP before they file for divorce. The MPP covers several areas, including co-parenting and the impact of divorce on parties’ financial status and living arrangements. If employment support or financial support is needed, the MPP counsellor would refer parties for employment or financial assistance.
b. Ms Yeo Wan Ling and Mr Seah Kian Peng also asked about support for parents with caregiving responsibilities, including greater flexible work support and other policies for better work-life harmony.
MOM introduced the Tripartite Advisory on Flexible Work Arrangements, or FWAs and Tripartite Standard on FWAs in 2017, and subsequently the Tripartite Standard on Work-Life Harmony in 2021, which guides employers on how to offer FWAs to their employees and provides recognition to employers who do so. MOM will continue to work with tripartite partners to strengthen the provision of FWAs and other work-life practices.
c. In August 2021, MSF also set up an Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships. One of the focal areas is on “Support for Single Parents”, which aims to enable single parents to better care for their children and raise their families through strengthening the ecosystem of support. The Alliance for Action will work with community partners to strengthen support for single parents.
This includes childcare, employment and socio-emotional support, facilitating support networks for single parents, and developing a one-stop portal to help single parents access programmes and community resources more easily.
d. Mr Louis Ng brought up the issue of access to HDB flats for divorcees with shared care and control of their children and made several suggestions. I thank him for those suggestions.
i. All individuals are only allowed to be listed in one HDB flat application. At the same time, divorcees with shared care and control of children have an equal right to list their children in their flat application. HDB is not in a position to determine which parent can exercise the right to do so, and thus requires divorced parents to try to come to an agreement in the first instance, before listing their child in a flat application.
ii. I agree with Mr Ang Wei Neng that we must support those who face difficulties. For those who are unable to reach an agreement with their ex-spouse or have low income and have no other housing options, HDB can exercise flexibility to waive the requirement on a case-by-case basis, to ensure that both parties have options to provide housing for themselves and their children.
iii. For cases where the ex-spouse has bought a private property after the divorce, they may still wish to list the child in a future flat application. As such, HDB will have to review each case individually, and will not be able to waive the mutual agreement requirement as a blanket policy.
iv. HDB will also not require the court order to state which parent is allowed to list the child as an “essential occupier” as orders pertaining to a child are made with the overarching principle of the child’s best interests.
When determining issues pertaining to a child’s welfare, the court order focuses on rebuilding relationships, and for parents to focus on the future with their children, instead of specific orders laying down conditions such as the one referred to.
As far as possible, we want to encourage parents to work through issues cooperatively and harmoniously outside of the Court system. This is especially pertinent in cases where there is shared care and control as it is not ideal for parents with shared care and control to seek or rely on Court orders to lay down all matters and details pertaining to care of their children and arrangements after divorce. Instead, they should be working on co-parenting cooperatively in the child’s best interest. Those awarded share care and control must also, when they applied for it, truly be able to divide the care and control of the child equally and be able to cooperate to do so. Nonetheless, we recognise that there may be cases where parents are unable to reach an agreement despite their best efforts. And in such cases, they can approach HDB to discuss their options.
24. As Ms Mariam Jaafar has raised, the area of family law is an important one, one that often most impacts people and their families. It is for this reason that our proposed amendments seek to strengthen therapeutic justice in the family justice system, and we are working with FJC to include monitoring standards, processes and complaints. Nonetheless, the various professionals are subject to their respective codes of practice.
25. If passed in Parliament, we expect all the marriage-related amendments and some of the divorce-related amendments to come into effect in the later half of this year while others such as DMA would come into effect in 2023, to allow time for courts, lawyers, social service agencies and other parties to be ready.
26. In conclusion, our families are key building blocks of society and we must do what we can to ensure that they are protected and strengthened. I believe that viewed holistically, these proposed amendments to the Women’s Charter relating to marriage and divorce, will strengthen the institution of marriage, and support families should they have to pursue divorce as a last resort. I thank everyone who had provided feedback during our engagements, and who made the proposals presented here today possible. Beyond legislation, it is truly the efforts of the community that make a difference to those impacted by divorce.
27. I also urge more experienced couples to do their part to actively mentor and counsel younger couples in their social circles or religious organisations, bolstering the efforts of Licensed Solemnisers under the JOY initiative. I also encourage passionate individuals and grounds-up groups to partner MSF’s Alliance for Action to organise family activities, programmes to strengthen marriages and family relationships. I am also excited to be working with Families for Life, a grounds-up movement to build strong and resilient families in Singapore.
28. However, we also recognise that more can be done to enhance protection against violence, and we will be proposing amendments in a separate Bill by end of this year to implement the recommendations from the Taskforce on Family Violence. With that, I thank Members for your valuable input and support for this Bill.
29. Mr Speaker, Sir, I beg to move.