2. I thank members for the robust debate, the pertinent issues raised, and the support for the Bill.
3. I would like to begin by reiterating MSF’s commitment to building strong families. Mr Melvin Yong brought up the importance of strengthening marriages and families, thereby reducing the number of families who have to go through the painful process of divorce. Indeed, this is MSF’s belief, and efforts have been put in place across all life stages through various Government initiatives to support families. Such efforts span supporting families in setting strong foundations in marriage and parenting, in the cost of raising their children, in navigating and overcoming difficulties, and in ageing well. These are efforts that we continually build on, and proposals from members on how we can make further strides in this regard are always welcome.
4. Members have expressed their concerns regarding a family’s ability to move on financially post-divorce. Mr Louis Ng asked about support provided to families early to sort out their finances when a marriage has broken down. In December 2021, the MSF launched the Family Assist portal which supports couples contemplating divorce and provides them with information and services to make informed decisions in the best interest of their children. This includes information on the impact of divorce on finances and housing. A personalised tool will also be launched on the portal soon to help citizens better understand their post-divorce HDB options.
5. Mr Louis Ng also asked if financial counselling can be incorporated into the Co-Parenting Programme (CPP). Like I earlier in my opening speech, we have made it mandatory for all divorcing parents with minor children to attend the CPP. Today, the CPP already covers practical issues arising from a divorce, including modules on making housing arrangements and managing finances. During the CPP consultation sessions, counsellors may also refer parties to financial counselling services.
6. Mr Louis Chua asked about financial assistance for those referred to the Social Service Offices (SSO) under the Maintenance Enforcement Process (MEP). Where possible, we will streamline the sharing of data between the MEP and the SSOs. The details will need to be worked out with the setup of the new unit of Maintenance Enforcement Officers (MEO). I would like to assure members that our SSO officers will assess the applicants’ circumstances and needs holistically, and assist them accordingly. This includes interim assistance for cases requiring urgent assistance, such as if maintenance is not being paid and has resulted in financial difficulties.
7. It was heartening to hear from Ms Yeo Wan Ling about the work that NTUC’s Women and Family Unit is doing to support single mothers and divorcees. The MSF believes in the importance of caring for and supporting women in such vulnerable situations and had announced several efforts as part of the 2022 White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development. This includes partnerships between the Government and community partners under the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships.
8. As an example, MSF’s community partner HCSA has updated their portal SPIN which stands for Single Parents, Informed, Involved, Included to address questions divorcees may have towards housing and childcare arrangements.
9. The MSF is focused on ensuring that childcare arrangements do not exact a burden on single or divorced parents so that they are able to seek employment and provide for themselves and their family members. We welcome partnerships with NTUC’s Women and Family Unit to further enable single or divorced parents.
10. Mr Louis Chua had raised the issue of divorced parents being unable to come to an agreement on their child’s education arrangements and their housing arrangements. We think it best for parents to work out suitable arrangements co-operatively, and encourage them to do so outside of the court system, bearing in mind what would be in their children’s best interests. It is for this reason that we have made it mandatory for all divorcing couples with minor children to go through the Co-Parenting Programme. lt is not ideal for parents to seek to rely on court orders to exhaustively list the decision rights for all matters pertaining to their children.
11. On the issue of school arrangements, in particular something as important as a school transfer, parents who have joint custody of their child need to come to a common agreement on the child’s school transfer. I hope members can understand that schools have to be seen to be fair to both parents and it is not ideal for divorced spouses to bring their differences to the school to be the arbiter.
12. Our housing policies prioritise our limited public housing supply for households with the greatest need, such as those that involve children. As such, divorcees with children are a family nucleus and can apply for public housing. For divorcees without children, they can retain their matrimonial flat alone if they are at least 35 years old. If they are below 35 years old, they can retain their flat if they include a family member, such as either of their parents, to form an eligible family nucleus.
13. HDB does allow divorcees below age 35 without children to retain their matrimonial flat alone, on a case-by-case basis.
14. Mr Leon Perera had asked whether we would consider providing for maintenance for ex-husbands and men. This has been raised on several occasions by various MPs, including Ms Carrie Tan, and Mr Ang Wei Neng.
15. In 2016, we took a significant step to allow men to apply for maintenance if they were (a) incapacitated before or during the course of the marriage, (b) are unable to earn a livelihood, and (c) are unable to support themselves.
16. I would also add that the courts have also refrained 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 such that it will meet the financial needs of the wife until such time as she could secure for herself some form of employment and adjust to her post-divorce situation.
17. I would like to state unequivocally that we fully appreciate the sacrifice that men make when they step away from their careers to become stay home husbands and acknowledge their efforts towards their families. MSF will continue to study the issue and review if husbands and ex-husbands can apply for maintenance payments.
18. Queries were also raised by members regarding support for family violence survivors. I will be introducing the Family Violence Amendment Bill tomorrow in this house, which will effect the key recommendations from the Taskforce on Family Violence in tackling family violence.
19. I would like to close by reiterating that we are committed to ensuring good outcomes for families and their children, even as we support families in navigating their divorce and adjusting to life post-divorce.
20. The MEP is a big step towards ensuring that families are able to resolve issues surrounding maintenance that may arise post-divorce, in an effective and non-acrimonious way. It is a key piece that we are adding to our comprehensive landscape of marriage and divorce support, to give every family the best possible chance of achieving good outcomes despite the ups and downs in life.
21. The MEP will take some time to be implemented, as we want to ensure that the right persons are hired to play the key role of MEOs, and the process is set up well. We are confident that when the MEP takes effect, it will make a meaningful difference in terms of ensuring sustainable maintenance payment outcomes for all parties involved.
22. Thank you.