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Closing Speech by Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development, at the Second Reading of the Family Violence (Amendment) Bill on 4 July 2023

Type: Official Speeches (All), Official Speeches: Sun Xueling

Topic(s): Protection from Domestic Violence

1. Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank the Members for the debate and support for the Family Violence (Amendment) Bill. Let me now respond to the Members’ questions and suggestions raised on the:

a. Protection for survivors of family violence;

b. Rehabilitation and accountability of perpetrators; and

c. Government’s ability to intervene in family violence cases. 

(A) Protection for Survivors of Family Violence 

Definition of Family Violence

2. Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim asked how the updated definition of family violence should be interpreted. Family violence comprises the broad categories of abuse that our social service professionals typically encounter – specifically, physical, sexual, and emotional or psychological abuse. The Bill makes clear the type of conduct or behaviour that amount to each type of abuse.

3. Mr Zhulkarnain is right that the definition of family violence looks to the harm caused by the perpetrator, rather than the intention of the perpetrator and this is deliberate. Survivors should be able to obtain protection against harmful conduct without having to prove what the perpetrator knew or ought to have known. For example, a survivor should be able to obtain a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against a perpetrator who turns violent under the influence of drugs or alcohol, even though he might not fully know the effect of his actions.

4. Mr Zhulkarnain also asked why the updated definition is adapted from the definition of abuse in the Vulnerable Adults Act 2018. Both this Act and the Women’s Charter are regimes that aim to protect those experiencing abuse. The profiles of persons they protect are different – for example, the VAA, the Vulnerable Adults Act, protects those who are incapable of protecting themselves due to mental or physical infirmity, disability, or incapacity – and therefore, the interventions are different. However, the abuse they target is the same. Hence, we have aligned the definitions of abuse in these two regimes. This will also promote a common understanding of abusive behaviour amongst the public, professionals in the social service sector, the Courts, and lawyers, and facilitate better detection and identification of acts of abuse.

Protection for Survivors Who are Unable to Apply for PPOs

5. Ms Hany Soh asked whether Protectors would be able to make applications for PPOs on behalf of survivors, such as those below 18, who are willing but unable to apply for them. Yes, this is already the case, as social service professionals are already empowered to apply for PPOs on behalf of survivors who are below 21 years of age or who are incapacitated.

6. Mr Louis Chua sought clarification on our rationale for the minimum age of a PPO applicant. All survivors are entitled to receive timely legal protection. Survivors who are aged below 18 years old may seek assistance from other family members, social service professionals or Protectors to apply for a PPO on his or her behalf. They can also be accorded the necessary protection and support under the Children and Young Persons Act.

Automatic Protection for Survivor’s Vulnerable Dependents

7. Mr Louis Ng suggested that the Court automatically grants PPOs for the survivor’s vulnerable dependents when the survivor himself or herself is granted a PPO by the Court. Under the new Section 60A, the Court will not automatically issue PPOs for an applicant’s vulnerable dependents. This is aligned with the current practice and there is a good reason for this. For example, an individual may inflict violence only on the spouse and not on the children. While a PPO application must be made for each family member, and a PPO will be issued if the Court is satisfied that the perpetrator has committed or is likely to commit family violence against each family member, and that the protection order is necessary for his or her protection, the Court may give direction for the applications to be heard together. This will help families save time and resources.

Vexatious PPO Applications

8. Ms Soh asked if there were measures to prevent estranged spouses from abusing the enhanced family violence regime during divorce proceedings. Access to justice is a fundamental right and all parties must have the avenue to apply for a PPO. This is not to say that persons can abuse the Court process and make frivolous or vexatious applications. 

9. As I had mentioned earlier, a PPO is only issued when the Court is satisfied that the respondent has committed or is likely to commit family violence against the applicant or other family member(s) concerned and it is necessary for his or her protection or safety. Otherwise, the Court may dismiss the application. In addition, if the application is frivolous or vexatious, the Court may order costs to be paid for by the applicant. In extreme cases, the Court can make Civil Restraint Orders to restrain a person from bringing further applications without the Court’s permission.

(B) Rehabilitation and Accountability of Perpetrators

Public Interest in Identifying Re-Offenders

10. Mr Seah Kian Peng asked that we consider if family violence re-offenders could be identified, to deter re-offending and to protect others from them. He also acknowledged that doing so may lead to the identification of the survivor. 

11. The purpose of prohibiting publication or broadcast of information that is likely to identify family violence survivors is solely to protect survivors. The intent is to encourage survivors to report family violence incidents without the fear of being publicly embarrassed, and to spare survivors who do report such incidents from further trauma. 

12. Early this year, I received an email from Mrs N. She shared that her ex-husband was being prosecuted for breaching a PPO, and her identity was publicly disclosed as it was an open hearing. As it took her great courage to report the family violence, she was worried that her child’s psychological wellbeing would be negatively impacted since her and her ex-husband’s names were made known publicly. The amendment would protect Mrs N’s and her child’s identities as the publication of their identities will be prohibited by law, even in the absence of a gag order. Mrs N would also be able to apply to the Court to remove the publication. This will accord Mrs N and her child the space and privacy to recover and heal from the trauma.

13. The amendment prohibits a perpetrator’s identity from being published, only where publication of his/her identity would likely lead to the survivor’s identification. However, if the survivor consents to the publication or broadcast of such information that could identify him or her, the Director-General of Social Welfare will regard his or her consent as a highly relevant factor and may decide to grant approval for such publication or broadcast.

Imprisonment and Safety of Survivor

14. Mr Ng asked about the validity of PPOs following the imprisonment of offenders, and arrangements to ensure the survivor’s continued protection during and after the perpetrator’s imprisonment. PPOs typically have effect indefinitely and remain in force until revoked. Hence, in most cases, PPOs which are issued before the term of imprisonment will continue to remain in force after the perpetrator’s imprisonment. Depending on the circumstances of each survivor, social service professionals may conduct safety planning, and provide assistance and support if the survivors need legal advice, shelter, or financial support. 

Support for Perpetrators

15. Ms Soh and Mr Chua asked whether MSF would provide assistance for perpetrators and survivors who are subject to Domestic Exclusion, No Contact, or Stay Away Orders. Social service professionals at our Protection Specialist Centres and Family Service Centres will continue to work closely with families, survivors, and perpetrators to provide any needed assistance, such as shelter and financial support. 

16. I would like to assure Mr Chua that MSF and our community partners are committed to supporting survivors. Their well-being is our priority.

(C) Government’s Ability to Intervene in Family Violence Cases

Resourcing for Persons Assisting the DGSW

17. Mr Seah, Mr Ng, and Ms Sylvia Lim spoke on ensuring sufficient resourcing and support for the persons, such as Protectors, who assist the Director-General to ensure this important work is carried out properly. I agree with them. Protectors, who are authorised by the Director-General to exercise powers under this Bill, are social service professionals who are trained in managing family violence and protection cases and have expertise in trauma-informed care and support. They are committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of families affected by violence, and have a keen awareness of the unique needs and challenges faced by the families they serve. 

18. This is physically and emotionally demanding work, and we will ensure that our Protectors continue to be provided with the necessary resources, such as sufficient manpower, training, and access to up-to-date research, to exercise the new powers in this Bill and tackle family violence effectively. 

Safeguards Against Abuse of Powers

19. Mr Zhulkarnain asked about safeguards against the abuse of the Protector’s powers, and whether there are any avenues to appeal against an Emergency Order. I would like to assure the House that Protectors are trained social service professionals, who understand that powers are to be exercised appropriately and judiciously, with the safety and well-being of the survivor as the primary consideration. Emergency Orders issued by Protectors are intended to cover an existing gap. These Orders will be time-limited, to give the survivors time to apply for a PPO from the Court. There is also a limit to the number of times an Emergency Order can be made. Given that Emergency Orders are temporary measures intended to protect survivors facing imminent harm, no appeals will be allowed. 

20. I agree with Mr Zhulkarnain’s suggestion that there should be greater public awareness that powers to remove survivors will only be exercised as a last resort. This will only be considered in high-risk circumstances, when all other social service interventions have failed, in order to ensure the protection and safety of the survivors.  

Domestic Violence Emergency Response Team

21. Ms Lim asked if the Police would continue to process cases as per usual if arrestable offences are disclosed. The answer is yes. In high-risk family violence situations, the Police will jointly respond with the Domestic Violence Emergency Response Team or DVERT. The Police will continue to handle cases with law and order issues. The DVERT officers will address immediate safety concerns and refer the families to Protection Specialist Centres for follow-up intervention. 

Electric Monitoring Order

22. Mr Ng asked for more details on the Electronic Monitoring Order. As I shared in my opening speech, electronic monitoring will only be imposed on high-risk perpetrators in exceptional cases, where there is reasonable suspicion that a PPO has been breached with harm inflicted on the survivor, and the survivor has not taken steps to protect himself or herself. Details of the electronic monitoring regime will be worked out further by MSF.

Appropriate Policing to Complement PPOs

23. Mr Ng asked if there are plans to arrange for higher levels of policing as a deterrence measure to complement PPOs and the new Court Orders. If we refer to both the Member's earlier clarification on concerns about abuse of the Electronic Monitoring regime and his current suggestion to have more monitoring and policing as a practical deterrence, I think we need to ask ourselves what is the balance that we ought to strike. I would say that we need to put the survivor at the heart of what we do. We want to protect them while ensuring that their privacy is also safeguarded. Thus, our social service professionals will continue to work closely with the police, including their Family Violence Community Policing Officers, to identify, respond to and monitor cases involving very high-risk family violence. MSF will also continue our public education efforts through the Break the Silence campaign to encourage the community to partner with us in detecting, identifying, and reporting family violence incidents. 

(D) Conclusion

24. Madam Deputy Speaker, having addressed the comments and suggestions raised by the Members, I will now conclude. 

25. To address family violence at its root requires a multi-pronged, whole-of-society approach. We must continue to:

a. Increase awareness and strengthen societal attitudes against violence;

b. Make it easier for survivors and the community to report violence and get immediate help;

c. Strengthen protection and support for survivors; and

d. Enhance rehabilitation for perpetrators.

26. To those enduring violence at home, you are not alone. We want to assure you that there are many resources and channels to support and help you. If you are unsure of what to do or if you need more information, please call the 24-hour National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline at 1800-777-0000. Social service professionals stand ready to assist you.

27. To those who are struggling with abusive behaviour, there is hope. With the right support and intervention, change is possible. By stepping forward to seek help from social service agencies, you give yourself a chance to break the cycle of violence, as well as pave the way for a brighter, happier future for yourself and your loved ones.

28. I would like to reiterate my gratitude to the various stakeholders in the family violence ecosystem. Your work to stop the cycle of violence in families is well recognised, and this Bill would not have been possible without your contributions.

29. Finally, I thank Members for your support of the Bill.

30. I believe the amendments will go a long way in breaking the cycle of violence, to enable individuals and families experiencing family violence to heal, and ultimately, to help build stronger and more stable families in Singapore. Thank you.