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Parliament amends Women's Charter to introduce divorce by mutual agreement option as some MPs highlight concerns

SINGAPORE — Some Members of Parliament (MPs) voiced their concerns on Monday (Jan 10) over whether a new divorce option could raise divorce rates by making it easier for married couples to split, offering proposals to help couples mend ties and resolve their issues rather than contemplate divorce.

Parliament amends Women's Charter to introduce divorce by mutual agreement option as some MPs highlight concerns
  • Parliament passed new changes to the Women's Charter on Jan 10
  • One of the new provisions is a new amicable option for couples to "divorce by mutual agreement"
  • Some MPs highlighted concerns that this could make divorce easier and thus raise divorce rates
  • Minister of State Sun Xueling assured MPs that divorce is not expected to increase significantly because of this
  • Two MPs proposed changing the name of the Women's Charter, since it gives the wrong impression that the law does not protect men

SINGAPORE — Some Members of Parliament (MPs) voiced their concerns on Monday (Jan 10) over whether a new divorce option could raise divorce rates by making it easier for married couples to split, offering proposals to help couples mend ties and resolve their issues rather than contemplate divorce.

The MPs were debating the Women’s Charter that, among other things, was amended to introduce a new Divorce by Mutual Agreement (DMA) reason in divorce proceedings, which is meant to be a more amicable option for couples to split up legally.

A total of 16 MPs spoke in a three-hour debate over various aspects of the amendments, with some questioning the need for this change and seeking assurance from the Government that the new option would not erode the sanctity of marriage.

The change, which was passed by Parliament on Monday, adds a new route for couples to mutually agree that their marriage has broken down irretrievably and that both sides are jointly responsible for the breakdown.

In the past, divorcing parties could state acrimonious grounds for divorce such as desertion, adultery or unreasonable behaviour, which pins fault on the spouse. 

Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development, said that the new option would thus add a form of “therapeutic justice” in the family justice system, while maintaining safeguards to protect the institution of marriage.

“It seeks not to position parties as adversaries in court but as problem-solvers, collaborating to seek solutions that will facilitate healing, restoration and the recasting of a more positive future,” she said in her speech introducing the Bill.

In his speech, Mr Lim Biow Chuan, MP for Mountbatten, noted that a “no-fault” divorce option, which some jurisdictions have adopted, led to a persistent decline in marriage rates and an increase in single parenthood and cohabitation.

He displayed to the House an old government pamphlet on divorce that urged couples to reconsider divorce, even if their problems seemed intractable.

Mr Lim asked: “Would the Minister of State agree that allowing a divorce based on mutual agreement may inadvertently undermine the marriage vow and parties’ commitment to the institution of marriage? 

“A vow to commit to a marriage can now simply be revoked by mutual agreement to divorce.”

Mr Lim also said that divorce seriously affects young children who are caught in between the parents.

Some MPs, who stated that they supported the Bill, also shared similar concerns as Mr Lim regarding the DMA. 

Ms Sylvia Lim, MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), said that the DMA approach could allow couples to “override” previous requirements to prove that the marriage has broken down and allows them to set their own “personal threshold for concluding that the marriage has failed”.

“With the introduction of DMA, the requirements for divorce have arguably been relaxed. Should we then expect an increase in divorce rates?” the opposition MP asked.

Mr Melvin Yong, MP for Radin Mas, said that he could understand why the new divorce option is needed as he has seen cases of people being trapped in unhappy marriages, despite his own personal views on the lifelong nature of marriages as a Catholic.

The DMA could make the divorce process easier, Mr Yong said, and he argued for more interventions to prevent marriages from deteriorating to the point of 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.
Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development

Other MPs such as Mr Louis Ng and Ms Carrie Tan — both of Nee Soon GRC — proposed changing the name of the Women’s Charter to the “Family Charter” to reflect a more gender-equal law.

They said there is a perception that the law does not protect men, wrongly suggesting that women have a special place in raising children, and its existence as a law that protects women is used as one of the main narratives in online misogyny.

Ms Tan and Mr Ang Wei Neng, MP for West Coast GRC, also argued that in a divorce, husbands should be allowed to make applications for maintenance even if they are not incapacitated.

“If women expect men to pull their weight in domestic and caregiving chores in order to free up women to pursue their 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,” Ms Tan said.

MINISTRY’S RESPONSE

Addressing these concerns and proposals in her closing speech, Ms Sun emphasised that the DMA is not a “no-fault” divorce option like that seen in other countries.

This is because divorcing couples who choose DMA as a grounds for divorce must still prove that the marriage has broken down without any chance for reconciliation, and that one party cannot unilaterally divorce the other.

The Government does not expect divorce numbers to increase significantly following the amendment of the Women’s Charter, she added.

“Ultimately, the legal test for the granting of the divorce is the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage… DMA is a different fact on which you can obtain a divorce, but it is not an easier fact.”

It is also not a “faster” route for divorce, because parties will still have to meet a three-year minimum period before divorce can be filed and a minimum of three months for the divorce to finalise.

“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,” Ms Sun said. 

The courts will carefully consider all these facts and take into account the specific circumstances of the case, she added.

As for changing the name of the Women’s Charter, she said that the debated amendments on Monday are gender-neutral and parts of the law also protect women and girls in vice and prostitution activities.

And although women in Singapore today are better-educated with better employment opportunities, there are still vulnerable women who require the protection of the Women’s Charter.

The Government previously considered waiving the condition of incapacity for men to receive maintenance after divorce, but considered that despite the advances in gender equality today, it is more likely for a wife to give up her career to care for the family while the 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,” Ms Sun said.

Related topics

Parliament divorce children law women's charter

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