He says, she says: divorce Singapore-style

  Asia Times
February 7. 2002
By Kalinga Seneviratne

IT is not too unusual to see a man in this city-state dating or marrying a woman who earns more than he does. There is also an increasing number of men who work from home and take care of the children while their wives hold higher-paying, full-time jobs outside the home.

To many, these are signs of the changes that have come to this affluent state in the past two decades. Indeed, Singaporean women have made great strides in professions that have traditionally been dominated by men, ranging from business to information technology, life sciences, and the media. But these gender gains are now being questioned by critics, mostly men, who are crying gender discrimination - not in employment but in the division of family assets when it comes to divorce. Last year, about 6000 couples filed for divorce in this city state of 4 million people, which has a standard of living comparable to most European countries.

In late December, Xie Wen, a columnist for the English-language daily Straits Times, warned that Singaporean courts may ape the "liberal Western ideal" of allowing a 50:50 split of matrimonial assets when couples file for divorce. He argued that this would discriminate against men, at a time when more women are earning as much, if not more, than men. Xie called for a review of Singapore's "Family Charter" to reflect the gains and financial independence gained by women in recent years - a proposal that has triggered a running debate in the media and elsewhere.

The governing People's Action Party (PAP) drew up the charter 40 years ago, when Singapore was a sleepy trading post. It was designed to push gender equality and linked social and economic progress with women's rights. The charter has been revised a number of times, the latest being in 1996. The recent call for changes also comes in the wake of a rash of cases, some involving "mail-order" brides from mainland China, where women filed for divorce after short marriages to wealthy men, then claimed half the husband's assets. This led critics to conclude that "gold digger women" - apparently not the financially-independent women Xie was referring to - were exploiting the charter.

The charter contains the rights and responsibilities of the parties to a marriage. It covers every conceivable aspect of family law - from registration and dissolution of marriages, to welfare and maintenance provisions for the wife and child. It is the latter that is being challenged, in large part because the charter was originally adopted when Singaporean women had not yet increased their sphere of influence in society, at home, in the workplace, and in politics. For instance, more women than men today make up new graduates coming out of Singapore's universities. Women also make up 42 percent of the total workforce and nearly 60 percent of the senior officers in Singapore's civil service.

Some male writers in the newspapers here argued that the charter discriminates against men because it has two sections that say that the obligation lies with the man or husband to financially support his children and former wife, with no corresponding duty on the part of the wife to pay child support or alimony. Technically, this means that the economically-superior wife will still have the right to demand financial support from her homemaker husband, they argue.

"The justification for making men here pay maintenance to their wives is based on the assumption that women, as primary caregivers in a marriage, make sacrifices, such as in their careers," observed Wong Hoong Hooi in a letter published in the Straits Times. "The first problem with this is that the entitlement is gender-based. Thus, women whose careers have not been affected significantly by marriage, who have not borne children, have maids paid for by their husbands, and who travel frequently or are just plain slipshod, can still be awarded maintenance?" he complained.

But legal experts say that amendments to the charter in 1996 did away with this perceived bias toward women. It now specifies a "just and equitable" share, not a 50:50 one. "The law is gender neutral and does not favor women more than men," argues National University of Singapore's leading family law lecturer, Professor Leong Wai Kum. "It views marriage as a partnership. In a divorce, their assets are pooled together and then divided fairly by courts."

Leong told the Straits Times that the family charter states only assets that are formed or acquired during the marriage can be divided. For example, while the wife can stake a claim on the matrimonial home, she cannot do so for other properties already owned by the husband at the time of marriage. In a recent case here, the courts awarded one wife a share of her ex-husband's stock options, which he acquired just before the marriage broke up.

But, in another case, a teacher tried unsuccessfully to deprive her ex-husband, a pastor, of half of their matrimonial property on the grounds that his financial contributions to the family were negligible. The husband worked from home and his income from church work was irregular. But the courts said that he played a pivotal role in the household - such as cleaning, cooking, and looking after their three children during their 23-year marriage.

"I do not see anywhere where divorce settlements are too favorable for women as they stand," says Dana Lam-Teo chairperson of AWARE, a women's rights group. She argues that recently, courts have demonstrated that they consider all factors of a case when awarding maintenance. "Where a woman earns more or equal to her husband, she is either advised not to claim or is awarded a token sum. In the matter of the division of assets, we think it is fair that courts have begun to take into consideration such non-cash contributions as childcare and management of the household," she adds.

AWARE points out recent statistics, which show that in at least 100,000 households in Singapore, men are unable to fulfill their expected traditional roles and their wives have become the de facto head and sole provider for the family. Yet at the same time, women are concentrated in the lower strata of the workforce here and earn 30 percent less than higher-paid women in general.

Lam-Teo notes that as long as women are primary, if not sole, caretakers of the family, they will have to make career sacrifices, which in turn affect their economic independence, status and quality of life. "Under these circumstances I would say, in fact, the law on maintenance and division of assets should be weighted in favor of women," she argues.