Keynote Speech By Minister K Shanmugam At Conference: Empowering Women Through Gamechanging Legal Reforms
27 July 2023 Posted in [Speeches]
Ms Stefanie Yuen-Thio, Chair, SG Her Empowerment
My colleagues – MOS Sun Xueling, SPS Rahayu Mazam and MP Yeo Wan Ling
Ladies and gentlemen
- I am going to talk to you about some of the things, which a fair number of you have heard me say a number of times – how have we moved over the years, what has happened, why are we having this conference, why do we need to go through this repeatedly? It is because, as I said in 2020 when we talked about this, we are making a second major push towards women’s rights. The easier parts are all the quantitative things – better education, better employment. You can measure, you can move, you can get things done. The harder part is getting the mindset change in society. Getting the mindset change, not just among men but amongst women too, is what all of this means.
- What does equality mean, what does progress for women mean, and how do you achieve that? That social and mindset change is not an easy thing to achieve, and it can only be done if we repeatedly come back to the topic, year after year, periodically. Otherwise, you make a speech or have an event, it will go away and it gets forgotten.
- So, SHE, AWARE and the other organisations are involved in this very noble and important area. For us, our only resource is human resource. If we do not maximise the potential of our women, you will lose 50 per cent and we cannot afford that. That is from the economic perspective, but from the perspective of what is right and wrong, you have to make sure that everyone has the idea that women and men in society should move along in a way that is mutually respectful and equal.
- So, I thank SHE for inviting me here today. This conference came out of a conversation I had with Stefanie and her people, and it is an opportunity for us to talk about women.
- Last year, the Government issued the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development. That was the culmination of the year-long Conversation on Singapore Women’s Development, which I launched in September 2020. When the White Paper was issued, I said its recommendations are a “guidepost”, not the “endpoint” of our aspirations for Singapore women.
- So how are you going to do it? It has got to be a variety of ways. One of the ways is to bring stakeholders together, like today, across the public and private sectors; carry on the important dialogue, carry on talking about it, pushing, making changes. And you will see, in parallel with the conversations, that very substantive changes have been taking place, which not a lot of people are aware of.
- You can see the major legislative changes that have taken place. You have heard a little bit from Stefanie earlier, but I will touch on it later as well. You will see there is a complete sea change in the landscape.
ENCOURAGING THE RIGHT MINDSET: GOOD LAWS
- So, starting with the right mindset.
- Women may face bias, stereotypes, obstacles, perceptions and practices, which have formed over generations, in all societies, and we are not going to be able to change that overnight. But how do we encourage the right mindset? It takes continuous effort: in education, introspection, and the legal framework.
- Education is very important – at home, in schools, among social circles and in the wider community. We have to raise the awareness on women’s issues, set good examples for others to follow, and change the tone of society.
- Second, we must not shy away from introspection. We should continuously reflect on how we do things, question if they are fair and inclusive towards women, and make the system better, even if there is some resistance.
- Third, the legal framework. That is my focus because of where I am. My own belief is that the laws cannot make you a better person. The laws cannot make you change your mindset. But it can give you have a framework of what you cannot do. Once you set the framework of what you cannot do, what you can do is something that Government agencies and the community can work together to create. Therefore, it sets a framework on what kind of society we want to live in.
- Laws also help build shared norms. On this particular subject, how we treat and respect women. The starting point to me, and I have said this numerous times, is the Women’s Charter. It is an excellent example. This was a landmark piece of legislation for women’s development in Singapore. It was enacted in 1961. At the time, many parents did not send their daughters to school. As a result, not many women were employed, and if they worked, it was usually in informal jobs earning much less than men. At the same time, men could take multiple wives. Polygamy was commonplace.
- Some of you may be familiar with Chan Choy Siong. She was a strong advocate for women’s rights, a pioneer. In 1956, she formed the PAP Women’s League, which is the precursor of today’s PAP’s Women’s Wing. When she rose in support of the Women’s Charter in Parliament, she said, “Women in our society are like pieces of meat put on the table for men to slice.” Very graphic, but that gives you a sense of what society was like before, in pre-independent Singapore before 1959.
- The Women’s Charter was hugely influential in changing things. It put society on a different footing. It provided for monogamous marriage. It recognised a wife’s right to engage in any trade or profession, own property, and that she had equal rights as her husband, in the running of the matrimonial household. It set out the rules for divorce and the maintenance for wives and children. It also strengthened the laws relating to offences against women and girls.
- Since the Women’s Charter, we have continued to promote and strengthen women’s rights through the legal system. I will touch on some of the more recent legislative changes, in two areas – one, in terms of protecting women against harm and violence, and two, supporting women and families during marital breakdown. I personally watch these two areas closely as they overlap with my two Ministries.
LAWS PROTECTING WOMEN AGAINST HARM & VIOLENCE
- Let me start with the first area. We are, on the whole, in a very good position, in terms of the safety and security of women in Singapore. A 2018 public perception survey by SPF showed that 93 per cent of our women feel safe in Singapore. And a 2020 Gallup Law & Order Survey showed that 97 per cent of Singapore residents feel safe walking alone on the streets at night, including women. It is the highest in the world. For an urban centre to achieve that, it is actually quite exceptional. Our legal framework, the way we enforce our laws, and the way the norms of society were established, all contribute to this.
- Let me give you a few examples of the changes in the laws, which help to give better protection to women in the last few years.
- In 2016, the Women’s Charter was amended to better support vulnerable women and girls in family violence and crisis situations. The changes allowed for these vulnerable females to be placed in the care of “fit individuals”. This can be a relative or friend providing support in a “home environment”, instead of in residential facilities or shelters.
- In 2018, changes were made to the Criminal Procedure Code and the Evidence Act to reduce the trauma for sexual victims participating in the criminal justice process.
- For example, if there is a sexual assault or rape trial, the victim, who is usually a woman, will have to go to court and face up to the very person whom she says had assaulted her. So, we allowed the hearings to be conducted behind closed doors and we changed the laws to prevent counsel from asking certain types of questions. For example, the question is whether there was sexual assault in a case. It is really irrelevant how many other men the victim may have slept with. In the past, from Victorian times I suppose, the Evidence Act said that counsel can ask you who else you had slept with, because if you are a “loose woman” then your evidence cannot be relied upon. So, we changed that.
- In 2019, the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) was amended. The process for obtaining Protection Orders was streamlined, making it easier and faster to seek relief if you do not want to go through the criminal process. This can deal with matters online, for which women are usually the victims. It is easier now to go in there, get an order and get the platforms to take the matter down, if it is an image or other things that a former partner or somebody else has put up.
- At the same time, we amended the POHA and the Penal Code to give better protection to victims of intimate partner violence. This is important because, in the past, only married persons could get protection from violence in a partnership context. If anyone assaults anyone, it is an offence. But short of proving that, if you are in a long-term or short-term relationship and your partner threatens you – if you are a married person, you will get better rights, and if you are an unmarried person, you will not get as much rights. Now, we allow unmarried persons to qualify for protection against intimate partner violence under the POHA. While it is gender neutral, it is usually women.
- When I moved the Bill to amend the Penal Code, I gave the example of a lady named Cindy. She had suffered horrific abuse from her live-in partner, almost daily, over eight years. She was well-educated, and was a graduate. When the Police found her, she was almost completely blind. She had slash wounds all over her body and broken bones. All these were witnessed by the two young children she had with the abuser.
- With our changes to the law, women like Cindy can now apply for a Protection Order under POHA, and people like her abuser will face twice the maximum penalties that are normally prescribed for such offences. But if I may add, it is not just the law, but often women in such situations – however well-educated they are, they can be lawyers, doctors, and they can know their rights – they still do not seem to be able to get out of that situation. That, we find, is the most difficult part. So, they need to be given encouragement. We need to empower our NGOs and the officers to move in and give them moral support to step out of it, and move out of the influence of the abuser, so that they can then be told of their rights and perhaps be persuaded to get out of the abusive relationship once and for all.
- In 2020, we abolished marital immunity for rape in the Penal Code. A woman’s body is her own and that should not change, when she marries. No still means no. The law now makes that clear.
- Most recently, a few weeks ago, the Women’s Charter was again amended, to strengthen protection for victims of family violence. These are usually women, and the proportion is roughly three women to one man. For example, the definition of family violence was updated to make clear that it includes physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse.
- Emotional and psychological abuse can arise from controlling behaviours, such as when perpetrators threaten to withhold monthly allowances from their spouses; constantly call their spouses to check on their whereabouts; isolate them from their family and friends.
- Again, I emphasise that even though this is the law, it does not mean that all the women understand it and will take advantage of it. So, bringing it to the ground is going to be extremely important. We need to educate and get the women to understand that there are these rights. We need to have touch points within the community so that they know.
- I do not want to increase the number of divorces, but I think it is important that people recognise when they are being abused and know that there are ways in which they can take care of themselves. That is important and help needs to be nearby.
- The amendments also allow the Court to make additional rehabilitative orders, raise penalties, and strengthen enforcement against breaches of Court orders.
- This framework is to make clear that we have zero tolerance against violence or harm of any kind against women. That is a fundamental value for us, and those who act contrary to this fundamental value, they will be held to account.
- And to support these laws, we also continually explore new ways at the operational level, to facilitate the reporting of sexual crimes and family violence. These are some recent examples. We have introduced an online reporting channel for the National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline, as well as a new Sexual Crime and Family Violence Command set up by the Police. We also have the “Sexual Crime Report” option at the NPCs’ queue management kiosks. When a victim goes to the police station, the victim would not want to be in a queue and talk in public about what happened, while in line with everybody else who might be there. I talked about the One-Stop Abuse Forensic Examination Centre (OneSAFE Centre) previously. In the past, you go to report to the police, then you have to go to the hospital for forensic medical examination after waiting at the common queue, and then to the police for interviews. We try and make it a one-stop centre, where forensic medical examination by doctors and interviews by police officers are done at the same place so it is more convenient for the victim.
LAWS SUPPORTING WOMEN & FAMILIES IN THE CONTEXT OF MARITAL BREAKDOWN
- Let me now turn to the second area – supporting women and families in the context of marital breakdown.
- In 2015, we introduced the Simplified Divorce Track, for cases where parties agree on the ground for divorce and all ancillary matters. Cases on this track can proceed more quickly, with less cost, and also less friction for the parties and their children. Many couples have benefitted from this. In 2022, two-thirds of all divorce cases were decided on the Simplified Track. Let me explain why I decided on this.
- As a lawyer, in my practice, I might have done three or four divorce cases, as I was a commercial litigator. But what those cases brought home to me was that the parties usually use the divorce as a way of re-arguing their entire marital history. Lawyers charge by the page, so you get thick affidavits on all sides costing tens of thousands of dollars, and all for no purpose. I kept telling people that there are only three issues in such cases. One is whether the marriage has broken down. Obviously, it has by the time you are at the gates of the court. In some cases, rehabilitation can work but usually the relationship has already broken down. Two is how would the money be split and there are two aspects to it – one is the capital sum and the other is the monthly maintenance, which is more mathematical than emotional. Three, and most importantly, is how you take care of the children.
- When I was a Member of Parliament, in fact Minister, a lady came to see me. She was earning maybe about five to six thousand dollars. She had two kids and had already spent about $40,000, with no orders yet and repeated postponements. She had no way to afford this. First, is the money. $40,000 is a lot of money, and it was on her salary. Second, each time there is a hearing, she had to take leave and go to court. She had to take leave to look after the children, as well as to deal with a recalcitrant husband and the court process.
- The pressure on women, especially when they are not so well-educated and not well-resourced, is tremendous. I thought that we could get rid of a lot of the angst and make divorce more simplified. I had the vision that it should just be within one page, you do not need a 200-page affidavit. Has the marriage broken down? How much do you say you ought to get and why, in terms of money and alimony? And what should happen to the children? I said lawyers should explain to the court, why they want to go beyond one page. We will in fact prepare the form, and lawyers will charge for just one page, and the court should encourage this simplified process.
- I am glad to know now two-thirds of divorce cases are going through this process, with a lot less money spent. Most of the women who go through such situations do not share the same profiles as the women here at this conference, by and large, and we need to help them.
- The further change is to allow married couples to divorce by mutual agreement. There was some concern, as ours is a conservative society in general. I am one of those who believe that maybe we ought to make marriage difficult, so that people understand what they are getting into. However, if they really want to get out of it, we should not make it too difficult, especially if they really cannot get along. But that does not mean that you can just walk away. Of course, you will still need processes to try for reconciliation. This is to try to reduce acrimony between the two parties, allow them to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of marriage, and make divorce a less traumatic experience for the children.
- And in May this year, MinLaw and MSF jointly passed the Family Justice Reform Act. One of the key issues that the Act seeks to address is the Enforcement of Maintenance Orders. What does it all mean? I am a very practical person. The bottom-line of all of this, you simplify all of this – what do the women want. They want to go away, they want to be paid on time, and they want to be able to look after their children.
- The difficulty is usually being paid on time. If the husband does not have money, he does not have money. But, even for a lot of men with money, they may not pay and they find a variety of excuses.
- So, you get all this. And what happens when you use the traditional court process? I was a litigator, so I know what it is like. The woman will have to get a lawyer, and she will have to apply to court. The lawyer will then have to apply to a variety of institutions based on the court order. Sometimes the court order is clear, sometimes it is not. Then you serve the court order and the client has to file an affidavit. How do you know what assets the man has? What bank accounts he has? Which ones belong to him and which ones belong to his family? Suddenly everything is being held on trust for the family. Houses and assets get sold as well.
- It is an impossible task to put on a single woman. If you put it on her, it just fractures the relationship or what is left of it. The parties will start weaponising their children and the children will grow up in a very toxic atmosphere. It is not good for the man, for the woman, or for the children.
- If you look at the statistics between 2017 to 2019, there was an annual average of about 2,700 applications to enforce maintenance orders. About one-fifth were repeat applications made within the same year. Three to four applications within the same year is not unusual.
- Majority of the applicants were women applying for themselves or for their minor children. Single mothers struggling to juggle work, children, and other responsibilities. Outstanding maintenance issues usually means that they have to engage their ex-husbands, seek legal advice and attend enforcement hearings. You have to take leave and go for all these things. So your bills are adding up, you have no money, you are holding a job sometimes if you are lucky, and your children need attention. Courts are usually kind to recalcitrant parties, whether they are women or men, because they do not want to send people to jail unnecessarily. And then three months later, the ex-husband still has not paid, and then another application is raised, and it goes on and on.
- I shared some examples of real-life cases, in Parliament. One of them is Mdm A. She said: “Monies have to be spent each [time] an individual seeks legal advice; Monies that most ex-spouses can ill-afford. Perhaps this is why most give up the fight, because they can no longer afford to pay for another court hearing and receive another ruling that will not be enforced.”
- So, we introduced a very radical new process. Essentially, a new unit has been set up, called the Maintenance Enforcement Officers (MEOs), established under MinLaw.
- MEOs are civil servants. After the maintenance order, upon application, instead of the lady having to apply to Court, the MEOs will now be empowered, somewhat similar to the CPIB or the Police, to go and ask banks, CDP, and agencies including CPF Board, HDB, IRAS, SLA and LTA for information. If the man has a job, they can ask his employer where his salary is going. They can ask the man to set out his bank accounts in an affidavit or ask the banks for the information. They can also ask IRAS for information. This makes it a bit more difficult for the man to run, and the woman does not have to spend money on lawyers. I have got nothing against lawyers, but I think it should be more productive than this.
- So, a comprehensive financial and situational picture is put up by an officer from the Government, which means using taxpayers’ money, but I think it is well spent in this case. With this information that is obtained, the MEO will file a report in court saying that these are the assets, and then we will be able to distinguish between those who cannot pay and those who refuse to pay.
- For those who cannot pay, I think we ought to treat them sympathetically, even if the woman and children are suffering. If he cannot pay then he cannot pay, what are you going to do? Send him to jail? You can go and ask him to work, but beyond that is difficult. For those who refuse to pay, I think you can take tougher action. So, this facilitates a more sustainable maintenance outcome for those who cannot pay, and for those who refuse to pay, I think it strengthens deterrence.
- Once the MEO report is filed, I think people can agree there can be conciliation by being sensible and indicating the amount that ought to be paid. But, if it cannot be settled, then the Court will make a Show-Payment Order (SPO). The SPO will require the respondent to come back to court at specified intervals and show proof that he has complied with his maintenance obligations.
- The SPO will typically last for six months. If no proof of payment is made, he will be imprisoned unless he can show good reasons for non-payment. Sounds a bit harsh but I am sure the court will approach this in a sensible way.
- Again, this is a framework. Once a framework is established, it also establishes norms for behaviour. Once you go to a lawyer, the lawyer will advise all these things that I have just said. I think that shapes thinking and behaviour, and hopefully we do not get many cases after that and everybody starts behaving.
- I have taken it almost a little bit like a law tutorial, but it is to explain that the law has changed very substantially to support women, and in odd cases, men too, whoever is the victim. There are also some cases where the woman is financially in a much better position compared to the man.
- I am hoping these changes will help to influence our norms and behaviour, so that divorce becomes more administrative and less emotional, and the children and the parties can go on to lead their lives afresh.
- That must be the purpose of divorce. For whatever reason that the marriage does not work, both parties should be able to go off, start their new lives and deal with the obligations in a sensible way.
- So, we are taking care of the violence and the maintenance in a way that removes a large amount of the burden.
- I should touch also on something that we had worked on with MSF. In fact, MOS Sun and MOS Faishal were heading this committee. Often in a marriage situation, there may be a threat of violence or anger in the household, the woman feels threatened, the children are fearful, but nothing has happened. So, what do you do?
- We have moved to put in place a framework where, if a woman calls and there is a high and immediate risk, the Police together with MSF officers will turn up at the residence. They will then assess the situation. And if the woman is fearful, even if there was no assault, we will find alternate accommodation for her, whether for one night or a few. This is to remove the threatened victim from that situation of danger, threat or fear, to where they can assess their situation more calmly and with a little bit less fear. If they stay outside, you never know what is going to happen in the middle of the night, so they will be given alternate accommodation. Then counsellors and NGOs can talk to them to see what can be done to help them. Hopefully they reconcile, hopefully there is anger management, and hopefully the man comes to his senses. But, if it is something that we see as a key pattern, then we will try and persuade the parties to find alternative ways of managing. So, that is a major intervention.
- What exactly are we doing? We are putting the State as a sort of underpinning to support the marriage. Our hope is that, after the removal, or giving accommodation to the victim, they will be able to go back and reconcile. But, if they cannot, that is their choice.
- So, we are continually adapting and reviewing our laws to create a fairer and more equitable society. Because women are primarily the “weaker” partners, they are the ones who will benefit more from this framework of laws.
- But having good laws is just one facet. It has to be matched by a willingness on the ground, in our own daily lives, to really make a difference to the lived experiences of women.
- In that context, I am very pleased to see groups here today which are dedicated to making this kind of positive change – you have AWARE, Casa Raudha, PAVE, SCWO, Society Against Family Violence and, of course, SHE.
- I look forward to seeing these organisations do more good work.
- Thank you very much.
Last updated on 27 July 2023