Speech by Senior Minister Of State for Law and Education, Indranee Rajah, at the PAVE forum 2013
1. First, thank you for inviting me here. I look on this as a real privilege, as I am amongst people and stakeholders who have contributed much to ensure that our families are supported by helping hands and listening ears, and given the kind of collective support that they need.
The Singaporean family today
2. Let me just outline a few things and make a few important points in relation to this.
3. The first point is, I think that families have come under increasing pressure and strain from different directions. Some of it is work, some of it is societal, some of it forces of globalisation. All the pressures and strains put an emotional strain on people. It tends to find an outlet in various ways, sometimes in domestic violence. The children too, suffer from lack of attention, care and guidance which they need when they grow and develop.
4. These pressures have translated into an increase in divorce rates. In 1996, our courts heard about 3,000 divorce cases. In 2012, the number had doubled. And the ratio of marriages to divorces is 4:1. Whereas back in 1990, the ratio was 6.6:1.
5. In 1995, our Family Court heard 978 family violence cases. In 2012, the number grew three-fold to 3,200. All this is indicative that there is a problem, and we need to do more to help and protect the families who suffer from these various problems, including family violence. This seminar therefore is very timely and is a step in the right direction.
Our Singapore Conversation – Continued importance of family
6. I also wanted to highlight something from the Our Singapore Conversation. I am not sure how many of you were involved in it. But when we looked at the final outcomes of Our Singapore Conversation, one thing was very clear – which is the importance of family to Singaporeans. Singaporeans continue to cherish their family and family units. The surveys showed that:
a) Singaporeans cherish the values of community;
b) Across age groups, filial piety, safety and security for their families were regarded as the most important; and
c) For those married with children, many would actually choose a more comfortable pace of life over career advancement, suggesting they would put family first before other things.
7. So, what we get is a scenario, a picture, where family is important to us as Singaporeans. At the same time, statistics also show that families are under strain and that it tends to manifest itself in various ways, one of which is domestic violence.
Family Justice Committee and its recommendations
8. This then brings us to the Family Justice system and how it copes with some of these things. The Family Justice system can play a critical role in fulfilling Singaporeans’ desire to maintain a strong family. It can support families through difficult times and it can help family members resolve their disputes in a manner that preserves and strengthens familial ties. All the stakeholders will have to work together to provide families with support. We do not want any family to fall through the cracks.
9. Let me take a few minutes to share with you some of the work that the Ministry of Law is doing on family law and justice reform. Earlier this year, at the Opening of the Legal Year, the Chief Justice announced that Justice V K Rajah and myself would chair a Committee looking at family justice. The Committee has been hard at work; some of the committee members are here, and the Secretariat has been working overtime. I just wanted to share some of the key observations. We will be putting out an interim report in due course for public comments and consultation.
10. One of the most important things that we understood was that the legal route is not the best solution for family conflict and problems. If it gets to court, that is the scenario where it is already quite bad. And if you want to save the family, and if you want to be able to try as far as possible to make sure that the family remains intact, then you have to go further upstream.
11. So firstly, the Committee is considering recommending that the community touchpoints be strengthened so that they are better placed to understand the issues faced by the families that approach them for help. Because before it gets to court, usually a series of things will happen. The conflict will occur at the family. Very often, if it is domestic violence, they will call the police. The police will come down, but if there is only shouting and screaming without any physical violence, there is little that the police would be able to do because an offence has not actually been committed. So that is a touch point, because you know something had happened. The neighbours will know as well. If it is not attended to at that stage, it can escalate, it gets worse, then sometimes it will take the form of family violence. At some stage, it may or may not reach the family service centre, or they may or may not reach out for help, and then it gets so bad that it comes to the court and there is an application for divorce. So the thinking is, if we can get it at the very early stage and try to intervene at that stage and make sure the appropriate help is given (especially in terms of counselling). Very often if you could help them work through the issues, you may be able to resolve it and set them back on the right path. So that is the first and most important part of our thinking. We want to make sure that we can have touch points which help to identify when the problems arise. These touch points include places like Family Service Centres, schools, hospitals, charities, members of Parliament, and lawyers. These are the people that families will instinctively turn to when in trouble. We have received feedback that families that approach these touchpoints may not always be able to articulate their difficulties or ask for the right kind of help.
12. What we are contemplating recommending is to strength these touch points so that they are able to help people. For example, our teachers, doctors and lawyers may need to have some basic appreciation of psychology, the dynamics and roots of family violence, as well as the existing avenues for help in family violence, so that they can properly detect cases of family violence amongst their clients and students and be able to refer them to the appropriate avenues for help such as PAVE. So the idea is not for people who do not have experience to try to do the counselling or the kind of work that needs to be done, but the important thing is the identification and then referral to the appropriate agency with the people that can provide the right kind of help.
13. Second thing that the Committee is considering recommending is: divorce and family-related services be beefed up. In particular, we hope to establish several specialist agencies that can provide targeted assistance and services during divorces, for example (a) information and non-legal advice; (b) referral services; (c) case management; (d) counselling; (e) mediation; and (f) other social support services. Some of these specialist agencies will also have to deal with family violence issues.
14. Additionally, the Committee is considering recommending that these specialist agencies be supported with appropriately trained professionals. For example, counsellors, social workers and psychologists. The professionals in these specialist agencies will be given the necessary training to equip them with the requisite competencies and skill sets, depending on the type of family conflict they specialise in. As professionals working and operating within the system, your views on the training and professional needs of our social workers, counsellors and other professionals will be invaluable.
15. The fourth thing that we are considering recommending, is a more coordinated and inter-disciplinary approach to address family issues. This is a corollary of the fact that each professional and stakeholder in our family justice system plays an integral part in the larger framework that provides holistic assistance and support to our families. It will naturally require all stakeholders and participants to understand what everyone else is doing. Otherwise, we will have overlaps or gaps, and neither is desirable.
16. In line with this approach, the Committee has identified a need for a mechanism to bring together all stakeholders in the family justice system and encourage the interdisciplinary and holistic exchange of ideas and knowledge on how the system could be improved and updated to take into account the evolving circumstances and needs on the ground. Today’s PAVE Seminar is a big step in that right direction.
17. These potential recommendations are just beginning of the tip of the iceberg. Our Committee will be very eager to hear views from people like yourselves because you are at the frontline of the efforts to combat family violence and other family issues. So do step forward and contribute your valuable views during the public consultation on the Committee’s recommendations.
18. On this note, I will conclude by saying that I wish you all a fruitful discussion, and I am very sure that the outcome of your deliberations and discussions today will be things that we can take on board, translate into practice, and ultimately improve the lives for families that are in trouble.
Thank you very much.