Sunday feature on infidelity raises reader's hackles....

Reader criticises Sunday stories offering snapshot of changing norms, and ST replies

I was disappointed in your choice of a lead article in a prominent section of the Sunday edition of The Straits Times (“Having an affair: Who’s to blame”, May 15). 

Two whole pages encompassing four stories by correspondent Theresa Tan were devoted to an investigative series on infidelity in marriage and the banal observation that women also cheat. My disappointment stems from the fact that this was just not newsworthy and contained no human interest element either; it was prurience dressed up as investigative journalism. 

There was no "problem" these articles were highlighting: Has a wave of infidelity been sweeping society? Has divorce increased drastically recently? 
Are many women unhappily married? And if there is a problem, your journalist failed to explain it.  Instead (as evidenced by the page 1 photo illustration), I think The Sunday Times was really just looking for a salacious story:  Why else include an article on "same sex adultery" as part of the package? 

Finally, the biggest issue I have with the series of articles was the choice to position them in pride of place in the newspaper on the second and third pages, giving them much greater implied significance than they deserve. 

Sulian Tay (Ms)

We respect your sentiment but are surprised by the reasons for your criticism. You cite a lack of newsworthiness, but the lead-in to the main story clearly outlined the feature's scope and news peg, that is, a snapshot of Singapore's changing norms. A leap in instances of adultery by wives from one in five in a previous generation (and virtually none in the generation before that), to half now, is hardly an un-newsworthy observation; as we would argue the same for the existence now of same-sex couples who seek similar redress.  While you may find such developments banal, many serious readers don't, and they welcome new therapies like Torn Asunder aimed at helping affected couples.  

 

The numbers outlined at the story's outset were not plucked out of thin air, but were instances cited by veteran family lawyers and private investigators who are far more au fait and objective about infidelity than the common perception of it. We are especially surprised that you found the feature's tone salacious and prurient. The feature is peopled and articulated by serious professionals like family lawyers, including a former Parliamentarian, marriage counsellors, doctors and private investigators? 

Where in the feature are lurid details of cheating wives caught in the act in the backseats of their husbands' Beemers or delivery vans by eager, grubby gumshoes armed with secret cameras? There were none because we knew we had to be sensitive in reporting such an emotional and private matter like infidelity. We took care to ensure that prudence, not prurience, dictated the tone and content of our feature. We thank you for your honest view, and for taking the time to pen your opinion which we plan to feature along with others, in our regular Readers' Post section.  

Yap Koon Hong
ST Readers' editor

 
It is worth noting that according to government statistics, the crude divorce rate has grown from 1.6 to 1.9 (1991 to 2014) and the average duration of marriages that end in divorce is approximately unchanged at about 10 years. In addition, in 2014, only 72 divorces under the women's charter out of 5172 cited adultery as the reason (1.3 per cent), though adding in divorces under Muslim law the rate is 6.4 per cent.

Hence I stand by my observation that this was an attempt to create news where there really isn't any. As a human interest feature it may have had some value.

Sulian Tay (Ms)

We must respond further to the figures you cited in this statement: "... in 2014, only 72 divorces under the women's charter out of 5172 cited adultery as the reason (1.3 per cent), though adding in divorces under Muslim law the rate is 6.4 per cent. "The figures from Department of Statistics (DOS) show that 370, or 21.9 per cent, of the 1,689 Muslim divorces cited infidelity as the primary reason. This is more in line with what our writer Theresa Tan captured in her feature, viz: "...between 27 per cent and 34 per cent were husbands who claimed their wives had been unfaithful, the DOS explained when asked about data obtained from the Statistics of Marriages and Divorces". More importantly, the family lawyers we have spoken to say there are several reasons why the number of adultery cases doesn't show up fully in the statistics. 

Firstly, not many of their clients are willing to cite adultery as grounds because it requires evidence of an affair and the third party must be named in divorce papers. So, most opt to cite unreasonable behaviour instead. Cost is another consideration as hiring a private detective can set a client back by as much as $8,000 a week. Finally, there is the stigma factor - adultery is considered shameful, so the spouses tend to avoid citing it. The medical fraternity has also added this observation: DNA firms report a growing demand for paternity tests. 

While we respect your sentiment, we maintain that the feature is newsworthy and warranted the prominence it got.

Yap Koon Hong
ST Readers' editor

The statistics I cite are the same as yours which is why the percentage is 1.3 per cent for women's charter divorces and 6.4 per cent including all divorces (ie including Muslim and women's charter divorces). The statistics you cite about Muslim divorces have nothing to do (except coincidence) with the note "between 27 per cent and 34 per cent were husbands who claimed their wives had been unfaithful" as the claim of adultery is not spouse specific. 

Sulian Tay (Ms)

Yes they are from the same source, but your calculations lump Women's Charter and Muslim law divorces together. Because of the significant difference in evidentiary criteria, it would be more accurate to count the number of Muslim divorces citing adultery under Muslim Law alone, which is why the Muslim percentage should be 21.9 per cent, and not 6.4 per cent. Tellingly too, the portion of civil law divorces between 2004 and 2014 which cited cheating wives is a full quarter to a full third (27 to 34 per cent) of the total; not a paltry fraction either. 

Even so, and as we explained earlier, divorce or divorce rates alone isn't an accurate gauge of Ms Tan's feature or its newsworthiness. What the feature reveals is that official statistics are not reflective of the reality which was arrived at through plumbing the stats and grinding out actual checks with serious professionals; it wasn't reached via cherry-picking a statistic to validate pre-conceived assumptions.

Yap Koon Hong
ST Readers' editor

•To post your view, visit the Readers' Post site at http://www.straitstimes.com/forum/readers-post. You can also e-mail your views to streaders@sph.com.sg


The Sunday Times' May 15 feature about infidelity:

Adultery: It's not just the men 

More people asking for prenatal DNA testing 

Programme helps couple to rebuild marriage 

When the third party that causes a marriage break-up is a same-sex partner


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Feature on infidelity raises hackles...'. Print Edition | Subscribe