Should more men be allowed to seek maintenance?

Posed photo of a torn wedding picture.
Posed photo of a torn wedding picture. PHOTO: ST FILE

Last year, Justice Choo Han Teck heard the request of a 48-year-old regional sales manager seeking $120,000 in alimony from her former husband, a 47-year-old senior prison officer.

She earned slightly more than him. But under Singapore's maintenance laws, which allowed only women and not men to apply for maintenance from their former spouses, she was eligible to seek maintenance from him.

Taking aim at this, Justice Choo questioned the right of every woman to seek maintenance regardless of circumstances.

This "unalloyed right" spoke to "patronising gestures" in the Women's Charter that "belie deep chauvinistic thinking", he said in his judgment.

The case resurfaced as an example cited in Parliament last week during a debate about gender equality in maintenance laws, as one of several changes to the Women's Charter.

GENDER DIVIDE STILL

While many Singaporean women have made good progress over time, this has not been uniform across all groups of women. At this juncture, there is still some way to go in developing parity of financial status between men and women, especially across various income levels.

JURONG GRC MP AND FAMILY LAWYER RAHAYU MAHZAM

With the changes to the law passed last Monday, men can now apply for maintenance. But, unlike women, they can seek maintenance only if they are incapacitated - that is, unable to support themselves whether due to illness or disability.

A small group of MPs - four of the 10 who spoke - called for this to go further and for maintenance to be based on need, not gender.

But their opponents countered that their call for gender neutrality comes in a society where the man is still expected to be the main breadwinner in many households.

Additionally, broadening the law to allow more men to claim maintenance might be a double whammy for ex-wives already struggling to provide for themselves and their children, they said.

WHAT ABOUT THE MEN?

When it comes to recompense, men should not be unjustly denied.

MARINE PARADE GRC MP SEAH KIAN PENG

THE CASE TO INCLUDE MORE MEN

Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh argued that in the spirit of gender equality, all ex-husbands should be allowed to apply for maintenance. He pointed out that the call for this was first raised back in 1996.

But the Government's position has remained that it is the duty of a husband to maintain the wife.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin reiterated this on Monday when he said: "Our society is not quite ready for gender neutrality in spousal maintenance."

But Dr Goh disagreed: "This is a double irony since the Women's Charter was enacted regardless of whether traditional polygamous society was ready for the modern nuclear family."

He was referring to the Women's Charter's outlawing in 1961 of poly- gamy outside Muslim marriages.

"Gender equality was enshrined in the charter despite tradition or the readiness of society," he added.

MPs and observers also cited the trend of more men staying at home to look after their kids these days, with wives going out to work.

In 2014, 10,200 male Singaporeans and permanent residents cited "family responsibilities", such as childcare, care-giving to family members and housework, as the main reason for not working - triple the number from 2006.

Of these, 1,600 cited childcare as the main reason for being out of the workforce. This was more than double the number in 2006.

Given their sacrifices for the family, Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng said: "When it comes to recompense, men should not be unjustly denied."

Ms Jolene Tan, programmes and communications senior manager at the Association of Women for Action and Research, agreed as married individuals who take on domestic and caregiving work make economic sacrifices which boost their spouse's earning power.

"These effects last even if the marriage ends. Spousal maintenance is only fair in such cases, regardless of gender," she said.

REASONS FOR THE CHANGE

The criteria for a divorced man to qualify are very strict, so only a very small pool of men will benefit. Only a man who is incapacitated before or during the course of the marriage, unable to earn a livelihood and unable to support himself, can claim maintenance.

He must also be unable to support himself at the time when the maintenance application is heard.

East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan said she had seen several cases during her Meet-the-People Sessions of wives leaving their husbands after they were diagnosed with serious illnesses like cancer - leaving the men with no way to support themselves.

Lawyer Koh Tien Hua of Harry Elias Partnership said the change in the law will benefit those husbands in genuine need. "This is not 'window dressing' or merely symbolic as it addresses a real concern of a spouse who is incapacitated and has no possibility of earning an income," he said.

NOT ALL MEN EQUALLY DESERVING

Five of lawyer Gloria James- Civetta's previous clients have already called her to ask what will happen to them as their aged ex-spouses are ill.

These are women whose husbands are penniless after being cheated out of their savings, having left them for younger, foreign women, she told The Sunday Times.

These women are now worried that their broke exes will now unfairly pursue them for maintenance.

MPs in Parliament spoke of this double whammy for women already struggling to support their families.

Mr Tan himself acknowledged this concern, but said that the courts will look at all the facts of each case.

Just because a man is eligible to claim maintenance does not mean he will get it, he added.

Another argument against extending qualifying maintenance to more men is that the reality is that the burden of child-rearing and caregiving in Singapore falls primarily on women.

The growing group of house husbands is still a small minority.

The 10,200 Singaporean men who cited family responsibilities as the main reason for not working in 2014 must be compared to the 190,900 women who in the same year cited the same reason for not being in the labour force.

"While many Singaporean women have made good progress over time, this has not been uniform across all groups of women," said Jurong GRC MP and family lawyer Rahayu Mahzam in Parliament.

"At this juncture, there is still some way to go in developing parity of financial status between men and women, especially across various income levels."

Others also argue that alimony should not be taken as an entitlement, whether for men or women.

Mr Koh said: "Maintenance for wives is not a free pass to be paid a 'salary' from the spouse.

"The law still encourages a wife to seek gainful employment where possible and the courts are enjoined to take into account earning capacity."

As such, the amendment is a pragmatic one, and does not signal a sweeping fundamental change in principle towards gender equality in maintenance laws - yet. As Mr Tan noted: "While attitudes may be gradually shifting towards gender neutrality, it's best to not rush and force the pace."

Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Should more men be allowed to seek maintenance?'. Print Edition | Subscribe