PARLIAMENT

Steps to protect children caught in bitter break-ups

It is better for parents to consider their children's well-being before the divorce process formally starts, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin.
It is better for parents to consider their children's well-being before the divorce process formally starts, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin. PHOTO: ST FILE

Compulsory programme for couples planning to split if they can't agree on parenting issues

Singapore will put in place new measures to protect the children of couples who want a divorce, in yet another move to ease the pain of a bitter break-up.

Parliament has passed a law making it compulsory for couples to attend a parenting programme when they cannot agree on matters such as co-parenting plans. They will be required to do so if they have a child younger than 21, and it must be done before they file for divorce.

The new requirement is one of several changes made yesterday to the Women's Charter, which governs non-Muslim marriage and divorce matters.

Other changes include allowing men who are incapacitated by illness or disability to apply for maintenance payments from their former wives; nullifying sham marriages; and stronger law enforcement against people running websites that offer or open the door to prostitution.

During the debate, MPs such as Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) welcomed the changes.

"Divorce is a battle of attrition... Children are the losers as they bear the brunt of the collateral damage in the ensuing fight between the father and mother," he said.

The Women's Charter was last amended in 2011 when parents with children were required to attend mediation and counselling after filing for divorce.

This helped some couples agree on matters concerning their children in less acrimonious ways, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday when he presented the proposed changes for debate.

"But going for mandatory mediation and counselling on children's issues after first battling it out in court to settle the divorce is not ideal. Many divorcing parties have become hardened in position or too caught up with their emotions."

It is better for parents to consider their children's well-being before the divorce process formally starts, he said.

Before attending the parenting programme, couples must do an online self-reflective segment that informs them about the impact of divorce on children.

If they still want to go ahead but cannot agree on divorce matters, they must attend the parenting programme, a two-hour session with a counsellor. It will cover issues such as housing and school arrangements and positive co-parenting after divorce. The Social and Family Development Ministry will fund it.

The programme will start in the last quarter of this year. Initially, it will be for parents with at least one child younger than 14. It will later be extended to those with a child under 21.

In the debate, some of the 10 MPs who spoke expressed concern that the programme will delay the divorce process, making it more agonising for couples.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) suggested it be waived for victims of family violence. Mr Tan said that in exceptional cases, the court can allow divorce proceedings to continue if the parents have not undergone the programme.

Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) urged the Government to identify at-risk couples and require them to go for counselling courses after their first year of marriage, and then after the second and fifth years. "I'm suggesting not just giving pre-marriage courses but three further subsequent marriage courses... This will strengthen marriages more before they deteriorate."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline 'Steps to protect children caught in bitter break-ups'. Print Edition | Subscribe