Number of sham marriages soars in 2012, despite tougher laws

Rise attributed to strong job market, difficulty in obtaining citizenship

THE number of sham marriages has shot up, with most of them uncovered in the second half of last year.

Latest official figures show that there were 54 such marriages last year, about 10 times more than the previous year.

This is despite the passing of a law last August that criminalises such marriages and imposes tougher penalties that include jail time.

Often, the phoney nuptials involve a Singaporean being paid to marry a foreigner who wants to get a long-term visit pass or permanent residency.

Experts attribute the rise to the buoyant job market and the difficulty in obtaining citizenship.

But the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) has also stepped up enforcement. Most of those caught last year were a result of "intensified enforcement efforts", ICA said yesterday.

Issuing a stern warning, it said it "will not hesitate to take action against those who have submitted their applications under false representations, and have their immigration facilities revoked".

The severity of the situation was highlighted by Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran last August when he introduced a Bill in Parliament to tighten the law against sham marriages. He had said an average of four or five cases were detected yearly from 2007 to 2011.

The number soared to 12 in the first six months of last year, an increase that was "probably symptomatic of a larger trend", he added.

With the new law, the couples-in-crime, syndicate leaders and middlemen face up to 10 years behind bars and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

These harsher penalties apply to marriages registered on or after Dec 19, 2012.

Previously, taking part in a marriage of convenience was not a specific criminal offence.

As a result, suspects could only be charged with providing false information to the authorities, an offence that carried a jail term of up to a year, a fine of up to $4,000, or both.

No one, however, has been charged under the new law.

The reason is that it takes time to "establish if the marriage is genuine", said an ICA spokesman.

Couples in such marriages tend to have just a verbal agreement. A paper trail is rare. But in most cases, they give false information on official documents.

A sensitive approach is also required to "respect the marriage institution" given the different cultural practices of other nationalities, added the spokesman.

In its investigation, the ICA works with the Ministry of Manpower, the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Registry of Marriages.

The ICA, in a statement yesterday candidly titled "Where Is The Love?", highlighted a sham marriage that took place last year.

Singaporean Quek Mu Lian, 35, and China national Yu Dan, 28, met in January last year. He was jobless and a heavy gambler. Yu told him she wanted to stay in Singapore for a longer term.

Keen to make a quick buck, he asked for $15,000 to enter into a marriage of convenience. They registered their marriage in May and Yu got a long-term visit pass under Quek's sponsorship. Both were arrested in December. He was sentenced to six weeks in jail and she, for one month.

But Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law chairman Hri Kumar Nair believes it is hard to arrest the uptrend.

He told The Straits Times yesterday that even with the tougher laws, he has "no doubt that the attraction of being able to come to Singapore is so significant that there will be people who will take the chance as this is a type of crime that is difficult to detect".

Sociologist Paulin Straughan, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, blames the "conducive economic climate here and the difficulty in obtaining citizenship" for the rise in sham marriages.

"But the public has to be cautious about casting an overly-suspicious glance at all inter-nationality marriages as it would be detrimental to the formation and sanctity of a family," she added.

waltsim@sph.com.sg