Grant more equal rights to foreign wives

The stigma around "mail-order brides" is only one challenge faced by foreign wives of lower-income men in Singapore ("Curb stigma against foreign brides" by Mr Glenn Foh Cher Ren; last Saturday).

Though unions between Singaporeans and foreigners formed 30 per cent of marriages in 2013, many foreign wives struggle with access to basic rights such as employment and housing.

For instance, restrictions against foreigners co-owning Housing Board properties create hardships for lower-income families who cannot afford private or non-subsidised housing.

Earlier this year, a Singaporean delivery man and his pregnant Vietnamese wife were living in a lorry, as they were not eligible for a new subsidised or rental flat, partly because of the wife's nationality and the husband's income level.

HDB helped them to secure a rental unit for a year, but only after their story went viral.

Access to fundamental needs should not depend on the social media lottery.

Housing to enable a stable family life should be available to all Singaporeans, not only those with means or married to other Singaporeans.

The opacity and uncertainty of the criteria for permanent residency (PR) and citizenship also threaten the right to family life for foreign spouses and their citizen children.

Children in such families make up 30 per cent of Singaporean babies each year.

Yet, if the citizen spouse stops sponsoring visa renewals, the foreign spouse may have to choose between leaving her children or taking them out of the country.

Recently, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam clarified in Parliament that having a citizen child would be a "plus factor", but does not automatically qualify one for citizenship or PR status.

This seems to suggest that some circumstances could justify requiring a Singapore citizen child to be separated from his mother or to leave the country. We would welcome the Government's clarification on what these circumstances could be.

Finally, foreign wives coming from poorer socio-economic backgrounds than their Singaporean husbands can be more vulnerable to abuse.

Depending on their husbands for residency, citizenship status and the right to work puts these women in an unequal position and makes it harder for those facing abuse to seek help.

It is, thus, vital that we strengthen their access to basic rights, and that permanent residency and citizenship criteria are made clearer and more transparent.

Chong Ning Qian (Ms)

Research Executive

Association of Women for Action and Research

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline 'Grant more equal rights to foreign wives'. Print Edition | Subscribe