A JUDGE recently questioned the right that every woman has to seek maintenance or alimony at divorce.
Justice Choo Han Teck thought that this "unalloyed right" spoke to "patronising gestures" in the law called the Women's Charter that "belie deep chauvinistic thinking".
He rejected the request of a woman, a 48-year-old regional sales manager of a multinational firm, for $120,000 in alimony from her former husband, a 47-year-old senior prison officer after their 10-year marriage ended in 2012. She earned slightly more than him.
The judge hoped that Parliament might someday amend or replace the current law with a broader one fairer to the genders.
The reaction has been mostly supportive of the judge's views. However, the issue may be seen from a different perspective, and it may not be quite right to dismiss outright a working woman's claim for alimony just because she earns as much or more than her husband.
One could argue that the law has justly institutionalised the right of a woman to seek alimony. It neither grants alimony automatically nor specifies its quantum. These are always decided by the court based on all relevant factors in any particular case.
Justice Choo wanted an end to the "idea that women needed protection (if) women were to be accepted as equal to men in marriage and in divorce".
But to see it as answering a "need" for such "protection" in the first place suggests a view of alimony where the man is compelled to give his former wife a handout, making the wife the beggar.
It will become clearer that alimony is no handout if we consider that men and women view and invest in marriage and children differently.
Men and women make asymmetrical and non-identical investments in marriage. Practical tasks, such as one parent driving the kids to school while the other drives them home, can be re-assigned quite easily between them or even to another adult family member.
But time spent playing with and caring for the children, for example, cannot be rescheduled as easily. That is because in many marriages here, like it or not, a woman's identity and self-worth are likely to be tied to her roles involving such "love labour".
The woman often shoulders a heavier burden of care work. Even where the husband is willing to do more housework and spend more time caring for the children than fathers did in previous generations, the wife's "love labour" burden is not necessarily lessened hugely.
Instead, sociological studies in the United States show that even as husbands increase their childcare time, wives do so, too, instead of cutting back on it.
Such research also consistently show that the success of family relationships matter more to women. This is why, gendered wage differentials apart, it is almost always the wife who gives up paid employment to stay home to care for the kids as she has a greater need to assuage those feelings of guilt when the kids are left at childcare or with a maid.
Today, women are also under social pressures to be the perfect mother: If she is working outside, she is still expected to ensure her children have the best meals, play group, preschool, kindergarten, school and maybe sports. Men are not as pressured.
So there is no thoroughgoing gender equality in most marriages, and the reason might well be just that the genders intrinsically differ.
The woman is almost always the primary caregiver at home but, in divorce, the legal system devalues her non-market contributions to the marriage.
Instead, the law implicitly expects her to return to paid employment if she had left it for the family. She is to be "supported" until she becomes self-sufficient financially, which should be as soon as possible, never mind her opportunities are fewer at 45 or even at 35 than they were at 25.
When these gendered roles in marriage are factored in, alimony can be seen as an entitlement, not a handout. That is, it is simply money that the man owes the woman because of her manifold investments in the marriage.
Some experts propose factoring these roles into marriage to be seen as a relationship where the wife is the creditor who extends credit to the husband by, above all, her asymmetrical share in household work, childcare and love labour. Alimony is then just collecting on this debt at divorce.
Other experts liken marriage to an investment partnership, in which husband and wife invest equally but differently.
The man gets to concentrate on his career while the woman focuses more on the family's needs, the kids especially. Thus, they should both reap the financial outcomes of that co-investment deal equally after it ends.
Here, he pays alimony to buy out her share of future proceeds in the post-divorce years that he will continue to reap from their earlier joint investment.
So it would be unjust for him to continue receiving proceeds from their co-investment without compensating her at divorce as she was an equal stakeholder in it.
Whether as an equal investment partner or as the creditor, she is entitled to reimbursement - with interest - at divorce. This is why the law rightly accords a woman the automatic right not to alimony but to seek it at divorce. That is, even where the wife with paid employment earns as much as or more than her husband, she should still have the presumptive right to ask for alimony.
She is not begging for a handout. She is simply asking for what she is entitled to. Even a nominal alimony, which Justice Choo derided, is required in most divorces according to the co-investment or creditor models, to equalise the genders if the woman's non-market contributions to the marriage are to be justly acknowledged.
Only when an empirical examination shows she did not thus contribute to the marriage should a judge deprive her of alimony - and not because of some formalistic commitment to an acontextual notion of gender equality.
Do women still need maintenance from their exes, asks Chua Mui Hoong.Read this and more Opinion articles online.