A baby's arrival into the world should be welcomed with joy by all around her. But for some babies born out of wedlock, stigma and the label "illegitimate child" stick with them, sometimes for life.
Illegitimacy and its consequences were thrown into the spotlight recently when The Straits Times reported on May 11 that a single woman was adopting her biological daughter to legitimise the child's birth.
When a child is adopted, she receives a new birth certificate with her adoptive parents' name. Her relationship with the adoptive parents will be as though she was "born to the adopter in lawful wedlock", according to the Adoption of Children Act.
The mum was hoping that this change in little Lorraine's status would give the family access to subsidised public housing and a Baby Bonus cash grant - things that married parents are entitled to.
After the article was published, a few unwed mothers wrote to me, asking about the procedure. Some wanted benefits; most were eager to do away with the "illegitimacy" label for their child. Women's rights group Aware received calls as well, and is setting up a legal clinic this month so unwed mothers can find out more from a lawyer with experience in such cases.
In 2015, 863 babies were born to unwed mothers here - a drop from the 1,099 in 2010.
Two weeks after the story ran, the Ministry of Social and Family Development wrote to The Straits Times Forum page. The letter pointed out that babies - regardless of their parents' marital status - already get access to many benefits in childcare, education and healthcare. But housing benefits and the Baby Bonus cash grants are benefits tied to the parent's marital status: "The benefits will not be extended even if an unwed mother adopts her own child, as they are meant to encourage parenthood within marriage," it said.
Would getting rid of illegitimacy clog up the courts with inheritance disputes? Family lawyer Sim Bock Eng does not think so because such disputes usually happen only with high-net-worth individuals. In any case, any potential harm to a small group has to be weighed against the immediate good that a change in law could do for people affected now, who really need help, she said.
As a young reporter writing about this issue, I find two things troubling. One is that, in this day and age, we still label children illegitimate when it does not seem to serve much purpose; two is that housing is used as a carrot when it really is a basic need.
HOW ILLEGITIMACY CAME ABOUT
Some Singaporeans who responded to the ST article thought it was archaic, unnecessary, even chauvinistic, to have a concept of illegitimacy for children born out of wedlock.
In fact, National University of Singapore law professor Leong Wai Kum has argued that illegitimacy was an alien concept to Chinese, Malay and Hindu cultures when it was foisted on Singapore under common law, which was inherited from the English when Singapore was a colony and many Chinese marriages were polygamous.
In a 2011 paper, Prof Leong wrote: "An acknowledgment of paternity by a Chinese father would seal his relationship with a child in the view of the community. No one would question they were father and son."
Legitimacy became law here when a 1911 case known as the Six Widows' Case decided that, of the six women who had survived a wealthy Chinese man here, only the four whose marriages had been solemnised would get equal shares of the estate.
Today, more than 100 years later, an illegitimate child still loses out on his or her inheritance to the legitimate children of the parents.
But over the years, changes have been made to whittle down differences between legitimate and illegitimate children.
One change in 1934 enabled a child to be made legitimate if the parents subsequently married. And since 1996, the Women's Charter has made it such that a parent must provide maintenance for a child - whether legitimate or not, biological or adopted.
I would argue that, since the only difference right now is in the way a child inherits - something that can be circumvented by a will - Singapore might as well do away with this concept that was never ours to begin with.
We got this law from the United Kingdom but, in 1987, the UK changed its law to specify that, when a person dies without a will, all of his or her children inherit - regardless of whether they were born in or out of wedlock. New Zealand too abolished the concept of illegitimacy, in 1969.
DOING AWAY WITH BASTARDY
One possible issue with doing away with legitimacy here is that children born of marriages could have to contend with splitting their inheritances with surprise siblings they might never have known about.
Would getting rid of illegitimacy then clog up the courts with inheritance disputes?
Family lawyer Sim Bock Eng does not think so because such disputes usually happen only with high-net-worth individuals. In any case, any potential harm to a small group has to be weighed against the immediate good that a change in law could do for people affected now, who really need help, she said.
Across the board, the eight professors, lawyers, social workers and politicians I spoke to thought it was time to drop illegitimacy and to extend more benefits to unwed mothers. So did some members of the public who wrote in to the Forum page.
Understandably, some fear that giving unwed mums and their children access to subsidised housing would lead to more pregnancies out of wedlock. For instance, such access could make it easier for men to maintain extramarital families; and some have argued that young girls might see having a baby as a ticket to home ownership.
It is true that public housing is a precious commodity in land-scarce Singapore. Meanwhile, Singapore still faces the issue of how to house an unwed mum and her kids. Some with incomes below $1,500 get access to subsidised rental housing. Others can afford to buy or rent on the open market. Many find shelter with their families or friends. But there are still families who are left bereft.
I think the Government should relax its stance and let these families rent a subsidised flat from the Housing Board if it does not want to allow them to buy a flat.
At least then the innocent children with no say in mum's marital status would have a roof over their heads and a conducive environment to grow up in.
And it's 2017. Time to have a serious discussion on getting rid of a dated Victorian moral code that illegitimises children.