Ugly divorce cases nearly made me shun marriage

Veteran family lawyer Ellen Lee is a staunch supporter of the new Family Justice Act. It is long overdue, said the 57-year-old MP in Sembawang GRC who has handled more than 2,000 divorce cases in the past 33 years. But only a handful of couples parted on cordial terms. Ms Lee tells Tham Yuen-C why her work almost made her lose hope in marriage, how vengeful some spouses can be and what more the law can do to bring peace to a warring family. She also talks of her role as the new president of the Singapore Table Tennis Association and explains why the national team cannot do away with foreign-born players.

  • Did you start your legal career in family law?

No. In the beginning, I tried everything - corporate work, probate, civil and criminal litigation plus a bit of family law.

I also gave a lot of free legal talks then. Inevitably, people wanted to hear about family matters, such as divorce and wills. That's how I ended up focusing on family law.

  • Did you have a personal interest in family law?

Yes, because I'm interested in counselling.

When people suffer family breakups, it's not just legal advice they need, but also practical advice on housing, schooling, money, jobs, relationships and how to walk away relatively unscathed.

In the 1980s, many who divorced also faced humiliation as society was scornful of them and people would spurn them.

I wanted to help them get through it and move on.

  • How many divorce cases have you handled over the years? What are the main reasons for the breakdown of marriages?

I must have dealt with 2,000 to 3,000 cases, but not all ended up in court.

In the 1980s, the most common reason was adultery, usually by the men. The women would usually be sued for unreasonable behaviour, like being neglectful of their husbands and not fulfilling their duties as wives. But from the 1990s, I began to see more women committing adultery.

  • How many of your divorce cases had a good ending?

In the 33 years I've been in practice, I've seen fewer than 10 that were not acrimonious.

  • Are there harrowing cases forever etched in your memory?

There are two.

One was a case 20 years ago. The husband would remove all the clothing, hairclips, shoes and whatever he had bought for his two-year-old daughter before he handed her to his ex-wife for the weekend.

This handover is done at the neighbourhood police post.

The wife, who was unprepared initially, scrambled to buy clothes for her daughter at the neighbourhood shops. She subsequently brought clothes for her daughter.

On one occasion, it was raining and her bag of clothes was soaked. She pleaded with him to let their daughter wear what she had on, but he refused. The poor girl had to take off her dry clothes and put on the wet ones.

It was sad because it got to a point where the girl would automatically undress herself when she arrived at the police post, even though she was too young to understand what was going on.

The other case was also one involving a vengeful husband. His wife had sued for divorce because he was a womaniser.

He went out of his way to win her back and he succeeded. But unknown to her, he spent the next four years plotting revenge.

He became a loving, devoted husband and when he knew he had her eating out of his hand, he sued for divorce. When she asked why, he said he stopped loving her when she wanted a divorce.

  • The Family Justice Act gives judges more power in dealing with acrimonious divorce cases. What is the worst thing couples often do to each other?

When they wash dirty linen in public. This often happens at the stage when they file affidavits. They want the lawyer to put every negative attribute and act in the affidavit, regardless of whether it is relevant or not. Since there is no limit on the number of affidavits that can be filed in court, this nastiness can go on and on.

  • What is the worst thing a client has asked you to write in an affidavit?

A wife had a string of affairs and she left evidence of them in e-mails and Skype video calls in the computer at their home.

The husband, whom I represented, found them and wanted to use it all as evidence to prove his wife was unfit to have care and control of their daughters.

While it was relevant, I sometimes feel a couple should think before doing things that would make their children feel ashamed.

  • Did the numerous divorce cases you handled affect you emotionally?

In my younger days, I was badly affected on seeing so many marriages end in divorce. It almost made me lose hope in marriage, which is one reason I married late, at age 38. I was suspicious of relationships and would think the worst of any behaviour that was even remotely similar to what I had encountered in a case.

  • How did you overcome your paranoia to eventually marry?

I realised that even men who are ideal husbands have imperfections.

I'd always felt that President Wee Kim Wee was a good husband. Then, one day, I read a profile story on him and he said he prayed to his ancestors daily. But only he was allowed to do it in his home, he reportedly said.

It's very chauvinistic, right? So even though he was such a good husband, he was also chauvinistic, like other men. That kind of broke the impasse for me.

  • Did your husband have to work very hard to gain your trust?

Yes, it was a difficult start because my husband (businessman Toh Lim Mok, 67) was a divorcee and I was wary of divorcees.

But when my mother fell very ill and I was at a loss, he was there to give advice and help. That changed my perception.

  • What did your family think?

My family was against it. My mother was worried about what our friends and relatives would say because he is a divorcee, is so much older than me (10 years), has four children - teenagers then - and is not a graduate.

  • Do you think the Family Justice Act is enough? Or can more be done to help warring couples?

The Act provides the structure for the judge to play a more active role and to call in more resources, such as counsellors and psychologists, to help the couple resolve their issues. But it only facilitates, and a lot still depends on the efforts of those involved. They will have to help themselves as well by being realistic and move on.

I feel financial counselling may also help, because when couples break up, they have to think about selling the house and repaying all loans, renting temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, all the routine expenses still need to be paid. They need to figure out where all the money is going to come from. Helping divorcing couples understand that there are all these stresses will give them a reality check.

  • Last week, you were elected president of the STTA, but you do not play table tennis. Neither did you do any sport in school. Why were you picked to lead a top sport association in Singapore?

I suppose it could be because they think my experience as a lawyer will be useful for managing and running the association.

It's true I don't play table tennis, but I find it very interesting and I think I can pick it up if I wanted to.

  • Politicians tend to lead Singapore's professional sport associations. What can they bring to the table that others cannot?

Actually, out of about 60 National Sports Associations in Singapore, only eight are helmed by politicians.

Like any other association, when you have an MP who is there, it will perhaps help to draw in sponsors. Also, MPs may be able to tap on their network to rope in more help for the association, for example, in getting more volunteers and members. An MP would also be under a lot more public scrutiny and would want to do a good job.

  • The STTA has been dogged by several controversies, not least of which is its China-born players. What do you plan to do to make the national team "more Singaporean"?

We have some very promising Singapore-born talents now, such as Isabelle Li, Clarence Chew and Pan Xue Jie. And they benefit tremendously from the presence of the foreign-born players. They train with these players, who set a very high standard as they compete in top international meets.

Also, our local-born players gain a lot from witnessing first-hand the competitive spirit and commitment of these players.

As for my plans, I will continue the youth development programme that former STTA president Lee Bee Wah and her team have put in place, and organise table tennis games at all levels, from kindergarten upwards. This will let us cast the net very wide for more local talent.

But in the end, to have more local players breaking into the international scene, we need to keep winning medals.

I also hope that with the heightened awareness of our players' victories and the increasing number of enlightened parents, maybe we will have more people willing to go into the sport full-time.

  • How would you motivate the players as you have never done any competitive sport?

Motivating them is a matter of communication, about what I say to them, how I behave towards them and what I do for them.

It can come from the training programmes and welfare schemes that we set up for them. You don't need to have been a sportsman to do these things well. (laughs)