Diverse views on family law issues pose a challenge in policymaking: Edwin Tong

The development of family law in Singapore has been catalysed by the evolving role and status of women in the last 100 years.
The development of family law in Singapore has been catalysed by the evolving role and status of women in the last 100 years.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - How far the law should, and can, encroach into what is essentially a private space, is a question that policymakers will continue to grapple with in deciding the direction of family law, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong on Tuesday (Sept 28).

Another issue that will come to the fore is which way the law should go when society holds starkly diverse views on social and ethical issues, he added.

Mr Tong, who is also Second Minister for Law, was giving the keynote address at the start of a two-day conference on family law, organised by the Law Society of Singapore and held virtually.

In his speech, he traced the development of family law in Singapore, catalysed by the evolving role and status of women in the last 100 years.

He said this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Women's Charter, introduced in 1961 to consolidate laws relating to monogamy, divorce, maintenance of wives and children and punishment for offences committed against women and girls.

A lot of progress has been made to uplift the status of women in Singapore, he said.

"Anachronistic remnants of our legal past such as marital rape immunity have been repealed," he said.

Turning to the administration of family law, he noted that in 2014, the specialist Family Justice Courts was established.

Unlike the commercial and criminal courts, the family courts adopt a more judge-led and problem-solving approach.

The setting up of the Syariah Court and the introduction of the Administration of Muslim Law Act preserved the separate legal system for Muslims that existed historically in Singapore on issues such as marriage, divorce and other civil matters.

"We are always working to fine-tune our court processes. More can still be done to preserve relationships, minimise hostility, and to look after the welfare of children," he said.

Mr Tong touched on four areas in family law that he said policymakers and society would have to grapple with.

First, was determining how far the law should encroach into the family space and the appropriate response when society does not speak with one voice.

These challenges have come up in the 1990s, he noted, when laws were strengthened against family violence and the Maintenance of Parents Bill was passed, obliging children to maintain their parents.

"Family violence remains a serious concern," he said.

Mr Edwin Tong (far left) and the panellists participating at a two-day conference on family law on Sept 28, 2021. PHOTO: THE LAW SOCIETY OF SINGAPORE

Mr Tong said the Government is studying a report published a few days ago by a task force formed to look at how the response to family violence can be strengthened.

Second, he said, transnational marriages can present issues such as parental abduction of children and applications for relocation.

Such cases involve complex legal issues, with children caught in the crossfire of warring parents.

He noted that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction are examples of international commitment towards solving these problems.

Third, Mr Tong noted that surrogacy and non-traditional concepts of parenthood raise complex issues, such as who the legal parent is and what that parent's obligations are with regard to the child.

One case that has come before the Singapore courts involved a gay man who applied to adopt a child he fathered in the United States through a surrogate mother.

The man was allowed to legally adopt his biological son but failed in his bid to have his same-sex partner named the child's guardian.

Fourth, Mr Tong noted that several jurisdictions, such as England and Wales, have moved or are moving towards "no-fault divorce".

In May this year, a public consultation paper was launched here to seek views on an "amicable divorce" option.

"We have seen a divergence in views on the issue before, reflected in the letters published in our local media. This divergence reflect those that were also seen in England and Wales," he said.

Some feel that the option, with safeguards in place, would be beneficial to the family unit. Others feel "appalled", as current laws are premised on the notion of preserving marriages and encouraging reconciliation.

"As with the other matters we have grappled with in the past, I think what we now need to do is consider all the views, and look at what would best represent the way forward for society and find an equilibrium," he said.

Mr Tong concluded that policymakers have to be clear about the direction the law should take, and install the legislative framework with the appropriate support system.

The courts must guide parties towards a non-adversarial path, family lawyers must offer solutions that make legal and emotional sense, while social sector professionals play an important role in the healing process, he said.