Married women should have the same access to protection from violence as unmarried women, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said yesterday.
To that end, the Government is "actively reviewing" the issue of marital immunity for rape, and will give an update once it is completed.
In one of the firmest statements from the Government on the subject, Mr Tan emphatically told Parliament that violence against women is "unequivocally wrong".
"Although married persons have conjugal rights over each other, such rights should be exercised within reasonable behaviour," he told the House during a debate on a proposal to express support for women's aspirations in Singapore.
He also noted that existing laws have made Singapore a safer place for women, but at the same time, "we have to shape society's ideas about what is not acceptable".
PROTECTION FOR MARRIED WOMEN
Violence against women is unequivocally wrong. Although married persons have conjugal rights over each other, such rights should be exercised within reasonable behaviour. Married women should have the same access to protection as unmarried women. We are thus actively reviewing the issue of marital immunity for rape, and will give an update once the review is completed.
MINISTER FOR SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT TAN CHUAN-JIN
The minister was responding to MPs' concerns about violence against women.
Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun urged the House to be less tolerant of all sorts of violence. "How can we turn a blind eye towards brutal acts of violence like rape simply because it is committed by a family member? How can we as a society or as policymakers protect vulnerable members of our society?"
The current review of the law signals a further change on what constitutes marital rape. Up until 2007, Singapore did not recognise the concept of marital rape - that a husband could rape his wife.
That year, the law was amended to recognise marital rape under certain circumstances, such as if the husband and wife were living apart under an interim judgment of divorce or written separation agreement, or if divorce proceedings had begun, or if the wife had already obtained a personal protection order against her husband.
But such qualifiers are not satisfactory to advocates like Ms Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at Aware, who has seen such cases at the group from time to time.
She welcomed the review, saying: "If it is non-consensual penetration, it is rape. There should not be any legal distinction between marital rape and other kinds of rape."
Ms Tan hopes the law can be changed by October, when Singapore is up for review by the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which takes stock of progress on women's rights issues.
National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan also said the law review was a step in the right direction, and would empower victims to step forward to reclaim their dignity.
There is still a high degree of social stigmatisation surrounding marital rape cases, she said, adding: "The afflicted party would find it very difficult to raise a public case against the spouse. Having a law in place would point our moral compass in the right direction, so that for those who are afflicted, they know the law is on their side and (this would) dispel any misperceptions that just because he or she is your spouse, he or she can do anything to you."
Agreeing, Mr Kok said he hoped the Government would consult women's organisations like Aware to get more input on the matter.
Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), who tabled the motion on women, said the review was timely and necessary. "Men and women enter marriage as life partners. Thus, mutual respect is paramount to the sanctity and longevity of the relationship."