New rules for Muslim minors who want to wed

Marriage prep classes among key changes to Muslim Law Act

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim.

A Muslim couple have to attend a marriage preparation programme before tying the knot if one of them is a minor below the age of 21.

The parents or guardians of the minor must also give their consent.

These are among the key changes to the Administration of Muslim Law Act, which Parliament debated and passed yesterday.

The law, enacted almost 50 years ago to govern Muslim affairs, was last amended in 2008.

The latest changes are to strengthen Muslim families, reinforce Muslim institutions and better manage Muslim assets.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said the changes are "to better protect Muslim families because they are the very building blocks of a strong and resilient community".

The number of Muslim marriages involving minors has been declining steadily but such marriages are still vulnerable.

Recent cohorts of Muslim marriages with younger grooms experienced 11/2 times the divorce rate compared with older grooms, said Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister for Communications and Information.

For this reason, the specialised programme for couples with minors will have consultations to help them better understand and address concerns they and their families may have about the marriage.

The programme will also have marriage education workshops for young couples to develop essential skills and knowledge to build a stable marriage and family.

Similar courses exist for other groups, but the Government is making it mandatory for couples with minors first as they need support most, said Dr Yaacob.

The approach is similar to that adopted for marriages involving minors under the Women's Charter.

Requiring the parents of the minor to consent to his or her marriage also underscores the importance of their support.

"Their guidance, especially in the crucial initial years of the marriage, is critical to help younger couples build strong marriage foundations (that last) a lifetime," he said.

Currently, only the wali's consent is needed. The wali is the lawful guardian of the bride-to-be and, in some cases, may not be her father.

Divorcing couples and their children will also get more support, although Dr Yaacob said divorce rates have been "relatively stable".

The Syariah Court can soon require couples seeking a divorce to first attend its marriage counselling programme, to see if the marriage can be saved.

More than 33,000 couples have been counselled since 2004, and almost half the marriages were saved, said Dr Yaacob.

Also, men will be able to apply for a divorce without having to first say "talak", a declaration of divorce.

"With this amendment, a husband who applies for divorce before uttering the talak can seek help for his marital woes, and the court may try to save the marriage by directing the couple to attend counselling," he said, adding that the talak can still be uttered. Generally, uttering the talak is perceived to have sealed a divorce as long as the Syariah Court says the divorce is valid.

New rules will also ensure Muslim endowments or wakafs, which generate millions of dollars in revenue annually, are run well.

Nine lawmakers, including seven Muslim MPs, raised issues such as caring for children of divorcing couples (Mr Zainal Sapari of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), and resolving wakaf disputes (Mr Faisal Manap of Aljunied GRC).

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) and Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) also lauded the changes.

Said Mr Yam: "These efforts show the community is progressive and realistic... and that it has always been keen to strengthen itself."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2017, with the headline New rules for Muslim minors who want to wed. Subscribe