SINGAPORE - Muslim couples with at least one person aged below 21 at the time of marrying, will soon be required to go for a marriage preparation programme before tying the knot.
The parents or guardians of the minor will also have to consent to the marriage.
Currently, only the consent of the wali - the lawful guardian for the marriage of a Muslim woman who may not be her parents - is needed.
These are among the key changes proposed in the Bill to amend the Administration of Muslim Law, which was introduced in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 1).
Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said the amendments are aimed at strengthening Muslim families, reinforcing Muslim institutions and enhancing the management of Muslim assets.
"At the core of every review of the Act has been the impetus to uplift and strengthen our Muslim community, and better facilitate its socio-religious life. The amendments we are proposing today seek to better protect Muslim families because they are the very building blocks of a strong and resilient community," said Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister for Communications and Information.
Strengthening Muslim marriages
The number of Muslim marriages involving minors has been steadily declining, but these marriages remain more vulnerable, said Dr Yaacob.
He said that in the case of Muslim marriages involving younger grooms, recent marriage cohorts have experienced 1 ½ times the divorce rate compared to older grooms.
Thus, the specialised programme for minor couples will include consultations to help them better understand, clarify and address any concerns that they and their families may have about marriage.
The programme will also have marriage education workshops for the young couples to learn essential skills and knowledge to build a stable marriage and family.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development approved the programme and will regularly review it, added Dr Yaacob.
Mandatory consent from parents also reinforces the importance of their support in marriages involving minors, "as their guidance, especially in the crucial initial years of the marriage, is critical to help younger couples build strong marriage foundations for a lifetime", he said.
Support for children, couples in case of divorce
Another change proposed will also allow the Syariah Court to ensure that couples seeking a divorce 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 these marriages have been saved, said Dr Yaacob.
Parties can also be referred for counselling or a family support programme at any stage of their divorce proceedings.
Also, men will be allowed to apply for a divorce without first uttering the talak, a declaration of divorce.
Dr Yaacob explained that this is because the talak is generally perceived to be final in effecting a divorce, once the Syariah court gives the green light.
"With this amendment, a husband who applies for divorce before uttering the talak can seek help with his marital woes, and the Court may try to save the marriage by directing the couple to attend counselling," he said.
The talak can still be uttered, he said, but added: "We hope that Muslim husbands do not utter the talak frivolously and that couples seek appropriate help when they face marital woes."
Dr Yaacob also said that the Syariah court's resources should be used for the benefit of Muslims in Singapore, and it would not be right for it to be used by those with few or no links to Singapore.
This is why at least one of the parties making an application at the Syariah Court will now have to be living, or habitually residing, in Singapore.
Reinforcing Muslim institutions and management of Muslim assets
New rules were also proposed to ensure that Muslim endowments, known as wakafs, are managed well.
In 2017, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) disbursed $3.1 million of the revenue generated from wakafs to beneficiaries such as mosques, madrasahs, and Muslim organisations.
Under the changes proposed, the trustee of a wakaf can be removed if he fails to give information or particulars required by Muis, or fails to allow Muis to inspect the wakaf's properties, accounts, and records.
Muis can currently remove a trustee when it appears that the wakaf has been mismanaged, or intervene if no trustees have been appointed. But the wakaf might already be in jeopardy by the time these conditions are met, said Dr Yaacob.
Under the Bill, any appointment of a new trustee to a wakaf will also be void unless Muis has approved of it in writing, to ensure that trustees are qualified to manage the wakaf.
"In some instances, Muis saw disputes arise when trustees made unilateral appointments among themselves. Such trustee disputes, if left unchecked or unresolved, may adversely affect the management and upkeep of the wakaf," said Dr Yaacob.
Muis will also be able to direct a portion of the income of the wakaf towards a sinking fund, to support the wakaf's future upkeep and development.
Turning to the Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund, Dr Yaacob also specified that it can be tapped on for the purchase of new or additional land or property for existing and future mosques.
It can also be used for building or maintenance works of any religious education premises or facilities, he clarified.