On the Family Justice Reform Bill – Speech by Leon Perera

Mr Speaker Sir, one of the aims of the Family Justice Reform Bill is to facilitate more sustainable maintenance outcomes. I support the Bill.

Beyond amending the legislation to make it easier to enforce maintenance payments, going forward, I would like to call for the Government to consider providing for gender-neutral maintenance. That will be the thrust of my speech today.

How could gender-neutral maintenance payments be operationalized? This should be done by giving the Courts the discretion to order that in appropriate cases, wives should pay maintenance to ex-husbands even if they are not incapacitated. Such cases could include where the husband earns much less than his wife or is a stay-home-husband, and has borne the bulk of domestic chores and caregiving. 

This is a contrast to the current maintenance regime in the Women’s Charter, which provides that in a divorce, the court may order a man to pay maintenance to his ex-wife, but may order a woman to pay maintenance to her ex-husband only if he is incapacitated. 

I previously raised this issue in the Motion on Singapore Women’s Development in 2022. My Honourable friend, Aljunied GRC MP Mr Gerald Giam, has also spoken on this in 2021. 

Indeed, there is bipartisan support for awarding maintenance to stay-at-home dads: Honourable Members Ms Carrie Tan and Mr Ang Wei Neng raised this issue in the 2022 Parliamentary debate on amendments to Women’s Charter, and Mr Seah Kian Peng and Mr Louis Ng also raised this issue in the 2016 parliamentary debate on amendments to Women’s Charter. 

To elaborate, I call for Government to consider providing for gender-neutral maintenance for the following reasons.

  1. First, the number of stay-home husbands have been gradually increasing over the years. The Singapore Census Population 2020 showed that the percentage of married households where wives are the sole breadwinners increased from 5.8% in 2010, to 7.4% in 2020. In fact, the Labour Force in Singapore 2022 survey showed that 10.6% of caregivers outside the labour force are males (whether married or unmarried). This is a not an insignificant minority. Many stay-home husbands, just like stay-home wives, have sacrificed their careers and incurred significant opportunity costs to spend years looking after their households, and doing unpaid care work such as raising up children. As a result, stay-home husbands may have far less savings as compared to their working wives, and may well be financially vulnerable in the event of a divorce. Allowing the Courts to have discretion to award maintenance to such husbands would serve to recognise their care work and unpaid contributions. It would also help to safeguard the financially vulnerable spouse (where husband or wife), which is, surely, the fundamental purpose of maintenance payments. 
  1. Second, since the Women’s Charter was first enacted in 1961, women in Singapore have made significant progress. In 2020, 52.5% of married households are dual-income households, an increase from 47.1% in 2010. In 2022, the employment rate of females aged 15 and over was 60.9%, the 4th highest among OECD developed countries. With a larger proportion of women in the workforce, it could well be the case that women might out-earn men in some dual-income households, and thus it could make economic sense for the husband to take on the bulk of domestic work in a household.  However, the current maintenance regime arguably reinforces traditional gendered household roles where men traditionally are regarded as “breadwinners” and women as “homemakers”, by providing that only incapacitated husbands qualify for maintenance. An Institute of Policy Studies survey of stay-home fathers in 2020 showed that many of the respondents experienced “acute stigma”, and family members often directed comments suggesting they were “mooching” from their wives.  Amending the law to provide for gender-neutral maintenance would help to send the correct message that the contributions of stay-home husbands are as valued as the care work done by stay-home wives. 
  1. Third, many other developed countries allow for men to claim maintenance to, such as the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.  Let us take a leaf from their books. In the UK government’s Guide to Spousal Maintenance, it is stated that “Spousal maintenance is a payment that’s paid by a wife or husband to their former spouse as part of their divorce.” The language used in a similar Australian government public resource is similarly gender-neutral and states: “Under the Family Law Act 1975, a person has a responsibility to financially assist their spouse, or former de facto partner, if that person cannot meet their own reasonable expenses from their personal income or assets.” In section 63 and 64 of New Zealand’s Family Proceedings Act 1980, gender neutral language is used – for example “each spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner is liable to maintain the other spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner to the extent that such maintenance is necessary to meet the reasonable needs of the other spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner, where the other spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner cannot practicably meet the whole or any part of those needs because of any 1 or more of the circumstances specified in subsection (2).” To quote from a Court verdict in Ontario, Canada by Justice Wildman in Hamdy v. Hamdy, “…gender is, of course irrelevant in determining spousal support. What is important are the roles assumed in the marriage.”

In the 2022 debate on amendments to the Women’s Charter, the Minister of State for Social and Family Development responded to calls to provide maintenance to husbands by stating that the purpose of the current regime is to protect parties who tend to be more financially vulnerable post-divorce (i.e. women and incapacitated men). I agree with such an aim. 

However, this does not stop the Government from extending the safeguards provided by the maintenance regime to another potentially vulnerable group: stay-at-home husbands. Even in a gender-neutral maintenance regime, any maintenance to spouses will be awarded at the court’s discretion, and such a regime should not disadvantage vulnerable women who can still be awarded maintenance. 

In summary, I urge the Government to reconsider making maintenance gender-neutral.  Thank you.