Mr Deputy Speaker, as Members of Parliament, we are in a unique position to be not just the voice of our constituents, but to also provide assistance and advice to our fellow Singaporeans who are in need. I am sure this is something which all of us do on a weekly basis during our Meet-The-People Sessions. In preparing for this speech, I am reminded of a number of victims of family violence and abuse who have sought our assistance…and some of the imagery of bruises and injuries sustained from physical violence, the ridiculous verbal and psychological abuses that they have suffered, and the trauma and fear that is in our residents’ eyes and voice, even as they muster up enough courage to relate some of their experiences to me.
I am thankful to the various agencies including the MSF who have done what they can to provide timely assistance to our residents who have sought our help. So in this regard, I am supportive of this Bill to introduce a more comprehensive regime to protect against family violence.
To start with of course, family violence and abuse can take many forms beyond physical hurt and harassment, and this has also evolved with the times and the use of technology for example. Hence for starters, I appreciate the updated definition of “family violence” under the new section 58B, to cover physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse. This would be a more comprehensive and practical definition rather than the narrow and prescriptive definition previously.
My speech today will be focused on the need for greater assurance and more timely support for families at risk or are in domestic violence situations.
Strengthened protections under the Bill
I recognise the merits of protecting victims through better protections, while enhancing rehabilitation of perpetrators of family violence.
The amendments to strengthen protections of victims include the ability for protectors to make Personal Protection Orders (PPO) on behalf of victims for their safety, to issue emergency orders, lowering the eligibility age to apply for a PPO and better-defined rehabilitative provisions to instruct and prohibit perpetrators from having contact with victims.
Having a second layer of protection through electronically monitoring arrangements also enable enforcement officers to be in a better position to ensure survivors feel and receive a level of personal safety and security.
Moreover, the plans to strengthen rehabilitation of perpetrators through counselling and treatment orders are also commendable in allowing families to find and resolve the root cause of domestic violence and abuse.
On the amendments and new provisions introduced by the Bill, I have a number of queries I wish to clarify with the Minister.
Clarifications on the new provisions
Firstly, what are the considerations behind lowering the age of an individual who can apply for personal protection orders from 21 to 18 under the new Section 60, and whether there needs to be an age limit?
Family violence will have far-reaching and traumatic consequences in every aspect of a person’s life at any age, whether they are above or below the age of eighteen. While there is merit in bringing down the age of an individual who can apply for personal protection orders from 21 to 18, allowing for a larger number of young individuals to seek for help, it discounts younger individuals below the age of eighteen to take actions to cure a dire situation.
Trauma often force children to mature faster and beyond their years. A 17-year going through a similar abusive situation as an 18-year-old will have the same need and want to have that autonomy to decide to protect themselves from domestic violence. Moreover, children from the age of 13 can even take up employment in a non-industrialised setting and some may have had to juggle schoolwork with part-time employment to supplement the family income.
In cases where someone is under the age of 18, is not married and does not have an older family member who can file a PPO application on their behalf, to whom can they turn to for such assistance? More broadly, how can we ensure that children do not fall through the cracks?
Second, in cases involving a domestic exclusion order, a stay away order or a no contact order under the new Section 60B, how can we ensure that there is no financial strain or damage caused to survivors?
While we are moving towards a cash-less society, there could be cases where women and children do not have access to the family’s finances or do not have friends and extended family they can turn to, with the perpetrator either being unwilling to provide for financial support, or simply unable to given that he may be remanded.
Thirdly, while I recognise the need to “break the cycle of violence” through rehabilitative and treatment provisions, could there be more room to consider the needs and wants of survivors, rather than via the courts instead?
This is not to say we do not give offenders a second chance. While there could be many cases where there is a strong desire on both the perpetrators and survivors part to heal the relationship, some may not wish to confront the intimidating and traumatic prospects of repairing this broken relationship. At present, the Court may already require the survivor, perpetrator of family violence and/or their children to attend mandatory counselling.
Long term plan to prevent family violence, and help victims cope
I am appreciative of the enhanced powers to take timely interventions to safeguard the health and well-being of victims of family abuse. However, I believe that there needs to be a longer-term game plan to prevent family violence in the first place, and provide greater lasting support to victims, especially those with psychological trauma and physical displacement.
In 2022, MSF investigated 2,254 new family violence-related cases, while the National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline received 10,800 calls for assistance. For every case that is surfaced, there could be many more that are suffering in silence, and more who do not know who they can trust or turn to for assistance, particularly when the ones they loved the most turned out to be the ones causing them such intolerable harm.
More can be done when it comes to public education in building awareness of what constitutes family violence and abuse, and to encourage Singaporeans who witness family violence to reach out for assistance. Schools in particular, should provide greater training and resources to help teachers and staff better identify signs of domestic violence in children.
For victims of family violence, we need to provide for more structural forms of assistance, longer term assistance especially as it relates to psychological trauma or physical displacement.
Often, family violence survivors choose to endure the abuse, instead of reporting their abusers to the police in fear of either further abuse or being left homeless and vulnerable.
After all, if one considers Maslow’s hierarchy of needs…it is only after physiological needs of food, water, shelter, clothing, and a place to sleep are met can one begin to consider safety and security in their family. Survivors of family violence face a very real dilemma when reporting their abusers, as this could also mean a loss of basic needs, especially if the abuser is the sole breadwinner of the family.
How can we provide a level of psychological safety and support to those suffering in silence, such that they are willing to step out of their fears and to bring attention to their situation? We must recognize that there is an acute need for safe accommodation and timely response once the domestic violence report has been reported to the police or once the personal protection order has been filed. We need to ensure that survivors will not feel worse off when they finally break their silence, and that adequate support are available and ready for them when they do find themselves in a situation needing them.
In this regard, there should be a range of long-term support and resources made accessible for survivors, beyond short term responses to the family crisis.
These include access to financial and non-financial forms of assistance such as access to housing when they have no relatives to turn to for help, timely employment assistance and immigration support. Mental health and psychological support in the form of counselling or therapeutic support is also essential during this trying period.
Particularly for women and children who are not locals and are on long term visit passes for example, their right to feel safe and have a safe place to live in is a precarious one without the support of their local spouse, not knowing when they might have to leave this place they call home. And yet even as they can continue to reside here, their ability to access affordable housing through HDB ownership or rentals is also not a given.
We must recognise that holistic support is vital to enable survivors to complete their journey towards fully recovering from family violence.
Deeper issue at hand: are we a more violent and abusive society today?
Finally, beyond the issue of family violence per se…I wonder, if the heart of the issue is that we are a more violent and abusive society today?
Road rage cases are increasingly common, the latest high-profile case being that involving a car driving off with a cyclist who laid on the bonnet after a heated argument between the two women involved. Last month two elderly men were arrested after a fight broke out over cigarette butts in a coffee shop. And online we have trolls masquerading behind a pseudonym, spreading hatred, anger, personal attacks, and verbal abuse, often in a coordinated and organised manner. Are these behaviors now normalised in society?
It may be idealistic for me to say we need to heal the world, make it a better place. But as leaders of this country, I think there is much food for thought here, and it is upon us to demonstrate what Singapore society should be.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I support the Bill.