The Story In 60 Seconds
- This article is the first of a series to examine the Women’s Charter.
- The Women’s Charter was passed in 1961 to advocate girls’ and women’s rights in Singapore and promote equality in marriage.
- It codified monogamy as law, established rights and duties between husband and wife in a marriage, and set out penal provisions against the abuse of girls and women in Singapore.
- It established the procedure to approach divorce and the ancillary matters that arise from divorce.
- In this chapter, we look at the Rights and Duties of a Husband and Wife. In particular:
- Women’s rights under the Charter; and
- Effect of agreements between husband and wife.
What Will This Guide Cover?
Given the broad and comprehensive nature of the Women’s Charter, this guide will be presented in three parts, each addressing one the following key areas:
- The Rights & Duties in Marriage;
- Divorce proceedings;
- The Maintenance of Wife, Incapacitated Husband, and Children.
In this article, which is the first in this series, we will look at the rights and duties of husband and wife in marriage.
A Brief History of the Women’s Charter
It is necessary to understand the history of the Women’s Charter to appreciate the rights and obligations created by it.
Prior to the Women’s Charter, the legal landscape of family and matrimonial law in Singapore was a confusing and unhappy situation. Family and matrimonial law then was a mix of the customs and religions of different races, and was interpreted by the courts applying English common law.
In particular, under the English legal doctrine of coverture, women had very limited personal rights upon marriage. A woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed under those of her husband, as man and wife were considered a single person. This practice hindered the rights of married women to own and control personal property, to sue, and even to enter the workforce.
In 1961, the Legislative Assembly of Singapore passed the Women’s Charter and established a unified code of laws governing matrimonial and women’s rights – an event which had been described as momentous in Singapore’s history. It advanced women’s rights by codifying monogamy as law, guaranteeing equality in marriage, setting out penal provisions against the abuse of girls and women, and establishing the process for matrimonial proceedings in Singapore.
The Charter was championed by one of Singapore’s first female legislators and women’s rights activist, Chan Choy Sing, along with other notable persons such as Kwa Geok Choo, Ho Puay Choo, and Oh Siew Chen.
Women’s personal rights were also codified. In particular, s.51 of the Charter provides that a married woman may own property and sue in her own name. Under s.46 of the Charter, a wife may engage in any trade or profession, or in any social activities separately from her husband.
Since then, the Women’s Charter has had numerous updates reflecting social changes and evolving trends. More recent amendments to the Women’s Charter underlined social changes in Singapore:
- In 2011, Parliament amended the Charter to empower a Singapore court to make ancillary orders after a divorce or judicial separation is obtained in foreign judicial proceedings. This amendment enabled foreigners living in Singapore to obtain financial relief when they had started matrimonial proceedings elsewhere. It is a reflection of globalisation and the growth of foreigners living in Singapore.
- In 2016, the Charter was amended to extend spousal maintenance to husbands and ex-husbands, provided certain conditions were met.
The Women’s Charter shapes, as well as reflects Singapore’s society, and it will no doubt continue to evolve as society changes.
The Rights & Duties of Husband and Wife
In the next part, we look at some of the rights that had been established by the Women’s Charter that we now take as a matter of course today.
Mutual obligation to safeguard union of marriage
A core tenant of the Women’s Charter is equality in marriage. Under s.46, the Women’s Charter establishes that it is both the husband’s and wife’s obligation to safeguard the union of marriage, and to care for and provide for their children.
This characterisation of marriage as an equal co-operative partnership supports the analysis of matrimonial assets as community property and the upbringing of children as a joint effort.
Duty to provide maintenance
Traditionally, women were homemakers after marriage, and had to rely on their husbands for financial support. The Women’s Charter entrenched a woman’s right to maintenance from her husband.
Under s.69 of the Women’s Charter, women are entitled to maintenance from their husbands. The powers of the Court to enforce a maintenance order are wide-ranging. Where a party fails to comply with an order for maintenance, the Court may enforce such order by imprisonment, or by garnishing the wages of the husband. The Court may also order the husband to undergo financial counselling or perform community service.
Effect of legal arrangements between husband and wife
During the course of the marriage, the husband and wife will invariably make arrangements to deal with, and manage their assets and debts. The Women’s Charter establishes certain legal positions as to how we may approach these arrangements between husband and wife.
- s.53 provides that a wife’s loan to her husband will be considered part of her husband’s estate in the event of his bankruptcy, but the wife may be treated as a creditor against her husband.
- s.54 provides a presumption that the money provided by the husband for the expense of the matrimonial home or similar purposes, or to any property acquired by such money, belongs to husband and wife in equal shares.
- s.55 clarifies that Part VI of the Women’s Charter does not give validity to gifts by the husband to wife intended to defraud creditors.
- s.56 allows a woman in marriage to sue any person for the protection and security of property, including suing her husband (subject to certain limitations for criminal proceedings against her husband).
- Where the parties desire clarification as to title or possession of a property, either party may apply to the court under s.59 to seek clarification.
These positions may appear common sense in modern day Singapore, but they were instrumental in clarifying and understanding women’s rights in the dealings between husband and wife.
In the next article of this series, we will look at how the Women’s Charter is applied to resolve family disputes, and to commence divorce proceedings in Singapore.
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.
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