April 11th, 2011

Still groundbreaking at 50

Two new books explain why the Singapore Women’s Charter, first passed in 1961, remains ahead of its time

By Hong Xinyi

Outside of a law school classroom, it is probably rare to hear a piece of legislation discussed with the fervour and affection that was bestowed on the Singapore Women’s Charter on March 25, during the launch of two books marking the Charter’s 50th anniversary of the Singapore Women’s Charter.

Organised by the Institute Of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), AWARE and Singapore Management University, the event was held at the National University Of Singapore (NUS) Society.

The two books launched were: Singapore Women’s Charter: 50 Questions, a clear and concise explication of the Charter’s workings written by Professor Leong Wai Kum of the NUS Faculty of Law; and Singapore Women’s Charter: Roles, Responsibilities & Rights In Marriage, a collection of commentaries on different aspects of the Charter, edited by ISEAS Gender Studies Programme coordinator Dr Theresa Devasahayam.

The Charter first took shape as an election promise by the People’s Action Party (PAP), and came into effect in 1961. Introduced at a time when polygamy was a common practice and the legal rights of women here were murkily defined, to say the least, it marked a great leap forward for gender equality in Singapore.

By making monogamy for non-Muslim Singaporeans the legal norm and by framing marriage as “the equal cooperative partnership of different kinds of efforts for the mutual well-being of the spouses”, the Charter effectively gave married women the same rights as their husbands for the first time.

Speaking at the launch, AWARE president Nicole Tan called the Charter something that was “dear to AWARE’s heart”. Minister Lim Hwee Hua, the guest of honour, lauded it as “the first legal guarantee of gender equality”. Social activist and former AWARE president Constance Singam began her remarks on this celebratory note: “The passing of the Charter was revolutionary. We should be setting off white doves and balloons and ringing the church bells.”

Professor Leong, a well-known family law expert, was similarly effusive when she spoke during the event. “I have a very soft spot for the Women’s Charter,” she told the audience. “It is one of the finest pieces of legislation we have in Singapore.”

Indeed, the words “pride” and “remarkable” crop up often in both her book 50 Questions, and the chapter on the Charter’s significant provisions she penned for Roles, Responsibilities & Rights In Marriage.

Why is the Charter so remarkable? For starters, its conception of marriage – an equal partnership where spouses are expected to treat each other reasonably for their mutual benefit – is an unusually pronounced moral stance.

As Professor Leong put it at the book launch: “There is no command and no punishment for failing to meet this ideal. This is exceptional, because Singapore belongs to the Commonwealth family of nations long dominated by the view that law is command backed by penalty. There is no equivalent of the Singapore Women’s Charter in the marriage laws of the UK and the US because of this classic view, which is too narrow. Family law must make explicit moral statements.”

It is somewhat ironic that one of the ways the Charter’s emphasis on equality in marriage manifests most clearly is in the law regulating the equitable division of assets between husband and wife upon divorce.

This law, writes Professor Leong in Roles, Responsibilities & Rights In Marriage, “may well be one of the finest areas of the law in Singapore. The decisions from its courts stand up to the best in the world. The courts are truly committed to ensuring that all manner of different efforts of a couple, whether they contribute financially to the family coffers, or non-financially to the well-being of the family and care of the children, receive close to equal credit”.

Also in Roles, Responsibilities & Rights In Marriage is a chapter written by Mrs Ann Wee, an associate professorial fellow at the NUS Department of Social Work. Her lively account of the political and social debates that preceded the passing of the Charter deserves to be expanded into a whole book, as much for the valuable historical perspective she provides as for her arresting prose.

Take, for example, this vivid passage on pre-Charter informal marriage certificates for Chinese couples, which were usually purchased from bookstores: “Usually the wife’s copy was emblazoned with a large red and gold phoenix while the husband’s with an equally resplendent dragon. Although not legal documents, they were treasured as such. The husband who in a fit of rage destroyed the certificates and/or wedding photographs caused matrimonial panic, sending his distraught wife rushing to the Welfare Department, convinced that he had endangered the legal status of the marriage – which, of course, was not so.”

It could almost be a scene from a MediaCorp drama series (one of the good ones). Like the many declarations of affection made by the speakers at the book launch, the anecdotal details in Mrs Wee’s chapter help give a compelling human texture to something that can easily be viewed by many as a remote abstraction.

With recent proposed amendments in the works for the Charter, this is as good a time as any to remember that by safeguarding the rights of women, the Charter played a fundamental role in Singapore’s rapid development as a nation. A new generation of lawmakers and citizens must bear this legacy in mind when seeking to make improvements to this groundbreaking piece of legislation.

In the words of Professor Leong: “The law tell stories about the people it serves. In this regard, the Women’s Charter tells stories about us, in particular, how we view the obligations husband and wife owe each other and their children. In most respects, the Women’s Charter tells good stories.”

Read the speech given by former AWARE president Constance Singam at the book launch here.

Singapore Women’s Charter: 50 Questions is available here and Singapore Women’s Charter: Roles, Responsibilities & Rights In Marriage is available here.

Comments are closed.