Single Fathers in Singapore – Overcoming Legal Obstacles

single fathers

Typically, it is hard for fathers in Singapore to gain care and control over their children. This is not something new. However, it is something that is continuously fought over and spoken about.

Firstly, according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (“MSF”), there has been an increase in the rate of divorces in which custody orders were made. In 2014, the total number of divorces with custody orders made were 3,878. In 2016, this number increased to 3,957. (These figures exclude Syariah divorces, where custody orders are made on a different basis, placing such custody orders outside the scope of this article.) Since the number of divorces accompanying custody orders is increasing, this means that the number of single parent families, and therefore, single fathers, should also be increasing.

Secondly, it is evident that there is a great disparity between the number of single mothers that obtain sole custody, in comparison with single fathers. From 2014 to 2016, the numbers of single mothers successfully obtaining sole custody was about triple that of single fathers. While there are many families where the father would not be in a position where they feel confident applying for care and control because of the way those families have previously allocated caregiving and breadwinning responsibilities between parents, there is significant anecdotal evidence from my practice that suggests that fathers who do apply for care and control of their children face larger obstacles in securing it than mothers do.

While divorcing fathers may struggle to secure care and control of their children, those struggles are compounded for unmarried fathers seeking the same thing. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, it is useful to categorise the kinds of challenges facing single fathers as follows:

Single fathers attempting to secure care and control of their children:

  • Unmarried single fathers;
  • Divorcing single fathers; and
  • Adopting single fathers.

Single fathers who have secured care and control of their children:

  • Unmarried single fathers; and
  • Divorced/widowed single fathers.

Single fathers attempting to secure care and control of their children:

This section will discuss the obstacles facing single fathers who are attempting to secure care and control of their children.

Unmarried single fathers

Of all the categories of single fathers, unmarried single fathers trying to secure care and control of their children face the largest obstacles.

In addition to all the other challenges facing other kinds of single fathers, for unmarried single fathers, it is uniquely easy for an unmarried mother to cut the unmarried father completely out of their child’s life by refusing to declare the child’s father on its birth certificate. This is a problem that married fathers do not have. This results in the child’s father having no recognition whatsoever of his status as the child’s father and no rights to ever see the child.

In the absence of the mother’s consent, this can only be remedied by an application for a court order forcing the mother to submit the child for a DNA test, another court order subsequently ordering the Immigration and Customs Authority (“ICA”) to amend the birth certificate to reflect the identity of that father and then finally a subsequent legal battle for the father to secure any kind of custody, care and control or access rights to the child.

Usually by the time he gets to this final step, a few years have passed, the father has missed out on being there for his child’s infant years, the toddler has no idea who he is and has already formed a strong bond with the unmarried mother. This in turn is used as a reason to deny the father care and control – i.e. because the mother prevented the father from getting to know the child, the child doesn’t know the father and it would be cruel to tear the child away from the only parent it does know to give it to someone who is essentially a stranger.

Divorcing single fathers

Divorcing single fathers face significant obstacles in securing care and control of their children. This is, to a certain extent, a product of broad societal gender stereotypes and the enduring expectation in Singapore that fathers should, by default, devote most of their time and energy to breadwinning activities while mothers, with support from domestic workers where possible, provide the bulk of the caregiving to children.

Furthermore, men are expected to contribute just as much in the workplace after becoming a parent whereas with regard to new mothers (in particular single mothers), there is often a tacit understanding in many workplaces that they may need to devote less time to work, particularly outside of ordinary working hours, as it is assumed that they will have to bear a primary caregiving role for their new child.

These expectations manifest themselves in the law in various ways, including in the lack of statutory paternity leave, and also, to some extent, in the way that courts are conditioned to evaluate competing applications from parents for care and control of their children.

These expectations for men essentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy in court. Because they are not cut slack at work when they have a child, they lack the flexibility to be sufficiently present for their child, which in turn results in courts assuming that men cannot be sufficiently present for a child and being reluctant to give them care and control.

This is a double-edged sword that damages fathers’ ability to actively parent and mothers’ ability to advance their careers on an equal footing with their male colleagues. It also inscribes prescribed gender roles into the minds of their young children who are observing all this and will grow up to accept and copy the gender roles they have seen all around them.

Then there’s the application of the tender years principle (which applies to infant children) which results in the courts, by default, giving care and control of infants to mothers meaning that an unmarried father will almost never get care and control of an infant. Even when the child is a bit older and no longer falls within the tender years principle, the courts, on balance, seem to lean towards giving care and control to the mother.

Aside from depriving the father of the opportunity to be an active and present parent, the other adverse effect of this trend is that the inability of a divorcing father to obtain care and control of his children, such that he can form a family nucleus, makes him ineligible for public housing intended for single parents. HDB has a priority scheme for single parent families with a child under 16 years of age, for which a divorced father who cannot get care and control of his children will be ineligible, effectively excluding him from the public housing market. (It is noteworthy that this HDB priority scheme only applies to parents whose child was the offspring of a lawful marriage, meaning that unmarried single fathers don’t qualify for this scheme even if they could succeed in securing care and control of their child.) The only remaining option in the public housing market for a single father then are the “over-35” “Joint Singles Scheme”. If the father has not reached 35 years of age he will not be eligible for this scheme. While he can appeal to HDB, only one in five appeals are successful.

Ultimately, the result is that divorcing fathers struggle to secure housing after a divorce, and in some cases their inability to obtain suitable housing is actually used as a reason not to give them care or control, or even overnight access. This housing-custody loop becomes a vicious cycle that can leave divorcing fathers without their children and without a place to live.

Adopting single fathers

In Singapore, pursuant to the Adoption of Children Act, single men can only adopt a son and not a daughter. However, single women can either adopt a son or a daughter.

Single fathers who have secured care and control of their children:

This section will discuss the challenges faced by single fathers after they manage to secure care and control of their children.

Unmarried single fathers

An unmarried father who manages to secure care and control of his children is a very rare species. At the time of writing, no statistics were available on the numbers of such unmarried fathers with care and control. If they do actually succeed in securing care and control though, a number of other challenges await them.

Their child is considered an illegitimate child under the law. This means that the child will not be able to benefit from Baby Bonus or Tax relief. In order to legitimise the child, under the Adoption of Children Act, the parent can adopt the child. However, an unmarried father, unlike an unmarried mother, will only be able to do this if his child is male. There are other repercussions.

If one unmarried parent adopts his/her child, this terminates the rights and responsibilities of the other unmarried parent. This includes the right to seek maintenance from the child in old age under the Maintenance of Parents Act. It also includes the right to ever see the child again without the permission of the adopting parent. For this reason, one could reasonably expect such an adoption to be resisted by the other unmarried parent if they want to play any role in the child’s life in the future.

In the case of an unmarried father adopting his son, the consent of the unmarried mother would be required. However, in the case of an unmarried mother adopting her child, if she simply refuses to declare the identity of the father on the child’s birth certificate, the need for the father’s consent could potentially be circumvented.

If an unmarried father is unable to adopt his own child, either because she is female or because the child’s mother prevents such an adoption, he will suffer from a number of disadvantages. This includes ineligibility for certain public housing schemes mentioned above, which again puts a single father’s family in danger of exclusion from the public housing market entirely, with the private housing market remaining hopelessly unattainable for many single father families.

It also includes ineligibility for the Child Development Co-Savings Scheme which includes a Baby Bonus cash gift and “dollar-for-dollar” matching of savings for the child. This is extremely disadvantageous given that raising a child on your own is far more financially strenuous than doing so as part of a two-parent household. Moreover, unmarried fathers are not able to enjoy the same tax reliefs as married parents. Tax reliefs such as  Parenthood Tax Rebate, Qualifying Child Relief, Handicapped Child Relief and Working Mother’s Child Relief are not available to unmarried fathers.

Divorced/widowed single fathers

Divorced/widowed single fathers do not suffer from the same disadvantages as unmarried single fathers with respect to tax relief, baby bonus and access to public housing schemes. For those divorced fathers who actually manage to secure care and control of their children, they are more or less on an equal footing with divorced mothers in most aspects, except that they do not have a statutory right to paternity leave and they suffer from the structural societal biases discussed above in terms of their workplaces’ expectations regarding their continued contributions to the workplace, notwithstanding their caregiving obligations.

Conclusion

While being a single parent is definitely not easy, it’s clear that, due to the application of the law in Singapore and prevalent social norms regarding gender roles and parenting, successfully securing care and control of one’s children as a single father is a bigger challenge than it is for a single mother, but not impossible.

Notwithstanding all the challenges discussed in this article, if you have the determination and the desire to play a leading role in your child’s life, irrespective of the status of your relationship with your child’s other parent, speaking to a lawyer as early as possible is crucial to putting yourself in the strongest possible position to become the primary caregiver to your child after the breakdown of your relationship.

Sources:

http://ww.thetherapyroom.com.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/article.Singapore-Child_2006-12_The-Single-Father.pdf

https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/Statistics-on-custody-arrangements-for-divorce-cases.aspx

https://www.salary.sg/2016/how-the-family-courts-in-singapore-determine-custody-of-children-in-a-divorce/

THIS IS A REPRODUCTION OF AN ARTICLE WRITTEN BY NADIA MOYNIHAN AND FIRST PUBLISHED BY ASIA LAW NETWORK. THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE CAN BE FOUND HERE.
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