Oct 9, 2005
Children born out of wedlock
The men pay, but where's their say?
By Leong Ching
SOMEONE I know just found out that her husband has been keeping a mistress and has a five-year-old son out of wedlock.
The woman, who is in her 50s, said she hired a private investigator after she noticed that there were toys in her husband's car that clearly belonged to a child much younger than their children.
She later saw a copy of a boy's birth certificate which named her husband as the father.
'The address on the birth certificate was our home address. I wonder what will happen when the boy turns six and needs to register for school? Will the MOE send the letter to us?' she wonders aloud.
Clearly, she has gone past the crying stage. Although the $3,000 a month in maintenance which her husband pays to the other family niggles at her, the family is wealthy enough to afford it. It was the 'administrative' aspect of the relationship that interested both of us.
Can the other woman just put down her husband's name as the father even though they are not married, she wonders.
Statistics show that the institution of family is under more strain today than ever before. Over the past decade, divorce rates have doubled from 3.8 divorces per 1,000 married women in 1980 to eight divorces per 1,000 married women in 2003.
As a result, there are now more single-parent households. In 2000, there were about 18,000 households headed by single parents with children aged below 16, up by 38 per cent from 1990.
Children born out of wedlock make up 3 per cent of single households. Last year, there were 541 births where the father's name was not stated in the birth certificate, up from 417 cases in 1994, making it the highest number in more than a decade.
These numbers do not capture families in which the mother is a mistress and the child is registered under the name of his biological father. According to lawyers I spoke to, a woman can name her lover as the child's father, even though they are not married. She doesn't even need his consent to do so.
In Singapore, land of the Women's Charter and pro-family policies, a man cannot be a bigamist but apparently, he is free to sow his wild oats and head as many households as his wallet can support.
For family lawyer Foo Siew Fern, there is nothing wrong with the way things stand. You cannot make adultery illegal. So if a man wants to sleep around, he has better take responsibility for his actions, says the straight-talking lawyer who has been handling matrimonial cases for 14 years.
There are two ways in which the man can take responsibility, she says. One is to settle the matter with a lump-sum payment. The other is to pay monthly maintenance. The reasoning is that a child has a right to claim his biological father's assets, whether his parents are married or not.
The chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, Mr Sin Boon Ann, puts it this way: 'As a choice of society's values, we have decided under the Women's Charter to make it a right of women to expect monogamous marriages as a measure of decent conduct.
'So when a man begins to have dalliances with other women and worse still, has issues from that relationship, should the mistress be penalised? More importantly, should the child be penalised?
'For the mistress, I think our position is clear. A person who knowingly enters into a relationship with a man cannot and should not be expected to benefit from that relationship legally.'
It is the child, he argues, who should be entitled to maintenance from his father.
He makes two important points: A man should pay for his mistake and the child should not be made to suffer because two adults have made a mistake.
This is something that few would argue with. But I would argue that while the man should pay for his mistake, he did not make the mistake alone. Unless the woman was raped, she was a consenting partner in the relationship.
If we speak then of a mistake committed by two people, surely both should have a say in how this mistake can be rectified?
Why should it be that the woman can compel the man to fork out maintenance money because she wants to keep the child? Think of the reverse situation: If she does not want to carry the child, but the man does, he cannot compel her to carry the baby to term.
Why is the relationship asymmetrical in this way? Both parties should have equal say in whether to have the baby or not, and in how to take care of the child.
If the woman wants to keep the baby, she should either persuade her partner to agree or make sure that she can afford to bring up the baby herself. If neither party wants the child, then she can either abort or carry the child to term and give it up for adoption.
If she does not want to do either, then she must be prepared to pay for the child's upbringing herself.
I do not argue for abortion, but I do argue for the right of the man, as well as the woman, to choose. Now, it seems that the man, and by extension his 'first' family, do not have a choice.