Speech by Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Law, Mdm Rahayu Mahzam, at Syariah Court of Singapore's 65th Anniversary
Honourable Senior President Guy Ghazali,
Honourable Judges from Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- Assalamualaikum and a very good morning to all of you.
- It gives me great pleasure to be here today to celebrate the Syariah Court’s (“SYC’s”) 65th anniversary.
- Anniversaries are a good time for us to reflect on our past, celebrate our successes, and contemplate how we progress further.
- I have therefore organised my short speech this morning to cover three themes:
(a) First, the progress that the SYC has made, and how it has evolved, and continues to evolve, as a core institution in the Muslim community.
(b) Second, SYC’s recent digitalisation efforts, to make itself more accessible to members of the public.
(c) Lastly, the plans going forward to enhance processes in the SYC.
(II) Part I: Evolution of the SYC
- The SYC is one of the three core institutions involved in administering the Islamic legal system in Singapore, the other two being MUIS and the Registry of Muslim Marriages (“ROMM”). As the judicial institution tasked to hear divorce and inheritance matters, it would be easy for SYC to adopt a narrow perspective of its role – to apply the rules, determine the strict legal rights of the parties, and be done with the matter.
- However, I am glad to see that SYC has not thought of itself that way. The theme for this conference: “FORward: For Families, For Community” reflects SYC’s keen self-awareness of the important role it plays in preserving familial relationships for Muslim families in the event of a divorce. This in turn plays a significant role in building a stronger Muslim community in Singapore.
- The philosophy is rooted in SYC’s historical beginnings.
(a) The SYC came into operation on 25 November 1958, amidst concerns about the high divorce rates in the Muslim community, which at the time was above 50%. The high divorce rate was attributed to the ease of getting divorce: The kadis, who at that time registered Muslim marriages and divorces, did not encourage reconciliation or enquire into the reasons for the divorce.
(b) The Muslim Ordinance 1957, which constituted the SYC, provided that a kadi could only register a divorce if both the husband and wife had both consented to it. Contested divorces could only be granted and registered by the SYC. After the introduction of the Muslim Ordinance 1957, the divorce rate halved almost immediately to around 25% - 30% during the next five years.
(c) One of the reasons for this drastic fall in number was the introduction of pre-divorce conciliation with a Muslim social case worker. Many couples changed their minds about divorce and reconciled, after they spoke to a case worker and took time to reflect and think about the matter.
- Over the years, the SYC has continued its efforts to support the preservation of family relationships, where possible.
(a) Addressing divorces upstream, the SYC formalised pre-divorce counselling in the form of the Marriage Counselling Programme (“MCP”) in 2004. Under the MCP, couples are referred to community partners for counselling on their marital issues, to explore if the marriage can be salvaged.
(b) The MCP was enhanced in 2015 to include a Parenting Program for couples with minor children. If the parties decide to proceed with divorce, the counsellor will facilitate discussions on the post-divorce care and living arrangements for the children. This upfront discussion outside the court setting helps the parties to focus on their children’s welfare and encourages them to avoid taking adversarial positions during the divorce proceedings.
(c) The MCP counsellors are specifically trained to help divorcing spouses resolve their issues. Amongst other things, the SYC organises regular Community of Practice sessions, where the counsellors receiving training, and also share about their experiences and learning points.
(d) The MCP has been a very meaningful and significant effort. From 2004 to 2016, over 33,000 couples were counselled, and almost half of the marriages were saved. The Administration of Muslim Law Act (“AMLA”) was amended in 2017 to make attending the MCP a legal requirement before filing for divorce.
- Where a divorce cannot be avoided, the SYC strives to help parties move on in the least acrimonious way possible, while paying special attention to protecting vulnerable parties in the process. This is in line with the more recent philosophy of both the Family Justice Courts (“FJC”) and the SYC to deliver therapeutic justice.
- Both the FJC and SYC recognise that a pure legal solution is unlikely to holistically resolve a family dispute, because the underlying cause of the legal dispute is the broken relationship and emotional wounds. Therapeutic justice hence seeks to address a family’s interrelated legal and non-legal issues, reduce acrimony, and promote healing. This enables the parties to move on both legally and emotionally after the divorce, which is especially important for post-divorce co-parenting efforts.
- Therapeutic justice elements are built into nearly every step in the SYC divorce process. Let me share three examples.
- First, the judge-led approach. This approach recognises that letting parties take the lead in shaping the family dispute is not always appropriate and may even exacerbate the conflict and prolong the time taken to adjudicate the dispute.
- SYC judges have always taken a more active approach towards managing disputes, even if the term “judge-led approach” was not used. SYC judges are not “passive umpires” but actively guide parties towards the resolution of their dispute. The FJC takes a similar approach, and this was enshrined in legislation when the FJC was established in 2014.
- Legislative amendments have been made over the years to reinforce the judge-led approach in the SYC. For example, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Rules was amended in 2017 to explicitly empower the Court to make a wide range of orders to facilitate the “just, expeditious and economical disposal of the matter”.
- Second, various programmes have been built into the SYC process to reduce acrimony and promote healing.
(a) After the divorce application is filed, one of the first events that parties will be directed to attend is mediation. Mediation was introduced in the SYC in 1999. It has been helpful in encouraging parties to reach amicable settlements, thus saving parties time and cost, and helping the family move on with less acrimony.
(b) If the divorce is contested the Court may appoint hakam, or marital conciliators. The hakam are asatizah, or religious scholars, who will help parties explore reconciliation. If reconciliation is not possible, the hakam encourages parties to part amicably in accordance with the principles of Islam. These efforts help to preserve a harmonious relationship between parties post-divorce, so that they can co-parent effectively and preserve the strong parent-child relationship. The hakam process has been practised since SYC’s inception and strengthened over the years. For example, SYC launched the Hakam’s Ideals – Knowledge, Methodology, Application, Heart (“H.I.K.M.A.H.") training and assessment framework in March 2023. Under this framework, hakam undergo regular training on legal, social science and substantive Muslim law topics, as well as practical modules such as role-play sessions.
(c) There are also programmes to help parties and the minor children deal with the emotional fallout of the divorce. One such example is the Children-in-Between Programme, which is run by trained counsellors. The program helps parents understand more about what their children are going through and equips the children with skills to cope with their parents’ divorce.
- Third, SYC adopts a child-centric approach, where the child’s best interest is paramount. In this regard, SYC implemented a new Court Counselling Framework in September 2022. Amongst other things, judicial interviews with children are now conducted jointly by the President and the Principal Court Counsellor. The counsellor can help put the child at ease, and also help the judge communicate with the child more effectively. This process gives the SYC a clearer understanding of the challenges and concerns that the child is facing and gives the child a voice in decisions that will ultimately affect them. This will lead to more durable arrangements relating to the child.
- Taken together, these initiatives by the SYC have helped many Muslim families preserve familial ties despite the breakdown of the couple’s relationship. I have witnessed, first hand, the evolution of the SYC in my years on the bar and serving as Deputy Registrar, and I am greatly encouraged by how the Court and its initiatives have helped to strengthen Muslim families.
(III) Part II: Digitalisation Efforts
- Next, I would like to commend SYC for strengthening its service delivery through digitalisation.
- In particular, I would like to congratulate SYC on its new e-filing system. When I was in practice, parties or their lawyers would have to physically go to the SYC premises to file their court application and documents. This could cause hardship especially to self-represented litigants, who would have to take leave from work or make other childcare arrangements just to travel to SYC.
- The inheritance module for the e-filing system was launched in April 2021, and the divorce module was launched in November 2022. This is a game-changer.
(a) Parties or their lawyers can now file applications or submit documents to SYC anytime from any location, using SingPass or CorpPass.
(b) They can also register for the pre-divorce MCP, receive updates about their upcoming Court appointments, and access digital copies of the filed documents.
- Other than the e-filing system, the AMLA was amended in 2022 to enable SYC to conduct hearings electronically. Hearings can be conducted virtually in certain circumstances, including when both parties are represented. The legislative amendments also enable SYC to hear cases asynchronously without an oral hearing, in suitable cases.
- These digitalisation processes or efforts bring about greater convenience for the parties and increases efficiency as well as access to justice.
(IV) Part III: Future Plans
- The SYC has come a long way in the past 65 years. It has strengthened its legal capabilities and operational processes to administer just and fair outcomes, while preserving Muslim families through the divorce process.
- The SYC could not have done this alone. The progress was made possible only with the support of partners like yourselves, in the legal, family development and religious sectors.
- But SYC cannot rest on its laurels. It will continue to find ways to improve how it carries out its duties and better serve families and the community. Besides further strengthening its processes, scholarship, understanding of the community and trends in law and family, SYC will also explore how services and partners common to both SYC and FJC can be accessed easily by families.
- Currently, the SYC is located at Family Link @ Lengkok Bahru, and shares certain facilities with the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents. Looking ahead, SYC is studying the feasibility of moving the SYC closer to the FJC and the State Courts. This can make it more convenient for court users who require on-site access to both SYC and FJC, for matters such as maintenance of wives and children, and personal protection orders for family violence. The outcome of the feasibility study will determine whether the SYC will move or stay in the current location.
- Ladies and gentlemen, the SYC has and will continue to exemplify the theme of this conference: “For Families, For Community”.
- The SYC plays an important role in administering Muslim family law in Singapore.
- It has also constantly enhanced its capabilities and processes, in partnership with the many stakeholders like yourselves. We will continue to strengthen the SYC as an important religious institution that strengthens Muslim families in Singapore.
- I would like to once again congratulate the SYC on its 65th anniversary and thank the many partners for their continued support.
- Thank you very much.
Last updated on 24 November 2023