When the Government last month signalled its intention to help Singaporeans and their foreign spouses remain here together and form stable families, it seems that work was already under way to look into issues faced by foreign spouses.
An inter-agency team had reached out to at least one non-government organisation (NGO) and received proposals from it on how foreign spouses could be given more support.
The team was trying to gain a better understanding of challenges faced by foreign spouses in integrating here, TODAY understands.
Such teams are formed to look into various issues as part of policymaking and reviews.
The proposals it received included making marriage preparation courses mandatory for all transnational couples before they could solemnise their marriages, providing them with resources like language courses at minimal cost and extending pro bono legal aid to Long TermVisit Pass holders.
They were made by the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI) in January, its Executive Director Jeremy Khoo told TODAY.
Marriages between Singaporeans and non-citizens have increased over the years, with about 9,000 such marriages last year.
Based on the population census of 2010, an estimated 114,000 married couples comprised a citizen and non-citizen; 86 per cent of the non-citizen spouses were permanent residents and the remainder were here on passes such as the Long Term Visit Pass, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in a written parliamentary reply in January.
Several Members of Parliament last month spoke about their constituents’ spouses facing difficulty securing long-term passes, permanent residency or citizenship.
Mr Teo had said that the Government wants to “facilitate such couples to remain together in Singapore and for them to form stable families who would contribute in a positive way to Singapore”.
The help required by foreign spouses — mainly women from countries like Việt Nam, Thailand and the Philippines, in ACMI’s experience — depends on their situation at home, Mr Khoo said.
In the absence of marital conflict, the challenges mainly centre around language, immigration and employment issues.
But if conflict arises, they would often need advice and legal help.
Besides equipping transnational couples for married life, the marriage preparation course should include information on where foreign spouses can seek help if the union breaks down, as such situations can leave them in a lurch, he said.
ACMI is the only group here offering free legal aid to foreign spouses, said Mr Khoo.
The Legal Aid Bureau — a department under the Law Ministry — as well as the Pro Bono Services Office of the Law Society of Singapore both generally require those seeking help to be either Singaporean or a permanent resident here, according to their websites.
Cases involving foreign spouses can be complex and long-drawn, said Mr Khoo.
ACMI’s foreign spouses casework has increased in recent years, from 23 in 2010 to 38 last year.
A recent case involved a 37-year-old Indonesian woman who had married a Singaporean in Batam in 2004.
They registered the marriage at the Syariah Court in Singapore.
She divorced him in 2011 in Batam when he was imprisoned here for drug abuse but could not obtain custody of their daughter, a Singaporean, without her husband’s presence.
In Singapore, ACMI Senior Executive Officer Elizabeth Tan accompanied the woman to the Syariah Court, which directed them to civil court for child custody.
ACMI also found a restaurant job for the woman and appealed to the Manpower Ministry when her work permit application was initially rejected.
The appeal succeeded last month.
“Her daughter is schooling in Singapore,” said Ms Tan.
“Hopefully being gainfully employed, when the time comes, she may be considered for a Long Term Visit Pass.”
By NEO CHAI CHIN