Life in sunny Singapore away from the misery of the British weather was supposed to be a unique lifetime opportunity for Emma. She packed the kids and house, leaving behind family and friends to follow her engineer husband John to Asia.
(Note: Emma and John are not their actual names.)
Emma could not imagine that the life she dreamt of was about to become a nightmare. “The first few months in Singapore were just bliss,” she recalls. Tennis while the children were at school, weekly lunch with her new friends, and a tidy home to go back to.
John, on the other hand, had something else in mind. Despite his apparently happy family life, he divorced his wife at the end of their first year in Singapore. He claimed to have found “the love of his life.”
Emma, a former teacher who gave up her career to support her husband’s work, simply couldn’t believe her ears. “I thought we had a great marriage. He had just recently mentioned that we should go to the Maldives for our tenth anniversary. We were best friends,” she says. Emma and John were together for twelve years and were married for over nine of those.
John left home the same evening after breaking the news, and Emma watched her two children, aged five and six, crying in despair. For the first few weeks, she denied the situation, thinking that he was just having “a hard time at work” and that he would return.
A month on, and forced to deal with the practicalities of family life on her own, Emma found herself relying greatly on her new friends.
“When we live abroad without family and relatives close by, good friends become our real family. I couldn’t have coped without their advice and support, even for things like finding a lawyer. My helper has been like a mother. She has been looking after me and my children with so much care.”
So far, Emma doesn’t know what the future holds financially for her and the children as she and John have not yet agreed on where the family should live.
“It is difficult for me even to Google ‘divorce’ on the web,” she adds. “I didn’t come to Singapore to get divorced.”
Emma is still coming to terms with her new circumstances. She remembers that she had contingency plans for her husband losing his job, their parents dying or someone falling sick. “But I never thought that he would ever leave.”
On a positive note, she says that her children are the most important things in her life and that her happiness comes from within.
Another woman who suffered an expat divorce is Sarah (also not her actual name), who discovered while they were in the process of moving to Singapore four years ago that her husband was having an affair. “Our marriage broke down as soon as we arrived here. I discovered his infidelity and he left me completely helpless,” she remembers.
Sarah and their three children, aged three, eight and ten, had just come from another post in Asia. “I was a homemaker. I had no job and no qualifications to get one. I looked at myself and knew that I was a good mother and housewife. But I lacked confidence.”
The first year was the toughest and Sarah admits she couldn’t have survived without a good friend in another country who was available at all hours on the phone to help.
“I didn’t know anybody in Singapore. I feared for my future and how to raise the children on my own. How do you start your career in your 40s?”
Sarah wrote down her goals and a five-year plan. She decided to stay in Singapore to give her children the best possible education. Then she enrolled in courses on computer skills and management, and now she is finishing her master’s degree. “I wanted my children to think that I was awesome. And now, when I wake up in the morning, I feel that life is good.”
Having hit rock bottom, as she describes her divorce, Sarah emphasises that friends are essential, but that they must also be patient if their advice isn’t followed immediately. “You know what you need to do but you are so lost in your devastation that you can’t move on. It can be very frustrating for friends.”
Sarah observes that despite living in a community that proclaims itself modern, her children suffered a silent exclusion in social circles and schools. “We wouldn’t get invited to certain gatherings because we were a one-parent family.”
Help is available with AWARE
As painful as Emma’s and Sarah’s stories sound, they are not unusual. According to Kerry Wilcock, manager of direct services for AWARE (Association of Women of Action and Research), divorce matters, including those of expats, represent 50 percent of the issues they deal with.
The difference for expat women is that, apart from dealing with an emotional crisis, they have to find out how to continue with their family lives and finances. “The legal issues are very hard to deal with. Some couples may not be eligible to get divorced under Singaporean law and just getting a lawyer can be a nightmare. There aren’t many available and finding the right person can take a long time.”
Kerry also mentions that some benefits that were guaranteed to the children by the spouse’s company are withdrawn as soon as some couples file for divorce. “It is not unusual for the husband to say he won’t pay for the children’s schooling as soon as they file the case. It all comes down to money.
Women who go through divorce while living abroad can also have difficulty finding a job, as most of them left their careers behind for a number of years and aren’t ready to return to the job market.
AWARE is the only organisation in Singapore that offers practical advice for expat women in need of it. In cases of divorce, AWARE counsellors stress the importance of networking, finding out your rights as soon as possible, recording details of finances and assets, and always being prepared for the next step. “It hurts to do all these things when your world has fallen apart, but it is necessary to act. Try to make good contacts via support groups and get outside help to avoid draining your friendships,” Kerry suggests. To find out more about AWARE, visit www.aware.org.sg.
Attends to callers in need of counselling and provides referral services. 3.00pm to 9.30pm, Monday to Friday, at 1 800 774 5935.
Provides women with free legal information and advice at a monthly clinic. Second Thursday of every month. Book by calling the Helpline.
Support to women by accompanying them to police stations, family courts, hospitals and other help centres. Book via the Helpline.
Advise individuals, couples and families on marital and family discord, domestic violence, single parenthood, separation, divorce, sexuality, self-esteem and other areas. This is a confidential service provided for a small charge. Book through the Helpline.
The Legal Issues
Expat Living spoke with Randolph Khoo, director of litigation and dispute resolution of Drew & Napier solicitors, about the matters that divorcing couples should bear in mind.
EL: What is the legal starting point for an expat couple that divorces in Singapore?
RK: They need to check whether they qualify under Singapore law to come under the jurisdiction of the Singapore Courts for a divorce action. The Singapore Courts can hear expat cases, provided that the one of the spouses has been habitually resident in Singapore for at least three continuous years before the divorce, or has Singapore domicile. The couple must also have been married for at least three years. If they do not qualify, they can check if their home countries or other country courts can accept their case. Each nation has its own jurisdictional rules. Alternatively, they can consider other options like entering into a separation deed.
EL: Which nation’s divorce laws apply – their home country or Singapore?
RK: If the couple qualifies to divorce in the Singapore Courts, Singapore law generally applies to the divorce.
EL: What are the differences between filling a divorce in Singapore and in the United Kingdom, for example?
RK: The facts acceptable by the Court to constitute valid reasons for divorce may vary. For example, the number of years of separation required by the Court to reach the presumptive conclusion that the marriage has irretrievably broken down is four years in Singapore, and five years in England. Spouses who have lived apart for two years can divorce if the spouses agree to do so in England. In Singapore, such consensual divorce requires three years of living apart.
EL: Are there any legal organisations in Singapore, apart from law firms, that can offer advice on this?
RK: The Family Court website (app.subcourts.gov.sg/family/index.aspx) contains user-friendly information for non-lawyers.
The Law Society website (www.lawsociety.org.sg) also contains general information on divorce.
Another Big Question
Q: What happens to the trailing spouse’s dependant’s pass when divorce is filed for or granted? Does he or she have to leave the country right away after a divorce is granted, if he or she has not yet found a job?
A: According to a Ministry of Manpower official, the fact that your partner has filed for divorce does not affect your right to live here. But once the divorce is legalised the dependant pass-holder needs to do one of the following:
1) Leave the country within 14 days, or
2) Apply for a work permit and try to find employment at the same time, or
3) in the case of not having found a job straight away, ask for an extension of the employment pass (but that would require authorisation from the ex-partner via his or her employer, who would still have to be a sponsor to the dependant).