Editor’s Note: I am glad to report that Shanmuga was able to raise $400 to pay off his maintenance arrears today when I visted him at the family court. He will need to pay off another $1100 in maintenance arrears on 29 March failing which he will need to go to jail for a week. Singapore probably is the only developed country in the world that jails its’ citizens for not paying maintenance money to their family members after a divorce.
When jobless ex senior civil servant Shanmuga filed into the seat at Novena Hans cafe, I couldn’t help but wondered if he has got any problem.
Always smiling during the 2-hour interview held in a rain-soaked afternoon and ever so positive despite the huge maintenance arrears he has chalked up since he was jobless from October last year, Shanmuga may face a jail sentence when he appears in Family Court no. one tomorrow at 4.45pm.
He told me that he took up a part-time courier job just to get by recently and his $1500/month income is erratic as it depends on the number of courier trips he made between Singapore and KL.
This was a far cry from his hay days of earning close to $10,000 a month as a senior civil servant in a stat board. Back then, he could still pay the $1800 monthly maintenance and sometimes even gave more as he was financially healthy.
The maintenance nightmare spiralled downhill when he was made jobless late last year and on top of the adjusted-down $1500/month maintenance from $1800, he has to pay a further $550 a month to make up for the shortfall during that horrendous period.
In total, he has to cough up $2050 every month – and he could only ekk out close to $1500 currently from his part time courier work.
“Its a non-stop nightmare,” Shanmuga confided in me during a rare moment of disdain.
“The court system is not merciful and has no heart,” he further reiterated. He told me that he wants to give money to his daughters – age 24 and 20 years old but he just couldn’t.
He was issued with a warrant of arrest on 9 March for failing to pay $1100 of maintenance arrears (two months of $550 arrear instalment non-payment) and has to appear in court on 13 March to show payment of at least $400 failing which he will likely go to jail.
He told me that he flirted with jail once three weeks ago when he couldn’t pay the arrears of $3300 – a 3-month counter proposal instalment payment plan he promised to the court when he owed his ex-wife close to $10, 000 during a horrendous unemployment period.
The court police handcuffed him then and hauled him to the court jail for an hour – right in front of his ex-wife and two daughters when they filed for non-payment motion against him. He escaped jail only when he counter-proposed to pay $550 a month for the $3300 maintenance default payment.
The 25-year-old marriage broke up four years ago and 53-year-old Shanmuga was earning well then as a senior civil servant.
The $1800 maintenance payment was just a small percentage of his $10,000/month senior civil servant’s pay cheque.
He lost his fat salary job when his contract ended late last year and life basically went downhill since then.
“I have being to the court at least 20 times, Gilbert,” he retorted.
“The judge and the court police must have known me by then!” he chuckled when he bite into his sandwich.
Preferring to file his own downward variation by himself from $1500 to $800 as he could no longer afford an attorney to act on his behalf and also could not qualify for free legal aid, Shanmuga fought a losing one-man show in our women-bias family court. The hearing for the maintenance lowering will be heard on 27 March.
“The woman just have to call or email to trigger a case against you and she don’t have to appear in court whereas you have to fight it by either getting a lawyer to represent you or appear in court personally.”
Personally, I have been to the family court many times when one of our Malay reader Ibrahim faced the same issue as Shanmuga – he was many months in maintenance arrears as he too was jobless immediately after a bitter divorce.
If not for his brother who bailed him out several times, Ibrahim will be in jail as he couldn’t pay maintenance for several months when he was jobless.
Now gainfully employed, Ibrahim could foot the maintenance payment for his three children regularly.
However, like Shanmuga, his relationship with his three children remained estranged even though he has weekly access rights to his children.
According to his ex-wfe, the children didn’t want to see him for personal reasons. He is especially close to his youngest 11-year-old son and missed him immensely.
Shanmuga also has strained relationship with the daughters when the maintenance issue became acronimious. If not, he saw his daughters regularly when he could pay up promptly.
“I just felt that no one has really taken a close look at our system, Gilbert.”
“Its right that the Women’s Chapter fights for the rights of the women and children but do spare a thought for the men who sometimes could not pay maintenance not because we don’t want to but can’t due to certain circumstances.”
He asked me what will I do with the info and how best we can champion the cause of men caught in maintenance issue so that they can have a voice.
I told Shanmuga that we will forward the story to MCYS and probably email a few MPs for their attention.
As Singapore grabbles with a worsening divorce rate here and our men struggled with joblessness due to the huge foreign influx, it is timely that MCYS sits down with all concerned stakeholders and have a proper dialogue to garner feedback from the ground.
The Family Court is out there to impose regulation passed down from the ministry and is seen as merciless when they ruthlessly execute orders to put our men in miantenance default in jail.
However, the system may have fail to seriously look into unique circumstances whereby our divorced men are caught out by unforeseen circumstances such as temporary unemployment.
Moreover, such maintenance payment cases often fought out bitterly in court does not augur well for the relationship between the fathers and their children.
I will be in Family Court One tomorrow at 4.45pm to see if Shanmuga will be handcaffed and place in jail – for the second time and whether he would escape prison again as he did three weeks ago.
Written by: Gilbert Goh