Less Alimony for Attractive Divorcees?

BY SIMONE ERASMUS-LAM
Jun 28, 2011
*Special to asia!

The Singapore Courts have ruled that a woman’s ability to attract another mate can decide her alimony. 

1041 How much alimony for this good-looker?

If you are a devastatingly good-looking woman in Singapore and find yourself in the midst of a divorce, I’d recommend you get yourself a bad haircut, throw out your skincare regimen and throw on a shapeless jacket for good measure. 

Because in Singapore, matters of alimony and child support may be decided by a woman’s perceived attractiveness – if a recent High Court ruling sets a worrying precedent, that is. In a case which has garnered widespread media attention, the island city’s Supreme Court has ruled that a judge was reasonable to ask if the Vietnamese-Singaporean wife involved in a divorce settlement was attractive.

According to Justice Choo Han Teck, the question was “not an irrelevant question for a judge to ask”, for it could take into account prospects of remarriage – and financial support to be received from her former husband. This included the matter of “whether it should reside in lump sum as opposed to monthly payments”.

As might be expected, the issue – wrought as it is with patriarchal notions of women’s goals and needs – has been met with uproar by women’s advocacy groups.

Singapore’s gender equality advocacy group AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) said it was “surprised and disturbed” by the judgment, explaining that it dwelled on “a speculative line of reasoning as to whether a person, based on her looks, personality, ethnicity, nationality or relationship history, is likely to be remarried”.

AWARE went on to question, “What are the criteria for deciding who is ‘attractive’? Whose criteria are applied? And on what basis are we to establish a connection between this alleged ‘attractiveness’ and remarriage?”

Writers at barnyardchorus.blogspot.com, a blog site committed to women’s issues, said in a post entitled “Family Law, not Ms Pageantry please”: “By tying alimony to the perceived marriageability of a woman, the court not only assumes but basically frames marriage as a goal for divorcing women.”

Matrimonial lawyer Yeo Soon Keong likewise noted: “If looks were important, the women would be asked to include photos in their affidavits.”

Not all responses have been negative, however. In a surprisingly blunt piece by Business Times journalist Joyce Hooi, it is argued that the court’s approach is “progressive”, in light of beautiful women being more “likely to be better taken care of by the workplace and quicker to find a companion…compared to a plainer woman”.

Even if that were true – would such “progressive” assessments be penalising the better-looking, taller, extroverted mortals that tend to outdo and succeed the lesser of our species? While AWARE acknowledged that studies do show the better-looking earn more on average, it argued that “the law does not and should not penalise the tall and the extroverted for their perceived and generalised social advantages. Otherwise, we would truly pity the leggy, outgoing and beautiful divorcee who runs into a judge inordinately optimistic about her future happiness, as he defines it”.   

Some have argued that the courts’ assessment is not just about looks, but charm, character and everything else that is supposed to make a woman good marriage material. But as long as we’re looking at intangibles, it would be pertinent to extend the question further. As Ong Ying Ping and Winston Tay of Ong Tay and Partners put it, “…Should the factors leading to the breakdown in marriage also be quantified, such as boredom, frigidity, selfishness, or hate?”

And what of the man? The man who was married to the woman in the case above may be well pleased with the reduction in support. But what of men married to, shall we say, a woman who is judged by the courts to be lacking in charm, looks and everything else deemed mate-material? Would it not be unfair to leave them saddled with the monthly alimony, while other more fortunate men in Singapore get away with a slimmer lump sum?

To conclude, one could only appeal to the Singapore judiciary to consider that re-marriage is not the goal for all women. Divorce is difficult enough, and every party suffers the penalty of a failed union. If we were to make summary assessments of attractiveness, would we not be penalising them further?

Simone ErasmusWhen she isn't writing children's storybooks or expounding on food, Simone can be found in the kitchen, concocting fiery curries or bravely attempting layers of genoise. She has written for The Business Times Singapore, and also contributed to research in arts and culture across the region at the National University of Singapore. She is currently writing a series of books for preschoolers, to be published soon to the iPhone and iPad.

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