Why More Family Disputes Ended Up In Court?

There has been a noticeable rise in the past decade for family disputes to be adjudicated through a court of law, with resulting acrimonious human emotions unfolding for all to see and often accompanied by attendant media publicity in the more newsworthy cases. Inevitably, the root cause of the dispute was monetary in nature and preceded by the straining of ties within the family.

These family disputes cut across racial and linguistic boundaries, and had occurred between parents and children, husband and wife, brothers and sisters and other close relatives. The protagonists came from all walks of life, ranging from business tycoons, senior business executives, successful professionals to clerks and housewives. It is commendable that our legal system does provide a last-resort mediation in order to assist the disputants to try to reach a negotiated settlement and thus sparing them a traumatic court hearing.

This unedifying social phenomenon runs counter to the paramount importance that the traditional Asian cultures place on family cohesiveness, which is one of the hallmarks of their civilisations. This is succinctly encapsulated in the Chinese saying jia he wan shi xing (all will be well if family harmony prevails). Conversely, washing dirty linens in public is taboo as it would bring shame to the family.

These family quarrels usually happen after the parents’ demise, and sometimes even during their lifetime, quite frequently due to real or perceived unfair or partial treatment meted out to some family members, sibling rivalry, the testator died intestate or his will was challenged. It is beyond the scope of this commentary to delve deeply into the various causes attributable to these discords as they are diverse and not easily quantifiable. Be that as it may, there is a general consensus that, as Singaporeans have become better educated, economically more affluent and materialistic compared with the past generations, they are now much more assertive of what they consider to be their individual rights and are more willing to seek legal redress as a solution to a family problem. Also, with the pervasive impact of westernisation in Singapore, there has been a gradual erosion of traditional Asian values.

Another contributory factor is that the making of will is not yet a common practice among Singaporeans, due perhaps, to ignorance of the law, the force of custom or even sheer superstition. Also, many Chinese parents would still cling on to the traditional practice of leaving more of their worldly possessions to their male descendants and less to their female ones, instead of according them equal entitlements as provided by law. In numerous cases, their daughters would be disinherited as they would receive a form of dowry in lieu upon their marriage. A will would have ensured that the testator’s wishes, as stipulated in the document, would be adhered to by his appointed executors when he passes on. However, an aggrieved family member can legally challenge it on valid grounds including the testator’s unsoundness of mind or that he was coerced into making it.

In my own view, the overriding reason why these family quarrels had come into the open was that the affection among the family members was not sufficiently firm and enduring to enable the grievances to be sorted out internally in a loving and equitable way without recourse to the law. I have been informed that, in the case of our Malay community, the incidences of such family discords being resolved in public are few and far between compared with the other major communities here. This is because wealth distribution is strictly in accordance with the Islamic law, which sets out the entitlements of individual members. In rare instances, where individual shares of such distribution require legal interpretations, the parties concerned would normally consult a mufti (religious teacher) or a religious scholar learned in the Islamic law and be bound by his recommendations.

What are the traditional Chinese and Indian ways of solving family disputes, and are these still being invoked by Chinese and Indian Singaporeans nowadays? By and large, Chinese culture abhors litigation, especially when this would entail airing family disharmony in public. When such a dispute reaches an impasse, the parties involved would invariably seek the help of a respected relative or a clan or community leader who would endeavour to bring about an amicable settlement acceptable to both sides and in so doing would also aim at restoring the hitherto closer relationships.

I am told that this approach is still sometimes resorted to here, but more so in business or personal matters. There is an understandable reluctance on the part of outsiders to get embroiled in a bitter family feud involving monetary matters in deference to the conventional wisdom that qing guan nan duan jia wu shi, meaning that even an upright and wise magistrate would find it difficult to settle a messy family dispute. Furthermore, present day family problems have become more complex and it is doubtful that, even with the best intentions, the task of resolving them satisfactorily can be undertaken by an untrained mediator.

As for the Indians, they too, have their own method of settling family quarrels through the time-honoured institution of Panjayet (Village Council), and into whose hands the disputants would place their hopes and expectations for a fair closure. However, the Panjayet concept did not take roots here. Instead, like the Chinese, many local Indians would prefer to refer the disputes for resolution through the good offices of revered elders or community leaders in preference to court action. This practice is still favoured by the more tradition-minded among them.

With the relentless onslaught of urbanisation coupled with the necessary economic expansion and the resultant fragmentation of family ties, there is an ever present danger that family cohesiveness may be further eroded. Resorting to litigation as a way out of family quarrels is but a manifestation of this symptom and a sign of our time. Can any effective steps be taken to reverse this disturbing trend? If not, can its further spread within our community be minimised? The writer sought the views of several discerning Singaporeans and there is a meeting of the minds that as Singapore moves further up the economic ladder and as it is continually being influenced by external forces, this development is likely to become even more acute with the passage of time. However, if more timely and effective preventive measures are taken not just by the Government alone, but as a concerted community effort, to augment family ties and traditional values which have stood the test of time aimed at nurturing and promoting greater sense of family unity and togetherness, I am sanguine that these will go a long way towards maintaining harmony and equilibrium within our community.

I do not profess to know the answer to this problem. However, I do firmly believe that our educational institutions (especially schools), religious groups, clan associations and other self-help bodies have a useful part to play in this regard. Of even greater importance than these, grandparents and parents can and should play a pivotal role in inculcating in the young the inestimable value of family cohesiveness within their own family and extended family. In addition to the above ongoing efforts, another remedial measure that should be considered is to set up counselling centres in the community centres, with volunteer panel members comprising those with varying experiences of life and who are willing and committed to assist families needing help as an alternative to a high-profile and potentially costly court process.

Lam Pin Foo
(20.9.07)

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