Singapore declares itself “pro-family”, and our leaders emphasise the need for migrants to integrate with citizens. Yet policies discriminate against the foreign spouses of citizens, destabilising their families and entrenching their social exclusion in areas of basic need.
This particularly affects foreign wives. As their citizen husbands tend to be low income, their families are marginalised twice over: (1) Policies favour wealthier transnational families; (2) With less wealth, it is harder to circumvent the social barriers resulting from policies.
This issue is of growing urgency as the number of such marriages is significant
The right to family life includes the right to freely choose a spouse, regardless of factors such as nationality, income or health. A state that respects this right must not institute policies that put families in constant uncertainty about whether they can remain together. A spouse should not be treated as a mere visitor, blocked from full social participation.
Discrimination against lower-income foreign wives also disadvantages their children, harming social mobility. There are reasons to limit overall immigration, but forming a family with a citizen is one of the clearest and most significant signs of belonging. In migration policy, family ties should be prioritised over economic utility. We thus recommend the following reforms:
1) Grant the LTVP+ to all foreign spouses of citizens.
Foreign wives have no clear right to enter and remain in Singapore. Unless they qualify for a non-family pass (favouring higher incomes), they need a spouse to sponsor one of the below:
Short-term visit pass (SVP): Usually valid for two to four weeks. Renewable, though a departure from Singapore is required for repeated renewals.
Long-term visit pass (LTVP): Valid for three months to five years; renewable.
Long-term visit pass plus (LTVP+): Three years at first, and up to five years on renewal.
There is little transparency on the criteria for each type of pass or the length of individual passes. Relevant factors may include the presence of a citizen child, duration of marriage, the financial means of the citizen spouse5 and possibly HIV status,6 but decisions remain opaque.
Pre-Marriage LTVP Assessment (from 2014) gives greater clarity on whether an intended foreign spouse can obtain the LTVP. But prior notification should not be used to justify discrimination. The state seems to expect that without the LTVP, the couple should choose not to marry, to live elsewhere, or to accept a compromised family life in Singapore. This effectively penalises them for exercising their right to enter a marriage of their choosing.
2) Grant all foreign spouses the automatic right to work.
SVP holders may not work. Hiring LTVP/LTVP+ holders is subject to foreign worker quotas and levies unless the employer obtains a Letter of Consent. While this is commonly granted, it is discretionary rather than guaranteed, creating stress and uncertainty for job-seekers.
Foreign spouses should be able to fully participate in society. Work is one of the most central forms of social participation and, in Singapore, is key to meeting all other fundamental needs. Barring one spouse from contributing income can create hardship for a household and all its members, including children. Shutting foreign wives off from financial independence renders them particularly susceptible to spousal abuse and future impoverishment
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