SINGAPORE: Stakeholders have welcomed the move to criminalise sham marriages or marriages of convenience, saying it is a step in the right direction.
However, concerns remain over how such cases are being investigated so that genuine marriages are not persecuted.
There are also calls for matchmaking agencies, which bring in foreign brides here, to be regulated.
Singapore’s reputation has made it an attractive destination for some, who are seeking a better life out of their home country.
A check with marriage agencies here showed that it is quite common for foreign women to ask about marrying Singaporean men. Sometimes the reasons may be dubious.
Loi Eng Tuang, the owner of Ideal Marriage Centre, said: "They say, I want to marry a Singaporean no matter what, because here in Singapore ’so good, so good’.
He said he does not think these kind of foreigners are really looking to settle down, adding: "They intend to find a job in Singapore, maybe doing illegal work."
"(If) you become a Singapore citizen, you hold a Singapore passport, you can go anywhere, very easily."
During his eight years in the business, Mr Loi said he had encountered six cases of runaway wives.
Janson Ong, owner of Life Partner Matchmaker, also had similar experiences.
He said that it is not always easy to sift out the scams from the genuine cases.
"Normally these girls want to get PR status, (so they) get married for convenience. They won’t just call an agency to provide men. Normally it’s networking. Through word of mouth, through coffee shop runners," Mr Ong said.
He added: "Normally they don’t look for agencies. Even if they look for men through an agency, they will act as though they genuinely want to get married. They won’t tell the agency the truth."
There is no professional body or association that prescribes a Code of Conduct or minimum standards for these agencies.
Women advocacy group AWARE said there needs to be tighter regulation.
A member of the group’s Foreign Wives Committee, Azmeen Moiz, said: "The very least that can be done is for the agencies to be accredited by the government and for them to undergo training courses, to be licensed, and to require that the training courses related to issues like not making false representation, or making sure there is enough screening information given to these women, or making sure that these women are not tried and treated as cattle. I think accreditation is a very basic first start."
There were 12 sham marriages uncovered in the first half of this year, compared to just four or five over the past five years.
The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) told MediaCorp that while the figure is still small, the "government wants to act early and decisively against such marriages".
"We want to send a strong deterrent message to individuals who are thinking of entering into a marriage of convenience for the purpose of obtaining an immigration facility such as visas, visit passes, long—term passes and permanent residence," said an ICA spokesperson.
Those found guilty of being involved in a Marriage of Convenience face fines of up to S$10,000 and a jail term of up to 10 years.
The prosecution though has to take into account if one party in the marriage had received or offered gratification. The new law will also apply to third parties involved in arranging a fake marriage.
AWARE, though, has concerns about how the law will be applied. It wants authorities to make a clear distinction between sham marriages and those often perceived as one, but may be genuine. These often involve low income foreign brides and low income Singaporean men.
Ms Azmeen Moiz said: "These people are left in limbo, they have uncertain immigration status.
"We can only guess, we don’t know how the immigration authorities work —— we can only guess that they have their own internal processes against separating or weeding out sham marriages and legitimate marriages.
"Now there’re clearer checks and balance on identifying what sham marriages are, it should be easier, therefore, for them to identify which are the legitimate marriages and for these foreign wives married to these low income Singaporean men to get their long—term visit passes and PR."
There is also the issue of Singapore’s cultural context when it comes to gratifications exchanged in marriages, for example, the exchange of dowries.
The ICA said it is mindful of the diverse cultural practices and the highly personal nature of marriages.
For operational reasons, it did not want to reveal its investigation process, only saying it will conduct detailed background assessments before taking action.
It is also a multi—agency effort. The ICA works closely with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), and the Registry of Marriages (ROM) to investigate such cases.
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