When Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Professor Walter Woon first mooted the idea of a law allowing parents to sue their children for maintenance in 1994, it sounded like a prelude towards an Orwellian future where the state dictates our every move.
But despite the lukewarm reception at the start, the Maintenance of Parents Act (MPA) has endured, serving as a financial safety net for seniors flagrantly neglected by their children. And since the amendments in 2010, which made conciliation efforts compulsory, the MPA has become less of a heavy-handed law squeezing filial piety out of children and more of a catalyst that helps reconcile family disputes and mend broken relationships.
As a result, nearly nine out of ten cases get settled through conciliation without reaching a tribunal. In addition, the number of seniors applying for maintenance has also fallen drastically over the past decade, from 110 applications in 2011 to 29 in 2021.
Judging by such numbers, one might ask – is the MPA still relevant today? After all, it is likely that MPA applications will continue to fall especially if each successive batch of retirees accrue more savings than their predecessors and become less dependent on their children for support. By that logic, why do we expend time and effort amending a law that affects a small number?
Building a caring society where nobody is left behind
In a survey commissioned by a workgroup led by MP Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and other MPs to review the MPA, they found that while a majority of Singaporeans believe in the importance of family ties, there exists a minority who are not beholden to the intergenerational responsibility of caring for their elderly parents.
When one neglect is one too many, what can we do to ensure vulnerable seniors do not suffer in silence when abandoned by their children?
In an ideal world, there would be no need to turn a moral obligation into a legal one, reducing the bond between parent and child to a series of financial transactions. Instead, the duty to care would come instinctively.
But in the absence of such a utopia, legislation is the next best thing at strengthening protection for our seniors. Because as MP Seah shared in an impassionate speech in Parliament (July 4), “The MPA is needed so that there is legal recourse for the needy elderly parents who struggle with unfilial children who refuse to support them. It also sends out a firm signal of what we (as a society) stand by.”
Legislation must be in step with the times and hence the amendments to the MPA to prevent misuse are also timely when fairness is a hallmark of our refreshed social compact. After all, the principle of reciprocity must work both ways for it to be fair, and parents who have failed in their duty of care should not expect maintenance as a parental right. This is also how we protect our children as a community.
We must recognise that the MPA is more than just a law. It is also a reminder of the importance of family as a source of support and our vision of a caring society where nobody is left behind.
Photo Source: HealthHub/ Seah Kian Peng via Facebook