Carrie Tan on Maintenance of Parents Act


Singapore has just passed a bill in Parliament to enhance the Maintenance of Parents Act, 12 years after the last revision.

This is timely as we navigate the shifting attitudes of different generations of Singaporeans towards the notion of “filial piety”.

As part of the workgroup that reviewed and revised the proposals for the amendments, my initial reaction to this exercise was: “Is this Act still relevant, and do we really want the state to step in on such matters?”

I am a Millennial born in the 1980s and probably one of many from my generation who hold the following attitude: Whilst many still believe in filial piety, to provide and care for our parents when they are old, we do not place the same expectations on our children to maintain us financially when we are old.

Expectations on children

Growing up, the old Chinese saying “养儿防老” (rearing children as a safeguard for old age) is a common a phrase I used to hear from adults around me.

I remember feeling disturbed as a child, wondering if the value of “me” was just to be an insurance for my parents when they grow old. 

I’m not ashamed to admit those were my thoughts when I was young. I believe there are teenagers out there who may wonder about this at times too.

Do my parents love me only because I do well in school and make them look good? And because they need someone to look after them when they are old?

A friend of mine who recently got married deliberates about whether to have a child. She speaks about having a child as an “investment”.

In face of such narratives, and then to be told by grown-ups and society that we need to be filial, love can feel like a duty, smelling distastefully to some like “obligation”.

During one of the public consultations I attended, a young person expressed this – “The child did not ask to be born. Why do adults make these decisions and then impose these obligations on their kids?”

It was a provocative statement, but also valid. It gives us food for thought.

Being part of the workgroup and speaking with many Singaporeans of diverse ages and backgrounds helped me to understand these issues more deeply, and to gain perspectives beyond my own.

I discovered that my personal idealism for unconditional love is not practical when we consider what it means for the larger society. Especially if one is not in a comfortable financial position to afford such idealism.

There are old and frail elderly staying in destitute homes, unfortunately finding themselves relying on state subvention to live out their remaining days.

There were members of the public who asked: Aren’t we wealthy enough as a country to be able to afford supporting the old folks who have been abandoned? 

Matters of filial piety have public ramifications

Though I shared the same sentiment, I came to realise it is a matter of “fairness” that begs addressing, because a government is steward of public resources.

In my role as MP whom residents come to for help, I see many elderly parents caught in a “give and give” mindset – they hardly ever want to take from their children.

Many elderly residents continue to plan on leaving their assets to their children so that they have something to leave behind for their children even when they pass on.

Others ask about financial support from the government when they are experiencing financial hardship, preferring to apply for welfare support, rather than to ask their children for support. This is despite their children being very financially comfortable.

Is this fair to other Singaporeans?

No easy answers

There are no easy answers. The People’s Action Party believes that policies must evolve as social dynamics shift, to ensure that they remain fair, practical, and effective for Singaporeans. 

As I hear from peers and residents from the sandwiched generation who are caught between financial provision for children and our aged parents, it is in fact helpful if aged parents can manage their own old age financial adequacy.

This option exists, and is what HDB’s Lease Buyback Scheme helps seniors to achieve. It ensures that they continue to live in the neighbourhood and flat they are familiar with, while having monthly financial payouts to help with their daily expenses.

I hope more Singaporeans will encourage their ageing parents towards this option.

Personally, the conversations during this exercise reinforced in me the need to educate myself sufficiently with financial literacy to ensure my own old age financial health.

Especially so as a citizen within an ageingpopulation, so as not to become a burden to my children and their generation. That being said, I still believe in providing for my parents’ needs, in reciprocity of the love they have shown me. 

On a separate note, there are also grown children who faced abuse, neglect or abandonment by their parents in their childhood. Is it right to expect them to maintain their parents financially when they have suffered much hurt and trauma?

I am glad that we embarked on the MPA review, and are now adopting a more trauma-informed approach.

With the latest amendments passed on July 4, we can now prevent abandoned or abused children from being approached at allif there are records of childhood treatment that the state knows of.

After all, if someone is still hurting from the wounds of childhood ill-treatment by their parents, the last thing he or she needs, is to go through any process that suggests they are being unfilial.

That would unnecessarily induce damaging feelings of self-doubt, guilt, or worsen feelings of resentment, when they may have spent years trying to move on.

Hence we are protecting these children from an unnecessary harrowing process and also ensuring that adequate resources for therapy and counselling support are made available to those children who may not have reported abuse in the past, and now need to revisit past hurts to present their case to the Tribunal.

I fall back on my own knowledge and experience as a transformation and healing coach for assurance.

Having worked with many adults to process and heal from their emotional and childhood wounds, I understand for true healing to take place, one often needs to confront the negative experiences of the past in order to see it through a new and empowered set of lens.

By empowering the Commissioner on his own accord (and not at the parent’s behest) to have the children attend conciliation at the Commissioner’s Office, care arrangements for the parent can be discussed.

Other amendments include empowering the Commissioner to reject vexatious or unreasonable claims, and to give non-monetary directions, such as mandating the parent to attend counselling and rehabilitation for gambling addiction. This ensures that children’s financial support do not go towards feeding a destructive habit.

I am thankful that the eventual amendments to the Act achieve the balance between fairness and empathy, ensuring that we have a kind process in place to address a fair allocation of resources for Singaporeans. 

With these in place, I am hopeful that we are better placed to facilitate and support families towards the outcome of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Carrie Tan is People’s Action Party Member of Parliament for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency, and a member of the workgroup behind amendments to the Maintenance of Parents Act.

Image source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.