Thursday, January 31, 2013

Suing your children in Singapore

In the post I wrote yesterday I referred to the tradition of filial piety in Singapore. When I was discussing that topic with a lawyer at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics he told me about Singapore's fascinating "Maintenance of Parents Act," which went into effect in 1996.

The law allows any Singapore resident, 60 years old and above, who is unable to maintain himself adequately, to claim maintenance from his or her children, either in a lump-sum payment, or in the form of monthly allowances. If the parent gives consent, relatives or caregivers may apply for court action on the parent's behalf. Cases (recently there have been about 100-150 per year) are heard by a special Tribunal that decides whether payment should be made and how much it should be, based on criteria including the parent's financial needs and the child's earning capacity and other financial obligations.  The maintenance claim may be dismissed if the children can prove that they were abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents when they were young. The law stipulates that only the basic amenities and physical needs of the applicant including shelter, food and clothing are required.  The maintenance is not linked to the parent’s previous standard of living.The applicants tend to be Chinese fathers, either widowed or divorced.
The law was proposed by Walter Woon, who was a member of the Singapore Parliament at the time and also professor of law at the National University of Singapore.I found his comments about the law very persuasive, and quote them here:
Some critics have said that applying to the court for maintenance from one's children is undignified. I wonder whether it is more dignified to apply for public assistance or to depend on the kindness of strangers. Or perhaps it would be more dignified to starve quietly and without fuss.
Cynics have dubbed this the 'Sue Your Son' law. They miss the point completely. It would be only in a very extreme case that any parent would take his children to court. The effect of the bill, if it becomes law, will be more subtle.
First, it will reaffirm the notion that each individual has a responsibility to look after his parents. It is not society's responsibility. Singapore is still conservative enough so that this idea is not objectionable to most people. The bill reinforces the traditional values of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Confucianism. It doesn't hurt a society now and then to be reminded of what its core values are.

Second and more important, it will make those who are inclined to shirk their responsibility think twice. As things stand, If a person asks family members or clergymen or the Ministry of Community Development to help him get financial support from his children, the most that they can do is to try to mediate. The trouble with mediation is that the mediators have no teeth. They can exhort, preach, persuade, cajole, plead and even beg. But when push comes to shove, there is currently no way that a son can be forced to support his parents.
But if there were a legal remedy, that would be a different matter. To be sued by one's parents would entail a massive loss of face. It would be a public disgrace. The hand of the conciliator would be immeasurably strengthened. It is far more likely that some sort of amicable settlement would be reached through private mediation if the recalcitrant son knows that the alternative is a public trial. So, one hopes that the fact that such a law exists will make it unnecessary for it to be invoked.
The critics who say that the proposed law does not promote filial piety are right. It has nothing to do with filial piety. It kicks in where filial piety fails. The law cannot legislate love between parents and children and husbands and wives. All the law can do is provide a safety net where morality proves insufficient.
I take a pragmatic view. The law I have proposed won't affect the people who already are supporting their parents, not only with money but, it is hoped, with love and respect. The only ones who need worry are those who aren't living up to their moral obligations. If the law helps even one poor person, I think the effort is worth it.
Many years ago, in what turned out to be the last year of my father's life, I persuaded him to move from Florida to Massachusetts, where I live. He was blind from macular degeneration and needed a supportive living environment - ultimately one with 24 hour nursing care available. I engaged a geriatric care manager to help me (his only child) scope out the options. She told me about maneuvers that would allow him to receive Medicaid support. In the spirit of Professor Woon, I did not want to do that. The care my father  needed was costly, but I could afford it, and it seemed obviously wrong to ask my fellow citizens to support him. If I had refused to pay for his support I hope Medicaid would have come after me, as Professor Woon wanted the Singapore authorities to be able to do.

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