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Speech by Mr Eric Chua, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Social and Family Development, at the Second Reading of the Maintenance of Parents (Amendment) Bill on 4 July

Type: Official Speeches: Eric Chua Official Speeches (All)

Topic(s):


Role of the Family

Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank all Members who have spoken earnestly on this Bill, reflecting on the importance they place on this social issue.

2.        Let me begin with the family. Singapore thrives when families are strong. With strong families, many societal challenges we face today will become much more manageable. 

3.        Today, strong family values hold us together as a family, as a society. Upholding these values are important, as they underpin our way of thinking and our way of life.              

4.        From MSF’s 2019 Survey on the Social Attitudes of Singaporeans, 93% of elderly respondents indicated that they have a close-knit family and 96% aged 15 to 64 agreed that it is their duty to take care of their parents regardless of their qualities and faults. 

5.        Similarly, from HDB’s Sample Household 2018 survey, 71% of elderly aged 65 and above were able to rely on their married children for physical support, 95% for emotional support, and 90% for financial support in times of need. Likewise, for their unmarried children, 82% were able to rely on them for physical support, 91% for emotional support and 83% for financial support in times of need.      

6.        Singaporeans continue to hold the family as a fundamental bulwark of our society. Family members caring for and supporting one another. This is the hallmark of Singapore society. It makes us different. And it helps us think beyond ourselves. Around the world there are other models. Some societies regard the individual as supreme and trumps over family.  To be sure, this affirms the dignity of every person and allows individual potential and special talents to flourish. But such an individual is also likely to attribute his achievements to his owncapability, and may not stop to look back at his family, community and society which provided the conditions for his success.  As each generation feels it had made it solely on its own steam, mutual care and support between generations weaken in such societies. In Singapore’s case, we believe that strong families empower its individual members to thrive and flourish, which is why strong families make for a resilient Singapore society.


Family Increasingly Crucial as Society Ages

 

7.        And this will be increasingly crucial as society ages. 

8.        By 2030, 1 in 4 Singaporeans will be aged 65 and older. An estimated 83,000 seniors will live alone, and 100,000 will need help with at least one Activity of Daily Living.

9.        Families are crucial as the first line of care and support, and taking care of our parents must continue to be the norm. The MPA reflects the accepted values of most Singaporeans and upholds what we value as a society. Recent ForwardSG engagements and these MPA amendments have affirmed that Singaporeans today continue to hold strongly to the principles of ‘self-reliance’ and ‘family as the first line of support’. 

10.        I agree with Mr Don Wee, Mr Yip Hon Weng and Ms Janet Ang, along with Members of the Workgroup on the need for more upstream efforts. We are strengthening the “Families for Life” movement which aims to inculcate family values, working with schools and community partners, as well as to promote family bonding including across generations. Values education starts at home, and I hope parents will also role model the type of families that we want our next generation to have.  

11.        That said, legislation is still important and relevant. The MPA is meant to be applied for the small minority of children who neglect their responsibility when their parents cannot support themselves adequately and they have the means to help. In 2022, just slightly over 100 elderly parents sought a maintenance order under the MPA. Most of them managed to resolve their maintenance disputes with their children at conciliation. Only a very small number proceeded to bring their dispute to the Tribunal. Yet, one is one too many, and there is room for improvement. 

Government and Community will Continue to Support Families

12.        Mr Don Wee raised a point on the sharing of responsibility so that no child is overwhelmed by the financial obligation of supporting his parents alone. For the elderly and families who do not have enough financial resources, the community and the State will step in to play a bigger role. We are invested in supporting and strengthening families, and will continue to provide assistance to lower-income elderly who do not have family support, or whose children lack the means to support them. This includes support schemes such as:

  • The Pioneer Generation Package, which provides healthcare benefits for life for all Singapore Citizens born before 1950;
  • The Silver Support Scheme, which provides quarterly cash supplements to Singaporeans who had low incomes throughout life and who have little or no family support in old age;
  • ComCare, which supports lower-income households with their basic living needs; 
  • The Community Network for Seniors, which involves Government agencies and community partners teaming up to reach out to seniors, especially those who are lower-income or living alone, to help them stay active, socially engaged, and connected to support and health services; and
  • The Senior Mobility and Enabling Fund, provides subsidies for assistive devices, transport and home healthcare items for seniors to age in place within the community.

At the same time, there is support for families to care for their elderly members. As part of “Singapore Made For Families”, there will be more caregiver support such as respite services and enhanced Home Caregiving Grant, as well as counselling and mediation support. 

MSF Supports Workgroup’s Proposals

13.        My Ministry supports the thrust of the amendments raised by the Workgroup, which seeks to enhance the powers of the Tribunal and the Commissioner in ensuring neglected elderly parents are adequately supported. At the same time, safeguards in the MPA will be strengthened to prevent its misuse by those who did not fulfil their parental duties. The amendments are very much in line with the spirit and intent of the MPA, and build upon previous work to make the legislation even more fit for its purpose. 

Amendment III: Empower Commissioner to Locate and Invite Children of Destitute Parents for Conciliation Without Need For Parent to File Formal Claim

14.        At this juncture, I wish to give a detailed response to some of the key amendments. 

15.        First, on the powers of the Commissioner concerning destitute parents. The MPA provides a last resort to compel maintenance from children who neglect their duty towards their elderly parents. But as the Workgroup rightly pointed out, it is of no use if the parent refuses to initiate the process. We know of a few destitute parents residing in state-funded welfare homes who had children they could have relied on in their old age. But the children exploited their parents’ reluctance to file a claim and shunned their responsibility when they clearly have the means to maintain their parents. The many attempts to persuade the children were futile. Hands were tied and nothing else could be done to take them to task. 

16.        I agree that in such glaring cases, the Commissioner should be allowed to act without needing the parent to initiate the process. This will plug the gap. 

17.        Mr Yip Hon Weng has asked how many destitute parents have willingly chosen this path despite having the means to provide a roof over their own heads. To clarify, persons who have the means to provide a roof over their heads would not meet the criteria for being destitute under the Destitute Persons Act. Only those who are unable to support themselves and lack family support can be admitted into Welfare Homes.

18.        Some may think this is an attempt to transfer the burden of caring for our needy elderly from the State to the children. This is not the case. The Workgroup has emphasised that the amendment is intended for the Commissioner to intervene only as a last resort, after the Welfare Home has exhausted all other options and only if Commissioner reasonably believes that the parent has no records of abandonment, abuse or neglect, and the children can afford the maintenance. 

19.        Only a small number would meet the threshold for intervention. For the few that do, it is important that Commissioner can call the children down for conciliation and discuss their parent’s care. 


Amendment IV: Empower Tribunal to make Non-monetary Directions

20.        My next point is on the making of non-monetary directions. Our families have remained strong, but they are also getting smaller and seeing their resources stretched with fewer working members supporting their young and old. 

21.        For cases before the Tribunal, often the underlying cause of maintenance disputes is strained relationships. This amendment empowers the Tribunal to make non-monetary directions, such as imposing counselling orders to address behavioural or emotional issues that strain family relationships, and help disputing family members to take steps to repair their relationship. 

22.        Gambling addiction is another reason cited by the children refusing to maintain their parent. To resolve maintenance disputes in such cases, we need to address this root cause. 

23.        My Ministry works with the National Council on Problem Gambling to adopt a multi-pronged approach in tackling problem gambling. Specifically, we have implemented preventive measures through public education, and to encourage problem gamblers to seek help. We also have social safeguards such as the exclusion and visit limit regime to mitigate the problem. And finally, we have remedial measures through help services such as counselling and treatment for problem gamblers and their families. 

24.        The Workgroup’s amendment here further complements the Council’s efforts in nudging problem gamblers to seek help. With this, the Tribunal may order that maintenance payments are conditional on the parent attending, for example, counselling for gambling addiction. 

Amendment I: Require Parents with Records of Abandonment, Abuse or Neglect to First Obtain Tribunal’s Permission Before They May Proceed with Claim

25.        Lastly, the Workgroup also proposes to protect survivors of abuse from being put through unnecessary distress and painful memories, often triggered when they had to face their parent who abused them. 

26.        We have just had an extensive debate on the Family Violence Amendment Bill. That Bill touched on how survivors are empowered to better protect themselves, the Government’s ability to intervene in family violence cases, and empowering the Court to make additional rehabilitative orders, raise penalties and strengthen enforcement against breaches. This Bill, on the other hand, deals with the long-lasting effects of childhood abuse which can linger on for many years.

27.        Perpetrators can cause direct harm to their family members through physical or emotional abuse, and harassment. But they can also cause indirect harm by using institutions and legal processes.

28.        Effects of childhood abuse can be long-lasting, and research has shown that the effects of exposure to reminders of the past abuse can sometimes be as bad as when it first happened.  Let me cite a case that my Ministry handled, of a survivor in her 20s. This young woman experienced emotional and physical abuse by her mother and stepfather since she was very young. She was told that she was useless and had physical objects thrown at her. When she was not yet ten years old, her stepfather started to sexually abuse her, and MSF was alerted of her case a few years later. After receiving therapy, I am glad to note that she was able to complete her Polytechnic education and find employment. However, the long-term effects of abuse still manifest in her daily life, such as a fear of loud noises, low self-esteem, and occasionally, self-harm and suicide tendencies. Till today, communication with her mother often evokes strong reactions such as feelings of fear and anxiety.

29.        For families and individuals who have experienced abuse or violence, my Ministry will continue to strengthen protection and provide support for these survivors. Where there are records, these survivors will no longer be re-traumatised by their perpetrator through the MPA. This amendment thus builds on our efforts in this area. 


Conclusion

30.        In conclusion, Singapore’s system of social security is based on self-reliance, strong families and strong communities, with government as the final safety net. 

31.        Yes, parents must exercise individual responsibility. But where that is not enough, the family stands as a key pillar of support. 

32.        On that note, I support this Bill.