Thursday, July 23, 2009

Old Age

One of the hardest part of my job as MP is meeting elderly Singaporeans whose children are unwilling to support them. It is not just the challeges that they have to go through to make ends meet. The thought that your own flesh and blood have abandoned you must be infinitely more wounding. There is no single reason why they find themselves in this situation. I am sure not one side is completely to blame, just as no one is entirely blameless.

But whatever the cause, the elderly must be helped. How we should do this is the big question.

When (then) NMP Walter Woon introduced the Maintenace of Parents Bill in Parliament, it caused no end of controversy. Many felt that the Government should not interfere in family relationships and dynamics. I do not believe anyone wants this. It would not be necessary if everyone looked after their parents. But some do not. The counter is that the State should provide for the elderly, so that the children do not have to. That is one solution, but is this also what we want? First, many Singaporeans love and respect their parents, and will happily provide for them. That is a value we must preserve, and our policies should not discourage this. Second, should everyone then have to subsidise children who are not willing to discharge that responsibility? Because when one asks the State to pay, in reality it means that we all pay.

We then come to the group which poses the real difficulty: children who are willing to support their parents, but say that they cannot afford to. There are of course such genuine cases. But there are unfortunately also some who say they cannot afford it, but what they really mean is that maintaining their parents is not high on their list of priorities. So, we have recently read in the newspapers of people who say they cannot pay the nursing home charges for their parents, but can nonetheless afford cars. Should Singaporeans be subsidising this group?

So cases must be individually assessed, and where necessary, help will be given. The problem is that it is often difficult to define when help is necessary. The children's wages are a good yardstck, but imperfect. A person can have a higher wage, but larger fixed expenses. Then you have to go into which expenses are truly necessary and which are not. It is a minefield. Then there are cases where the children can afford it, but their parents do not want to file a case with the Maintenance Tribunal. That reluctance is understandable, but what is the solution then? Should Singaporeans subsidise such personal choices? If yes, who would want to go the Tribunal in the first place?

This is a difficult issue, and one which will become more challenging as our population ages.