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Thursday, 23 July, 1998, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Under One Roof?
Julian Pettifer and Singapore family July 98
Julian Pettifer and producer Rosie Goldsmith meet a Singaporean family who already take care of their aged grandmother
Once famously described as 'Disneyland with the death penalty', Singapore is well known as one of the world's most advanced 'nanny states', with legislation banning everything from spitting in public to going nude in your own home.

The government has never been slow to prescribe the right way to behave, and it's generally enjoyed the assent (if not always the total support) of its citizens. But now, the combination of demographic headaches and new rules on maintenance may be starting to strain that kind of co-operation.

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Most people, like sisters Jana and Jasmine who talked to Crossing Continents, already look after their aged relatives as a matter of course. But now, parents can take their middle-aged children to court for failing to take care of them in their old age. Since the Maintenance of Parents Act was passed in 1996, more than 200 cases have been brought to a government tribunal. Even to pass the Act was a bold move: it admitted the possibility there might be a problem. And most people assumed that any elderly person in dire enough straits to need its provisions would be too ashamed to report on their children.

Some commentators argued that the Act would be abused by those who'd been neglectful and spendthrift as parents and were now running into well-deserved penury. But the cases did come in, and in most of them, the court has found in favour of the parents, forcing the children to shell out or face harsh penalties.

The Act drew upon Singapore's background as a country founded on an ethos of self help and what the government calls 'Asian family values' - particularly the concept of filial piety, or respect for one's parents and elders.

Two middle-aged Singapore actresses in market - July 98
Two actresses rehearse lines for the family sitcom 'Under One Roof'
It's an attitude with deep historical roots; Singapore's population is one of the most cosmopolitan in Asia, with families from Chinese, Indonesian, Malay and Indian backgrounds, and all these constituent cultures have stressed the importance of caring for one's kin for centuries. The duties and dilemmas of family life are still much discussed: one of Singapore's most popular TV sitcoms, 'Under One Roof', concentrates on one family's attempts to get along. There's even a 'Family Values Week', with the Ministry of Community Development, led by Minister Abdullah Tarmugi, busily promoting those values.

But it's very clear that the debate over the care of the elderly is as much about finance as culture. Regardless of their cultural ideals, families in Singapore have few options but to save together and stick together. A 'nanny state' it may be, but this nanny is no soft touch: Singapore has no welfare provision, and the few nursing or retirement homes it has are nearly all run by privately-administered charities. Mandatory savings accounts have replaced the idea of the old-age pension.

Minister Abdullah Tarmugi, Singapore, July 98
Minister for Community Development Abdullah Tarmugi sticks by Singapore's 'Asian family values' policy...
The essential problem is this: Singapore has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in the world. Some forecasts predict that by 2030, a full quarter of its citizens will be over 60. There are simply not going to be enough younger, working people to contribute enough state revenue to look after all of Singapore's elderly.

Ironically enough, some of the problem stems from earlier government attempts to intervene in family life. A few decades ago, state advertising and tax arrangements exhorted young couples to limit their family size to two children at most. In those days, the talk was all of the vital need to keep population growth down in a tiny state with limited resources.

But as the economy prospered with no signs of imminent collapse, someone noticed flaws in the plan. Focused on work and success, fewer and fewer young people were having families at all, and those who did were having children later in life. In a quick drastic policy turnaround, the billboards and the airwaves were filled with campaigns to promote and sell family life; as one slogan warned darkly, "Children: life would be empty without them". After all, someone will have to take care of you when you get old...

JB Jeyaretnam, Singapore opposition MP, July 98
... but opposition MP JB Jeyaretnam thinks 'filial piety is crumbling'.
While the Maintenance of Parents Act, and the general social pressure to take care of the elderly within the family, has so far ensured most Singaporean senior citizens, there are signs of change in the social fabric. Even in this determinedly optimistic and conformist country, there are some commentators, like gadfly politician JB Jeyaretnam, (one of only three opposition MPs) who point out that the government- approved brand of family unity might not last under the strains of late twentieth-century life.

The traditionally large, extended joint families - which once had enough members around to make taking care of the elderly possible - are breaking up into more Western-style nuclear families; more and more women need to go out to work, and taking care of parents as well is simply too much to do; and as the Asian economic crisis buffets the island, there are financial as well as emotional tensions within the family.

So what happens to those without children to support them? The nursing homes run by charities like the Tsao Foundation (motto: 'Ageing Gracefully') are starting to demand more help from the government. It seems likely that whether directly or in partnership with charity, the state will still have to take care of some of Singapore's elderly. Yet perhaps the most surprising thing about the debate on care of the elderly is just how far its basic assumption - that ideally each family should care for its own - is taken for granted by most of Singapore's citizens.

The vast majority (over 90%) of Singapore's elderly are still cared for - and well cared for - at home by their families. For the meantime, the government's canny use of the carrot (the merits and rewards of 'Asian family values') and the stick (draconian judgements against those who fail to care for their parents) seems to be working.

Still, as elsewhere, the main burden falls of care on women, there are tensions between generations, and no-one is sure that today's teenagers, growing up in a more individualistic culture, will want to take their turn as carers in twenty years' time. The Singaporean formula works well for now, but may not be a cure for all ills in the future.

WEB EXCLUSIVES: A typical Singaporean family
talks about looking after Grandma ...
Click here to eavesdrop
on the set of Singapore TV show 'Under One Roof' ...
J.B Jeyaretnam, opposition MP,
on the problems and future of Singapore's elderly
See also:

05 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
26 May 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.

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