(from Wikimedia Commons)
According to Confucian ideals, filial piety is the ultimate value. Hence, it permeates many Asian societies. There is notionally no need for the state to provide for care for the elderly, because the children will look after their parents in their old age. The rather creepy statue above depicts Japanese man Ryochi Sasakawa carrying his elderly mother up the stairs of the temple. These statues are called kohyo no zou (filial piety statues) (hat-tip to SL for alerting me to them a while back). Sasakawa himself was a man with a rather chequered history.
I have an Australian friend of Chinese heritage who is an only child and who looks after his elderly mother every weekend. A bystander commented to the mother that this was somewhat hard on the son’s wife and children. The mother said, in the tone of one settling the argument, “A man may have many wives, but he only has one mother.” I have another friend who stays in a job he hates and works long hours because he is an only child, and the only person who can support his mother.
It can be seen from the Wikipedia article that some Chinese scholars argue that filial piety is a peculiarly Eastern value, and is not something which is seen in the West. However, SL has shared some of the research for the purposes of her novel with me, and this has taught me that it is a peculiarly pagan value, encompassing ancestor worship, respect for one’s elders and a duty to care for one’s elders. The Romans valued pietas as much as the Chinese value xiào. Aeneas, leader of the Trojans, was often pictured in a pose of filial piety, carrying his father Anchises on his back. And of course, in a bit of creative genealogy, it was said that Aeneas founded Rome and Britain… No wonder the Christians were seen as a threat to the stability of society by the Romans. Jesus’ exhortations in the Bible must have seemed a threat to filial piety:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.
(Matthew 10:34-39, New American Standard Bible)
Interestingly, a friend of mine in Singapore alerted me to the following Singaporean legislation. In Singapore, it appears that societal mores demanding filial piety are not enough any more: they have to be backed up by the threat of legal action. According to Singapore Law Watch:
Parliament is set to approve this week changes to enhance legislation that enables parents to sue their children for financial support.
The proposed changes will make it compulsory for parents and children caught in such disputes to attend conciliation sessions.
It will also grant the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents and the tribunal that hears such cases access to government records regarding the whereabouts or income of errant children.
Approval of the changes would mark only the second time since Independence that a private member’s Bill has become a public law. A private member’s Bill is a proposed law introduced by a backbencher rather than a minister. The first time was when then Nominated MP Walter Woon tabled the Maintenance of Parents Bill, which was later passed.
MPs will be free to vote according to their conscience on the Maintenance of Parents (Amendment) Bill, for which the Whip will be lifted. That means People’s Action Party MPs will not be required to vote with the Government in this instance because the Government is not proposing the Bill.
The man behind the changes, Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng, 48, expects a smooth passage for the Bill, on which he and a team of nine fellow MPs have worked on for the past eight months. They consulted some 300 social workers, MPs and members of the public, and found the majority very supportive of the amendments.
Mr Seah, who also chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Community Development, Youth and Sports, expects debate in the House to centre on two issues: Whether the Bill has enough teeth, and whether allowing access to records infringes on individual privacy.
At least 17 MPs will join in the debate.
Some are likely to suggest tougher penalties for children who refuse to pay up, including fines and automatic deductions from their pay cheques.
However, Mr Seah’s 10-member work group deliberately steered clear of punitive measures when drafting the proposals, preferring to focus on mediation instead.
‘The overall approach is one of conciliation because family relations are not a science. There is a lot of art to them. You don’t want to be overly prescriptive; you want to give a chance for relationships to be preserved,’ Mr Seah said.
Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Sam Tan, a member of the work group, said that because this would be the first review of the Maintenance of Parents Act since its passage in 1995, changes should be gradual.
As for allowing the commissioner access to errant children’s records, Sembawang GRC MP and work group member Ellen Lee said the move would help expedite the 20 per cent of applications that had stalled from lack of information.
Mr Seah said sitting in on tribunal hearings had given him and his work group ‘a better appreciation of the complexity and the consequences of every measure that we were going to propose’.
That helped them find what they believe is a balance between the two ends of the spectrum – criminalising the neglect of parents and not having the Act at all.
In one case, the children of a sickly widow in her 80s had initially refused to pay her medical bills. It later turned out that each of the five children had their own financial troubles to consider.
Mr Seah said he wanted to table the Bill within a year of when they started working on it, back in March, as he had noticed a loosening of bonds between parents and children that he felt should be addressed promptly.
He cited a National University of Singapore survey of 4,500 students aged under 30. Two-thirds said they were worried they would not be able to support both their parents and their own families.
Young Singaporeans should not consider their parents as an ‘optional extra’, Mr Seah said, but equal in importance to their own families.
‘One should not take priority over the other. If there is not enough meat for all, then everyone eats tofu together. As the Chinese saying goes, with harmony in the home, all things are possible,’ he said.
My Singaporean friend cynically suggested that there would be rise in trusts hiding family assets. Alas, I’m similarly cynical, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s right. It will be interesting to see how many actions proceed under this legislation, and what success they have.