Enforcing filial piety via legislation

By Legal Eagle

(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.


  1. Posted November 22, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I do believe this is a case of ‘forcing you to pay for your parents so we don’t have to’.

    Filial piety really does keep the costs of welfare provision down. At the moment it allows SE Asian economies a degree of advantage over Western economies in terms of avoiding long-term costs, although it also does interesting things to the savings rate:


  2. Posted November 22, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Medieval England had a continuing pattern of parents handing over their land/tenancy to their son in return for agreed support. It was treated as a contract, not a duty. With about, as I understand it, the normal level of contractual dispute. But, then, England never had a peasantry in the conventional continental sense.

    It was one of the many things Marx got wrong about English medieval history, since many of the agricultural labourers ended up landed tenants or even freeholders, since it was more a generational life cycle thing. Just as one reason for rising income inequality in the contemporary Anglosphere is more students who live in “poverty” in their early 20s and are high income earners in their 40s.

  3. Posted November 22, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    rotflmao at the notions of

    1) Filial piety from a girl who was miss-bossy-boots-woman-of-the-house in primary school.

    2) The chorus of smashing jaws on floors if the current crop of oz stay-at-or-return-home-twentagers or 30-somethings hear of this

    Oh well, I reckon my grandson could have kids not long after I retire and I’ll have food and roof – coz slaves get that for 24/7 childminding. But that’s what family elders would have been doing when too old to go hunting mammoths.

  4. Posted November 22, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    The ConDems have decided it’s the cheap answer to their social care costs

    Now they only need to consider the criminal prosecution costs of elder abuse all the way up to murder.

  5. Posted November 23, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    There used to be legislation in NZ (before the establishment of the welfare state in the late 1930s) forcing people to look after their elderly parents when they could no longer care for themsleves. I believe that is was the result of a population bulge in the latter part of the 19th century of elderly men who’d never married, which in turn was due to the lack of women who’d emigrated to NZ earlier in the 19th century. Although there was an aged pension from 1898, charities were hard pressed to establish enough homes for those men who were unable to care for themselves, so the state decided to force those who had produced descendants to become dependent on them. Interesting quirk of history, proving yet again that demographic oddities can be predicted and planned for, but rarely are.

  6. Posted November 23, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    [email protected] on lots of childless males in NZ

    It does lead to self-interested huge numbers of kids (Malthusian nightmare approaching) and has divergent implication for homosexuals:

    a) allowing adoption for homosexual couples (and singles)

    b) continuing discrimination by effectively leaving homosexuals and infertile couples without protection.

    The idea will also annoy those who want a mobile labor market in a large country (indeed transnational migration) where there are differences in national law, or poorer kids don’t have the readies for the long-term cheaper option of having oldies under the same roof.

    The complications of multiple marriages are also nasty. If my daugher wanted to have my ex living with us as well… Too horrible to contemplate.

    There’s also the issue of longevity – more greatgrandparents – kids and grandkids of working age. Who foots the bill?

    At least there’ll be more pressure for euthanasia reform… and possibly a need for more toxicologists in the coroner’s office.

  7. Peter Patton
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink


    It does lead to self-interested huge numbers of kids (Malthusian nightmare approaching) and has divergent implication for homosexuals:

    There is actually a lot of very good work, which attempts to make the prevalence of homosexuality consistent with genetics/evolution by pointing out the social utility of homosexuals in certain – very many in fact – socio-environmental conditions, such as the ones you list.

  8. Peter Patton
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink


    Interesting quirk of history, proving yet again that demographic oddities can be predicted and planned for, but rarely are.

    One of the boldest experiments designed to meet this is no doubt our compulsory superannuation system. While you’ve correctly noted that the first generation of this experiment – the baby boomers – will not benefit much, we are still a long way from knowing how it will work out even for subsequent generations. I really do think our financial system is worse off for having this ginormous amount of capital compulsorily taken and forced into huge pension funds, who must then desperately hunt around to dump all this money. OTOH, despite these concerns, it might be the least bad way of ‘saving for retirement’.

    If the government kept it all in the Future Fund, no doubt the pensioners will wake one morning to find out that a government has pilfered the pension fund entirely to pay for election bribes, previous orgies of borrowing, or whatever. The pensioners from the Whitlam era never forgave Whitlam doing precisely that.

  9. Tim Quilty
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Russia apparently has recently passed legislation allowing parents to sue their children for maintenance. Even in cases where the parent has not contributed to the upkeep of the child.

    Me hearing about this was pretty much the point where I stopped trying to persuade my wife that it would be interesting to meet her father (and half-siblings) that she hasn’t seen since the age of 3. Screw that.

  10. derrida derider
    Posted November 24, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    On a consultancy in China I once had a discussion about this with a local demographer. After doing the number crunching jointly to prove that the State pension scheme we were advising on was unviable because of the one child policy, he noted in effect “no worries – if the state can’t afford to look after the old, then their pious children will. We’re not like westerners.”

    I pointed out that with normal life expectancy you can expect each of these “little emperors” to be supporting two parents and sharing with one other person support of four grand parents. If the tax base of workers is too small to let the state look after them then it is likely that there will be insufficient private means to do the same.

    When talking about future health costs, pension costs, etc associated with population aging people almost always fail to understand that the big issue is where the real resources needed are to come from, not whether or not they are mediated by state taxing and spending.

  11. Posted November 24, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    wondering how this might affect the market for paternity tests – and sperm donations.

  12. Peter Patton
    Posted November 24, 2010 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Re dd’s observation

    I wonder how significant the different levels of popular understanding of ‘thinking economically’ between the advanced capitalist nations and China will effect China’s relative economic performance going forward?

  13. derrida derider
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Peter P @10, superannuation has done very little for “saving for retirement”. It’s mostly popped up as higher house prices (because both borrower and lender know there is a handy lump sum waiting to pat off the mortgage), while driving up labour costs. The only people who have achieved extra saving through it are those who can’t borrow against it – ie the working poor – and for these people we have taken money from them when we KNOW they’re short of it to give it back when they may or may not need it.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, compulsory super is a full scale public policy disaster, achieving none of its stated goals while putting money in the pockets of a venal and well-funded lobby – ie funds and advisers.

  14. Peter Patton
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink


    I suspect I agree with you 100%. I actually argue that this sort of enforced diversion of people’s wages and salaries has really distorted investment decisions so badly, and is a significant cause of the global financial instability, including the GFC. But that theory is for another time.

  15. Patrick
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I agree, too, DD.

    With one caveat: to the extent that this saves the State pension money later on, that is a worthy policy goal which is achieved.

  16. Posted November 27, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    If the state can (or try to) make parents support children, presumably because they are weak, non earning and vulnerable, then it seems perfectly logical that it should force children to support parents when they are weak, non earning and vulnerable.

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