Mdm Deputy Speaker, thank you for the chance to share my view on this Bill. As a member of the workgroup on this Bill, I would like to share my thought process and concerns regarding two amendments in the Bill and how it evolved along the way.
Firstly, amendment one, the one that concerns what I call the “peeling open old wounds”.
I am heartened that a trauma-informed approach underpins this proposed amendment to prevent abandoned or abused children from being approached at all, if there are records of such treatment that the state is aware of. After all, if someone is still nursing or hurting from the hurts and the wounds of childhood ill-treatment by their parents of neglect or abandonment, the last thing he or she needs is to go through any process that suggests that they are being unfilial. It would unnecessarily induce damaging feelings of self-doubt, guilt or worsen feelings of resentment, when they may have spent years trying to heal or to move on.
Hence, we have put up this amendment that seeks to protect these children from an unnecessary and harrowing process only to have the case dismissed in the end.
In the initial stages of developing this amendment, I had one concern for the children who may not have reported the incidents of abuse or neglect and hence, do not have records within the state system. Given that many cases of domestic abuse or neglect still go unreported now despite increased awareness and education efforts in recent years, we must assume that, in the past, there are likely many cases of abuse or neglect that have gone unreported and recourse therefore must be provided for children who have suffered ill-treatment by their parents.
I am glad that amendment one, as proposed in its current version, still allows for respondents to present evidence to the Tribunal and have the case dismissed.
While some may argue that for someone who has been abused before, to be approached to present evidence can itself be an experience that opens old wounds and be stressful and we should avoid that altogether, it is, unfortunately, something we cannot avoid.
In this matter, I fall back on my own knowledge and experience as a transformation and healing coach, having worked with many adults to process and heal from their emotional and childhood wounds. I am assured myself, having witnessed and facilitated many on their healing journeys, to give the public the same assurance, that not all “reminders of past bad experiences” are harmful. In fact, for true healing to take place, one often needs to confront the negative experiences of the past in order to see it through a new and empowered set of lens for our hearts to heal. In psychologic terms, it is called reframing.
Whilst I understand the preference of many to avoid dredging up “old skeletons in a closet”, I also know that with good therapeutic support in place, it can catalyse an important and liberating healing process that has long been put off.
In raising my concern during the Workgroup meetings and in talks with MSF on our proposed Bill, I understand from MSF colleagues that counselling and therapy services are, in fact, available and provided if needed, to support respondents who are asked to come forward to give their account and to share their stories to the Tribunal. I hope that the Ministry will continuously look into adequate resourcing to ensure this support is there.
Next, is amendment three that empowers the Commissioner to initiate conciliation without consent from the parent.
My initial reaction to this amendment when it was first raised in our workgroup was one of like “Really? Do we really want to allow the state to request maintenance from children without the consent of the parent? Is this something that we really want to step in on?”
I am born in the 1980s. I belong to the millennial generation and I am probably one of many from my generation who hold the following attitude. Whilst many of us believe in filial piety and that it is a right thing to do to provide for and care for our parents when they are old, we do not place the same expectations on our children to do the same.
The old Chinese saying “养儿防老” is commonly a phrase I used to hear from my mom and other adults around me as I was growing up. I remember feeling rather disturbed as a child and a teenager hearing this; and sometimes, it made me wonder if the value of “me” was just to be an insurance for my parents when they grow old. It did not help with building up a strong sense of self-worth and it made me doubt if my parents really do love me for who I am. “Love” at that time felt rather transactional.
I am not ashamed to admit those were my thoughts as I was growing up. And I believe there could be youths and teenagers out there today who may wonder about this at times too. Do my parents love me only because I do well in school and make them look good and because they need someone to look after them when they are old?
I have a friend, grown up, who recently got married and she is deliberating about whether to have a child. She has gone to have her eggs frozen but has not yet made a decision. When we talk about it amongst our women friends, she speaks about having a child as an “investment”. When we hear people around us talk about having children in those terms, we cannot help but wonder if even parental love is conditional.
On top of that, there are various values that were taught to us as kids. The Chinese talks about filial piety; Malays have “ketaatan kepada ibu bapa” and our Indian friends probably have something equivalent. To a young person, “being filial” can feel like a set of obligations we must adhere to in order to be seen as a “good person”. In this way, love can feel like a duty, smelling distastefully to some like “obligation”.
During one of the public consultations I attended, a young person expressed this: “The child did not ask to be born. Why do adults make these decisions and then impose these obligations on their kids?” I was a little shocked. It was a provocative statement, but also valid. It gives us food for thought.
Perhaps, I am the idealistic sort, pursuing an ideal notion of love, for it to be unconditional and without obligation, to be given freely and reciprocated if the recipient feels so moved to reciprocate. It will be nice if my children want to contribute to my maintenance when they grow up and I grow old, but it is also all right if they do not.
Is maintaining parents really something we want the Government to intervene on or to mandate?
I am very grateful that Mr Seah Kian Peng invited me to be a part of this workgroup proposing these amendments, for it helped me to understand these issues more deeply and to gain perspectives beyond my own.
Through the many rounds of discussions we had with fellow workgroup members, the Commissioner, members of the Tribunal and the focus group consultations we had with the public, I began to discover that my personal idealism for “unconditional love” is indeed just an ideal and not very practical when we consider what it means for the larger society, especially if one is not in a comfortable financial position to afford such idealism, such as the old and frail ones staying in their destitute homes, unfortunately finding themselves relying on state subvention to upkeep their remaining days.
I realised that this matter is not about whether the state is so stingy that it is unwilling to support the upkeep of those who are vulnerable and destitute, but a matter of “fairness” that needs to be addressed because a government is a steward of public resources that come from the people, to be used for the people. The question of “fairness” is a valid and legitimate one for many citizens who have a stake in how the finite resources of a country should be used.
Often, I hear resentment from loving people, giving people, the volunteers at our many charity distribution activities, when they see elderly residents come and take a ration goodie bag or a goodie bag or a bag of rice. And then, they see the same elderly folk being driven around by their children in expensive cars around the neighbourhood. They wonder and sometimes they grumble out loud, “These elderly do not need. Why should we give them? Then, someone else who needs this more is deprived of it.”
And indeed, this question is asked not because charitable hearted people are being stingy or calculative, but because with finite resources, someone else’s well-being could be the opportunity cost of over-generosity.
In my role as Member of Parliament whom residents come to for help, I have seen how despite the old Chinese adage of “养儿防老”, which is having children to safeguard one’s old age, what I saw in reality is that many elderly parents prefer not to impose this burden on their children, often when their children have the means to support them and especially so when their children do not have the means.
Many elderly residents continue to plan on leaving their assets to their children, for example, in the low take-up rates for the Lease Buyback scheme for their HDB flats, so that they have something to leave behind for their children even when they pass on.
Others will ask about financial support from the Government when they are experiencing financial hardship, preferring to apply for welfare support, rather than to ask for their children’s support.
In many cases, parents are caught in a “give and give” mindset. They hardly ever want to take from their children. These encounters showed me that in many cases, parental love does not ask for returns. Love often is indeed unconditional.
And whilst the idealist in me delights in observing such unconditional love, the pragmatist in me, wearing the hat of a steward of public resources feels torn. Is this fair to other Singaporeans?
It is not an easy thing for the Government to have to balance. Do we respect the elderly parents’ wishes who do not want to approach their children, or do we go ahead and claim, in consideration of fairness in the allocation of resources?
The original proposal for amendment three allows for the Commissioner to claim maintenance from financially able children on behalf of the neglected and destitute parents and it presents exactly this dilemma.
It is fortunate that the workgroup, upon discussion with the members of the public, were able to come up with a “win-win” solution that I felt comfortable and satisfied with.
I am also thankful for Chairman Mr Seah Kian Peng’s empathy and openness even as he passionately leads the charge on this Bill, to allow for alternative approaches to the original proposal, so that we get to balance. The outcome and revised proposal – to empower the Commissioner on his own motion and not at the parent’s behest to have the children attend conciliation at the Commissioner’s Office so that care arrangements can be discussed and their children can be reminded of their legal obligations – is a great balanced approach.
In considering that preserving a good relationship between parent and child is the utmost priority in the elderly parents’ minds, we have to ensure that we do no harm. Hence, what we really need to ensure is in the implementation, that the communication to children being asked to come forward for conciliation, knows that the request is being made by the Commissioner and not by the parents. This helps to achieve the balance needed, for fairness to fellow Singaporeans and also respects the relationship priority of the elderly parent.
The other two amendments which allow for the Tribunal to give non-monetary directions for cases and for the Tribunal to dismiss frivolous and vexatious applications are relatively straightforward to me. They are enhancements to the Act made with 12 years of experience in consultation with the relevant agencies since it was last reviewed. So, I am satisfied that they are appropriate enhancements made in the spirit of fairness to both parent and children as well as to ensure that public resources are not frivolously frittered away.
Given that my concerns for amendments one and three have been adequately addressed in our workgroup’s development of the Bill, I support the Bill.
Watch the speech here.