Changes to parental maintenance Act passed

SINGAPORE: Parliament has passed amendments to the Maintenance of Parents Act (MPA), with a slew of enforcement mechanisms to make children provide for their aged parents.

But even as rules are strengthened, the spirit of the Act, enacted 15 years ago, remains — that is, a conciliation—first approach, with the arm of the law striking only as a last resort.

MP for Marine Parade GRC, Seah Kian Peng, who moved the Bill, said: "We elected to strengthen the conciliatory aspects of the Act. This reflects our collective belief that families must continue to be encouraged as far as possible to resolve differences on their own. We also maintain that this is the optimal solution given the complex nature of family relationships, and that all of us know our own families the best."

For Members of the House who supported changes to the law, it was a move long overdue. The reality is that more families are under stress, given a greying population and smaller family sizes.

Under the conciliation—first approach, more teeth is given to the role of the Tribunal and Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents.

For one, he can require any party who make claims to attend conciliation sessions. Failure to do so will affect the outcome of maintenance applications. Currently such sessions are voluntary.

MPs say mediation is the best approach to the rehabilitation of families.

Another change is that offices of the Tribunal and Commissioner are empowered to obtain data and financial information on children who cut themselves off from their parents.

Mr Seah assured the House that there will be safeguards to manage data disclosure and confidentiality.

For example, the list of agencies which the offices of the Tribunal and Commissioner may access information from must be approved by the minister—in—charge.

He added: "Access to such information should only be exercised as a last resort, when parties refuse to provide the information...and all other methods to locate the children or verify the information have been exhausted."

To improve payment and enforcement, the president of the Tribunal of Maintenance of Parents or the deputy president will also be empowered to dismiss "frivolous" applications without convening a Tribunal hearing.

The old Act does not restrict the number of times that the same person can make a maintenance or variation application. This led to cases of abuse where an applicant makes multiple applications even though the previous application was dismissed.

A workgroup of 10 MPs were roped in to revise the law. This is the first time that a PAP backbencher has moved a Bill in 36 years.

"The Act appears to be needed more than ever. The fact that these amendments are needed demonstrates not just the need for the Act, but the need for strong enforcement mechanisms to make children provide for their parents. It is a sign of individual failures in caring for the elderly in our family, and a last—ditch effort at making the family work. And because I believe in the family, I believe such an effort is worth making, no matter what the cost is," said Mr Seah.

The sole voice of dissent came from Nominated MP Paulin Tay Straughan, who said the Bill only serves to "trivialise family relations".

"Do we want our families to be governed so closely by the state, such that investments in growing children must be carefully accounted for and documented so that when need be, the files can be pulled out to legitimise charges on our children?" she asked.

"As a mother, I will not want my children to see my love for them overshadowed by a discourse on reciprocity of care. In our contemporary society, parents can choose if they want children and to a certain extent, how many children they can afford to raise. It is a conscientious choice that adults make," added Professor Straughan.

"Can we quantify how much investment the parent had put into each child? A more serious concern that arises from this discourse of reciprocity: that a parent who did not invest sufficiently in child rearing does not deserve to be cared for by their children. Is this what we want to teach our children?"

Prof Straughan suggested policies to further strengthen families and allow Singaporeans to age gracefully.

"Rather than depend solely on the family as social support for the elderly, we must prepare an infrastructure that can support the vulnerable aged who may not have children they can turn to," she said.

MPs were quick to defend the Bill, saying the law is targeted at children who can afford to take care of their parents but deliberately shirk responsibility.

As Minister Vivian Balakrishnan puts it, it is really to deter people from playing games and using their parents as pawns.

"In fact, very often, I think, about a quarter of all applications to the tribunal don’t come from the parents. It comes from other children of the parents and often what you are dealing with is an intra—familial dispute on the relative apportionment of responsibility and care amongst siblings," said Dr Balakrishnan, the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports.

Dr Balakrishnan added that the government is responsible for helping the vulnerable and genuinely needy in society. But he stressed that Singapore has constructed a social safety net based on the pillars of self reliance and family support.

"This legislation is not some back route for the government to abdicate its responsibility to look after the needy and vulnerable in society," he said.

One key message that came out of the parliamentary debate was that it is hoped the law will not be used often. In fact, the goal is that families will not need to use the Act at all.

Dr Balakrishnan said that what the law provides is a basic boundary that reminds everyone they have an obligation to their parents.

— CNA/ir