In this Explainer, find out...
What is the Maintenance of Parents Act (MPA) and how has it changed over time?
What is some of the public discourse surrounding the MPA?
How do eldercare policies in other countries compare against Singapore’s?
Recent amendments to the Maintenance of Parents Act (MPA) meticulously address existing policy gaps - for one, parents who have a history of abusing their children will no longer have the legal recourse to seek financial support from them.¹
This Policy Explainer will first delve into the origins and amendments to the MPA over time. Subsequently, it will explore public discourse surrounding the MPA. It will contemplate the contrasting views on whether the Government or families should bear primary responsibility for eldercare, and observe how these perspectives manifest in the policy systems of other countries. Then, it will discuss changing norms and challenges faced by children in providing financial assistance to parents.
The Maintenance of Parents Act
The MPA allows Singapore residents aged 60 years and above to claim maintenance from their children who are capable of supporting them but are not doing so.
To invoke the Act, the parent’s total expected income and financial resources must be insufficient to acquire basic needs such as shelter, food, medical costs, and clothing. To determine whether they fulfil the criteria, the parent will have to submit their bank statement, as well as information on living expenses, savings, assets and medical records.² If they are deemed eligible, the parent can claim maintenance in the form of monthly allowances or a lump-sum payment.³ Typically, the children give their parents $100 to $300 a month.⁴
Origins and Initial Controversy
In anticipation of Singapore’s ageing population, the Government introduced the MPA in 1994 to ensure the elderly have adequate financial support to lead a dignified life in their later years.⁵ In its initial stages, some Singaporeans questioned the necessity and appropriateness of the policy. Sceptics argued that children raised amidst Confucian values would naturally care for parents out of filial piety.⁶ Furthermore, such a framework would subsume moral responsibility with a legal obligation, undermining the intrinsic relationship between parents and children.⁷
However, Member of Parliament Associate Professor Walter Woon, who proposed the bill, said that the aim is not to enforce filial piety but rather to help sustain the legitimate (albeit minority) portion of vulnerable parents whose children can but would not voluntarily care for their basic needs. He argued that the policy does not seek to replace but remind Singaporeans of the responsibility they owe to their parents, and aim to invoke the law sparingly.⁸
Amendments to the Maintenance of Parents Act Over Time
2010 - “Conciliation-First Approach”
The primary change focused on adopting a conciliation-first strategy when working with applications for maintenance, which was made in light of the pettiness of maintenance requests.⁹
Trivial requests for maintenance added an unnecessary burden to the legal system, diverting resources from more critical cases. Thus, to dismiss applications without hearing where possible, and in the spirit of preserving familial ties,¹⁰ it became compulsory to seek conciliation at the Office of the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents (CMP) before filing for a maintenance order at the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents (Tribunal).¹¹ Within four weeks of an application, a professional mediator from the Singapore Mediation Centre or the Eagles Mediation & Counselling Centre will be assigned to act as a neutral third party facilitating the negotiation.¹² The amendment yielded favourable outcomes, evidenced by a decline in the annual number of cases (from 170 in 2008 to 30 since 2017) where elderly parents proceeded to file maintenance orders at the Tribunal after conciliation. The CMP has a commendable settlement rate of about 90% out of over 2,000 applications received since March 2011.¹³
Besides concerns about trivial requests, the lack of information available to authorities made it more challenging to determine fair outcomes in court. Hence, a secondary change was made to permit the Tribunal to acquire relevant information from other parts of the Government, allowing legitimate applicants to receive help more effectively. To guard against privacy concerns, clauses were also put in place to oblige the authorities to safeguard confidentiality and use the information for appropriate purposes.¹⁴ These include locating the children of parents and assessing the ability of the parent and each child to provide maintenance based on their financial resources.¹⁵
2023 - Protecting Abused Children and Destitute Parents
In July 2023, further amendments to the MPA were made to better protect abused children from abuse and destitute parents from neglect.
Firstly, approximately a quarter of cases at the CMP and a third of cases at the Tribunal involve alleged past abuse of children by their parent applicants.¹⁶ This exemplifies that the Act was initially prone to exploitation by undeserving parents. Thus, the Act now requires parents to declare records of abuse for the child they are claiming against, and the Tribunal can search official databases for evidence to verify this (e.g., Personal Protection Orders). This will allow the Tribunal to avoid unjustly awarding maintenance to abusive parents. Furthermore, at this stage of the investigation, the child is not notified to avoid unnecessarily dredging up old trauma. If the application is deemed vexatious, the child need not be involved at all.¹⁷
Secondly, it has been observed that some parents, despite needing assistance, refuse to apply under the MPA for fear of straining their relationship with their children or facing estrangement.¹⁸ Before the 2023 amendment, the MPA could only be invoked if parents stepped forward. Social workers were thus severely limited in their ability to help the parent obtain much-needed support from their child if they chose not to.¹⁹ The 2023 amendment empowers the Commissioner to summon children and parents to attend conciliation sessions,²⁰ providing more active support for the elderly who used to fall through the gaps due to their reluctance to invoke the MPA by themselves. This aligns with the core mission of ensuring that support is accessible to parents who need (and deserve it) the most.
Debate & Concerns for the Maintenance for Parents Act
Government vs. Families’ Role
One point of contention is whether the onus should even be on the family to provide a safety net for the ageing population. Unlike Singapore, Western societies typically rely on social welfare rather than legally mandating financial support from family. They believe that it is the government, rather than the citizens, who should be responsible for supporting the elderly population. For example, a scant 16% of people from the Netherlands agreed that a child must take care of an ill or elderly parent.²¹ Meanwhile, the recent poll by the Workgroup for the Review of the Maintenance of Parents Act indicated that 80% of Singaporeans believe that children should reciprocate and care for their parents who raised them.²²
These differences in attitudes reveal themselves in policy for different countries. In contrast to Singapore, Denmark relies significantly on government-supported (formal) systems, supplemented by but not critically dependent on informal support from family members.²³ This approach has been effective – Denmark is one of the highest-ranking countries in the OECD’s index for long-term care.²⁴ However, it is important to note that this comprehensive system is sustained by relatively high taxes, a trade-off that many Danes accept as part of their social compact.²⁵
What Happens if the “Sandwich Generation” Cannot Afford to Pay?
A notable discrepancy has arisen in expectations between parents and their children; parents typically anticipate financial support from their children after retirement, while the latter may find it impractical to fulfil those expectations.²⁶ These children are part of the “sandwich generation”, comprising individuals concurrently caring for ageing parents and their children, which forms an expanding demographic in Singapore.²⁷ A 2018 survey commissioned by NTUC Income revealed that 94% of young parents surveyed identify as part of the “sandwich generation”,²⁸ while only 8% of young people today are very confident of being able to financially support their parents.²⁹
At present, the MPA is only invoked when children are assessed to have sufficient monetary resources. This limits the undue strain on children from the “sandwich generation” who have limited means. However, it may be the case that both “sandwich generation” children and parents are not able to provide support for the latter’s livelihood, posing a unique problem where the MPA cannot be invoked despite genuine needs. Thus, measures promoting retirement adequacy and early cultivation of sound saving habits are paramount in reducing the reliance of parents on the MPA, nipping the problem in its bud.³⁰
It has been consistently emphasised that MPA is a safety net rather than a main pillar of support for elderly welfare — it should be viewed as a last resort rather than the first line of defence. Even amidst evolving norms, most Singaporeans continue to carry the attitude that they should care for elderly parents.³¹ Thus, a collaborative effort between the Government and families appears to be feasible in supporting a rapidly expanding silver generation. Finally, it is also
important for people to partake in discourse, particularly for such a policy intervening in personal affairs involving the family, so that the MPA can continue improving over time.
This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.
By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.