MSF(SG)_logoBy Howard Lee

Media today reported that the government has embarked on a study since May 2015 to examine the role of the extended family.

“With families here shrinking, can a wider network of relatives be relied on to help if someone becomes frail or ill?”, the report by The Straits Times wondered aloud.

Apparently, the data from such a study is meant to inform policy, which might include tweaks to areas such as housing grants for extended family members if they live nearby, or tax exemptions if they top up their loved ones’ Central Provident Fund accounts.

This study, apparently, marks a “milestone in policy thinking”, as it is a fundamental revisit of the concept of the nuclear family. The rationale given was that, with the drop in the number of nuclear families – that is, a couple living with their children or parents – the government finds it imperative to examine “support structures, relations and living arrangements among extended family members”.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin

This was apparently mooted by newly-minted Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, at the Social Service Partners Conference last month.

“Fewer nuclear family households, small household sizes and more aged households portend possibly greater challenges in marshalling immediate family support… When I have fewer children to support me and my spouse, what happens then? Do we begin to look at the extended family? What does it mean for policies?”

The results of this study are now left to its own conclusion, but it would not be wrong if citizens were to feel a sense of misgiving about what the results would become.

The concept of family dependence has been deeply rooted in so-called “Asian societies” and just as often promoted as “Asian values”. Although these terms eventually died from misuse and overuse by political circles, it remains an entrenched mindset that families should look out for each other.

There is fundamentally nothing wrong with such mindsets. The problems comes when we attempt to apply a policy angle to a social issue. While we are all morally obligated to be there and help our extended family members, to what extent should the state compel us to do so?

This suggested approach by the MSF Minister borders dangerously on insinuating that extended family members should be doing so, since “the study will also look at the challenges faced by extended family members in providing such care, and identify solutions or support measures to encourage them to do so.”

While we should not downplay the good work that extended family members are doing for their relatives who need physical and emotional support, we need to seriously question the extent to which such goodwill can be instituted as policy.

Will making it legally binding for relatives to take care of each other dampen the goodwill between family members? Will bolstering it with transnational qualifiers – housing grants and CPF top-ups were mentioned, so who knows what else – make us better care-givers?

So far, nothing has been set in concrete by MSF. But it would serve our interest to watch closely for how this “study” develops into policy.

singapore workersThe other factor to consider is, should the government be successful in compelling us to take are of our relatives, how successful would such an approach be?

The undeniable problem we face today is the dwindling birth rate, and this has been attributed as a factor in the deliberation of this study. If we were to imagine a situation where a working couple or single person has to attend to the financial/ housing/ medical needs of their own parents, that alone is already a daunting task. What more if we pile on them the responsibility of an elderly uncle or aunt?

And assuming that the government is generous enough to ensure that they receive enough subsidies, grants and welfare assistance (highly unlikely given that we firmly believe in the trampoline, not a safety net) to help them get by, how are we even closer in encouraging them to have their own children? Would they, given the already exhausting commitment they have to face?

13 Feb 2012 - babiesSeriously, is this a true long-term solution to our social security problems or, like so many other policy tweaks, another temporary plug, a “tahan” measure?

This government has clearly run out of ideas. The problem of long-term care for an aging population with an ever-increasing dependency ratio cannot be resolved by playing musical chairs with social responsibility. It can only be resolved by a firm decision to grow families, and should that take too long, provide direct emergency relief for those caught in their sunset years with no descendants to care for them.

To date, we have seen none of that. We have only seen a government that is all too willing to barter our future, play on our social obligations, work with temporary fixes.

As nieces and nephews, we should be really indignant, should our goodwill be taken for granted.


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