Excessive social security may erode filial piety

There has been much debate on how much more Singapore should spend on providing greater social security for the poor, and on the pitfalls of excessive welfare ("Pitfalls of excessive welfare in Nordic model" by Mr Olli Muurainen; last Saturday).

There is mounting electoral pressure on the Government to increase spending on welfare - and the ruling party is responding.

Helping those who have fallen through the cracks is laudable, as long as the country can afford it.

But will the electorate know where to draw the line and not keep using the ballot box to demand more and more spending?

This is what worries me and, I suspect, many others who have watched with great trepidation how countries elsewhere are being pushed to insolvency by their excessive welfare spending.

Yet, affordability is just one aspect of this complex issue.

What an inordinate emphasis on providing more social security will do to Singapore's values system is another important, though often overlooked, consideration.

Let me draw attention to a recent lecture by eminent but controversial Chinese economist Zhang Wuchang.

Among other things, he argued against what he called the mindless adoption by China of the essentially Western practice of government-funded social security.

The 80-year-old is no xenophobe. He had studied and worked in the United States for many years before he returned to China, and was close to some of the top economists of the day.

His assertion: Excessive social security will destroy the concept and practice of filial piety.

Peril awaits the Chinese civilisation once the duty of caring for one's old and helpless parents is shifted to the state, he added.

What he said jolted me, as did a recent survey by a government agency in Japan, which found that less than a third of young people agreed that it was their duty to look after their parents. The rest said it was the government's job.

Surveys throughout China also registered a distinct downward trend.

Will this happen in Singapore too? If the present trend continues unabated, then we may well be heading that way.

A national survey conducted a few years ago found that most people under 50 and earning $1,000 or more still regarded looking after parents as their duty.

But more of those above 50 and earning less than $1,000 said the Government should bear more of the burden.

Glass half-full? Or half-empty?

Leslie Fong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'Excessive social security may erode filial piety'. Print Edition | Subscribe