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From The Gallery

Ministers serve as check and balance to MPs' push for more paternalism

Seldom has the Government been accused of having too much trust in Singaporeans' ability to make their own decisions.

Which made it all the more striking, in yesterday's Parliament sitting, when officeholders gently rejected MPs' calls for more paternalistic approaches.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said it clearest: "We respect the choices of a person who has mental capacity."

Granted, he was speaking in the context of the debate on changes to the Mental Capacity Act.

In 2008, the Act introduced the Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA).

This is a legal instrument allowing individuals - known as "donors" - to nominate "donees" to make decisions on their behalf, if and when they are unable to do so.

Among other things, yesterday's amendment Bill aimed to better protect donors from unscrupulous donees - while stopping short of paternalism.

Mr Tan began by setting out three fundamental principles behind the Mental Capacity Act. The first: Respect for donors' choices.

"We cannot assume a donor lacks capacity just because we think he or she could have made a better decision." This extends to their choice of donee, he added.

Not all the nine MPs who spoke in the debate seemed satisfied with that approach. Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) wanted stronger safeguards: audits, whistle-blowing procedures and stricter due diligence in granting LPAs "when the stakes are higher".

Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked if there were parameters against which LPA applications are checked.

"For example, if the donee is not closely related or unrelated to the donor despite the donor being married with children, would red flags be raised? What if the donee is a foreigner?" she asked.

Their fears were not unfounded. Hanging over yesterday's debate was the shadow of an ongoing court case in which Chinese national Yang Yin stands accused of manipulating wealthy widow, Madam Chung Khin Chu, to gain control of her assets.

Yang became Madam Chung's donee under an LPA signed in 2011. The LPA was revoked after a court hearing in November 2014.

Mr Tan, too, recognised this case in his opening speech. But his reply to the MPs made it clear that donors' choices remained supreme.

It would not be appropriate for the Public Guardian - who oversees LPA-related matters - to raise red flags just because the donee is a foreigner or not a relative, he said. "The Public Guardian should not act as an arbiter of another's choices."

Here was a government, criticised more often for paternalism than permissiveness, turning down calls for greater intervention.

This dynamic had also surfaced in the earlier debate on the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) (Amendment) Bill.

Proposed changes included tighter rules on displaying cigarettes. Two MPs, both medical doctors, had a more radical idea.

Completely ban the sale of cigarettes to those born after a specific date, suggested Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) and Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC).

Thankfully, this ultimate example of paternalism - taking choice away completely - was also rejected.

The rationale was a pragmatic one. Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor gave practical reasons not to have a cohort ban: It would be easy to circumvent, enforcement would be challenging and costly, and it might not even reduce smoking rates.

It was good to see the Government giving such leeway, at least in the two very specific policy areas raised yesterday - even if, in the case of tobacco, it seemed to be acting more out of pragmatism rather than principle. Doing otherwise - by heeding the MPs' calls - would have seemed at odds with the trend in the Government's policy-making approach in recent years, of seeking to get people to bear greater responsibility for their decisions, while also respecting their choices in more policy areas.

Indeed, one would have thought that MPs would serve as a check on paternalism, rather than its advocate.

In electing politicians, voters entrust them with the power to make decisions on their behalf, where they might lack capacity or expertise.

But where they do have the ability to decide - in their personal and social lives - most would surely not want to give up the freedom to make their own decisions, even if they turn out to be mistakes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Ministers serve as check and balance to MPs' push for more paternalism'. Print Edition | Subscribe