Amendments to the Mental Capacity Act approved by Parliament will better protect those who lose the ability to make decisions for themselves. Key changes include the introduction of professionals who can be appointed and paid to decide for the mentally incapacitated. The courts, too, will have greater leeway to revoke or suspend a Lasting Power of Attorney in the interests of the vulnerable. The issue was highlighted by the ongoing court case of a foreigner who stands accused of having manipulated a wealthy widow in her 80s to gain control of her assets. The broad question is how the authorities should intervene to protect the vulnerable in an ageing Singapore where more might fall prey to dementia.
At the other end of the demographic spectrum lie the insecure interests of children with intellectual disabilities. As households shrink, they might have to increasingly fend for themselves over time. Hence, there is a need for a strengthened overall structure to oversee the care of those struck by debilitating mental problems. The amendments offer a practical framework to deal with these social realities.
At the same time, the protective intentions of the Act have to be balanced against the right of individuals to make choices while they are in control of their mental faculties. Making power of attorney appointments more stringent could add a layer of protection for donors. But should the State intervene to the extent that those of sound mind find they are limited in making choices for their future which are of an intensely personal nature? Fallible as these choices might prove to be, competent individuals in all mature societies would not want to cede their right to decide for themselves to the authorities. This is a matter of principle consonant with the fact that citizens should take personal responsibility for their actions, as they are often reminded. The parliamentary debate on the amendments provided an interesting commentary on how Singapore needs to be able to establish protective social and legal mechanisms without moving all the way to paternalism.
However, individual autonomy is preserved in such matters, the authorities would be expected to step in when cases of financial misappropriation or physical neglect, to say nothing of abuse, arise. Outside the range of obvious wrongdoings would lie many caregiving arrangements that might appear ill-judged but were in fact deliberately framed by an individual. If people have specific wishes about their future care, it is in their interest to plan ahead for the potential loss of mental capacity by creating a Lasting Power of Attorney early enough. That should be done, of course, by seeking independent advice and acting with one's eyes wide open. It would not do to treat the amended Act as a guarantor of their material and physical interests in old age.