Updated: Jan 12
By Lim Chenfei (22J04)
On paper, filial piety is an amazing concept. But not when the changing context and mindsets have bastardised it to become something else entirely. So here is to building better and healthier parent-child relationships.
Confucius’ Concept on Filial Piety (The Original)
For those who are unfamiliar, one of the many principal values in Confucianism is filial piety. At its essence, it demands respect and obligation to ageing parents, and places an emphasis on group harmony rather than individual identity.
Statue of Confucius erected in China
Opinions in Singapore
The Older Crowd
In Singapore, it is an issue that sparks much discourse. This is par for the course given the sensitive subject matter, and there is no definitive answer on the correct stand to take.
To give some context, the divide lies largely between the older and younger generations of Singaporeans.
The Older Generation
Those who are older (and generally more traditional) have a more straightforward view of how filial piety should be conducted; and it boils down to an expectation of a parental allowance to support their living expenses.
Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of filial piety. But oftentimes, this is what comes to mind when one thinks about fulfilling it.
The State agrees with this traditional viewpoint.
Providing financial support for parents in Singapore isn’t just a cultural expectation, but part of the law. The Maintenance of Parents Act allows parents (who cannot support themselves financially) to take their children to court and demand a monthly allowance if it is not given willingly.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the younger generation who have become increasingly resistant towards the idea of providing for their parents.
In fact, it is not uncommon for them to retort with remarks such as, “But I didn’t ask to be born!” if they were asked to adhere to some traditional notions of filial piety.
Young People Exploring Haji Lane
However, it is more precise to say that they are recalcitrant towards the idea of having to give their parents an allowance to be viewed as good sons/daughters. Additionally, there may be other forces that render them unable to fulfil this expectation.
Why the Unwillingness?
“The older generation doesn’t talk about it, but practical realities tell us that (traditional frameworks of filial piety) is not possible.”
*A quote from Professor Paulin Straughan, director of Singapore Management University’s Centre for Research on Successful Ageing
The Evolution of Kampung Living to the More ‘Isolated’ HDB Apartments
Unlike the (not so distant) past when children were raised to accept their roles and responsibilities unquestioningly, mindsets have changed.
More people are choosing to live separate from their parents. Unlike the bygone days when elders were expected to be cared for under the same roof, money is ironically being used as the ‘cheap’ substitute now.
And soon, even this way of repaying filial piety may be phased out with the increased cost of living and unfavourable economic climate. This is further complicated by our rapidly ageing society and declining birth rates; with the pressure of providing for more people lying on the shoulders of fewer, and fewer children.
The Flip Side
“Just have more children when you grow up. That way more people will take care of you when you’re older.”
Unfortunately for some, that was the lesson they were taught growing up. The words may be different, but the message remains the same. The expectation that your children will provide for you is inculcated into most Asians from childhood.
Spending Time with Family
So of course, how can we expect our parents to feel differently? After all, it is an age-old lesson that has, and will continue to shape our society.
And this is why the older generation hangs so tightly onto the traditional ideas of filial piety. Because they have experienced the same pressures from when they were still providing for their parents; but now that it's their turn, their children are choosing a different path to take.
One cannot deny the sacrifices that come with parenthood. I would imagine that it feels a little like betrayal when their children decide to not fulfil the unspoken or (sometimes spoken agreement) to repay their ‘debts’.
The Questionable Parts of Filial Piety
To broach the question of why exactly filial piety is repaid in money, we would also have to look at parents, or perhaps Asian society as a whole.
The Asian ‘Apology’
Much of the communication done within Asian households is through subtext. There are rarely outward displays of love and almost everything is left to one’s own interpretation.
The monthly allowances are the same, able to contain a myriad of emotions from child to parent. These emotions can range from unbridled gratefulness, to a sense of obligation, or even resentment. But more often than not, it is a mixture of many complicated feelings too difficult to be strung into words.
However, is it healthy for a child’s love to be so transactional?
To answer this question, let us consult the teachings of Confucius once again.
*A quote from the Confucian Analects (論語)
Translation: “These days, filial piety means to be well provided for,’ said Confucius. “But one can also provide for dogs and horses. Without respect, what’s the difference?”
*Translation from What Would Confucius Say About Singapore’s Filial Piety Debate?
Popular Dog Breed in Singapore
Clearly, the original intention for filial piety was a means to express a child’s respect and gratitude towards their parents. But along the way, it has seemingly been reduced to a provision of material comforts.
This should have been obvious from the start, as believing that money alone can replace the core values filial piety represents suggests that the rich and wealthy have more ‘love’ to give. This belief, of course, is fallacious - can we quantify love by denominations?
The concept of filial piety is further bastardised by parents themselves, with there being a culture surrounding how much one’s children can provide for them. Generally the higher the allowance, the more successful the parent. This manifests as demands arising not out of need, but of competition with other parents. And more often than not, these demands can start surfacing by late teenhood.
Is it really worth it to strain familial relationships over the fear of losing ‘face’?
How Should We Move Forward?
As our parents age, we should be expecting an eventual role reversal, with us taking on responsibility for their care.
However, with more Singaporeans able to support themselves past retirement, we should also expect a shift from providing physical care to emotional care for our ageing parents.
The foundations of such care starts now, by cultivating positive relationships and communication channels with your parents. Learning to set boundaries and showing understanding towards our parents will be a difficult journey; but at the end of the day, being able to successfully navigate the complexities of such relationships will only make your life more vibrant.
To end off, we only have one set of parents, so decide on how you choose to spend your time with them. We may feel too young to be dealing with filial piety, but learning to communicate and treasure your parents can start at any age!
Here is to building healthy familial relationships! 🥂