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How is filial piety changing in Singapore? Here’s the younger generation’s take on it

SINGAPORE: Caught between her parents’ example and her own life pursuits, Xin Yi finds herself in a dissonant state.

“My parents are very ‘xiao shun,’” said the 23-year-old, referring to the Chinese phrase for filial piety. “My parents do hire a maid, but they still care for my grandparents very closely.

“They won’t put their parents in an old folks’ home or anything, … and I do feel pressured to (do the same for them).”

But her own inclinations are different. Having seen the physical care her grandparents require, including their toilet needs, the only child feels more comfortable outsourcing care of her parents in future.

This is why the diploma holder left the workforce and is now at a local university.

“I need to further my studies to earn more to pay for all their future needs if I want to have a life,” said Xin Yi, who declined to share her surname.

“If their health deteriorates, I’ll need to pay for them to be in a nursing home, which is so expensive nowadays.”

While her parents have not communicated their expectations, Tessa’s parents have — and there is some distance between what they want and what their four children want to give.

“My mum would say, ‘You need to visit several times a week … to show that you care,’” said Tessa, 27, who also declined to give her full name.

Her elder sister, for example, gets asked regularly why she does not visit “enough”.

“There are already so many expectations in a traditional household that you want out of it,” said Tessa, who plans to visit once every fortnight after she moves to her Build-To-Order flat with her fiancé.

Recent years have seen a growing debate on filial piety norms. One CNA commentary in May, which questioned whether adult children should still be expected to give their parents an allowance, sparked online discourse that echoed similar sentiments.

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With norms that seem to separate filial children from unfilial ones, such discourse might suggest that younger generations are seeking to shirk their filial duties.

For Xin Yi, Tessa and other young people CNA Insider spoke to, however, it is not about abandoning their duties but about wanting to show their filial piety in other ways.


Tessa heard about her parents’ expectations from her elder siblings when she started working full-time — that “we need to pay them back for our university fees and give them an allowance”.

So she gives her parents the 10 per cent cut they expect, although that is not the way she wants it to be.


Living with or close to aged parents to care for them may also not be a high priority for some millennials and Gen Zers, such as Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergraduate Ryan Aw, who wants to work overseas.

“That means leaving my parents behind,” noted the 22-year-old, who has a younger brother and whose parents are in their 60s and “still independent”. But he is not sure what he will do in their old age.

“I’d want to see … what’s most doable and do that,” he said. “My respect and appreciation for them are what define my filial piety — not the physical proximity.”

While his parents are not expecting to live with their sons, Tessa’s parents want her elder brother, who is married, to house and care for them someday.

“It could be quite difficult. He mentioned to us quite a bit that he isn’t sure what to expect,” she said. “He wants to live separately, but I’m not sure whether my parents will be able to accept that.”

Tessa herself is against her parents living in an old folks’ home. Thinking back on her visits as part of her Community Involvement Programme at school, she said she felt “quite sad” for the residents.

But all four siblings hesitate to house their parents. “I’d rather they live alone, and I visit them,” Tessa said.

Their parents are not unique in this sense. Many older adults may struggle with loneliness as they age. “My mum wants to stay with me and my brother until she passes away,” shared Sarah. “She’s very clingy in that way.”

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Sarah, however, does not see herself taking on this responsibility when her mother is retired.

If her elder brother had not decided to be the one who would house and care for their mother in future, Sarah envisages having to put her in a retirement home. “(But) I’d pay her a visit every week and buy her favourite foods,” she said.


Sarah is another young Singaporean who intends to work abroad. And she understands that her expressions of filial piety would have to adapt accordingly.

“If I can afford a plane ticket, I’d visit my mum every few months,” Sarah said. “If I’m broke, I’ll just video-call her every month.”

“It’s less of maths, like 10 per cent of my paycheck, and more like ‘I’m using my resources to spend time with you,’” he said. “I think that’s what they’d value more.”

Since his parents are “fiercely independent”, he expects them to be open to “solutions where they don’t feel like they’re impeding us” in their old age. “That sense of dignity is very important to them,” he remarked.


According to Ang, “the dynamics of life in Singapore have changed substantially” owing to a couple of factors.

Singapore has seen the average size of its households shrink from 4.87 members in 1980 to 3.09 last year. Department of Statistics data also show that the median monthly income from work among resident households increased from S$4,000 in 2000 to S$8,615 last year.

With fewer children, “people will hopefully have more that they can save for themselves”, said Bussarawan (Puk) Teerawichitchainan of the National University of Singapore’s department of sociology and anthropology.

“They’ve benefited from Singapore’s economic growth over the last few decades. So those in the middle class tend to be relatively self-sufficient.”

Among the Gen X parents planning their finances with a view to retiring independently is Ian Y H Tan, whose two children are just a few years younger than Aw.

“I intend to be self-sufficient till the day I die. So I’m staying healthy, I’m keeping busy,” said the 47-year-old, who recently joined NTU as a lecturer.

“Even though I’d give an allowance to my parents if they were alive, I don’t expect my children to give me an allowance.”

He is not the only parent holding this view. Dora Yip, another 47-year-old parent of two Gen Z children, said: “I’m trying to make sure I’m financially able to afford whatever kind of care I need when I’m aged.”

She would even pay for institutional care herself, although she hopes to avoid the need for it.

Demographics aside, there have also been changes in the Maintenance of Parents Act over the years.

Just last month, the law was amended so that parents who have abused, abandoned or neglected their children may not be able to seek monetary support from them.

“Filial piety is, in theory, unconditional. But now the law is shifting, and there are conditions being attached,” Ang noted.


A more significant shift, as Ang saw it, began in 2015, when one in eight Singaporeans was aged 65 or over and the Action Plan for Successful Ageing was launched.

Successful ageing here entails “a shift to individual responsibility” on the part of older people, he said, so that there is less reliance “on the incumbent generation to look after the old”.

Aw can count his parents as an example of this. “(They) still cycle regularly from Sengkang to Boon Lay and back,” he remarked. “At their big age!”

Official data shows that the average number of years a person in Singapore can expect to live in full health increased from 72.8 in 2010 to 74.5 in 2019.

The general trends across Singapore are also not entirely representative, Straughan said. “There’ll always be the poor, and there’ll always be a distance between those who have and those who have not.”

For lower wage earners and older adults with health problems, the functional and tangible support their children give them remains a necessity.

Similarly, what is important to Tan is that his relationship with his children deepens.

Is the filial piety of yore still relevant, then? Are children more filial if they give their parents an allowance and keep them out of nursing homes? Not seemingly so, for the Gen Zers interviewed.

“The traditional understanding of filial piety doesn’t apply to our world any more,” Aw said.

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