Honour parents, says nanny state

The latest piece of social engineering in Singapore, the world's most advanced nanny state, has made it appear that the fast-developing nations of east Asia are becoming more like the West.

The island state's legislators have passed a law to ensure that Singaporean children do not duck out of their responsibility to look after elderly parents - a common enough problem in the West, but, according to the advocates of "Asian values", something practically unheard of in Asian societies. Old people, they say, are treated with more respect, and tend to be cared for within an extended family.

Last week, however, a tribunal was established in Singapore which allows parents over the age of 60 to seek legal redress from children who fail to support them. It promptly received 11 applications and a number of other enquiries from potential applicants.

At a meeting with government officials earlier, 100 staff from hospitals and voluntary organisations were asked to detail cases of neglect. According to the Straits Times, they recounted instances of children refusing to visit elderly parents in hospital, being reluctant to take them home after discharge and refusing to pay for parents placed in nursing homes. The view of Lim Hsiu Mei, director of social welfare at the Community Development Ministry, was that "there is business for the tribunal, then".

Closer examination, however, suggests that far from being the response to an epidemic of abandoned grannies, this is simply the latest example of Singapore's passion for social control. Nearly 90 per cent of the country's elderly live with their families, and exceptions to what the Singapore authorities call "filial responsibility" are hard to find.

Even the Straits Times, which can usually be relied on to support the government, found little evidence of financial neglect of parents by children.

"There's a lot of evidence that it's not a huge problem, but it's felt that there should not be any of it," said a retired sociologist in Singapore. "It's a way of expressing a widely shared sentiment more than a way of helping."

Lim Bee Kim, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Community Development, insisted: "The government believes that it should not intrude into the private lives of families." The tribunal was "an avenue for aged parents to make known their need for financial support, not a mechanism to be imposed by every aged parent against their children".

But Singapore rarely hesitates to intervene in what other states might consider an individual's private business. People with higher education are encouraged to marry one another, there are strict rules of behaviour for people living in housing estates - even pets come under a strict regime.

Lee Kuan Yew, the grand old man of Singapore politics, has proposed that the state take a further step in regulating the lives of its citizens by limiting to two the number of properties which each child can inherit. He sees this as part of the process of fulfilling the "Singapore Dream" of redistributing wealth.

Tony Blair, the leader of the Labour Party, recently visited Singapore and endorsed both Mr Lee and the Singaporean system. It remains to be seen whether the latest experiments in social engineering will form part of his vision for the new Britain.