From The Straits Times    |

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“Since I started working I’ve been giving my parents 10 to 15 per cent of my income,” says Mabel*, 32, lawyer. She had asked her older siblings to gauge what would be a good amount and her parents are pretty understanding that it would depend on their personal financial capabilities too. While they haven’t spoken about it recently, she reckons that her sister who earns more gives a bigger sum while her sister who earns less probably gives less. For her husband on the other hand, he and his siblings have all agreed to give the same amount to their parents, regardless of how much each of them earns. For both Mabel and her husband, they send the sum each month for their parents to use as they see fit. 

Speaking with others in Singapore, there have been instances where it is the parent who decides on the amount of their allowance. “It was soon after I had started working when my mum asked for 20 per cent of my salary. I still live with my parents and I suppose it amounts to how much I would be paying if I were renting a place elsewhere,” says Xin Yi, 32, marketing director at an F&B company. She does not think her parents really need the money but the arrangement suits her because it makes her feel as if she is doing her duty as a filial daughter. 

“There’s a strong expectation in Singaporean Chinese culture that because our parents spent so much to raise us, we kids have to show our gratitude by taking care of them when they’re old. My friends all contribute to their parents’ living expenses monthly, and often pay for their holidays as well,” says Lisa, 40, travel editor. 

Filial piety also extends beyond financial support. Besides giving back to them financially, it is also respecting your parents, honouring them and spending quality time with them, says Lisa. “I do this by treating my parents to good meals at Italian and dim sum restaurants, visiting them once a week, and buying them small gifts I know they will love, like their favourite pastries. I also try to hold my tongue and respect their opinions, even if I don’t agree with them. I try to see things from their point of view and consider that they might have some wisdom to share.” 
While filial piety is a Confucian concept that stems from Chinese culture, speaking with Singaporans and Singapore residents of different ethnicities, it appears that giving parents an allowance once one starts working isn’t common solely among Singaporean Chinese, but quite similar across different ethnicities. Such were also the findings from the 2017 CNA-IPS Survey on Ethnic Identity in Singapore, which saw Chinese, Malay and Indian participants generally finding practising filial piety to be rather important.

Pooja Kawatra, 44, lifestyle and parenting content creator (@poojakawatra) and founder of The Mums and Babies blog moved to Singapore 16 years ago. Growing up in India, she lived together with not only her parents but also her grandparents, uncle and aunt. “Because we were so close-knit, everyone just took it as a responsibility to care for each other as and when it was needed financially. The roles and responsibilities of a married son and daughter were also somewhat differently set. Usually, a son takes care of his parent’s financial needs but parents don’t take money from their married daughter.” 

“Now that my husband and I are part of a sandwich generation dealing with the financial needs of our kids as well as our parents though, we try to plan our future well enough that we won’t have to burden our kids. At the same time, we make sure to teach our daughter and son the importance of the right financial planning,” she shares. 

With the cost of living on the rise and Singapore having ranked as the most expensive city in the world eight times in the past decade, it is probably wise for everyone to make sure that their finances are in check. 

Rethinking what filial piety looks like

“Practising filial piety might still be expected these days but the details are more context-dependent, like how much income you can afford to give and how much your parents need,” says Mabel, who also thinks that individual upbringing plays a part. She adds that she can see her parents once a week and help around the house because they live in the same city, but an overseas sibling can’t do the same. 

“I think it may be related to different love languages. For me, it is more meaningful to spend time with my parents, taking them to nice meals and shows or on holidays. If my parents were struggling financially, then I’d take a different approach. As they are not, I don’t see why the small sum of money each month would represent my filial piety to them,” says Kelly*, 31. As a mum of young children herself, she adds that she would not expect nor ask her children to express their love by giving her money when they grow up, but would not decline if it is how they choose to do so. 

Kelly admits that to not receive an allowance was something her mum struggled to accept for a long time. “She never once outright asked for it, but whenever we got into an argument she would inadvertently bring it up as a snipe. My mum has also said that she doesn’t feel that I’ll look after her when she is older because she doesn’t see it happening right now. It’s not about the amount of money but the lack of tangible proof. I try to reassure her in calm times, like when emotions aren’t high, that I am here for her financially and in person and to not worry.” 

Parents shouldn’t expect something in return from their kids

Despite growing up in a traditional household, Grace*, 29, manager, says her family has always supported one another. She lived with her relatives when her mother moved abroad. Still, she doesn’t think children necessarily owe their parents unwavering care and support – not if it eats away at their livelihood and wellbeing.

 “I have an aunt who wants to live with her daughter, even after her daughter gets married, and I can see how it has put a strain on my cousin and her fiance’s relationship. I don’t think it’s fair,” she explains, having observed how some parents like her aunt still wish to be in control or micro-manage, incapable of “letting go” and allowing their adult children to make their own decisions.  

I will admit that unlike many of my peers, I have yet to start giving my parents an allowance. While I am based in Singapore, they are not. Starting in my career, savings alone was tough with the rental and living costs that seemed constantly on an uphill climb. I did think of giving them a sum after working for a few years, inspired by a colleague who said she would give her single dad a pretty hefty sum, every year-end when her bonus kicked in even though he didn’t need it per se. My parents turned it down and said I should prioritise looking after myself instead. I recognise that it is a privilege to have parents so considerate and have since tried to be supportive in other ways – treating them to nice meals, speaking with them regularly on video calls, and being involved in each other’s lives for instance. 

My parents are pretty tight-lipped about their retirement plans, possibly because that sense of independence and dignity is important to them, possibly because they don’t want me to worry. But we have hypothesised that rather than them coming to Singapore, it is likely that when they age further, I’ll chip in by hiring help to look after them. I am also trying to be careful about saving and investing some money, beyond my personal needs. 

I believe that filial piety in the modern day is an ongoing conversation between children and parents; parents can voice out their needs and priorities, and adult children often naturally feel like they want to “give back” but it’s also not quite fair to pin all expectations on them just because.