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Published by: Harvard Kennedy School
Published in: 1999

Abstract

To what extent should legislators and legislation be shaped by public opinion? The question lies at the heart of Singapore''s 1995 struggle with the issue of whether or not to effectively mandate "filial piety" -- the traditional Asian obligation of children to support their elderly parents. The legislation is proposed by one of Singapore''s "nominated" members of Parliament, one who is not eleccted but, rather, chosen by the Prime Minister in order, it is said, to ensure that a wide range of ideas is placed on the political agenda. But when law professor Walter Woon proposes the "maintenance of parents" bill, an unprecedented level of bitter public opposition surfaces, particularlya mong the ethnic Chinese who feel that government is overstepping its role and exposing families to potential public humiliation. When the porposal passes more narrowly than is typical in the Singapore Parliament, the Singapore government must decide whether to continue to advance it -- and, if so, what sort of public consultation process might be employed. The case raises the question of how the political process accommodates proposals which adherents believe are in the best interest of the majority but which nonetheless face strong opposition.

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Abstract

To what extent should legislators and legislation be shaped by public opinion? The question lies at the heart of Singapore''s 1995 struggle with the issue of whether or not to effectively mandate "filial piety" -- the traditional Asian obligation of children to support their elderly parents. The legislation is proposed by one of Singapore''s "nominated" members of Parliament, one who is not eleccted but, rather, chosen by the Prime Minister in order, it is said, to ensure that a wide range of ideas is placed on the political agenda. But when law professor Walter Woon proposes the "maintenance of parents" bill, an unprecedented level of bitter public opposition surfaces, particularlya mong the ethnic Chinese who feel that government is overstepping its role and exposing families to potential public humiliation. When the porposal passes more narrowly than is typical in the Singapore Parliament, the Singapore government must decide whether to continue to advance it -- and, if so, what sort of public consultation process might be employed. The case raises the question of how the political process accommodates proposals which adherents believe are in the best interest of the majority but which nonetheless face strong opposition.

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