Confucianism And The Law In Singapore And Taiwan


Image from the Classic of Filial Piety (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the previous posts we have shown how Legalist and Confucian values as well as the legal codes of imperial China have influenced the legal system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). We have concluded that the Communist state emphasizes Legalist principles and legal traditions that aimed at protecting dynastic rule from rebellion and treason. Confucian values, by contrast, play only a secondary role. We shall now show how two other states belonging to the Chinese cultural sphere, the Republic of Singapore and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, have incorporated traditional Confucian principles into their legal system.

Singapore And Filial Piety

Singapore is a multicultural society with English as its main official language. However, because three-quarters of its population are ethnic Chinese, Chinese culture and traditional values have exerted a deep influence on the official discourse and the legislation of the city-state. During the first two decades following the foundation of the Republic in 1965 and the consolidation of power by the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), traditional values did not play a substantial role in policy-making. The government was too busy building up the state and the economy. At a time when the West still led the global economy, Singaporean leaders did not seem eager to emphasize Asian traditions.

In an interview given at an NBC’s TV press conference in 1973, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and longest-serving prime minister, still identified Singapore as a “third world country”. At that time, he seemed worried about the Chinese cultural heritage of Singapore, because he believed that the Chinese were culturally “intense people” whose disposition made them prone to Communism. He stated:

More intense peoples are more likely to take to communism because communism is a demanding task-master. Less intense peoples, they want the fruits of communism but they don’t like to put in the discipline and the sustained effort that is required of them before they enjoy the fruits … East of the Mekong, particularly Vietnam, [the people] are more influenced by the Sinic culture of Chinese culture. They are the more intense types … I would not say that, unfortunately, I’ve got a population which is about more than 75% ethnic Chinese. And although we have been placed in a much more relaxed environment climatically, there is still the overflow of years and years of the cultural values and the impetus is still there. So I am taking no chances.

Although he was critical of the West, and especially of Britain, in the early years of his presidency Lee did not seem to consider traditional values as fundamental elements of Singaporean state-building, but, on the contrary, as an obstacle. It was only after sustained economic growth had catapulted the city-state to the status of a high-income society that Lee appears to have started a personal journey of reappraisal of traditional Confucian values (see Diane K. Mauzy and R. S. Milne: Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party, 2002, p. 58). In an interview given to Fareed Zakaria in 1994, Lee explained:

In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy … Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family. He is not pristine and separate. The family is part of the extended family, and then friends and the wider society. The ruler or the government does not try to provide for a person what the family best provides.

In the West, especially after World War II, the government came to be seen as so successful that it could fulfill all the obligations that in less modern societies are fulfilled by the family … [The Singapore government] used the family to push economic growth, factoring the ambitions of a person and his family into our planning … [We] were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop, the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty in the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning (Culture Is Destiny: A Conversation With Lee Kuan Yew. In: Foreign Affairs Mar/Apr 1994, pp. 109-126, my emphasis).

This view of society is consistent with the basic tenets of Confucianism. According to the Confucian worldview, individuals exist only as members of family units in which they have to fulfill certain obligations. The Chinese empire used such values in order to create a self-regulating society, in which family heads became law-enforcers. Strict hierarchy and the interdependence of individuals within the clan made such self-regulating society possible, as the freedom of the individual to transgress moral and social standards was restricted by social hierarchy and control by family elders.

The cornerstone of Confucian ethics is the concept of filial piety (孝), which is based on the principle that children, owing their lives to their parents, are indebted to them and must repay their debt by obeying and pleasing them and by taking care of them. Singapore’s legal system strongly emphasizes the concept of filial piety, and most especially the idea that supporting people in their old age is a duty of the children, and not of the state.

When in the 1980s Singapore was faced with the problem of an aging population, an issue common to most developed societies, the government reacted by turning to Confucianism for answers. It set up the “Committee on the Problems of the Aged” (1982–1984). The Committee issued a report in which it advised the government

[t]o foster greater filial piety and responsibility for children and relatives to support their parents and elders … and in so doing to consider the need for legislation to compel children to care for their parents (Report of the Committee on the Problems of the Aged, 16 February 1984, p. 2). 

The result of the government’s attempt at “implementing” filial piety was the Maintenance of Parents Act, which was enacted in 1995, revised in 1996 and lastly amended in 2014. The Act states:

Any person domiciled and resident in Singapore who is of or above 60 years of age and who is unable to maintain himself adequately (referred to in this section as the parent) may apply to the Tribunal for an order that one or more of his children pay him a monthly allowance or any other periodical payment or a lump sum for his maintenance.

2,177 applications for maintenance and 1,090 applications for variation of maintenance were filed between 1996 and 2014.

It is important to emphasize the “popular top-to-bottom” approach of the government, which in many respects is very similar to the official promotion of Confucianism in the Chinese empire. The report of the Committee on the Problems of the Aged as well as the Maintenance of Parents Act clearly show that Singapore’s authorities did not believe that their population was “filial” enough. A government would not legislate on issues which it considers “natural”. For instance, governments usually do not enact laws to compel people to eat or to spend money, because one may reasonable assume that the citizens will do such things on their own accord. The authorities will legislate only when they assume that misbehaviour may possibly occur and that regulation is necessary. The Singapore government certainly drew upon deep-rooted Confucian values which already existed. However, the government considered the filial piety of the Singaporeans potentially insufficient. In hindsight, Lee Kuan Yew and other politicians may describe Singapore’s population as filial; but the reality is that in the 1980s the government did not have confidence in the “natural” filial ethos of its people, and therefore it promoted filial piety and enacted laws to “compel” the citizens to be filial.

The government, however, was well aware that filial piety alone could not solve the problems of the modern era, and while tradition remained the cornerstone of public education and legislation, the authorities also implemented labour policies and created the necessary infrastructure that would make it possible for the families to care for the elders.

The 2006 Report on the Aging Population by the Committee on Aging Issues (CAI) states:

We want to empower individuals to age with dignity and security, as integral members of society, in a vibrant and socially cohesive nation. The family, as the first line of support, should look after the physical and emotional needs of their senior members. These needs are best met by one’s family. To support the family, there will be a range of comprehensive services in the community to support them in their caring responsibility (Report on the Ageing Population, 3 February 2006, p. ii). 

Yet despite the official promotion of filial piety, it is important to note that the government has not adopted traditional values uncritically, but it has rather adapted them to modern realities. One example is the traditional Confucian discrimination of women, who were considered inferior to men and therefore did not enjoy the same personal freedoms as men. Singapore’s leaders have endorsed the principle of gender equality, which is contrary to the original spirit of Confucianism. Lee Kuan Yew himself stated in 2001 that the “Confucian practice of male over female, of a patriarchal society … has to change”.

Confucianism and the Law in the Republic of China

Like Singapore, the Republic of China (ROC) too stresses filial obligations and promotes traditional values. The Criminal Code of the Republic of China enshrines in articles 293-294 the duty of children to support their parents:

Whoever abandons a person who cannot support himself/herself shall be sentenced to a prison term of no more than six months or to a fine of no more than 100 dollars. If neglect causes death or injury, the punishment will be a prison term of no less than five years or a prison term of no less than three years, respectively.

Until a few years ago the duty of children to take care of their parents was unconditional, meaning that children had to support their parents even if the latter had abused them or had failed to provide for them. In order to fight against child abuse, on January 2010 article 294 was amended by the addition of article 294-1, which exempts from legal care-giving obligations children who have been victims of abuse or neglect.

The ROC promotes filial piety not only through legislation, but also though various government-sponsored events such as the foot-washing ceremony and the filial piety awards.

Summing up the results of the present analysis, we may conclude that Singapore and the ROC institutionally promote Confucian values, most especially filial piety, through legislation, education and government-sponsored activities. However, these values have  been adapted to the conditions of modern society.

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