Historically, the receding footprints of the extended family - itself a part of larger networks of affinity based on clan or caste or village or vocation - made nuclear households the default key to preserving and prolonging social structures.
Now, even those households are retreating, with the fall in the number of nuclear families. The question then is what should form the core component of social processes and policies. It is an insistent question in Singapore, where the family is regarded as the basic unit of society, the biological microcosm of the nation, and the carrier of its social and cultural DNA.
Hence the rationale of the official decision to embark on a study of the extended family to explore the sustaining patterns of care and support which it could bring to facing demographic challenges in an ageing nation. Data obtained could be used for tweaks to policy designed to encourage people to support their aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins and other relatives.
Some might fear the burdens that the exercise could pose for them were it to result in compulsory obligations to members of an extended family. However, that is not its objective. Instead, the aim is to see how the state's support structures could include housing grants for extended family members if they live nearby, or tax exemptions if they top up their loved ones' Central Provident Fund accounts, for example.
The goal is not to transfer the responsibilities inherent in nuclear households to extended families but to channel official help through the latter, given the declining profile of the former.
Indeed, one aspect of the study is to find out how far individuals consider the extended family to be family at all. If they do not, incentives are unlikely to make them change their minds. However, other studies indicate the substantial presence of close-knit families across different age groups. Indeed, these ties extend to relationships with relatives. Judicious policies, patiently explained, could tap into this sense of belonging.
The end, whether with immediate or extended households, is the same: to retain the family's central agency in the unfolding life of the nation.
This is important at any time; it is acutely necessary when ageing threatens to subvert the demographic economy of Singapore. The old, with their sense of dignity, would not wish to become a burden on the state.
They would much prefer to receive help from their immediate family members if possible and from relatives in the extended network if necessary.
Creating a broader base of support for the elderly now will help to prevent the silver tsunami of the future from overwhelming society's ability to cope with demographic change.
This article was first published on June 20, 2015.
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