How the Office of the Public Guardian can live up to its name

How the Office of the Public Guardian can live up to its name

The Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) scheme has come under the public spotlight recently, triggered by two high-profile public cases.

In one, the niece of rich widow Chung Khin Chun, 87, is seeking to revoke the LPA her aunt granted to former China tour guide Yang Yin, 40, in 2012.

In the second, Mr Gabriel Ng, the son of former SA Tours boss Ng Kong Yeam, 75, is challenging the LPA that his father granted to Madam Kay Swee Pin, 62, in 2011.

Madam Chung and Mr Ng are among 6,500 Singaporeans who have signed up under the LPA scheme since it started in 2010.

It is a voluntary scheme that allows proxy decision making, by letting a "donor" appoint a "donee" in advance to make key decisions on his personal welfare and financial matters should he lose the mental ability to do so.

Similar mental capacity laws and schemes are found overseas, like those in Britain and Australia. Singapore's laws are modelled after the England and Wales Mental Capacity Act, which sets the conditions and safeguards when decisions are made in proxy.

The two recent high-profile cases raise the question of whether there are enough safeguards to prevent abuses in the scheme here.

Safeguards against abuse

The issue of safeguards was debated extensively in Parliament when the Mental Capacity Act, which enabled the setting up of the LPA scheme, went before the House in September 2008.

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, then a backbench MP, pointed out that "the Bill gives proxy decision-makers power without too much accountability".

Responding, the then-Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan said steps would be taken during implementation to ensure that donees do not exercise their powers inappropriately.

"We will make sure this protection is catered for," he said.

Fast forward six years. The Office of the Public Guardian (OPG), which now comes under the Ministry of Social and Family Development, has put in place safeguards which it has stoutly defended as adequate.

At a press briefing last month, the office handed to reporters a list of safeguards which included having LPA forms certified by experts such as a doctor or lawyer. The office also sends experts to check on the welfare of donors and investigates complaints.

But it was firm in the areas that it will not be drawn into doing.

For one thing, it will not compel donors to inform their family members when they apply to be on the LPA scheme.

This stand is reasonable. Family relationships are complex and it is up to individuals whether they want to keep their family members informed of their decisions, just as they do when they make a will.

Also, the office maintains that it will neither supervise donors nor judge "the quality" of their decisions on who they grant LPAs.

Mr Tay Yong Seng, a partner at law firm Allen & Gledhill, put it well when he gave his personal views on the scheme at a public talk last week: "The extent of supervision for the OPG cannot extend to the same amount of supervision that the Commissioner of Charities does for the charities... We are dealing with private monies."

While the OPG may argue that safeguards are adequate, it should be open to making improvements to shore up public confidence in the scheme. There are at least three such areas.

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