Singapore recently passed a law requiring children to support their parents and China is considering doing the same. Whether Hong Kong should follow suit is a question worth exploring. For financial imperatives look set to force the community to face the issue of how best to contain the costs of taking care of the elderly. At present, about 10 per cent of the population is over the age of 65 and this is expected to rise by several percentage points in the next few decades. As life expectancy lengthens, more and more elderly people are also expected to require institutional care. The options are clear. If tax rates stay constant, either a bigger portion of the budget will have to be used to fund elderly care at the expense of other priorities, or benefits will have to be cut or their scope limited. In a society which is rooted in the Confucian value of filial piety, it seems natural that considerations be made to ensure ageing parents can draw on the support of their children before relying on the public coffers. While most elderly people in Hong Kong still live with their families, there are growing signs that an increasing number cannot count on their children. For example, officials have noticed that while about 40 per cent of those on the waiting list for admission into subvented old people's homes live on grants under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme, the take-up rate of such grants for inmates is 60 per cent. Maybe more elderly people become aware of the CSSA on being admitted to the homes. Or the elderly and their children may have found the monthly fee of between $1,335 and $1,500 charged by the homes a burden and so have decided to rely on government hand-outs. What is worrying is that some of the elderly CSSA recipients appear to have children who are well-off enough to pay the fee. By law, CSSA applicants need only show that their assets and incomes are below prescribed levels to be eligible for assistance. In practice, for elderly applicants who have children, welfare workers also ask their children to sign a declaration that they are unable to support their parents. But no checks are made to find out the children's financial position because the law does not empower welfare workers to do so. Even if the children are manifestly well-off, the law cannot force them to support their parents. While shame falls on those who refuse to support their parents, it has clearly failed to stop a growing number of sons and daughters from deserting their parents. Had the old age pension scheme mooted last year been endorsed by the community, it might have been easier for the Government to put a cap on the cost of taking care of the elderly. For a variety of reasons, the community rejected the pension scheme as an unfair instrument of wealth transfer and chose to set up a Mandatory Provident Fund which emphasises self-help. But experience elsewhere is that the MPF may not provide adequate help to low-income workers and the long-term unemployed whose accumulated savings may be insufficient to cover the needs of their twilight years. Indeed, Singapore has found that its Central Provident Fund is unable to provide adequately for some of its elderly citizens. In some cases, these elderly people are unable to count on their well-off children to make ends meet. After a long debate, Singapore's solution is to compel children who can afford to do so to support their parents. The Maintenance of Parents Act, which came into effect on June 1, provides that parents can apply to a tribunal for maintenance from their children. Approved third parties, such as relatives or welfare groups, can also file a claim on behalf of the parents. To save the families involved from public embarrassment, the parties are first invited to meet a conciliation officer, who will see if the claim can be settled. Only if mediation fails will a hearing be held before the tribunal, whose proceedings are not made public unless there is a point of law of public interest. Children can also submit that they should not be compelled to support their parents because they have been abandoned, abused or neglected. It remains to be seen how Singapore's use of the strong arm of the law to enforce a moral value will work out. In Hong Kong, the plight of elderly people living alone has been put under the spotlight, particularly during the cold spell around Lunar New Year. It has not gone unnoticed that some of them in fact have children, who for various reasons do not live with their parents and do not contribute to their maintenance. Across cultures, it is universally accepted that parents must take care of their offspring and the state will punish those who fail to look after their children. But although respect for the elderly is also seen as a virtue, few countries have gone down the Singaporean route and most see the maintenance of the elderly as the state's responsibility. In the West, one of the greatest achievements of the so-called welfare states is the emphasis which their social security systems place on the care of the elderly. However, faced with an ageing population, the systems have proved to be inadequate in achieving their objectives. The search for a better mechanism is on. Critics argue that most children support their parents; those who do not have probably broken up with their parents and the state has no place to use the law to intervene to restore the relationship. There is a grain of truth in this argument. What Hong Kong needs now is an open discussion of the issue.