Declaring his candidacy for chief executive last week, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said his social policies would aim to 'reignite people's sense of self-reliance and self-respect' and his priority would be 'embedding a consensus in the community that a safety net goes only to those in need'. Judging from the controversy kicked up by the Social Welfare Department's proposal to require single parents claiming welfare to work, that consensus certainly needs a lot of embedding. In fact, the bitter row makes one wonder if Hong Kong people's traditional sense of self-reliance has lost its relevance to the welfare lobby. Under the proposal, single parents on social security must work at least 32 hours and earn $1,430 a month if their children are older than six. While failing to work will not deprive them of their basic benefits, they will not be eligible for an extra $225 a month single-parent supplement if they do not take up employment. Officials say the proposal aims to encourage jobless single parents to better integrate with society. At present, they are not required to work. But many of them end up depending on welfare for the long term, because the longer they are out of the job market, the more detached they are from the world of work and the more difficult it is for them to get employment again. It is hoped the proposal would encourage them to take up part-time work for a few hours a day when their children are at school. Social workers and single parents are split over the proposal. Some are fundamentally opposed on the grounds that children under the age of 15 have a special need to be taken care of by close relatives. They fear the requirement to work will affect the quality of care single parents can give to their children and lead to more family problems. They say these parents should be encouraged to study or do volunteer work, instead of being forced to work. Single parents face special challenges in bringing up their children. There is a need to ensure the children do not lack the parental care they need. But the argument of the proposal's critics is not convincing. Certainly, single parents who are enrolled in training courses or have other special needs should not be penalised by the new rule. It is, however, difficult to accept the proposition that all single parents should receive the supplement without being required to do at least a little work each week. In fact, some social workers and single parents have admitted that allowing single parents to shut themselves with their children within the four walls of their home could be bad to their emotional health. Far better to encourage the parents to broaden their experience and build up their confidence and self-image by having a regular work life. Some critics are concerned that it is difficult for many single parents to find suitable part-time jobs. They say the requirements for working at least 32 hours and earning no less than $1,430 a month imply an hourly wage rate of $45, which is unrealistically high. They also fear large numbers of single parents will flood the part-time job market and force down wage rates. These are real concerns. But while they point to a need to fine-tune the proposal, they do not undermine its rationale. Opponents to the proposal should not forget that work has its intrinsic meaning in many ways. For any person, there is nothing more fulfilling that using one's hard-earned cash to buy food for the family. Beyond that, to paraphrase philosopher Sara Ruddick, work is also about a satisfactory predominance of activity over passivity, of reality over fantasy, and of creation over conception. Our society has rightly provided a safety net to the needy. But when that net has become a warp that undermines the beneficiaries' ability to stand on their feet through their own labour, steps must be taken to help them reignite their sense of self-reliance and self-respect.