Complaint Discourse and Elders in SingaporeThis is a featured page

Lee and Rosenberg present the complaint discourse in Dobe Ju/’hoansi culture in which complaints are used by Ju/’hoansi elders to ensure quality of care. I started thinking if there are any parallels in Singapore and why not. In Singapore, complaints by elders are unwelcomed and seen as nagging. In constrast complaints by elders for the Ju/’hoansi are delivered in a joking manner and often taken in stride without animosity. This complaint discourse reminded me the insulting the meat practice that the Dobe Ju/’hoansi . Complaints and insults are delivered in a not so serious manner but for important purposes.

Perhaps this difference in views toward complaints is also due to the differing attitudes the two cultures have toward elders. For the Dobe Ju/’hoansi, elders enjoy certain privileges and status. For instance they decide kinship joking and avoidance relationships and are authority figures as healers. With their elevated status in the community, elders are able to demand care as a right, through the use of complaints. In contrast, productivity in terms of being able to work and to earn a living is prized in Singapore society. People typically lose productivity and their ability to work with age and come to be seen as dependents and as even burdens. Complaints are thus viewed as a sign of ungratefulness and lack of appreciation because elders in Singapore have no right to demand care when they are no longer contributing much to society.

Unlike the Ju/’hoansi whose caring discourse has been “constructed … with little influence from state agencies” (pg 92), caring discourse for the elders in Singapore is largely influenced by the state. The state constantly reminds us that Singapore is a Confucian society and that Singaporeans should practice filial piety and care for elderly parents. This is a message that resonates for many but sometimes it can be quite contrived. For instance the Maintenance of Parents Act that makes it mandatory by law for people to take care of their elderly parents (this website has more information While it may help ensure that elders are taken care, this also means that the larger community (the country, the state) is absolved of all responsibility of caring for the elders because the onus is now on their children. This is rather problematic because it also raises the question, who is responsible for helping to care for elders who do not have children? This is unlike the Dobe Ju/’hoansi where the primary caregivers for elders are their children but the community (village) still chips in to cares for elders if they need support like in the case of Chwa (pg 105). In addition being forced by the law to care for parents may breed resentment and frustration that could negatively affect parent-child relationships. Even so we should not be disillusioned that the way elder care is conducted in the Dobe Ju/’hoansi is superior because there are cases of abandonment in their culture as well.

I would conclude that care for elders is a tricky affair. On one hand, there is an expectation that kinsmen should care for their elders yet at the same time, caring for an elder puts a strain on resources for the caregiver and the Dobe Ju/hoansi and Singapore have different methods of encouraging care for elders through complaint discourse and with legal institutions.

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eelhtebazile the state and the singapore family 0 Nov 9 2011, 9:59 PM EST by eelhtebazile
Thread started: Nov 9 2011, 9:59 PM EST  Watch
In response to yellowmarshmallow commentary on the influence of state policies on the treatment of elderly in Singapore, I would like to add possible reasons as to why the state policy towards elderly in Singapore is the way it is.

The size of the community that we are looking at is very different. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi is a small community of about 50 people while Singapore currently stands at a population of 5 million. With such a large population, it is much more difficult to manage the welfare of the country as compared to a small tribe. In order to facilitate the smooth management of such a big group of people, the state delegates most of the responsibility of taking care of the dependents (both young and old) on the family. Ideally, if every family is functioning as it is supposed to, this would reduce the number of individuals the state has to deal with from 5 million to maybe around 3 million or less. It is for this reason that the state is willing to spend huge amounts of money on encouraging couples to have children through indirect methods such as tax reliefs and incentives, as the state understands that a healthy family that is self-sufficient is the key to a healthy functional society. It is only the case of the breakdown of the family unit such there is no one to take care of the elderly, that the state steps in to intervene. Even then, this method is much abhorred by the state. The state has thus been trying to find ways to allow elderly with no children to take care of themselves. This can be seen in the promotion of a healthy living and also the recent CPF changes that forces them to save so that they would have finances for their old age.

It is thus not fair to simply compare the treatment of the elderly in Singapore and Ju/'hoansi without first understanding the different struggles and context that each society faces.
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