The issue of active aging in Singapore
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By Jimmy Ho
06 December 2012
The past decade saw a tremendous promotion of elderly activities in Singapore as the campaign for active ageing intensified. The general response to such events was not encouraging. Those who frequented such events were mainly the same people seeking nothing more than free meals, free T-shirts and free goodie bags.
The underlying reason why active ageing programmes were not well received here is simply that our elderly do not have the right mood for them. We can divide Singapore’s elderly into two groups: first, the 50 to 65 (active) group and second, those above 65 (actual retirees).
THE ACTIVE ELDERLY
In Singapore, the “active” seniors, whilst trying to remain in the workforce, are usually either under-employed or “mis-employed” to the effect that they are no longer working in the job area they deserve. Like most Asian societies, Singapore faces severe age discrimination in its job market. Starting from an age as early as 40, an employee would be threatened with retrenchment. Getting back to the right job after being told to leave seems an almost impossible task.
Sadly, we have accepted the “consequences” of the middle-age crisis instead of finding a solution for it. The government focuses its job creation on fresh graduates while the senior sector is largely neglected. In fact, the former, amazingly, often assumes that seniors are only fit for menial jobs with an average $800 monthly pay such as cleaning jobs. Availability of the right jobs for seniors does not seem to gel with the call for employment until 65.
There is no conscious effort to remove age discrimination. Employers are generally reluctant to interview a job seeker who is more than 50 years old in Singapore.
With policies encouraging the use of foreign workers, even leftover jobs (subject to a pay-cut) became inaccessible to these people, especially in the white collar sector.
Among the population strata, the 50-65 age group appears most pathetic. Many are having financial commitments, kids who could be still studying and/or older parents to feed. Such are our poor-rich folks who need money for a proper livelihood, but are aware that the balances in their CPF accounts are unavailable for use.
THE ACTUAL RETIREES
Those above 65 are not much better. Their children are mostly grown ups who are too busy coping with the rocketing cost of living than caring for their ailing parents.
Furthermore, given someone at 70, her children could be 45, a retrenchment target in Singapore. We have legislated the duty for Singaporeans to care for their ageing parents but without specifying the extent of the care or taking into consideration how the children are going to cope.
There is a tendency to prevent the elderly from drawing on social welfare money. A minister (Ms Halimah Yacob) even recently presented results of a “survey” which implied that generally Singaporeans refused public assistance money because they do not feel dignified to receive it. Yet, we hear frequent cries from the public about difficulties obtaining welfare money from the government.
Applicants for social welfare are sometimes denied support on the grounds that they have rich kids among their offsprings, indicating that it’s their children’s duty to first take care of them before the state does. Elders needing financial help but having well-to-do kids who refuse to adequately support them are often stuck. Our first world nation fails to fully respect human rights as it forgets that each Singaporean ought to be treated as a separate legal entity, whose deserving welfare from the state should not be conditioned upon the well being of their children. Here, preservation of the state coffers takes priority over caring for the needy and old.
In China and Hong Kong, senior citizens are offered free public transport. Their old folks do really age actively as they travel around each day doing whatever pleases them. These folks are also receiving free medical care which relieves them the fear of sickness.
In Singapore, an elderly contracted with terminal cancer has to make the sad decision of whether to spend his $50,000 life savings on chemotheraphy treatment or just leave the world without the treatment in order to pass the money to improve the life of his offsprings in a society suffocated by inflation. Likewise, a poor old folk in the same situation may strain his relationship with his children after using up all their family savings for the treatment.
INVESTING FOR RETIREMENT
The call for senior citizens to invest their limited funds/ CPF to “better” their retirements would most likely make them worse. The Singapore stockmarket does not offer a sufficiently fair investment ground for the average folk. To appear impartial, the Singapore Exchange, which “regulates” its own profit making from the stockmarket, has a “conflict of interest” committee to “check itself”, a feature quite unique to the auditing world.
Huge chunks of retirement funds were wiped out by the termination of CLOB while the SGX, after earning years of clearing fees from this market, instead advised the Singapore investors to take legal action against KLSE on the issue had they wished to.
Listing revenues were collected by SGX since the influx of China companies (S Chips) to list here one decade ago. Due diligence may not have been adequately conducted to ensure the authenticity of financial figures/ assets claimed by these companies before listing. Several S Chips were grounded or delisted one by one over the last few years, taking with them the hard earned monies of our ageing population.
Many old folks introduced to Unit Trusts had diminished in wealth. The financial tool can result in a 15% loss over 5 years even with market prices remaining unchanged. This is calculated taking into account their 5% upfront charge and 2% yearly “management” fees.
Yet, our investment regulatory framework is still operating with a culture of “Corporate Governance” (with companies doing self compliance of the rules, and investigation work starting only after investors had lost their monies). The concept, “Let the Buyers Beware” seem to excuse the authorities from the requirement of the need for timely and pro-active enforcement.
Most Singaporeans (the baby boomers) entering the elderly bracket are professionals, managers, executives or administrative workers (ie. the white collar). The prescription for elderly employment via menial (blue collar) jobs will create a structural job mismatch for most older Singaporeans.
The government must face the fact that the job infrastructure in Singapore has to be adjusted to accommodate discrimination against senior citizens in the employment market. Active old folks, who are technologically less literate and slower in speed and response, could be given planning and strategic roles (to tap on their rich experience in life and business) to lead the younger workforce. This way, both the young and old could jointly contribute to Singapore, the latter would be dignified in having a self sustaining job and not condemned to doing just dish washing at hawker centers. No amount of handouts can compensate for giving the ageing population the right job.
The financial health of our future ageing population depends on their existing expenditure to income ratio. If the high cost of living on food, transport, medical, housing and utilities remains unchecked, future retirees would be left with nothing much for their old age. Increasing the minimum sum for retirement in an almost dried up CPF account won’t help.
The government has to put its foot down against the richer elites who incessantly influence the rise of property prices. Rising property prices is the main factor behind the higher and higher costs of living/ operation in Singapore. Ballooning the Singapore bubble this manner is counter-productive (giving no value-added), bringing further hardship to the average Singaporean.
Singapore is a nation rich in financial reserves. It allocates hundreds of millions or even, billions, in spending on projects and infrastructure yearly. Unfortunately, we have much lower priority in parliament for the aged and spending on their well being. Singapore has prospered in wealth over the last two decades (even though most of its people have not). Our leaders are now well rewarded in pay. Is it not time to share the cake with our nation’s old folks, the ex-contributors?
Asian values emphasize filial piety. Much effort is pumped into our children’s future by Asian parents in their upbringing. But with Singapore being a partially westernized nation, our children may not feel the need to support their ageing parents financially and socially.
I have come across a high level civil servant drawing $30,000 of monthly pay, but who only gives each of his parents $100 per month.
May I suggest that a guideline be established by a nominated committee as to how much each offspring is duty-bound to pay each of their parents legally in monthly maintenance? What about, say, 10% of gross income from each child? (my idea is open for consideration and by no means final)