Let’s deal with elderly poverty now

Every old person in Singapore who is struggling to survive is one too many. Singapore is not some highly indebted Third world country. We are supposed to have one of the highest standards of living in the world, going by our GDP per capita. But this is certainly not the case for more than 66,000 of our old folks. We should aim to reduce to zero the number of elderly persons who are struggling to survive because of finances.

Sunday Routine On 23 August, the Straits Times ran a story titled, “Not-so-golden years for the elderly in Singapore”. It highlighted how, according to the Active Ageing Index, our elderly are not doing well in three areas: health, financial security and community engagement.

This index was compiled by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) as part of a report titled, “The State of the Elderly in Singapore 2008/2009”, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). It can be downloaded from the MCYS website.

While health and, to a lesser extent, community engagement are important, the area I’m most concerned about for our elderly is financial security. This is also the area in which a change government policy can make a big difference in the lives of our senior citizens.

According to the Index, 79 per cent of older persons assessed that their income was “sufficient for a living”, while 20 per cent felt that it was not sufficient. This was proudly highlighted by MCYS, in a Forum page rebuttal on 26 August, where they claimed that “the majority (80 per cent) considered their income adequate or more than adequate for their expenses. These are good results.”

There are two ways of reading this. The government has chosen to portray the glass as half full. They have interpreted “sufficient for a living”—the wording in the IPS report—to mean “adequate or more than adequate”.

The Straits Times, on the other hand, was less upbeat. The paper wrote: “Relating to the poor score in active ageing is another sobering figure: One in five feels that he or she does not have sufficient income for living.”

As a former British prime minister once said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Here is my reading of the statistics (or lies, if you will):

Eighty per cent is good if you’re talking about an election result, but bad when it is a reflection of the impact on individual human beings. This is the problem when our policymakers make decisions by looking at statistics on a computer screen.

There are over 330,100 elderly persons in Singapore. The IPS report revealed that more than 66,020 of these elderly persons do not have sufficient money for living. That is a huge number of people, especially for such a small, wealthy country like ours.

In another section of the same IPS report, it was found that, of the elderly folk who continue working beyond retirement age, 67 per cent do so because they need money for current or future expenses. In contrast, only 21 per cent work because they want to lead an active life or simply occupy their time. Back in 1995, the same survey found that less than 40 per cent of seniors worked because they had to.

Juxtaposing this on top of the earlier statistic, my reading of this is that far more than 66,000 seniors don’t have enough money to live. However, many of them put off retirement and spend their “golden years” working to survive.

This has given rise to a frequent lament among Singaporeans, that in Singapore you have to work until you drop dead. This is more the case now than it was fifteen years ago.

This should not be. Our senior citizens were the ones who built up Singapore to where it is today. Some fought the Japanese during World War Two. Many more laboured in difficult conditions in factories that powered our economy to soaring heights. They raised children who are our current generation of skilled workers who are continuing to contribute to the prosperity of knowledge-based economy. Our country owes a debt of gratitude to them for their sacrifice of blood, sweat and tears. It is outrageous that now, just because they are no longer as economically useful to the country as before, they are largely left to fend for themselves.

Every old person in Singapore who is struggling to survive is one too many. Singapore is not some highly indebted Third world country. We are supposed to have one of the highest standards of living in the world, going by our GDP per capita. But this is certainly not the case for more than 66,000 of our old folks. We should aim to reduce to zero the number of elderly persons who are struggling to survive because of finances.

Helping all our struggling old folks isn’t going to cost the state that much. If each of these struggling old folks were given a $400 subsistence package by the government each month, it will cost the Treasury less than $317 million a year. That is millions less than the $387 million that the PAP government spent on hosting the two-week long Youth Olympic Games “with style and efficiency”, which Sports Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said was “worthwhile”.

(Photo: CJ Dias Abeyesinghe)

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Do you agree with the proposal to give all elderly poor $400 a month? What other ways can we look into to help all our elderly live out their twilight years with dignity and security?

13 thoughts on “Let’s deal with elderly poverty now”

  1. Well written. Every old person should be taken care by the state, 20% is a figure too high. The figure of $400 quoted is reasonable and not a strain on the state.

  2. A very well written and heartfelt analysis Gerald. I especially liked your remark

    “Eighty per cent is good if you’re talking about an election result, but bad when it is a reflection of the impact on individual human beings. This is the problem when our policymakers make decisions by looking at statistics on a computer screen.”

    I pray that the workers party and its members never forget that behind each statistic lie an individual human being.

    Just thought of sharing a passage from Pope Benedict XVI from my Catholic faith tradition for your reflection

    “Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.(Encylical Letter Deus Caritas Est no.28)

    In Christ
    Nick Chui

  3. @Stefan, thanks.

    @Nick, my WP colleagues and I will make sure we never forget that the welfare of people are the reason why we are in politics. I agree with your passage from the Pope. Service must come from the heart, motivated by love. If not, we are just a “resounding gong and a clanging cymbal”.

  4. May I suggest that every citizen registered before 1965 above the age of 65 staying in HDB rental,1rm,2rm3rm with no income or income below $800 be paid the sum of $400 monthly including free medical till expiry for their contributions towards nation building irrespective of their family current status.

    This should be a one off with no precedent after they fade away.Future elderly or poor will be dealt with in a different context as they were better prepared by the success built upon by that generation.

    There are not many of them around and PAP is turning a deaf ear and a blind eye as they are perishing daily and soon will be a forgotten GENERATION that gave the MOST towards the success of this nation.

  5. only worry is that any form of welfare for the elderly will not be fiscally sustainable unless the birthrate goes up or we bring in more immigrants, which of course is the thing that almost everyone wants to criticise.

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