When you’re sitting at Food Republic enjoying a meal with your friends, do you notice the ah mahunched over the cart, hobbling from table to table to pick up the empty dishes? Have you ever had an old taxi driver who can’t seem to use the GPS and whose frail hands slip off the steering wheel every now and then?
The more important question is, why are so many elderly people working when they should be at home resting? Why are they not playing with their grandkids and enjoying retirement?
Working to survive
The food court ah ma and the taxi uncle represent a whole other side of Singapore – one that we may not be exposed to as fortunate and able-bodied students.
Many workers aged 65 and above earn about one-fourth of the mean SMU graduate salary. With little to no savings, poor health and no support system, it becomes obvious that a significant portion of Singaporean elderly struggle to pay their bills. While the poverty rate (defined as 40% of the median population’s income by an Assistant Professor of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy) among the elderly in Singapore has generally fallen, the poverty rate among working seniors has tripled in the last several years. Jobs available to the low-skilled elderly are limited to kitchen assistants, cleaners and construction workers. A majority of cleaners, laborers and machine operators are over the age of 50.
Rather than choosing work as a means of remaining active, the elderly are stuck with menial jobs to sustain themselves. In addition to meagre wages, they are subject to unsafe conditions where they put themselves and others at risk (for example, construction hazards) and do not receive the treatment they deserve for their age.
Members of the silver generation who are struggling today are the very youth who built Singapore from the ground up. Back then, Singaporeans had low levels of education and worked modest jobs to get by. The government instituted the Central Provident Fund (CPF) to guarantee a secure retirement. But for some, it has been insufficient. They represent the harsh reality that poverty exists. Amidst the picture-perfect skyline is a world of struggle, where the aged are forced to work to be able to eat three square meals a day.
Help is here......Or not?
One might argue that the government is constantly rolling out programs to help the elderly. The 2019 budget has provisions for the Pioneer and Merdeka generations, and they also receive healthcare subsidies and payouts. Despite this, Singapore’s efforts to target the elderly with low income and low savings have been largely ineffective. In the latest Oxfam Report on Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, Singapore came in 149th out of 157, a disconcerting fact in such an advanced country. In fact, the country does not even have an official poverty line! Is Singapore oblivious to the indigent elderly?
With the burgeoning phenomenon of population aging, nations across the globe are looking for a solution that doesn’t drain the economy. Singapore has been lauded for its sustainable CPF system that encourages financial independence. It comes as a shock then, that only half of the country’s CPF members have accumulated the required minimum sum by the age of 55. This inadequacy raises the complex question of how to support the elderly. Raise income tax? Understandably, this is an unpopular move as the public is not willing to foot the bill of the seniors. Pressurize families? Well the Maintenance of Parents Act, which enables elderly to demand financial support from their children, exists. Encourage the elderly to work longer? The government is considering raising the retirement age in Singapore beyond the current 62 years. But for those caught in a cycle of low income and low quality of life, working more does not offer a way to move forward.
Elderly poverty is distinct from any other type of poverty because this category of people has limited opportunity to overcome their situation. They are neither in a condition nor in a position to do much about their status, riddled with additional problems such as healthcare bills, low chances of securing a job, and rising costs of living. Their sole goal is reduced to survival, leaving little room to take care of physical and mental wellbeing. Research has shown that living with limited resources can affect a person’s stress levels, decision-making and emotional stability. Moreover, poverty amongst elderly in Singapore can potentially lead to racial stigmatization if some races are more likely to be poor than others. In Hong Kong, it has been observed that immigrants find it harder to match the earnings of local
workers and fall behind even in old age.
The Singapore government, true to its nature, always thinks three steps ahead. Their goal is to enhance human capital (the country’s main resource) while minimizing handouts through social welfare. While this works well for development, it is a setback for the older generation that cannot advance with the country. Take for example the current SkillsFuture programs that are meant to allow Singaporeans to upgrade their skills. The programs they offer for the elderly teach them how to use social media. What use is a Facebook account for someone whose job is to collect cardboard every day? The government is enthusiastic about active aging, but how will a free yoga class through a PAssion card help someone live from day to day?
What is needed is a systemic change to ensure sufficient retirement savings for Singaporeans. Enabling low-skilled workers to develop skills that move them one rank higher on the value chain can improve their lives. The ah maat the food court might be better off operating a till at a store. Working seniors should be medically fit for the jobs they perform. The feeble taxi uncle might be better off shelving books at a library.
The hope is that elderly poverty will not be an issue in the future as most Singaporeans nowadays have better paying jobs and are better prepared for retirement. The hope is that the founding generation of Singapore lives their last years without anxiously waiting for their next paycheck. Only then will the island-nation truly advance without leaving anybody behind.