ELDERLY IN SINGAPORE

ELDERLY IN SINGAPORE

In Singaporean families with an elderly person in their home receive a tax break. In June 1997, Singapore opened a special court, called the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents, where elderly people could bring claims against their children for not taking adequate care of them.

Singapore has experienced below-replacement fertility since 1975. For a stable population, the mean number of children per woman must be 2.15. But in 2011, its fertility rate was only 1.20.The long period of low fertility, combined with increasing life expectancy, will make for a rapidly ageing society. By 2030, more than one out of four persons in Singapore will be elderly ie above 65. There will be only 2.2 workers to support each elderly person, compared to 10 workers in 2000. [Source: HDS Greenway, Daily News and Analysis, Mumbai, India, February 21, 2007]

In spite of the rapid increase in the elderly population, the government has relied primarily on the mandatory savings system to finance pensions and health care. Studies have shown that this system, administered by the Central Provident Fund (CPF), is likely to provide 15-25 percent of pre-retirement income. This is far lower than the two-thirds to three-fourths recommended by experts. In Japan, Korea and Taiwan, a contested political space and higher priority for social issues have brought multi-tier pension and health care systems, with an important role for social risk-pooling arrangements. No such progress is evident in Singapore. So, the current arrangements, which place a disproportionate burden on individuals, will be felt after the full impact of ageing around 2010. [Ibid]

Singapore raise the retirement age for its citizens to 65 from 62 in the 2010s and plans to eventually raise it to 67. "The best way to be all right in old age and to have enough savings is to stay employed and to work longer. Because with longer lifespans you cannot retire at 55 and live until 80 or 85 or 90," Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said. [Source: Reuters, August 19, 2007 ><]

“Like governments in developed nations such as Germany and Japan, Singapore's leaders worry about the long-term implications of an ageing population -- higher pension costs, a shrinking workforce, and slower economic growth. "As lifespans go up you have to work longer and then have not too long a period of retirement at the end of your life," said Lee. ><

“In February 20007, the government introduced an income-support scheme called "workfare" aimed at providing financial support to older, low-income workers as part of the 2007/08 budget. Singapore's government wants to boost the workforce by increasing its population to as much as 6.5 million from 4.5 million over the next 40 to 50 years by allowing more immigrants into the country. ><

Singaporeans That Can't Afford to Retire

Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani of CNBC wrote: “Singapore may boast of the highest percentage of millionaires in the world, but retiring in this wealthy financial hub is becoming even more difficult for the common man. According to a latest study by HSBC, the citizens of this country, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, face the grim prospect of running out of their savings almost halfway through retirement as the high cost of living and increased life expectancy eats into their nest egg. [Source: Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani, CNBC, February 20, 2013]

"There is cause for concern from the finding that the retirement savings of people in Singapore will run out after nine years, which is about the time they are entering into frail retirement and a stage of their lives when medical costs and other elderly care expenses are expected to rise," Paul Arrowsmith, head of retail banking and wealth management, HSBC Singapore, said in the report released on Wednesday. "People are living longer, through tougher economic times, and expectations about their standard of living in retirement have risen," Arrowsmith added.

More than half of the 1000 Singaporeans interviewed for the survey said that either they were not adequately prepared or not prepared at all for retirement as they expected to continue working beyond the age of 65 to be able to afford their desired lifestyle. One also needs more money to fund one's retirement in Singapore. According to the study, the annual household income required to lead a "comfortable" retired life in Singapore is the third highest among Asia's major economies, behind Australia and Hong Kong, at $48,773. This figure is 68 percent higher than what was needed in 2011, the survey, which has been running for eight years, found.

The rising cost of living in Singapore has 58-year-old Singaporean Janice Tan worried about her retirement. "I think the cost of living is really escalating a lot," Tan told CNBC. "During the Chinese New Year season, when I went to buy the goodies, it really shocked me, because the cost is really going up too fast." Tan and her husband are currently paying for the education of their two children, including a 21-year-old daughter studying in Perth, Australia. While Tan, an administration professional, hopes to retire soon, she says she knows it might be another 10 years before that happens.

"As human beings we want more - a more comfortable life. That's where the worries come in on whether you will able to survive," Tan said. According to the study, of those not saving for retirement, nearly half said they were being held back by the cost of day-to-day living. High costs have become a major cause of discontent among Singapore's residents. This prompted a rare protest over the weekend in which about 3000 people participated. They were voicing concerns over swelling costs driven by an influx of foreigners. Foreigners, who account for almost 40 percent of Singapore's 5.3 million people, have been blamed for pushing up housing prices and taking up jobs in one of Asia's major business centers.

The top three fears about retirement cited by Singaporeans were poor health, financial hardship and not having enough money to provide for good healthcare, according to the study. With retirement savings drying up at a time when Singaporeans are most vulnerable to health problems, funding medical bills could become a big burden, HSBC said. Tan backed that sentiment, saying that medical bills from a motorcycle accident that her husband was involved in last year have been a drain on their finances. "As we get older, I realize it [funding health costs] is a more important thing to sort out," said Tan. But the high cost of living is coming in the way. "I can't imagine how much more the cost of living is going to go up to," she added.

Ageing Singapore Prepares for Grey Future

The Singaporean government said 20 percent of Singaporeans will be 65 or older by 2030. AFP reported: “Leong Liu Kie is a 71-year-old Singaporean nurse -- but she is a youngster compared to some of her patients. In a country with a rapidly ageing population, Leong looks after residents at the Moral Home for the Aged Sick -- one of them is 101 years old -- and is on call 24 hours a day as the charity's nursing director. From holding patients' hands to whispering words of comfort, Leong is the human face of a growth industry linked to the greying of the city-state. "When you work with old people, you've got to attend to every person's needs, because different people have different needs," the slim, bespectacled grandmother of four told AFP. [Source: Simin Wang, AFP, June 28, 2011 \~/]

“Like other affluent Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, Singapore's demographic profile is being drastically transformed by falling birth rates and longer lifespans.

This has spawned businesses catering to the elderly, from hiring foreign caregivers and designing wheelchair-friendly homes to developing high-tech devices that alert emergency services when a senior citizen needs help. Xperiential Events, a Singaporean firm that sets up business fairs aimed at tapping the elderly market, said a report it commissioned shows that the spending power of Asians aged 60 and above could top $1.9 trillion by 2015. “In anticipation of demand for elderly care, the Singapore government is expanding facilities to care for its older citizens. "The Ministry of Health will be expanding nursing home capacity by some 60 percent over the next decade to 15,000 beds," a spokesperson told AFP. \~/

“In 2011, there were 63 nursing homes with 9,300 beds operated by private businesses and volunteer welfare groups. Unlike in the past, when three generations often lived under one roof, more senior citizens choose to live apart from their children and grandchildren while remaining accessible to them. "They want to have independent lifestyles," said Lee-Loy Kwee Wah, an official at the government's Housing Development Board (HDB). \~/

“Since 1999, the HDB has built two types of studio apartments for older citizens in several neighbourhoods -- one solely housing seniors and another integrated with younger residents. These studio apartments come with features such as a ramp at the door, bigger electrical switches, solid grab bars in the toilets and an emergency cord to call for help. Located near amenities such as clinics, markets, senior activities centres and bus stops, these self-contained flats allow seniors to look after themselves while having an active social life. \~/

“The HDB has launched for sale more than 4,500 studio apartments, with 1,800 already completed and the rest to be built over the next three years. To aid the single elderly living alone, some companies sell alarms that allow them to seek help in times of need. Kelvin Lek, founder of Active Medical, brought in emergency pendants from the United States after his wife's grandmother suffered a fatal stroke while home alone in 1998. \~/

“With small devices called eAlert hung around their necks at all times, seniors can press a button to call a specialist centre in an emergency. The centre will access their medical records, contact their families and doctors, and dispatch help as soon as possible. "It certainly gives (families) peace of mind at work or while they are travelling, knowing that if they are away, they don't have to worry about the safety of the elderly," said Lek. \~/

“Labour-starved Singapore is expected to require more foreign caregivers in the short term but needs to encourage local citizens to take up jobs in the industry, said one analyst at a local think tank. "The government has done well to prepare for this demographic shift by building more infrastructure to care for the elderly," said Therese Leung, an associate fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. "But there is still a significant way to go if we want to develop a local, sustainable long-term care workforce," she added.” \~/

How Happy Are Old People in Singapore?

Clement Mesenas wrote in Today, “A purportedly exhaustive university survey that showed that elderly Singaporeans are satisfied with their lives came under intense scrutiny at a workshop on the ageing . Who says our seniors are happy? More often than not, they appear grumpy, discontented and are plagued by loneliness. [Source: Clement Mesenas, Today, November 24, 2004]

Dr Grace Wong Khei Mie, who presented a paper on the quality of life of the elderly in Singapore, told the workshop organised by the Institute of South East Asian Studies, that the findings of the survey were based on answers provided by over 1500 respondents, aged between 55 and 79. The areas on which they based their satisfaction included health, family ties, public safety, healthcare and public transportation.

"More than half of the respondents were not working and were making do with less than $1000 a month while a quarter had incomes of above $300 a month, especially those who still had jobs," said Dr Wong, who is with the Department of Real Estate at the National University of Singapore's School of Design and Environment. And eight out of 10 of those surveyed were in good health, which contributed greatly to their sense of satisfaction, said Dr Wong.

Dr Wong said the majority of them were ambulant elderly and they were found in groups in the senior citizens corner of void decks. Dr Wong admitted that the elderly people commingling in HDB void decks may not have wanted to suffer loss of face if others in the group could hear what they were saying. Hence, they may have been guarded in their responses, which in turn could have affected the accuracy of the survey.

But these contented people did have one grievance. The survey found that they are most dissatisfied with leisure and recreation facilities and the arts and culture scene, which lacked a variety of programmes, events and activities for the elderly in Singapore.

Singapore Grannies Take up Ballet to Stay Healthy

In 2011, Simin Wang of AFP wrote: “Clad in a black short-sleeved leotard, matching leggings and light pink ballet flats, Lee Poh Ying warms up in the glass-walled studio with fellow dance students. But Lee and a few of the other weekend ballerinas are not your typical pre-teen ballet students stretching their backs and kicking up their legs to prepare for their group lessons. She is a 62-year-old grandmother with her hair bundled up in a hairnet, one of a growing number of older people in Singapore trying to stay fit and active in a fast-greying society with an average life expectancy of 81.4 years. [Source: Simin Wang, AFP, January 31, 2011]

“Ballet was Lee's childhood dream, but it took her decades before she finally had the time and freedom to pursue it. "My mother did not allow me to learn ballet, saying I should focus on my studies, and that dance was not a well-paying job," she said. "I could only admire the girls in my school dance, and then secretly try the moves in my room." Now the former supervisor at an electronics factory, who retired in 2002, dances with other adult students every Sunday morning at a community centre near her suburban apartment. "I like ballet a lot. It makes me very happy. I will continue dancing until I cannot dance," she told AFP.

“The government has been encouraging senior citizens to lead healthy lifestyles, and elderly Singaporeans are taking it upon themselves to explore various forms of exercise including dance. Amy Tan, executive director of Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS), a non-profit education centre for mature women, finds the trend beneficial. "Physical activities for elderly women require their mind and body to participate together, which is wonderful for their mental and physical wellness," said Tan. However, learning ballet is not easy for mature women, some of whom have to struggle with medical conditions, injuries -- and fear of failure. Jacqueline Chow, 53, who has studied ballet at a community centre since 2008, finds it hard to execute some ballet steps because of her spinal, knee and foot problems.

To help her out, her ballet teacher alters the exercises. "As I have stiff joints in my leg, I cannot do a grand plie, which is the bending movement of both knees," she said. "So I only do a plie within my own limits." She once swung too hard and fell down while doing a pirouette, the classic ballet move of turning on one foot. "It was very painful, but I learned from it. Now I know that I cannot shift my body too hard when I do a pirouette," said the university employee. After three years of ballet, Chow says her back is stronger and her body more flexible.

Yu Shuhuai, 55, a China-born dance instructor who has been teaching ballet at several government-funded community centres in Singapore for eight years, enjoys working with mature women because of their attitude. "Once when I came to class early, I saw the dancers reading their notes and revising the dance steps," Yu said. "I was so touched." Their age does show occasionally, and not only in their restricted movements.

"Once a dancer wore hard shoes on top of her ballet flats, and then went around looking for her ballet flats," he said. In 2003, a group of elderly women approached him and asked if he could help them fulfill their dream of learning ballet. He agreed and started classes with six students. Now he has more than 40. To cater to this group, Yu did some research on their body structure and physical condition before devising dance moves that allow them to understand the characteristics of ballet, yet do not harm them. "Ballet, unlike other dances, exudes grace. It helps their bodies become more youthful," he said. "Other than giving them an opportunity to make friends, it prevents and postpones their illnesses, and helps them stay happy and confident too."

Coming Up with the Finances to Pay for Singapore’s Retirees

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “At last count, there were 400,000 Singaporeans aged 60 or older, but only 73,000 of them, or 18 percent, were working.Visitors to the city can see more of these hunched figures collecting tin cans at hawker outlets, selling tissues for S$1 (RM2.28) near train stations or picking up used cardboards. Others clean tables or toilets. They are generally not homeless, merely the rising poor in a rich city. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, August 25, 2007]

The main theme of a program introduced in 2007 by the government of Lee Hsien Loong is to get Singaporeans, both employers and workers, to carry on working beyond 62 years and increase old age savings so that it can last longer. Lee increased payout by 1 percent to 3.5 percent to the people’s CPF (Central Provident Funds) deposits of up to S$60,000 (RM137,325) with the rest remaining at 2.5 percent.

The public has welcomed these moves. Most people are happy with the option to carry on working past 62. What is unpalatable is Lee’s decision to postpone CPF payouts progressively from aged 62 to 65 years. (Under present laws, Singaporeans withdraw these retirement savings at 55 but have to keep a minimum account, which now totals S$99,600 (RM227,870), to be drawn down after 62.)

Many Singaporeans are unhappy with the government retaining any part of their life-long savings, preferring to be repaid in full at 55 as originally planned. “It is our money and we should be allowed to use it any way we want,” posted one writer. “Trust people to do what is best for themselves.” However, others think the government is right to take over at least partially the management of people’s retirement finances to ensure they have enough money to spend on their daily needs. While the majority of Singaporeans are conservative with their money, some retirees recklessly blow it in a short period on wine, women or gambling and become a burden on society.

But by far the loudest protest is reserved for Lee’s proposal to start a compulsory annuity scheme to finance people who reach 85 years old. This is how it works. A small portion of the CPF minimum sum will be used to buy the annuity that will pay out nothing for 20 years. At 85, if he lives that long, he gets a monthly payout of S$250 – S$300 (RM571– RM686) until death.

Should the person die before 85 the money goes into a pool to help other 85-year-olds, not to his next-of-kin. The concept of the government compelling hundreds of thousands to buy an annuity and get nothing in return if they do not live longer than 85 has angered a wide section of the population. “This is an atrocious idea. Life span is currently 82, how much more can it go up to?” demanded a reader. The total number of Singaporeans aged 85 or older stands at about 25,000. Reflecting the feelings of many others, Ong, 69, said: “Come on, give us Singaporeans a break. When will you, the government, stop intervening into how we spend or invest our own hard-earned monies? It ain’t yours!”

Since independence in 1965, schemes like the CPF and the HDB (Housing and Development Board) that provides public housing have been two pillars of the republic’s prosperity. “In real life, the picture here is less gloomy because the majority of retirees live with their children,” said a social worker. While not employed by any company, many are actually working in the “underground” economy – as private tutors, part-time plumbers and electricians.

Children Don’t Visit Parents at Singapore Nursing to Avoid Paying Fees

In 2009, Channel News Asia reported: “Abandoning parents may not be common but it is becoming an emerging issue in Singapore. Five percent of the elderly at Bright Hill Evergreen Home have not seen their children for some time. The home said the children do not visit so as to avoid paying ward fees. Ninety percent of some 140 elderly in the home have children who are unable to support them. Staff at the nursing home said the children would cite reasons such as being busy with work, being ill or that they are having family problems. The staff added that the elderly who have not seen their children in a long time are prone to depression, and most refuse treatment. [Source: Channel News Asia, August 25, 2009]

The home said they usually turn to counselling and games to help the elderly keep their minds off their children. One elderly at the home said: "My children do not come over to visit me, they never came once." Tang Yip Chong, head nurse, Bright Hill Evergreen Home, said: "The family normally has to pay (the ward fees) for a long time for the parents to stay in the home. (There is a) burden on them (the children), so after some time, they come (less often) to visit the patients so they can more or less escape paying the ward fees.”

A month earlier, Channel News Asia reported: “There’s been a jump in the number of elderly who apply to the Tribunal for Maintenance of Parents to seek financial support from their children. 127 applications were received in 2008, higher than the average of 100 applications in previous years. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) is working on three areas to deter irresponsible and unfilial behaviour among Singaporeans. [Source: Channel News Asia, July 21, 2009]

First, MCYS will tighten its workflow and referral processes so that children will not evade their responsibilities to support elderly parents so easily. Dr Balakrishnan said of the 75 elderly who approached the Community Development Councils (CDCs) for financial assistance every month, nearly a third were unable to provide their children’s contact details, which made it more difficult for the CDCs to process the cases. The ministry will explore how the relevant information can be obtained more easily so that government agencies can assess cases comprehensively and efficiently.

Second, MCYS will beef up the office of the Commissioner for Maintenance of Parents, with the commissioner playing a more active and effective role in monitoring a case and advocating on behalf of an elderly parent. He will also facilitate community options for mediation and conciliation and ensure that needy elderly parents receive prompt assistance. Third, the ministry will ensure that the elderly are given timely and comprehensive assistance.

How Do Retirees Live in Expensive Singapore

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Recently, a foreign friend asked me: “How does a retiree in Singapore cope with living in one of the world’s most expensive cities?“When you’re retired, no money comes in, but money goes out every day,” he clarified, so how does the elderly without an income grapple with Singapore’s high cost of living? The short answer is that collectively we are not doing too badly, coming from Asia’s second richest city. Living standards are relatively high. But individually things are different – in many cases, anyway. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, March 31, 2012]

Many live on retirement funds if they have it or on past savings or with their children’s help. Few of my friends give home tuition or drive a taxi. The well-to-do are driven around, eat at five-star restaurants and go on annual holidays, sustained by flourishing businesses or property rentals. A former banker said a retiree’s welfare depended on how long he lived beyond retirement. “The first few years would be less of a problem, but the trouble would come when he lives long after leaving his job, say 15 or 29 years,” he added. The funds would run out.

Affordability, however, is only one factor. Struggling with modernity and new technology can be more of a headache. Once, I watched an old gentleman on a wheelchair repeatedly explaining in Hokkien, the only language he knew, to a hospital receptionist what his problems were. But the lady, like many youngsters, could speak only English and Mandarin. She had to recruit an older nurse who helped with the dialect. Then, a new problem ensued. He did not know how to sign his name on a form. The girl whipped out a thumbprint pad. Problem solved!

Healthcare in Singapore – first-class in quality – costs a bomb. Last month, I spent 16 days in hospital related to failed kidneys and a weak heart. The bill was a whopping S$5100 (RM12,400) – subsidised rate. I am told that half of Singapore’s retirees, who total some 288,000, suffer from some form of chronic sickness.

But life for us isn’t always bad. For one thing, we get discounts in fees paid for a number of things ranging from public transport to watching a movie, from visits to the zoo and to several resorts And in the 2012 Budget announced last month, the authorities drew up more benefits for senior citizens.

During years of travelling in trains, I have not encountered too many occasions when younger people, including Bangladeshis, did not give up their seats for me. Some of my elderly friends have not enjoyed the same level of graciousness, insisting that this is an exception rather than the norm. From my experiences, I have to disagree. Last week, when I was struggling with a chair at a restaurant, a young man sitting nearby came over to help.

The bad news is that welfarism is a dirty word here, although in recent times the authorities have introduced changes to help the poorer and senior citizens. But this affluent city, which enjoys worldwide reputation for its rapid development, still has one black mark. To me the biggest failure is that too many elderly people are cleaning tables at food courts or washing public toilets instead of playing with their grandchildren at home. In worse cases, they collect used cardboards for sale or sleep in street corners.

Retirement age is 65 and the government has said it wants to raise it to 69. But, an extensive practice of bosses replacing workers once they reach 50 with younger, cheaper people – particularly foreigners – has made retirement age a bit redundant.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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