Growing old
In hot-paced Singapore where welfarism is a dirty word, the lowly-skilled aged could head for tougher times. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Mar 4, 2007

DESPITE economic prosperity, more and more elderly Singaporeans past retirement age are working as cleaners or toilet attendants, instead of playing with grandchildren.

That they are opting to work past 62 years of age is not surprising and, in fact, could be a plus point. After all, Singapore’s life expectancy is 81.7 years, the world’s third highest, even ahead of Japan (81.25 years).

But what is not savvy about it is they are doing the sort of menial work once done by unskilled foreign workers. Some 35.7% are cleaners or related work, where incomes are low.

“It’s not that the elderly don’t want to retire, many simply cannot afford to,” said Rick Lim in a letter.

He was responding to a government backbencher who had asked why the senior citizens could not just retire early and enjoy life, and he wondered if their expectations of life were too high.

Lim wrote: “Are the senior citizens working as cleaners because they are saving to purchase a condominium or a luxury car, or is it because they need to feed themselves and their families?”

This is the other face of prospering Singapore, which has one of the world’s fastest ageing populations.

Recently, a student from China who was interviewed said that he found it strange to see so many cleaners were elderly, compared to poorer China where they would be enjoying their retirement.

Blame it on globalisation, insufficient safety net or poor education when they were young (probably all together) but it has made old age synonymous – rightly or wrongly – with poverty and hardship.

This is why some Singaporeans who are 45 or older are not looking forward to the prospect of living in one of the world’s richest nations in 20 years’ time.

The reason? By then they will be joining the unappealing ranks of the city’s greying population (aged 65 or more) even as the city moves upwards.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew painted the exciting scenario recently of a fast-developing Singapore moving “into the upper half of the First World. We can do this in the next 10-20 years.”

Even today growing old is not a good thing. Many employers consider 45-year-olds as over the hill, preferring to replace them with younger, cheaper workers.

(Making things worse is the large influx of foreign workers who are ready to accept lower salaries.)

The majority of aged workers are lowly skilled and make up the bulk of Singapore’s struggling class. In recent years, their income has either stagnated or declined, while the rich got richer.

This affects their ability to save for retirement, despite their mandatory Central Provident Funds.

Only 27% of Singaporeans between 25 and 75 said that they have sufficient funds to retire, compared with 61% of Thais and 47% of Malaysians, according to an insurance company survey.

Today one in 12 Singaporeans are 65 or older; by 2030, this will become one in five.

Like elsewhere, this age group has more than a higher rate of homeless and poor, the depressed, and the desperately sick. Many are becoming victims of cheating or crime; suicide rates are high.

In a post-mortem of the 2006 election, leaders of the ruling People’s Action Party attributed its large 9% drop in popularity to older votes.

If it is true, it doesn’t augur well for its future because this base of senior citizens is growing very quickly.

The decision to increase its 5% Goods and Services tax (GST) to 7% will be an added blow to Singaporeans, especially the elderly low-income or retirees group.

To mitigate the impact, the government is offering GST credits of up to S$1,000 (RM2,296) to all over 21 years old, that will be apportioned according to income and home value.

In addition, the 2007 Budget also gave Singaporeans a bonus of up to S$1,000 to all Singaporeans who make S$100,000 (229,600) or less, with those over 55 getting the lion’s share.

Two-thirds will be in cash and the rest in Medisave for healthcare.

But it is jobs that remain the bugbear for the seniors because many employers are reluctant to employ – or keep – people over 50.

Lee Seck Kay says that government efforts to keep elderly people gainfully employed are failing, citing a friend who was retrenched from a foreign oil company.

“When he applied to a local one, he was told that at 55 he was too old. They were looking for someone below 48,” he added.

Citizens over 55 are given discounts for public transport and entertainment places (non-peak hours), far short of what the public wants.

These Singaporeans have spent a lifetime working hard to build Singapore up, whether as coolies or managers, and should be looked after during their sunset years, many believe.

Singapore is one of the most expensive places in Asia to retire in, observes a grandmother of two. “The old should be enjoying their time, not working as cleaners.”

Singapore has the world’s highest rate of public home ownership. It may be establishing a new trend of downgrading, owners selling their flats for smaller ones to free up cash for retirement.

A newspaper reader, Lee Chin Wai, notices that official figures show potential up-graders (the opposite) still outnumbering down-graders by three to one.

If one rules out migration, this ratio could drop to one-to-one by 2017.

A retiree suggested the government dip into its reserves to pay each Singaporean over 65 a monthly S$200-S$300 (RM459-RM689) for the rest of his life so that he can enjoy his sunset years – an unlikely event.

(This article was publised im The Star on Saturday, Mar 3, 2007)


By Agel Ee
Mr Seah,
I've read your article in the STAR today, I couldn't have agreed more.

To be born and live in S'pore is a blessing, but not to those bread-earners. To be able to live in S'pore as a middle in-come family is difficult.

I'm a Singaporean, used to earn about S$2,000-plus, but every month I would not have any saving except in insurance n CPF (which only be able to cash-out maybe in 30 years later or so, if the monetary S$ did not depreciate).

Now I've been working in Malaysia for about 3 years, even though my pay in ringgit is only about half of what I was getting in Singapore. I have at least M$30,000 of savings after paying off my S$ insurance n some monthly pocket money for my mum.

And also I found that working in Malaysia is not bad or better than work in Singapore. At least not as stressful and look forward for the weekend to go somewhere. I find it's more meaningful. Rather than staying at home during the weekend if I'm in Singapore.

Why I say to be born in Singapore is a blessing is because education scheme. Everyone HAD to attend at least primary school - rich or poor, that's the Singapore government's 'insistent'.

When I started to work in Malaysia, many or should I say all people (Malaysians) I met asked me "why do you want to work in Malaysia, when you can work in S'pore".

I actually felt quite offended by that, as I just want to change my 'environment' and to try working in another country. I do not feel working in Malaysia is a shame, but I just don't understand why even Malaysians asked me this kind of question.
That's all for my thoughts.

Thank you, you actually bring out what Singaporeans are facing.
Mar 3, 2007

By Irene
Dear Mr Seah
Thanks for an article that you highlighted some time ago on the aged generation. I feel sorry for the next generation because it is going to be tougher to grow. It is certainly no pleasant phase.
Mar 24, 2007