30 Jun 2005

Old Age A Blessing? Not in Singapore

Filial Piety in Singapore? In order to understand the true level of caring I would walk into a local fast food restaurant. The sight of an elderly lady, stooped over emptying rubbish is an image that will stick with me forever. The thought that my grandmother or grandfather would still have to work after 60-65 makes me sick. If one sphere of the population deserve health care and some level of payment from the state in the form of welfare, or 'pensions', then there can be no better deserving than the elderly.

When I hear the empty words of politicians referring to filial piety or 'how the elderly can continue to contribute' I realise just how much hot air politicians like to emit.

30 JUNE 2005

THERE is nothing more comforting than to be reminded that you were once young.

That once, you moved to the rhythm of music effortlessly; that once, you were in love and could still feel what it is to be in love when you listened to romantic melodies.

It is also empowering to find that one can be 69 or 70 and enjoy what one enjoyed twenty, thirty or even forty years ago.

I realised this the night of the Engelbert Humperdinck concert.

It was one of those rare times I felt I was not the oldest in a crowd. I saw familiar faces who were there to recall good old times that seemed to be disappearing quickly.

We were all 20 once again.

Engelbert Humperdinck reminded us - if we needed reminding at all - that life is not over yet for those of us in our 60s and 70s. Even if we may look a bit worse for wear and our faculties compromise, or if we elapse into "senior moments" now and then.

There he was on stage, a bit thicker in the middle, a bit broader in the jowls, a bit stiffer in the joints. But with the same magic that had captured audiences the world over for almost 40 years.

During the concert, for some reason I can't recall, Engelbert Humperdinck mentioned social security and asked if we got pensions.

There was this very telling silence. Reality of life for the old put a damper on the evening.

Life is difficult for older people in Singapore.

The Aware-Tsao Foundation report published recently concluded that "older women are in a particularly vulnerable position in their later life because of the lack of income over their lifetime, an old age income security system … the lack of an adequate and inclusive health care financing mechanism that covers those not in formal employment, and a family situation that can no longer sustain its care giving and providing role for its older relatives."

The report adds that the responsibility to support the older population goes beyond the immediate family.

The Government, the private sector and communities all have a role to play to ensure that the older population feels valued and able to contribute.

For instance, the estate that I live in is undergoing upgrading. It is costing many millions of public funds, no doubt.

Has it made the buildings wheelchair-friendly? No. In this supposedly family-friendly society, is any consideration given to young mothers with strollers?

Sometimes, I wonder if one arm of government knows the policies being promoted by the other arms.

I move between despair and exaltation when I think of my own old age. The exaltation comes from imagining new visions, new states of personal realisation emerging at this stage of my life.

But then, public policies in healthcare, housing, education and labour - despite new initiatives being announced recently - seriously lag behind the needs of a growing elderly population.

Health costs keep rising. There are few support systems. Nor is there sufficient financial security - even with the CPF scheme intended, ironically, for this purpose.

So, what will nourish the visions of ageing men and women like myself, who want to live independent lives?

To say that taking care of the aged is the responsibility of the family is to deny the state's responsibility to provide an environment that makes life easier for an ageing population.

It is also a denial of the reality of life for those Singaporean families which struggle to make ends meet.

One 84-year-old aunt I know has been praying for death for 10 years. Old age has made her dependent on two daughters who have, she says, the unhappy burden of looking after her.

Another 96-year-old aunt, hearty and mobile, has been shunted from son to son for 10 years.

Old age is not a blessing. And even those of us who can afford to attend a concert, can escape from the worries of ageing only for a moment.

The writer, a social activist and teacher, is a former president of Aware and SCWO.


Thrasymachus said...

You think pension and welfare policies will lower poverty rate? Maybe not, if you think long term and look beyond the shores of Singapore. There is one thing that makes me sick. Looking at so-called "developed democratic" countries such as USA and Europe countries have poverty that nobody cares or sees. Singapore's poverty is much less drastic then those.

Looking further, I think the Singapore govt has done a good job in dealing with poverty, except the Ministry of Transport. To be an effective skeptic, be neutral and look at all angles.


Anonymous said...

I think the Singapore govt has done a good job in dealing with poverty..

I respectfully disagree. Looking at the entries on your blog, it is clear where your beliefs - and political support - are and I doubt discourse would be beneficial on this disagreement. (Hence my posting as anonymous.)

I only ask that you considering doing some meatspace work with the disadvantaged in Singapore before attempting to enspouse such views with a air of authority. Note that the contributor of the article to Today (whom you disagree with) has been active in AWARE and SCWO.

soci said...

In the UK we have charities and organisations set up independently and co-funded by the state to deal with poverty. Yes there are poor people here, I worked in Dublin for one year with the Simon Community.

In Singabloodypore you have the filial piety act. A law that demands that Singaporeans look after their elderly relatives, and to HELL WITH THE REST!!!!

Thrasymachus said...

Maybe you might be unfamilar with certain system. For every VWO in Singapore that deals with elderly issues, the Community Development Council funds it a dollar for a dollar. Recently, a new initiative was launched, COMCare. For the first $50K, the govt is funding $4 for every dollar. That is more than $50 million worth of welfare for the needy.

And be mindful that the money will be given out through VWOs and resident leaders not via government placement.

As anonymous said, maybe you ideologically polarized to see the ills of establishment. No offence, just wish to provide another perspective. But I must comment you for the good job in search for some very good articles.

Sleepless in Singapore said...

I too believe that your criticism of the Spore govt in this aspect is unfair. Spore is such a small place. One doesn't have to do social work to see that the problem of the aged and destitute is not as severe as you make it out to be.

Futhermore, I believe many Sporeans support the govt's principle of not having a welfare state; and that the primary responsibility of caring for the aged should lie with the children. Hence our schools' emphasis on filiel piety as one of our society's core values.

clyde said...

I can clearly see Mac's standpoint on this subject. But whether the government provides a reasonable "pension" scheme or not, you cannot justify taking away the elderly citizens' rights to live independently. You cannot justify the government's decision simply because your opinion is that it is the moral duty of children to house their parents forever. In western cultures especially, it is pretty common for children to move out and away from homes once they turn 18 or after they graduate . Elderly people can be a lot more independant than you think. You'll find even in Malaysia, citizens who are living their 'golden years' live independantly. Hell my own grandad still drives himself out every morning for bahkuteh!

So, seeing how Singapore is so multi-national/cultural these days, it's only fair to say the government cannot cater to just one mentality. Im not familiar with the terms 'VWOs' and "resident leaders" used by Thras, but whatever it means, I hope that the money is being channeled directly to the elderly. It's only fair that their generation receive the gratitude for building you the nation you live in today.