Singapore society is known to be fast-paced and one of the busiest countries in the world. Such conditions often mean that the elderly are marginalised in society—they are passed over in favour of younger workers, receive limited healthcare, and have their needs neglected during infrastructure development. This is especially a problem for countries such as Singapore which face an ageing population—low birth rates, high life expectancy. Not only is the talent pool for the workforce shrinking, working taxpayers have to support a larger number of elderly citizens. Overall, it is common for the elderly to be deemed to be weaker, more vulnerable and a burden to societies, leading to intergenerational tensions and a less happy lifestyle for the old. Recognising this challenge, Singapore has since taken steps to accept and appreciate the value of the aged via myriad ways, from enhancing their employability skills to investing in the healthcare and even integrating them into society by altering the living environment to elderly-friendly ones, to much success.
A robust workforce is needed for any economy to thrive. It is thus tempting for employers to favour younger workers over older ones—elderly workers, despite their experience, may be less in tune with the latest skills needed, may take sick days more frequently and have less time to commit to a company before retirement. Yet, with an ageing population and shrinking work force, Singapore has started embracing the old. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) now curtails workplace discrimination which is shown to be highly efficient as proven by the distinct drop in the number of job advertisements considered to be discriminators, from over 30% in 1999 to less than 1% in 2006. More recently, during the 2019 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a rise in the retirement and re-employment age by 2030 from 62 and 67 to 65 and 70 respectively. This signals a change from the traditional mindset that citizens would work to their 50s or early 60s before entering a happy retirement, to one where they remain integrated to the workplace longer to ensure sufficient income to meet rising life expectancy and support the Singapore economy. To assist older workers in staying relevant, skills-training programmes such as the Special Employment Credit (SEC) and Workfare Training Support (WTS) schemes encourage employees to hire and invest in training older workers. The Continuing Education and Training (CET) Masterplan, introduced in 2008, aims for nearly 50% of Singapore’ resident workforce to have at least a diploma qualification by 2020, compared to 36% in 2007. Similarly, the National Silver Academy was established in 2018, collaborating with universities and polytechnics to provide a host of courses that vary from media to design and even the humanities, thus addressing the concerns voiced by the elderly that they wish to keep their minds active and also hone new work and life skills for practical applications. All these initiatives point to the fact that Singapore has successfully taken the welfare and interests of the elderly into consideration and protected their position in the workforce.
Apart from improving their chances of employability, the Singapore government has also increasingly implemented policies and programmes which help the elderly cope with their medical and living needs. By investing huge sums of money in upgrading medical amenities and subsidising consultations and treatments, it is apparent that Singapore is more than willing to welcome the aged and tend to their basic needs, ensuring that they are not left behind. Efforts to develop and modify current healthcare system to cater to the demands of the ageing population have been mainly fruitful, with more elderly patients being able to gain access quality, affordable healthcare, without having to worry about their health and finances as much as in the past. The Central Provident Fund, a central savings scheme channelling part of citizens income into an account for basic healthcare needs, Medishield (low-cost basic medical insurance to help defray large hospitalization bills), Eldershield (affordable severe disability insurance scheme which provides basic financial protection to those who need long term care) and Pioneer Generation Package (to help senior citizens who are 65 and above in 2014 with healthcare costs) all seek to assist the elderly cope with rising health expenses in their old age. Access to such services are kept in mind as well—in the area of healthcare, new hospitals such as Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and Jurong General Hospital have been built in older HDB estates. In terms of living spaces, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has installed, as part of the Silver Zone programme, new road safety features at selected locations in five residential areas with a higher proportion of elderly residents —Bedok, Bukit Merah, Jurong West, Marine Parade and Bishan—such as special road signs and markings to demarcate the Silver Zones and traffic calming measures to slow down motorized traffic and enable motorists to keep a better look-out for pedestrians. Positive response for this scheme has prompted the government to expand the project by aiming to revitalize another 15 more estates to become silver zones by 2017 and 35 silver zones by 2020. The government is not the only stakeholder in embracing the old, with Voluntary Welfare Organizations (VWOs) in Singapore also playing an integral role in the healthcare of the elderly as seen in the establishment of four community hospitals, two chronic sick hospital, 47 nursing homes and hospices, such as the Assisi Hospice, St Joseph’s Home and Agape Methodist Hospice, 17 day rehabilitation centres and home care services for the elderly. These measures have certainly been successful, as a recent report released by the Institute of Policy Studies indicated that 80% of respondents felt confident about their needs being taken care of and that in general most elderly Singaporeans have little to worry about. It thus seems safe to conclude that Singapore has done much to embrace the old, not only in the workplace, but also in terms of healthcare and living conditions.
Yet, despite numerous efforts to accord the aged with equal rights and ensure that they are well-blended into the society, there are instances where the elderly feel outcast and left behind as the rest continue to move forward. Even the government may slip up at times—in 2017, MediShield Life paid just $4.50 of a senior’s $4,477 post-subsidy bail, undermining the very purpose of MediShield Life to keep healthcare affordable to the elderly. The Ministry of Health (MOH) took action not after repeated complaints, but only after The Straits Times published an article on the incident. Among Singapore citizens, many youths and middle-aged workers may, understandably, frown upon the idea of spending vast amounts of resources on the elderly at their expense. This attitude was showcased in the opposition against the construction of a nursing home in Bishan some years back—40 residents submitted a petition calling on the government to build the home elsewhere, citing that they were unwilling to give up the football field to make way for the nursing home and to live in close proximity to the aged who would disturb their and tranquillity with their constant groaning. Nonetheless, such cases are mostly isolated, and MOH has also revised its policies to ensure that hospitals cannot overcharge patients and that the elderly can make sufficient claims. Furthermore, the government has over nearly two decades attempted to bridge the gap between the youth and elderly. The Maintenance of Parents Act was passed in 1997 to protect the rights of the elderly and ensure that they are rightfully taken care of by their children financially, making Singapore the only state in the world to legally oblige grown-up children to care for their parents. In July 2002, the Family Matters! Singapore Taskforce on Grandparenting and Inter-generational Bonding was set up to promote activities that foster interaction and bonding between people of different generations and to learn from each other. Such moves are bound to improve understanding between the young and older people and chisel away stereotypes that the elderly are feeble, inactive or of little use to society. This will in turn result in a mindset change and the elderly would be valued by the society.
In conclusion, Singapore has made great leaps in embracing the old, which are increasingly forming a larger proportion of the population. From keeping them in the workforce to healthcare coverage to suitable living spaces, Singapore does seem to have welcomed the old with open arms as an asset to the country and as people who deserve to be well-taken care of, rather than marginalising them. Nonetheless, there are always gaps, especially in some members of the public’s mindsets. On the whole, however, Singapore has indeed created a society largely embracing towards the old.