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The challenges ahead

They say that you grow wiser as you grow older. If that is so, then the world will be a much wiser place in the next century, because the world is growing old, fast. As a result of women having fewer babies and people living longer, the population profile of many countries will change dramatically in the years ahead. Nowhere will this be more evident than here in Singapore.

We are one of the fastest ageing societies in the world. Sweden, which has one of the largest proportion of senior citizens among all countries took 85 years (from 1890 - 1975) for the proportion of persons, aged 65 and above, to double from 7% to 14%. The United States is projected to take 68 years (from 1944 to 2012). Japan, a country which we know has aged very rapidly, took 26 years (from 1970 to 1996). Singapore is expected to take only about 21 years (from 1997 - 2018).

We have about 235,000 older persons (or 7% of the population) today, and this will increase to 796,000 (or 19% of the population) by the year 2030. The dependency ratio, which is the ratio of those in the economically inactive age group to those of working age is currently 42 per hundred. This will remain relatively steady till 2010 and then rise significantly to about 56 per hundred in 2030.

Beyond these broad trends lie several others which are worth highlighting. The elderly of the future will be qualitatively different and have different needs and aspirations. They will be better educated and more independent. The group aged 65 - 74 with at least a secondary education is projected to increase from 11% in 1995 to 62% in 2030.

The nuclearisation of families will probably continue to rise. Between 1990 and 1997, the proportion of elderly living alone or with their spouse only increased from 10% to 15%. Our young are marrying later today and having fewer children. Our total fertility rate is only about 1.5. The elderly of tomorrow will also have fewer children to care for them, compared to the elderly of today. There will also be a higher proportion of the elderly who would never have been married. In 1995, it was 3%, by 2020, it is likely to be 10%.

These changes will have significant impact on our society in the foreseeable future. Beyond the statistics, this issue is relevant to us at a personal, individual level. We all have elderly parents, relatives or friends, who are in need of special care or attention. All of us will be the elderly of the future. Our policy measures today must take into account tomorrow’s needs.

The IMC on ageing population

The issue of an ageing population has been on the national agenda since the eighties. There was the Howe Yoon Chong Committee from 1982 to 84 and the Advisory Council on the Aged chaired by Minister Jayakumar from 1988 to 89.

The present IMC which I chair builds on the work done by the previous national committees. I dare say it will not be the last IMC on ageing in the years ahead. This is an issue which will not go away. In fact, it will be more urgent over time. We must keep the subject alive and on the national agenda.

My committee is a multi-sectoral committee, comprising representatives from the public, private and people sectors. We formed 6 Workgroups to examine specific areas in detail, viz. Financial Security, Employment and Employability, Healthcare, Housing, Social Integration of the Elderly and Cohesion and Conflict in an Ageing Society. The Workgroups comprise more than 80 members from a wide range of backgrounds who contributed much valuable experience and insights to the deliberations. They consulted many more people via numerous focus group discussions and dialogues. They have surfaced more than a hundred major proposals for the IMC to consider.

Desired outcomes & guiding principles

In the course of this Conference, you will have the chance to discuss these proposals. As a starting point, I think we should be clear what our desired outcomes are. It is important for Singaporeans to agree on a set of desired outcomes, to help provide direction and focus to our discussions.

An ageing population affects not only the elderly themselves, but also families, communities and society as a whole. Therefore, the IMC has sought to articulate outcomes at the different levels.

At the individual level, we want healthy, active and secure senior citizens. We want a society where older Singaporeans can age with respect and dignity as integrated and contributing members of society, who see it as their personal responsibility to plan for old age.

At the family level, we hope for strong, extended and caring families. Families must continue to be the first line of care, to provide social and emotional support for the elderly, especially those who cannot cope. The family also provides a primary avenue for inter-generational interaction and the transmission of values.

At the community level, we want to set up a strong network of community services to enable the elderly to continue to live with their families and in the community for as long as possible. We want the elderly to live as an integral part of their communities, and not be conveniently shunted aside in an institution or elderly enclave.

At the national level, we would like the State to provide the leadership and the framework which enables the individual, the family and the community to play their part. We want an ageing Singapore to remain economically competitive, because continued economic growth means a better quality of life for all Singaporeans, including older Singaporeans. We also want an ageing Singapore to remain socially cohesive, and for national interests to continue to prevail over the interests of any one group in society. We also need a high level of preparedness to minimise the problems and maximise the opportunities presented by an ageing population. In this regard, our national policies must not just cater to the elderly population who are frail and ill (7% of the elderly population today), but also take into account those who are well and healthy (93% today).

Key strategic areas and proposals

I do not intend to talk about the IMC Workgroup proposals in detail, but I would like to highlight some of the key strategic areas and initiatives that have been proposed. Before that, allow me to emphasise three points:

O One, please treat what is presented here as work in progress. The proposals you will hear today are the result of extensive consultation. We welcome your further views and comments to challenge our thinking and help us refine our proposals.

O Two, no single key recommendation can do the job. The challenges are multi-faceted and they require an integrated response; and

O Three, the tackling of the challenges of an ageing population must be on-going. There are no once-off solutions.

Public education

The key strategic area I would like to begin with is the need for effective public education to change the individual’s and society’s attitudes and perceptions of ageing and the elderly. This is critical. People know that there will be more older people in Singapore in the future, but we are still a youth-oriented society. The fact is that the future old will be richer, healthier and more educated, but the media image of the old is still Liang Po-Po. We cannot hope to influence behaviour if we do not have the right mindsets. In particular, Singaporeans must adopt positive and realistic attitudes towards ageing and the elderly. The young must discard ageist attitudes. The old must see themselves as contributors rather than recipients of services.

It is not surprising that all six Workgroups recommended public education to promote personal responsibility, life-long planning and early preparation for the different phases in life, including old age. In particular, to reach out to the less educated, we need to leverage on the people sector. Hence, one of the proposals is to facilitate the formation of a citizen-led national committee to coordinate and drive public education on ageing.

Personal financial responsibility

The second key strategic area is personal financial responsibility. The 1995 National Survey on Senior Citizens reveals that 87% of Singapore citizens aged 55 and above did not make any financial provisions or plans for old age. Most expected their children to provide support. This is not sustainable, given the trends towards smaller families. Many others believed that their CPF would be sufficient. This appears to be based more on faith, rather than on fact or planning.

Our social security system should be structured to put the onus for financial planning on the individual. It should encourage individuals to decide what standard of living they can realistically sustain after retirement and work towards that goal. Government’s responsibility is to ensure that as many people as possible do not fall below a minimum level of subsistence and have to rely on the State, ie. tax-payers.

Hence, one of the proposals is to do this through a “basic needs CPF model” coupled with a strong public education to “Take Charge” and “Start Early”. The basic needs CPF model caters to basic living, and medical and housing needs in old age at the subsistence level. Several measures are proposed to facilitate the building up of the Minimum Sum cash component in CPF for old age. Beyond this basic level, every individual should make independent provision for one’s own desired retirement lifestyle.

Ensuring the employability of older persons and creating employment opportunities also enhances financial security, particularly for the less educated. Studies show that working people are healthier mentally and physically, have greater self-esteem and are better integrated with society.

Currently, the labour participation rate among older Singaporeans (aged 55 - 64) at 43% is low compared to other NIEs and developed countries. Hence, it has been proposed that government can work with employers to help reduce barriers to employment and increase training and employment opportunities for elderly Singaporeans.

One key proposal is the establishment of employment facilitation centres (called Silver Manpower Centres) at the local community level. These SMCs will provide one-stop training, counselling and job placement to facilitate the employment of older workers.

Integrated and proactive planning and delivery of services

I have emphasised personal responsibility. But many of us will at some point need some form of care. A wide network of community-based services is needed to support families and the elderly to help them continue living in the community. These services should be effectively distributed to those who need them – not just the poor and indigent elderly – and there must be integrated and proactive planning and delivery of these services. This is the third key strategic area.

To achieve this, one proposal is to co-locate social services for all age groups, including services for the elderly, in Multi-Service Centres at the local level. The idea is to devolve the planning and delivery of services at the local level to CDCs. This makes better use of scarce resources like land and manpower. It also allows the community to be more involved in delivering services to the elderly.

Harnessing contributions of the elderly, supporting inter-generational cohesion and family care

The fourth key strategic area is harnessing the contributions of the elderly, and supporting inter-generational cohesion and family care. Today, 93% of our elderly are healthy. We need to strengthen developmental and preventive programmes to harness the contributions of these elderly persons to enable them to give service, instead of just receiving service.

We also need to promote more interaction and understanding between the young and old. One key proposal to foster inter-generational cohesion is to promote the concept of the 3-tier family, ie. children, parents and grandparents. Government could review its policies and programmes to extend policies involving only the 2-tier family to involve 3-tiers. Here, the thinking is that strong inter-generational cohesion is best fostered in the context of the family.

An integrating built environment

Lastly, an elderly-friendly built environment is critical in determining the extent to which older people can be integrated into the wider community and lead active lives.

In terms of housing, the key strategic thrust is to promote “ageing in place”, which means enabling people to continue living in the community they are familiar and comfortable with, well into old age. This not only promotes the desired outcome of integration but is also in line with the expressed desire of most Singaporeans. To facilitate ageing in place, not only do we need to put in place the hardware changes (like barrier-free access to public transport), but also a network of accessible social services to support the elderly and their carers.

Objective of the policy conference

The Workgroup proposals are still work in progress. At the end of the day, we want robust strategies and policies that can cater to the needs of as many Singaporeans as possible.

This is the purpose of this conference. It is an important platform to gather views and feedback on the Workgroups’ proposals before the IMC finalises its recommendations and puts up its report. All the Workgroups have been invited to present their findings and proposals today. I hope that their preliminary ideas will spark in-depth and wide-ranging discussions in the parallel sessions.

We have also invited Professor Alan Walker, Professor of Social Policy at Sheffield University and a well-known gerontologist, to share with us his thoughts on this issue. Singapore is still a relatively young nation. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we should learn from the successes, as well as the short-comings of other societies.

I am pleased to see all of you here from a diverse range of backgrounds - academics, government officials, grassroots’ leaders, social service professionals, private sector people and concerned individuals. I thank all of you for setting aside your valuable time to be here. I look forward to hearing your views. Thank you.