The first three paragraphs explain the inspiration for this piece. It is not new, but in the current ongoing focus on getting old people to keep working on and on and on, I think it's important to lose sight of this group of better-off Singaporeans. The looming prospect of 6.5 million people on this island is also a little intimidating.
Keep elderly from flying S'pore coop
Society's focus should also include the higher-income, who have wider options
Wednesday • June 20, 2007
Siew Kum Hong
AS with most young people, I have never really thought much about growing old or retirement. But that has been on my mind lately, resulting from separate comments by two older acquaintances, both professionals who should be on the verge of comfortable retirement.
One felt Singapore was already too crowded for him. He believed it would be "impossible to retire gracefully", given the expected future population of 6.5 million. His children, who find Singapore too stifling, have already left or are planning to leave.
The other, who is single, said somewhat morbidly that he intended to retire and live in Malaysia after his mother dies. His feelings may be best described as disenchantment and frustration with Singapore and our system, coupled with a sense of disenfranchisement.
So, why should we be concerned about retirees leaving Singapore? Is that not just one less elderly person for the rest of us to care for and, hence, something to cheer about?
That is precisely the sort of misconception that needs to be corrected.
In the first place, the elderly can still be productive members of society. They may either continue working (provided employer mindsets, among other things, are changed) or otherwise do volunteer work.
A recent global survey by HSBC and the Oxford Institute of Ageing found that 71 per cent of those aged between 60 and 70 worldwide are still working. Furthermore, up to 25 per cent of the elderly in Singapore do volunteer work, and this rate can be expected to rise as Singapore matures — North American and European countries had higher participation rates, with Canada hitting 50 per cent.
The survey concluded that those in their 60s and 70s are "a tremendous asset to society, not generally a burden".
Furthermore, the elderly who leave are generally those we want to keep, just like the young Singaporeans who decide to work overseas and do not return. Older folk with disposable funds to invest can be as globally mobile as young professionals. They have assets we should aim to keep in Singapore, and useful skills, abilities and experience that younger workers can learn from.
We have many ongoing efforts to address elderly needs, in recognition of our ageing population. But these are primarily focused on the lower-income elderly, to ensure their financial and other needs are adequately met.
There does not, as yet, seem to have been similar attention on the aspirations of the higher-income elderly.
But we need to start thinking about the high-income elderly as well. What drives them to leave? What can help to keep them in Singapore?
It is not new for people to want to retire outside Singapore. Historically, typical reasons have included a better quality and slower pace of life, and a lower cost of living. In other words, it is about getting away from the stresses of living in a busy urban environment, which are unavoidable given our geographical circumstances.
But, as Singapore grows and changes, new reasons for leaving may surface, and it bears considering whether anything can be done about those new reasons.
A lot comes down to issues of the quality of life and roots. We have always focused on making Singapore a great place to work and make money.
But old people, especially those who have already made their money, are not interested in that. They want a place in which they can be comfortable, in terms of physical and mental space, convenience and facilities, such as medical care.
Announcements such as the expected 6.5 million future population make many Singaporeans anxious, and understandably so. Many older Singaporeans know they do not want to live out their golden years in such a crowded country; younger Singaporeans may wonder if we do, even at our age.
Family ties can also help to keep Singaporeans here. But let us not forget that Perth, a popular retirement destination for many Singaporeans, is only five hours away by air. And the Internet has also shrunk the world. So, one can leave Singapore and still maintain ties with family here.
The issue of overseas retirement is one aspect of ageing that has not received much attention to date, perhaps because it is not quite as urgent as helping the low-income elderly secure their financial futures.
But I believe it bears watching out for, otherwise we risk losing a significant group of Singaporeans who are rich in assets, skills and experience. That would be a great loss, when people are our only natural resource.
The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament and corporate counsel, commenting in his personal capacity.