Thursday 25 October 2012

Growth and family life get airing at youth forum

Participants raise concerns about housing prices and fast pace of life
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 24 Oct 2012

IT WAS supposed to be a forum for young people to talk about life and family in 2050 in the face of Singapore's demographic challenges, but the discussion turned instead into one of jobs and the economy.

The 160 tertiary students who turned up at the Institute of Policy Studies event yesterday had come prepared to share their visions on the kind of society they would like to see in 40 years.

But the guest of honour, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, steered the conversation towards economic growth, saying that this was needed to ensure Singaporeans could improve their lives.

It did not stop participants, however, from sticking to the theme, as they took turns to raise concerns about how housing prices and Singapore's fast pace of life could affect family life.

National University of Singapore graduate student Jonathan Lee, 27, rose repeatedly to highlight what he saw as contradictions between national policies on growth and the push for a bigger focus on family.

The Government's emphasis on staying economically competitive, he pointed out, was "incompatible" with its call to individual Singaporeans to put marriage and parenthood ahead of work.

"We do take cues from our leaders," he said.

Responding, Ms Fu suggested that this did not mean that people could not put marriage and parenthood "somewhere near the top, if not the top" of their priorities. Urging young people to see their working life as a long journey, she said: "You can afford to take a few years to go at a lower gear. You can take it slowly for a few years and get back quite easily."

In her opening speech, however, she indicated that the country could not afford to take such a break. A slower or stagnant economy, she warned, could affect employment, which would hit lower-skilled Singaporeans harder.

"If we're not competitive, we run the risk of losing out in this race for investment," she said. "We need good-quality growth, in order for all segments of Singapore to have good jobs and enjoy real wage growth."

Later, she explained to reporters why she chose to focus on these issues with young Singaporeans. "They have 20, 30 years of working life ahead of them," she said. "They should know that this is probably an important consideration that we have not forgotten... The Government is looking at providing good jobs for them."

Yesterday's forum at the Orchard Hotel also covered Singapore's population challenges, with two speakers suggesting that the country relook its view of ageing issues.

Mr Donald Low, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said that Singapore should try to adapt to the trend instead of trying to mitigate its impact. More funds, he said, could be channelled from its reserves into social welfare infrastructure.

Psychologist John Elliott at the National University of Singapore, too, noted that the elderly can be treated as a resource rather than a liability.

Acknowledging these views, Ms Fu said: "If there are new ways for us to look at how we should treat the issue of ageing... I think they are worth discussing."

'Not as bad as it is made out to be'
National discussion is unnecessarily pessimistic given that the old of tomorrow will be very different, say academics
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 24 Oct 2012

Amid the ongoing discussion about Singapore's low birth rate and ageing population, a former high flying civil servant and a 67-year-old academic yesterday sought to cast a different light on the issues: The situation is not as bad as it is made out to be.

Speaking at Vision 2050: Life and Family in Singapore, a seminar organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Senior Fellow Donald Low and National University of Singapore Associate Professor John Elliott, a psychologist by training, made the case that the tone of the national discussion is unnecessarily pessimistic given that the old of tomorrow will be very different from the old today.

They will be healthier, will work for longer, and have more savings, for instance.

"There really isn't much need for the kind of pessimism, alarmism and, in general, hand-wringing that surrounds much of our discourse on population issues both publicly and among policymakers," said Mr Low, who was formerly Director of Fiscal Policy at the Ministry of Finance.

Speaking to reporters later, Minister in Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu - who held a dialogue with the 200 participants at the forum - was asked about the observations by Mr Low and Assoc Prof Elliott on the tone of the national discussion.

Ms Fu said it is the Government's "job to present the facts to Singaporeans, come to some consensus in how we should bring the country forward, by putting the facts across objectively and also allowing Singaporeans to make informed choices".

During his presentation, Mr Low noted that while the population is shrinking, a smaller family size would encourage more people, especially women, to enter the workforce.

Assoc Prof Elliott also argued that the conventional calculation of the old age support ratio is flawed and should be reviewed - last year, there were 6.3 citizens aged between 20 and 64 years for each citizen aged 65 years and over - because people will be working longer, possibly until they are 74.

Speaking out against the stereotype of the elderly as fragile and a "liability", Assoc Prof Elliott said: "Ageing is a given … we are in the habit of seeing support ratios as threatening. However, such a view might be "unreasonably pessimistic", he noted.

Given the better healthcare and living conditions, "you should be anticipating that by the time you arrive at the age of 70, you are really functioning pretty well", Assoc Prof Elliott said.

According to Government estimates, the support ratio will drop to 2.1 working age citizen per elderly citizen in 2030.

Assoc Prof Elliott suggested that the formula be tweaked to reflect the changing times: According to his calculations, if those between 25 and 74 years old are considered to be economically active, the ratio will be 8.4 working age citizens supporting each citizen aged 75 and over in 2030.

He advocated that companies move away from the traditional seniority-based wage structure. Higher income should go to younger citizens with families to feed, he said.

Many countries are also experiencing an ageing of their populations.

But Mr Low pointed out that Singapore is in an enviable position to ride the silver tsunami, given its strong fiscal surpluses and "very low" tax rates, which can be raised without hurting the country's competitiveness.

According to Mr Low, the Government's public spending as a share of gross domestic product is "very low" by international standards.

The strong surpluses "provide us with plenty of "fiscal headroom" to deal with the rising social expenditures caused by a rapidly ageing population", he said.

The Government has rolled out the Lease Buyback Scheme to help low-income elderly households in three-room and smaller public housing units to monetise their flat. Mr Low suggested that more monetisation options be developed for "the majority of Singaporeans" who own flats.

To help the lower income, he also proposed a basic monthly pension for older Singaporeans who do not have the Minimum Sum in their CPF savings.

Mr Low also called on the Government to do more to ensure afford healthcare and devote more resources to the baby boomers, instead of investing the country's reserves abroad.

On Mr Low's suggestions to increase public spending, Ms Fu said: "We should continue to help the lower income and I think we can do more.

"But we have to be careful not to over extend ourselves. We definitely do not want to mortgage our future away so it has to in be a financially sustainable manner."

The concerns of the young ...
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 24 Oct 2012

Could the Government's emphasis on competitiveness cause Singaporeans to focus on their careers instead of making marriage and parenthood their priority? Could the size of HDB flats be one of the reasons why people are having small families? What will be the size and make-up of Singapore's population in the future?

These were some of the questions raised by young participants at the IPS forum during a question and answer session with Minister in Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu. The event was attended by about 200 students and staff from tertiary institutions.

In response, Ms Fu pointed out that while the Government's words and deeds have an effect on societal values, there are other factors at play.

"Sometimes I wish we are so influential - so if just by saying, 'focus on marriage and parenthood', will you then change your life goals and heed our calls?"

On flat sizes, Ms Fu reiterated that they have not shrunk since the '90s. But she added: "I am told that the new design has reconfigured the space because couples these days like a smaller kitchen, bigger bedrooms and walk-in wardrobes ... so it may seem that space has somehow become smaller especially when the grandmother come and say, 'where do I cook'."

On the projected population size, Ms Fu noted that the 6.5 million figure is a planning parameter.

She said: "What will be the population size be ... 20, 30 years later? I hope that we have this same discussion 20, 30 years later which means that we are still a place (where) people want to be. What I really don't wish upon my children ... is to have a discussion on how do we attract people when there are not enough."

Ms Fu stressed that the Republic will not become like Dubai, where only about 20 per cent of the population are native citizens. The Government's aim is to build a strong Singaporean core, she said.

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