Saturday, 17 November 2012

Be the best country to grow old in

Former NMP and Wings founder, Dr Kanwaljit Soin, tells Susan Long longevity is here to stay, and helping the elderly keep working will pay handsome dividends. Her wish is for Singapore to aspire to a worthier goal.
The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2012

RETIREMENT should be abolished, urges Dr Kanwaljit Soin. In fact, anyone who wants to stop working should be "counselled" or given a six-month sabbatical to get it out of their system, she reckons. Likely, they have not counted their days and means properly.

She cites a 2011 Nielsen survey, which shows that 35 per cent of Singaporeans plan to retire or are already retired by age 60 but only 14 per cent were financially prepared for it.

"At the individual level, people haven't realised that if you retire at 60, you may live to 90. So what are you going to do with these 30 years of additional life?"

Just look at the new data on life expectancy, she beseeches. Longevity is here to stay. "There's been a linear growth in life expectancy over the last 170 years, increasing regularly by three months every year since 1840, and it shows no signs of slowing down," she notes. Most babies born since 2000 in developed countries are likely to celebrate their 100th birthdays, research shows. By the year 2030, there will be nearly one million people aged above 65 in Singapore.

"Change is on our doorstep. Old age, once the privilege of a few, is now the destiny of many. We've got to start looking at longevity at every level - the individual level, corporate level, government and societal level. It worries me that we're talking about how we don't have enough workers and an impending labour crunch, yet we're letting older people lie by the wayside."

She is a living testament of retiring retirement. In fact, she considers retirement an "anachronism" since there is no pension system here and lifespans have lengthened considerably.
At 70, she works full time, running her own orthopaedic and hand surgery practice at Mt Elizabeth Medical Centre. Working keeps her active, bestows her with an income, as well as "social capital and status" to do her volunteer work. "So from every angle, I feel happy," says the grandmother of eight. She is married to Senior Counsel Amarjeet Singh, 73, who also works full time.

In fact, she was so convinced of the need to prepare people for living longer, she started Wings (Women's Initiative For Ageing Successfully) in 2006. At age 64, she formed the board and helped craft its programmes to help women above 40 take charge of their health, money and happiness.

Today, Wings has 5,000 women members, who attend some 170 events it offers - from belly dancing and inter-generational bonding to healthy cooking - at its Bishan premises. It has five full-time staff and operates on about $400,000 a year, from donations, grants and fees charged.

Recently, Dr Soin stepped down as Wings' president after reaching her two-term constitutional limit. She remains on the board and spends some 15 hours a week at Wings, giving talks, raising funds and driving its overseas expansion.

Last year, Wings became one of the first home-grown charities to spread its wings to Hong Kong and Saga, Japan, where overseas chapters have been set up. She is now looking to proliferate the Wings model across Asia where there are few social safety nets and family support is fraying.

Wings is also reaching out to new vulnerable groups here who need help with financial planning such as low-income men, parents of children with chronic diseases, abused women in shelters and Muslim women through mosques.

Her end goal? To help all Singaporeans stay healthier longer and financially fit, so that they arrive at old age in better shape than their parents did, with less toll on society.

Worthiest goal

SINGAPORE should aspire to be the best country to grow old in, she believes. That is an unclaimed space that will capture the world's interest and pay out handsome "longevity dividends".

She envisages a Singapore where old age is valued as much as youth, where employers welcome older workers, where the young look forward to growing old. And where facilities for the elderly are not segregated, but where Housing Board void decks have a small library, gym and cafe for all ages to share together.

"Singapore likes to punch above its weight and be an example to the world. Since it's among the fastest ageing societies in the world, it's time to stop the 'Oh God' worrying about dependency ratios and raising taxes, and instead embark on a positive ageing agenda," she suggests.

She cites research by Harvard economist David Bloom and others that show a 10-year increase in life expectancy, combined with a healthy ageing agenda, can make a country's GDP increase by 1 per cent. "This is not soft or about being nice to older people, this is hard economics."

To get there, Singapore first needs to shed preconceptions that being old means being infirm and dependent, and look beyond cranking out more nursing homes and Seniors Activity Centres.

"The nursing homes and the rehabilitation centres are for the people who don't age so well. Maybe that's less than 10 per cent," she says, citing a 2007 HSBC survey of people aged 60 to 79 in Singapore, which found that 95 per cent of them felt well. Only 5 per cent said their health was poor.

"Beyond the infirm, what about the healthy old?" she asks. "Now what are we doing in those Seniors Activity Centres, which will have tens of thousands enrolled in them soon? Just teaching karaoke singing and line dancing? That's not what we should only be doing with seniors, making them while away their time."

Why can't state agencies instead be looking at labour requirements for job vacancies across industries in a systematic way and remaking those jobs so old people can fill them, she asks?

Since three years ago, Wings has successfully trained over 94 women to be confinement nannies, together with KK Women's and Children's Hospital. Two years ago, they trained another 20 women to be cashiers.

Alas, employers were not willing to give cashiers a stool to sit on or to break down the long work hours into more shifts. "They said 'No, we can't do it'. So now we see many cashiers from Myanmar, China and the Philippines. Why do we need them? We have our own human capital, older women, and they spend much less time on the phone. So this is what I mean, we are not looking into how we can tap this longevity dividend. We're wasting it."

There also exists an insidious "silver ceiling", alongside the glass ceiling that women have been trying to crack for the longest time. Singapore's employment rate for those aged 55 to 64 lags behind that of Japan, South Korea and the US, she points out. In a 2008 AXA cross-country survey of when people are considered old, young Singaporeans said about 67, compared to 73 in the United States, 74 in Australia and 75 in Switzerland.

A mindset change is sorely needed, she says. Prevalent views that "grandmothers shouldn't be working but enjoying life" should be banished. So should "we need young blood" proclamations.

"Now, why do we need young blood? We need fresh blood. We need diversity. Why can't we have MPs who are older people? Why must they always be young? Haven't we fathomed that this society is getting older and the median age is going up? What we need are capable MPs who can represent us, we shouldn't worry what is their age."

Settle for imperfect

DR SOIN was born in Gujranwala in north India, which became part of Pakistan after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947-1948. At age six, she fled with her parents to Indonesia as refugees. At age 10, her father, who ran a sports equipment shop in Jakarta, sent her, his eldest of four children, to Singapore for an English education at St Margaret's Boarding School. Three years later, her mother and younger brothers followed her here. She sorted out their paperwork in English, helped with marketing and cooking for them, and gave tuition to pay bills whenever her father's business met with hiccups or the rupiah was devalued.

She went on to Tanjong Katong Girls' School and Victoria School, then graduated top of the medical faculty in 1966.

The then-dean told her: "Oh, congratulations, now you can look forward to never getting married." So she made sure she met him after she married Mr Amarjeet Singh and became pregnant.

It was a tough juggling act as she gave birth to three boys, each 10 months apart, while taking surgical exams. Helped by a maid, her mother and mother-in-law and pulling many overnighters, she started practising as Singapore's first female orthopaedic and hand surgeon in 1970.

Former NMP and ophthalmologist Geh Min says Dr Soin was an inspiration to young doctors in the 1970s. "The accepted thinking in those days was that women and surgery did not go together and, if a woman was rash enough to take up surgery, she would have to sacrifice family life, children and all feminine pursuits. Needless to say, she bucked the trend successfully, was obviously happy and fulfilled in every way."

Only when Dr Soin's boys hit their teens did she become, in 1985, a founding member of women's rights group Aware (Association of Women For Action and Research). She took on various executive committee positions, and eventually became its president from 1991 to 1993.

After that, she became the first female Nominated Member of Parliament from 1992 to 1996 and lobbied hard to change the legislation on family violence. She also became the founder chairman of Unifem Singapore in 1997, changing the lives of poor South-east Asian women and children, and took part in many medical missions in the region.

She managed to "do it all" because she has never put motherhood on a pedestal nor belly ached about doing it immaculately. Neither did she beat herself up when her eldest son served a six-month jail term for cocaine use in 2005.

"Yes, he did harm to himself. But he paid for it and rebuilt his life," Dr Soin says unflinchingly. "As parents, we shouldn't claim credit for it if our kids do well, nor blame ourselves if they don't."

Her sons are now 43, 42 and 41, and an Internet entrepreneur, diplomat and cardiologist, respectively. Her parting shot: "I'm not the best surgeon around, nor the best mum, nor the best social activist. But to my mind, you don't have to be perfect in everything. Perfection prevents you from doing good in so many areas."

Kanwaljit Soin on...

How ageing is a feminised issue

There are almost twice as many women above the age of 80 compared to men, and surveys show they are poorer, more immobile, with more illnesses. Usually, because women live longer than men, the woman will be looking after her husband through his last illness, spending most of their savings on him. After he dies, she is without a spouse, with little material resources left. There are about five times as many widows than widowers in Singapore. A man, if he is unfortunate to have his wife die, will get married again quickly, often to a younger woman. But a widow, unless she's young, is highly unlikely to get married again.

What worries her most about Singapore

What's going to be the social glue that binds Singapore as a nation state together? There's been too much dilution of the population too quickly. Already, about 36 per cent of our population is not local. When you go to a restaurant and meet a Singaporean waiter, you want to hug him because the rest are all foreigners. If you ask me, we should make people PRs for 10 years, before giving them Singapore citizenship. By then, they would have assimilated and won't need that citizenship crash course. By all means let them come in but make them earn it. We've to guard jealously our citizenship, our land, our identity, our institutions, which are so near and dear to us.

How far feminism has progressed

Sure, there are 19 women out of 87 elected MPs today, but look who's the chairperson of the party, who's the Secretary-General, who are the bigwigs. They're all men. Now when can we expect the next PM of Singapore to be a woman? Yes, the Workers' Party is chaired by Ms Sylvia Lim but we're not going to get a PM from them for at least two terms. So that means the feminist agenda hasn't reached all the way to the top.

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