Monday 26 August 2013

Time for S'pore to have laws against age discrimination

By Kanwaljit Soin, Published The Straits Times, 24 Aug 2013

IT HAS been said that age is an issue of mind over matter and that if you do not mind, it does not matter. But in Singapore, younger people seem to mind and it definitely matters to older people. Unfortunately, ageism is, if not rife, still prevalent here.

Ageism is defined as ideas, attitudes, beliefs and practices that are biased against people based on their age, and patterned on sexism and racism. Such attitudes foster age discrimination and lack of respect for the elderly, leading to unequal treatment of equals.

As recently as March this year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam acknowledged that older workers in Singapore face "an element of age discrimination". Both older professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) and older low-wage workers are affected. While younger PMEs can find jobs quite easily, he noted that older PMEs are not just vulnerable to competition from foreigners but also have difficulty securing new jobs after unemployment: "I believe there's an element of age discrimination that we have to tackle."

How can ageism be tackled? There is the Singapore formula of carrots and sticks. The Government's carrots to help older workers range from the Special Employment Credit, a wage subsidy given to bosses for hiring them, to the Workfare Training Support Scheme which subsidises programmes for workers aged 35 and older who earn up to $1,900 a month. So far, only 20 per cent of all workers aged over 50 have taken part in training.

The time has come for anti-age discrimination legislation. Under the Retirement and Re-employment Act (RRA) of 2012, the statutory minimum retirement age is still 62, but employers are now required to offer re-employment to those eligible up to age 65.

However, for PMEs who lose their jobs before retirement, often in their 40s and 50s, the RRA does not apply and they are affected by age discrimination in recruitment, as noted by the DPM. They find it difficult to find any job even if they agree to lower pay. It is especially for this group that we need the anti-age discrimination law.

Of course, the law is not a guarantee as employers will still be able to find reasons not to employ this group. But laws can encourage or entrench social norms and help change societal attitudes.

Another area of age discrimination is in the credit card arena. Some banks had been turning down applications for credit cards from people over 55. This prompted the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to issue a statement early last year that those over 55 will be eligible if they have an annual income of at least $15,000, net personal assets exceeding $750,000, or a guarantor with an annual income of at least $30,000.

Older drivers trying to renew their car insurance can also face problems. Many insurance companies do not want to cover those over 65, even though the Traffic Police allows those 65 and older to continue to drive as long as they pass a medical check-up once every three years. Some companies practise discrimination by charging those over 65 the same premium as first-time drivers.

Last month, the MAS asked motor insurers to re-examine the way they treat older drivers, following mounting complaints about higher premiums and being denied coverage after 65. Unlike in Singapore, motor insurers elsewhere in the world recognise that older drivers, even though they may have slower reflexes, are experienced and cautious and tend to travel less than younger drivers, therefore presenting a lower risk.

Then there is MediShield, a low-cost basic medical insurance scheme introduced in 1990. At that time, the cut-off age was 70, beyond which there was no coverage. This cut-off age was subsequently raised to 80. The Ministry of Health extended the age limit in 2006 from 80 to 85, and in 2012, from 85 to 90. Each time the age limit was raised and not abolished, we saw ageism being practised.

At the recent National Day Rally, the Prime Minister fortunately announced that the MediShield insurance scheme would be converted to MediShield Life and would be for life. This is welcome news but it will not be operative for another year or two. There was also no announcement about the MediShield Life premiums not increasing with age.

Like other forms of discrimination, the causes of age discrimination are usually prejudice, fear, ignorance and stereotyping. Discrimination against older people is often based on deep-rooted cultural and social bias. But old people are not a homogenous group. Everyone ages differently. How old is old anyway? A recent survey by the insurer AXA found that the average Singaporean saw "old age" starting at 67 whereas Americans think it starts at 77.

In Singapore, where active ageing and self-reliance are mantras for the elderly, practices and policies that perpetuate age discrimination reduce the opportunity for productive ageing and life satisfaction for the elderly.

The writer is a former Nominated MP and immediate past president of Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS).

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