Friday 14 February 2014

Can we do even more for our pioneers?

Pioneer package — why the basics matter
By Phua Kai Hong, Published TODAY, 12 Feb 2014

A historical milestone was reached when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined the Pioneer Generation Package last weekend. This is most significant, coming at the start of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore.

It is well-received on both socio-cultural and economic grounds —expressing filial piety and respectful care for our elders, and enabling them to reap their well-deserved returns from earlier sacrifices and investments for our young nation.

A major part of the package is necessary to support the introduction of the new MediShield Life scheme in 2015. As this will be a compulsory and universal social insurance plan to cover catastrophic or high-cost illnesses for the entire population from birth to death, including those with pre-existing diseases, the total costs will be borne by everyone, but the premiums will have to be affordable to the elderly and the low-income.

Thus, the Pioneer Generation Package aims to enable older citizens aged 65 years and above to receive healthcare benefits and protection through the 3M healthcare financing system (Medisave, MediShield and Medifund) — including the new MediShield Life, subsidised government health services and the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) for the low-income.


Prior to the implementation of compulsory savings through the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and introduction of Medisave in 1984, the generations who were born before 1950 and who had started working before the founding of Singapore in 1965 would not have built up enough savings.

These pioneers would not have enough in their CPF or Medisave accounts to pay for the rising costs of medical care that future generations with higher savings are able to bear, without depending on family support and greater transfers of government monies or public assistance.

An increasing number will be elderly women, who are widowed or single, who do not have the earning and saving capacities of their younger and more educated cohorts.

Surveys and feedback have pinpointed the key issues of our ageing population concerning income security and health problems. The elderly are worried about healthcare affordability and they desire greater social assurance for peace of mind.

However, this is often misunderstood as calling for increased welfare handouts and healthcare spending that may be unsustainable. Government policies in the past have been more cautious and less generous in providing social services and public assistance.

Nonetheless, the growing numbers of seniors are now exerting greater pressures on public health services and public finances. The elderly are demanding more and higher-quality public services, including healthcare for chronic disease conditions that come with the ageing process.

A minority will incur huge medical expenditures, which stronger risk-pooling mechanisms such as catastrophic insurance could provide better financial protection for. However, the majority would need to make regular outpatient visits to family doctors and the occasional specialist referral.

Other than topping up Medisave balances to pay for their MediShield Life premiums, there must also be enough funds for these other recurrent healthcare expenditures such as consultations and medication, including cost-effective preventive care for selected screening and immunisations.


In the design of universal health coverage for the population, at least three basic questions will have to be addressed: Who are covered, what to cover and how much will be covered in the plan?

The answer to the first question is all Singaporeans; but those who qualify as the pioneer generation will get more support.

The second question will continue to be asked as greater demands are made to extend the scope to cover more conditions and provide other forms of healthcare, such as social and long-term care. However, such extras must be based on evidence of cost-effectiveness when offered as more appropriate alternatives.

The third question is probably the most difficult to address as it is loaded with uncertainty and risks, including longer-term financial implications for sustainability and cost-sharing between stakeholders.

How much will be subsidised or charged and what is the balance of the healthcare costs to be shared?

Already, different groups, including the People’s Action Party Seniors Group and the Women’s Wing, have come up with more recommendations for extended benefits and coverage.

In the days ahead, there will be many more suggestions and lobbies when details are provided during the Budget debates. How much to give will depend not only on the merits of the justification and economic basis such as affordability. Setting any precedent for our pioneer generation will also set the stage for future generations to come. It is critical that we get it right from the start.

Dr Phua Kai Hong teaches health and social policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He has consulted in health economics and financing to many governments and international agencies, including the World Bank and WHO.

Just who are those pioneers, anyway?
The grandparents and parents of today's young folk are to get a Budget windfall - the Pioneer Generation Package. Insight looks at the people whose grit helped make Singapore great.
By Goh Chin Lian And Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2014

AT 16, Danny Wong had already lost his dad, survived a war and worked in three different jobs. The year was 1947.

Today's teenagers and their parents would find this almost unimaginable, but that was the reality for their grandparents.

Mr Wong's generation - Singaporeans born before 1950 who became citizens before 1987 - received a fillip when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Sunday announced the Pioneer Generation Package.

Statistics show this generation did not have the same educational and job opportunities as those who came later, and so have some grounds for concern about what is meant to be their golden years.

Additionally, it is a way of honouring their contribution to nation building.

The Budget next Friday will give details of this package to help and honour them. Initial estimates point to it costing hundreds of millions of dollars a year for some 30 years, to cover the whole lifetime of all these pioneers.

Why does this group of 450,000 Singapore citizens warrant such significant spending? Insight looks at the numbers to form a picture of their lives.

Less well-educated

OUT of every 10 people in the pioneer generation, seven were born in Singapore.

Another two were born in Malaysia, such as Mr Wong, whose parents were from Singapore but moved to Johor when his father found work there as a law clerk.

The rest were mostly born in China and South Asia. Proportionally more - at least a quarter - of the older pioneers born in the 1920s and now in their late 80s or early 90s, were born in China, including those brought here as children by their parents migrating south, according to the 2010 Census of the resident population.

A major disruption was World War II, during which the Japanese occupied Singapore from 1942 to 1945. It affected schooling and livelihoods. Mr Wong spent only three years in a Chinese primary school. His family donned Malay garb to disguise themselves from Japanese soldiers on the lookout for the Chinese.

He was also the third oldest of 11 children. People with large families to support in those days felt a greater urgency to start work early. War and poverty would shorten their years in school.

A 1999 study by the Department of Statistics shows those born from 1935 to 1946 received fewer years of formal education than the post-war baby boomers:
- 76 per cent had primary or no education, compared with 57 per cent of early baby boomers born from 1947 to 1954 and 42 per cent of late baby boomers born from 1955 to 1964;
- 19 per cent had secondary education, against 33 per cent of early boomers and 40 per cent of late baby boomers; and
- 4 per cent went to university, against 6.5 per cent of early boomers and 11 per cent of late baby boomers.
There is another dimension to the education story: the women pioneers.

Girls born from 1935 to 1946 had 4.1 years of schooling on average, while boys had 6.6 years, the 1999 study found. Only 1.9 per cent of women born from 1935 to 1946 went to university, compared with 6.3 per cent for men.

More than 30 years on, 37 per cent of women born from 1968 to 1975 had university degrees, compared with 44 per cent of men.

Gerontology professor Kalyani Mehta of SIM University, a former Nominated MP, says poverty and parents' bias for sons to be educated over daughters led to the unequal educational opportunities.

Working 'triple hard'

THE war - and the years of poverty after that - had a large impact. Japanese soldiers killed the family of Mr Wong's aunt. This prompted his father to join the underground resistance, Force 136. But in 1944, he died of typhoid.

He left a widow and 11 children, the youngest just over a year old. Mr Wong, then 13, quickly learnt to shoulder family responsibilities: "I lost a father and became a man because I had to fight for survival."

Such trials resulted in a generation that pulled through with sheer grit and enterprise, despite a lack of formal education.

Mr Wong grabbed any job that came up, first as a teenage coolie digging tunnels for the Japanese.

A year after the war, the 15-year-old came to Singapore and overhauled torpedoes at the British naval base. "Those days, if you have a job, you won't let it go. You worked triple hard just to please the boss," he recalls.

Then, a friend offered him a job fixing bicycles and making tyres out of raw rubber in a steamer.

To a 16-year-old, his monthly pay of $50 was a princely sum.

But at the age of 17, he got a job with The Bank of China as a telephone operator on $70 a month.

The hiring policy then would not happen today: The bank employed only men. "At that time hardly any girl would work in an office," Mr Wong says.

Amid such attitudes, coupled with a lack of formal education, women had far fewer job options than men, notes Prof Mehta.

They were expected to do housework at a young age, or help in the family provision shop. Some got married and worked from home sewing or making cookies and cakes for sale, she says.

More job opportunities would open up for all after Singapore gained independence.

Factories sprung up, and people found work producing garments, wigs and toys, and assembling radio and TV sets.

But due to their lack of education, many were constrained in the jobs and wages they could get, and hence the savings they could accumulate for retirement.

By 1999, most born from 1935 to 1946 were still in production and related jobs (40 per cent), and clerical, sales and services (28 per cent). As a result, the pioneers earned less wages in their prime years of mid-30s to 40s than the baby boomers who came after, even after adjusting for inflation.

Their average monthly income was $1,280 in 1999 dollars, while early boomers earned $2,140, and later ones, $3,310.

Mr Wong - who got his Singapore ID card in 1948 - was a phone operator by day and a student by night. He scrimped on meals, buying burnt crusts for a few cents, or nasi lemak. At 19, he got his certificates in commercial English, book-keeping and advanced accounting.

This set him on the path of better job prospects, first as an accounting machine operator at Cycle and Carriage earning $120 a month, then as an auditor with a pay of $400 a month.

At age 24, he joined the middle class of his day and bought his first car, a second-hand two-door Ford V8 for $600.

Two years later, he became a manager at a rubber trading company, on $1,000 a month. There, he met his future wife, Jessie Tan, a secretary 12 years his junior.

Even though she had secondary education, like many other women in the pioneer generation, she stopped working after marriage.

Only a third of the women worked in their mid 30s to 40s, and less than a third of those were married.

One reason for fewer women pioneers working is that they had their hands full looking after several children. Close to 70 per cent of married women had three or more children, compared to 40 per cent for the early baby boomers.

Changes came with better education and job opportunities. Some were persuaded by the national family planning campaign, which started in 1966 and pushed for "stop at two" in 1972.

But the Wongs had three daughters. Now in their 40s, two are university graduates, while the third studied up to junior college.

Concerns about finances

TODAY, Mr Wong, at 82, volunteers his time teaching senior citizens to use the computer.

Madam Tan, 70, handles call bookings for a taxi company. She returned to work at 55, after Mr Wong ran into business woes.

While she built up her Central Provident Fund savings over the past 15 years, he did not save much in his CPF account as a businessman, but tops up his Medisave account when he can.

Their main asset is an HDB maisonette flat bought in the 1980s for $105,000 and paid up in 2000.

The Pioneer Generation Package, he says, will be another safety net when he gets sick.

Finances remain a concern for many pioneers who have not accumulated much savings given their relatively lower wages compared to younger generations.

Although CPF was introduced as early as 1955, contribution rates were as low as 5 per cent. Medisave, the compulsory medical savings scheme, was introduced much later in 1984.

The CPF Board tells Insight that average total CPF balance as of Dec 31 last year was $32,400 for those aged 65 and above, lower than the $105,500 for those aged 55 to 64. Similarly, the average Medisave account balance for the older group was $15,600, compared with $26,500 for the younger group. The figures, however, are for both Singaporeans and permanent residents.

In a survey of 10,000 households in 2011 by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, more than one in five of those aged 65 to 74, and nearly two in five aged 75 and above, said they had nothing left after deducting expenditure from income.

Three in 10 of those aged 65 and above felt that their finances were inadequate. The same proportion felt that they would not have sufficient finances for the future.

On the other hand, many gained from the national home ownership scheme introduced in 1964, for low- and middle-income families.

These flats, with flush toilets, were an improvement over squatter huts with families sharing a water pipe and toilet with others.

Then, in 1968, families could use CPF to pay for flats.

As a result of these policies, proportionally more of the pioneer generation were able to own their homes: 75 per cent of those aged 65 to 74 in 2011 owned their homes, up from 64 per cent in 1995. More than seven in 10 also cited their house as their most important asset.

The house would most likely be an HDB flat.One reason is that CPF could be used for buying private homes only from 1981.

Still, even with the HDB flat as their asset, concerns about finances remain. Three in four among the 65 to 74 age group said they were working because they needed money for current expenses or future financial security.

No doubt, the Pioneer Generation Package will go some way in giving Mr Wong and his wife peace of mind. It could also nudge her to take a break. Says Mr Wong: "I want her to stop working so we can spend our last few years together."

Five unimaginables about pioneers' lives

HERE are five things teenagers and their parents may find hard to imagine now about the lives of the pioneer generation:

1. Huge family: The average family size was nearly seven children in the first decade or so after World War II. Among the reasons: the desire for male heirs, religious injunctions and the fact that it was usual for the mother or relatives to look after the children.

2. Cramped quarters: Before Housing Board flats, over half a million people and big families squeezed into slums and squatter areas, using common toilets and standing water pipes.

3. No meat every day: It was uncommon to eat chicken, mutton, beef or pork daily as they were costly and reserved for festive occasions. Fish was cheaper.

Locally grown vegetables such as kangkung and Chinese cabbage accompanied rice or porridge. During the war, tapioca replaced rice.

4. Worked for less: In 1965, average weekly earnings for workmen were $44.55. Women and male youth got about $27, while female youth got about $10.

5. Less schooling for girls: Girls born from 1935 to 1946 had four years of schooling on average, while boys had more than six years, due to poverty and parents' bias towards sons' education. Only 1.9 per cent of women went to university, compared with 6 per cent of men.

He captured historic moment for posterity
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2014

A MONTH after Independence, Singapore spread its wings as a new country, being admitted as the 117th member of the United Nations at its headquarters in New York.

Cameraman Mun Chor Seng, then a clean-faced young man in black-rimmed glasses and a sharp suit, was there to capture the moment for posterity.

Lugging cans of film and video and print cameras – a far cry from today’s digital ease – Mr Mun worked for Singapore’s first television station, Television Singapura.

At his Thomson Terrace home, amid files of photographs in pristine condition, Mr Mun, now 76, recalls the challenges of filming during the historic 1965 visit, led by Singapore’s first foreign minister S. Rajaratnam.

“I had to carry a lot of film, so excess baggage was my worry. The film had been exposed to a tropical climate (and) by the time it was exposed to the temperate climate, there were some problems – it was a bit sticky and jammed the camera.” So he bought extra film stock in New York, and was able to continue filming smoothly.

Being part of a brand-new nation had its quirks – Mr Mun was issued a provisional passport to travel as part of the Singapore mission. He says with a chuckle: “It was issued in time of need, but I was quite fascinated by the word ‘provision’ because passports cannot be provisional.”

On the significance of the trip, he says thoughtfully: “This (separation from Malaysia) was not something that we asked for, but something we had to live with, a fact of life.

We had no choice – because of survival we had to work hard.” Still, it resulted in special memories for him. After New York, he continued with the dignitaries on a two-month goodwill mission to countries like Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania and Algeria.

“There’s a satisfaction in knowing you could go to places you would not have been able to. When you’re young, you don’t have to worry about being tired. This opportunity comes once, and when you miss it, you miss it,” he says.

The married retiree and grandfather of three spent four decades in the broadcast industry, and was one of more than 1,000 individuals invited to the Istana last Sunday as part of the Pioneer Generation Tribute celebration.

Mr Mun has also photographed and recorded footage of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s official visits to Japan, Korea, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, among others.

Asked about his contribution to Singapore’s history, Mr Mun says: “ I just played a part. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle – we need these parts to make a full picture.”

She helped to build SGH, old TTSH - step by back-breaking step
By Maryam Mokhtar and Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2014

AS A Samsui woman for 44 years, Madam Wong Ah Woon specialised in staircases.

She built those in the Singapore General Hospital, the old Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Shangri-La Hotel and several HDB blocks.

It was back-breaking work.

She carried pails of cement and sand, which she layered between tiles on each staircase level. Some buildings were more than 20 storeys high.

She worked seven days a week, from 8am to 4pm with a lunch break. Her pay of $5.50 a day was more than that of other Samsui women because staircase work was tougher than floor work.

Now 87, she is a stern-faced woman with strong shoulders - the marks of a life of toil and personal tragedy. A native of Guangdong province in China, Madam Wong, who is illiterate and speaks only Cantonese, came to Singapore at the age of 21 in 1948.

A relative introduced her to a clothes-maker whom she later married. She bore him two sons but was widowed at the age of 26, when her husband died of tuberculosis.

Just three days after his death, her younger son, then a newborn, also died. The baby had been vomiting, and suddenly stopped breathing.

By then, she had been working as a Samsui for about a year. She returned to work a month after their funerals.

"I had to eat, I had to survive," she says of that time. With a son, an adopted daughter and a mother-in-law to care for, there was little time to grieve.

That stoicism was to stay with her. At 69, she left her job as a Samsui because of an errant boss who owed her about $600 in wages.

"I called a few times, I couldn't get the money. So I thought, I'm not going to try any more. I fired him."

Today, Madam Wong lives on her own in a one-room rental flat in Geylang Bahru. It is simply furnished but spick and span. She makes weekly trips to the wet market nearby with her small shopping cart, to buy fish and vegetables for her meals of dishes such as steamed pomfret with garlic and spring onions.

Her son, a traditional masseuse who is 63, lives nearby and checks on her. Her son and grandchildren support her financially. She has few health ailments and few worries.

She grins as she gestures at her fridge, where cans of Guinness Stout sit on the bottom shelf and keep her in good spirits.

Asked to look back at her life and the role she has played in literally building this nation, she says without missing a beat: "I don't think anything of it. I take it day by day. I have a house to live in, food to eat. That's all that matters."

Union leader helped guide utility workers through deregulation
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2014

RETIRED veteran union leader Abdul Rahman Mahbob, 74, remembers breaking the news to more than 100 men working at power station PowerSeraya that they would be retrenched.

The year was 2004, and one employee remains firmly etched in his mind. A young technician in his 30s remained seated on the floor, not budging even after a counsellor was called. He was the sole breadwinner with two young children and a wife to support.

Mr Rahman, then president of the Union of Power and Gas Employees representing about 3,400 workers, stepped in.

"I said: 'You are going to let your wife and children die of hunger? Don't be a nut.' I used that word. I hit him very hard," he says, his voice breaking. "It is hard to see a man cry."

But Mr Rahman, a father of seven who helmed the union from 1996 till retiring in 2007, also gave his word that he would help the man find a job - a promise he kept.

The episode was one of many the former clerk with Singapore Power had to face in more than 30 years as a unionist. He worked alongside late union leader and former Nominated MP Nithiah Nandan and unionist R.K.S. Nachiappan in guiding workers through the corporatisation and deregulation of the electricity, gas and power industries from the 1990s.

"When you are under a corporatised company... you are more or less linked to the Government. The mentality of people at that time was that as long as you are with the Government, your job was safe. So when they heard it was being sold to be managed by private ownership, they were very worried," he explains.

He and other union leaders were tireless in explaining to workers how deregulation would benefit them. Their bonuses and increments, for example, would not be fixed and non-negotiable, unlike at a statutory board.

But Mr Rahman was equally firm on ensuring the workers' needs and concerns were voiced and met. He says: "We told their new bosses, you are profit-making and your main focus is what is your bottom line. if that is so you make sure you pay our workers well. We, in turn, will make sure they work for you well."

Key to managing these relations was never to let emotions hold sway. Mr Rahman says he learnt this lesson from experiencing the 1964 racial riots.

"I saw how things could get out of hand if people didn't control their emotions."

Today, he maintains his union ties, but also takes short trips overseas with his wife, 70. "I used to come back very late and left her alone a lot... My children finally forced me to stop so that I can rest," he says, laughing.

What price, the pioneer vote?
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2014

IN 1994, then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew controversially suggested giving two votes to each married Singaporean aged between 35 and 60 with a child. This was to guard against an increase in the elderly vote in about 20 years' time when the population would start to age.

He said then: "You get hold of all the senior citizens' corners, in no time, you've got 20 per cent, 25 per cent of the vote! And free medical health, free this, free that."

What significance does that hold today?

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that 450,000 seniors would benefit from the Pioneer Generation Package, he also shone the spotlight on that very same voting block the elder Mr Lee had worried about.

Seniors aged 65 and above made up 20 per cent, or a fifth, of the 2.21 million registered voters in the 2011 General Election. So the timing of this package, coming after a watershed general election in May 2011 when the Government's share of the vote fell and two successive by-election defeats, has led some to point out that while the intention of honouring the pioneers might well be heartfelt, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) stands to gain considerable electoral mileage from the package in the process.

After the 2011 General Election, an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey found a big change in voting preferences among those aged 65 and above.

After the 2006 GE, 46.5 per cent of these seniors were found to be conservative and in favour of the status quo. That fell to 28 per cent in 2011, an 18 percentage point drop. Analysts said then that the finding showed the older vote was getting more unsettled.

That is significant as older voters, who lived through Independence and witnessed Singapore's rapid development from Third World to First World, have traditionally been the PAP voting stronghold. They elected the PAP by a landslide in the 1959 General Election and supported the party in its key struggle against the Barisan Sosialis in the 1963 polls.

So why do some of them seem to be turning away from the PAP now?

A rise in income inequality and higher costs of living, coupled with some seniors' lack of savings and the reality of living longer than many may have planned, has made life in Singapore increasingly hard for them. IPS senior research fellow Gillian Koh says: "The old-old worry that they don't have enough for their health-care and retirement needs.

"The new measures have to be substantial enough to ease their worries, boost their sense of security about life ahead, (and) raise their trust that the Government will help them along."

With the growing importance of this silver lobby, it is no surprise that the pioneer generation is now a group the ruling party wants to woo.

Right after GE 2011, PM Lee made it a point to say the PAP must not neglect the elderly, who "deserve to have their voices heard too".

Greater political contestation is also a factor, with the Workers' Party (WP) making a strong pitch for the seniors' vote, most clearly in the Punggol East by-election last year.

WP member and Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao said in a rally speech then: "We should remember that earlier generations of Singaporeans laid the foundation for our economic success. What we enjoy today we owe in large part to them, whether they were factory workers, business people, civil servants or others."

In the nearly three years since GE 2011, of the "strategic shifts" made by the Government, the emphasis on the elderly has been the most noticeable. A comparison in the number of mentions of the word "elderly" in previous Budget speeches is telling. A Straits Times study found that "elderly" was mentioned an average of 10.8 times from 2004 to 2011.

In the two years after? An average of 46 mentions. The odds are high Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam will repeat that next Friday when he shares more details of the Pioneer Generation Package in his Budget speech.

At the PAP's convention last December, the party unveiled a senior citizens' advocacy group - the PAP.SG. This finally gave seniors representation on a par with the Women's Wing that was set up in 1989 and the Youth Wing in 1986. One of its speakers, Women's Wing member Chan Hui Min, spoke of "The Political Clout of the Silver Generation in an Ageing Population".

And the Government is putting its money where its mouth is. It has pledged to double annual health-care expenditure to $8 billion, and will introduce MediShield Life, a universal medical insurance plan that will cover everyone for life. The Pioneer Generation Package, to be announced next Friday, is a further commitment of a sizeable sum of money each year for the next 20 to 30 years.

Crafting policy to meet the needs and assuage the worries of elderly voters is therefore a wise political move. But might there also be a price to pay in terms of raised expectations? Dr Koh said the messaging and presentation of the package has to ensure younger seniors under 65 accept why they stand on the other side of this hard line, and highlight how there are other policies they benefit from, outside of this package.

That is something to watch out for, as the number of those aged 65 and above will triple to 900,000 by 2030. Will those left out of the Pioneer Generation Package also clamour for concessions? The Government has made it clear that this is a special package for a special generation. The challenge is to ensure that the package strengthens trust and the compact between different generations of Singaporeans, rather than undermines it.

Striking a fair deal for the elderly
So what if the Pioneer Package wins the PAP votes if it's the right thing to do
By Sunday With Zuraidah Ibrahim, The Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2014

Thus far, the Pioneer Generation Package easily ranks as the most universally welcomed policy announcement since the 2011 General Election. Who, after all, would begrudge older Singaporeans this expression of gratitude after the sacrifices they endured in those early years of independence.

Even those not used to praising the government for generosity were probably pleasantly surprised to find out that the package would cover citizens as young as 65.

The move acknowledges that even if the idea of Singapore had been imagined by a few, it was built by many. And while the majority saw their standards of living rise, they would never enjoy the full suite of opportunities that came to later generations. For example, among babyboomers born in the immediate post-war years, around 60 per cent never got a secondary education. Many who were academically able had to sacrifice school to help their families.

While nobody would be caught objecting to the principle of helping the elderly, we can expect the debate inside and outside of Parliament to focus on questions of adequacy and sustainability - whether it is still too little, or too much.

The package, in three parts, will give subsidies for outpatient care, annual Medisave top-ups and help pay for premiums for Medishield Life. Some 450,000 Singaporeans who are aged 65 or older this year will be covered. Based on their current life expectancy, this could mean payouts for at least the next two decades.

How much the government will spend on all this will be revealed in the Budget. But in his National Day Rally last year, the Prime Minister hinted at how generous the government was prepared to be when he told the elderly a few times: "Don't worry."

Under the current Medishield, the premium for 90-year-olds is $1,190. With enhanced benefits, the premiums for Medishield Life are likely to be higher. But the promise to this group is that they will pay less. Assuming an average subsidy of, say $1,500-$2,000 for the 450,000 Singaporeans for all three components of the package, we could be looking at spending of nearly a billion dollars annually.

Costs could escalate if health- care consumption increases, leading to higher premiums. One way to deter unnecessary spending is to give discounts or incentives for policyholders who are more restrained in their use of medical services.

Whatever the final sums are, we are talking about a massive government injection in social spending that could exceed the Workfare Income Supplement, which costs $650 million a year, and the GST permanent vouchers, costing $680 million a year.

Already, the first wisps of cynicism are appearing over the government's motives. Is this an effort to keep members of the pioneer generation happy and grateful on their way to polling booths in coming general elections? The correct response to that has to be: so what? If elections encourage leaders to respond to people's needs, that is as it should be.

What is important is that vote buying, if you want to call it that, does not descend to the kind of pork barrel politics that plagues some democracies, where government spending is wasteful and irrational on any grounds other than as a flagrant reward for votes. Another common problem is that of powerful lobbies with excessive clout over the electoral process and, hence, policymaking.

So, the relevant question to ask is not whether the Pioneer Generation Package will benefit the People's Action Party - that political dividend is its due if it gets the policy right - but whether it makes sense in its own right.

I doubt that this scheme is a harbinger of the inter-generational wars that have visited other countries. The fear of a silver lobby having undue influence was raised as far back as 1994 by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Senior Minister. He floated the idea of reducing senior citizens' electoral power by giving two votes to every Singaporean parent aged 35-60.

This radical fix, he said, would prevent the agenda being seized by politicians who pander to the elderly: "You get hold of all the senior citizens' corners, in no time, you've got 20 per cent, 25 per cent of the vote! And free medical health, free this, free that."

Mr Lee's revolutionary one-young-man-two-votes idea never took off. Critics pointed out that the elderly in Singapore are very much part of the extended family structure. It was unfair to suspect that older Singaporeans would use their growing numbers to extort handouts from the state and cause their adult children to be burdened with high taxes, and compromise their grandchildren's future.

Today, around 97 per cent of the elderly live at home. Many young families take advantage of housing grants for flats close to their parents; the recent introduction of 3G flats for multigenerational families saw a strong take-up.

As long as they are embedded in the community, it is unlikely that senior citizens will be blinded by their narrow interests, and oblivious to other needs that the state must fulfil, like good schools for their grandkids, affordable housing for young couples and a healthy work-life balance for working adults.

Conversely, it is not just the elderly who will benefit from the pioneer package, but also their children who are looking after them. Security for aged parents is a major source of anxiety and uncertainty for working adults. The proposed package addresses this directly.

In addition to material help, the Pioneer Generation Package could have a powerful symbolic impact. It is a statement about the kind of society we want to be. I hope it gets Singaporeans thinking about the responsibilities we owe to one another. Singapore is well behind other developed nations in philanthropy, and it tends to be easier to raise money for needy children than for the elderly.

Of course, when the full cost of the package is totted up, including the likely prospect of higher Medishield Life premiums, there are bound to be doubts about whether every senior citizen really needs help. According to 2011 figures, 9.4 per cent of those aged 65 and above live in landed property compared with 6.6 per cent for the general resident population. Even if housing type is not always a reliable surrogate measure of financial means, such visible indicators will raise questions about fairness and lead to calls for means testing.

However such technicalities are resolved, the essential merit of this massive new programme should not be lost. The challenge, as DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a speech last year on social culture, is to "ensure a fair deal between the generations".

Don't stop at the pioneer generation
By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2014

Like many Singaporeans I am a product of the pioneer generation.

My father was still in secondary school when he was told by his father to quit school to get married.

He wasn't thrilled by the prospect and contemplated running away from home to join the navy.

But grandfather's word was law and he brooked no disagreement.

The woman my father was about to marry would arrive by boat from Hainan island in China, a marriage arranged years earlier when my grandfather went back to his village to pick the future wives of his three sons.

You could say it wasn't the most fortuitous start for my generation.

But my parents' experience wasn't unique and though it wasn't how they might have wanted to start life together, they worked hard at it because they wanted a better future for themselves and their children.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, members of this pioneer generation would have been 16 years and older, according to the recently announced official definition.

For many, their lives had already been turned upside down many times - when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942, during the tumultuous days of racial riots and political uncertainty in the 1950s and 60s, and the subsequent merger with and separation from Malaysia.

It was a time to grow up quickly, when boys and girls became men and women barely out of their teens.

My father was 19 when he married my mother, who was a year younger. By 1965, both barely 30, they had five children.

Much has been said about the contributions of this group of Singaporeans to the country's development and how they built the foundations on which rapid progress took place.

Most though were ordinary people like my parents doing ordinary jobs under trying circumstances.

But the one task they excelled in and which made the biggest difference to Singapore's future was the single-minded way in which they produced and raised the next generation.

It is difficult today to comprehend why they believed in large families when their ability to provide for so many children seemed so limited and the future looked so uncertain.

From where did their faith spring?

Why did they have such abundant confidence in the future compared to later generations?

This question isn't unique to Singapore and has also been asked elsewhere.

Americans call the generation raised during the great economic depression of the 1920s and who fought in World War II "The Greatest Generation", a term popularised by broadcaster Tom Brokaw in his book of that name.

He writes: "Looking back, I can recall that all grown-ups seemed to have a sense of purpose... Whatever else that was happening in our family or neighbourhood, there was something greater connecting all of us, in large ways and small."

This feeling of being part of a wider community, and which citizens believed they had a responsibility to protect and improve, made their own individual problems seem smaller and less consuming.

Too hard to raise so many children? But that was what was expected of them, and, in any case, hardship was the norm.

In fact, having larger families was the way out of poverty when there was faith in the future.

Their attitude and outlook were shaped by the hard life they led and that greater sense of purpose Brokaw writes about.

We like to call these the values of our pioneer generation. They would probably say it was just how it was, and what other choice was there?

What was critical though was that these values influenced the generation they subsequently raised.

This later group born after 1949 continued the work to develop Singapore, building on the foundation of their parents.

Together, the two generations transformed the country.

Because their parents placed so much faith in their future and sacrificed so much for them, the post-1949 generation bears the greatest responsibility for looking after the pioneer group.

Indeed, many have done so and derived immense satisfaction from being able to repay their debt to their parents.

But it is a varied group and some have done better in life than others.

It is right that the state should step in to help those who have not done as well.

The recently announced Pioneer Generation Package will be a welcome recognition for this group, and is spot-on in focusing on their health-care needs.

Should it be given to all equally or should there be some differentiation according to need?

Perhaps it is possible to do both - with all receiving a basic level of assistance from the package and those in need getting additional benefits.

A tiered scheme will mean more for those who really need it.

It will benefit not just the needy but their children who support and pay their medical bills.

But while I applaud the introduction of the package to recognise the contributions of the pioneer generation, I hope it doesn't distract the Government from doing more to tackle the wider ageing issue.

What is needed is a comprehensive national plan encompassing all the issues that older people face: financial security, health-care costs and accessibility, support for caregivers, and so on.

Singapore is well behind many countries in having such a plan.

For example, Australia has a Minister for Ageing and introduced its "National Strategy for an Ageing Australia" in 2002, with a comprehensive set of goals and policies in all these important areas.

It is interesting to note that the first and most important feature of this plan is to ensure a secure and sustainable retirement income. Without financial security, many other problems will arise.

I was therefore glad to hear the recent call by the labour movement to increase the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rates for older workers. It has taken too long a time coming.

Singapore needs to move a great deal faster if it wants to tackle these issues seriously and in a more systematic way.

The pioneer generation has had the benefit of having the post-1949 cohort with large family sizes to support its ageing needs.

Present and future generations will not enjoy this advantage.

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