Thursday, 28 August 2014

Celebrate old age too with 'Silver Bonus'

By Kanwaljit Soin, Published The Straits Times, 27 Aug 2014

THERE are just about 400,000 of us in Singapore - those aged 65 and older. About 35,000 of us earn less than $1,000 a month.

Another piece of depressing news - 24 out of 100,000 elderly people committed suicide last year. In the United States, only 14 in 100,000 did so. Also, the rate of elderly suicide is twice the rate of those younger in Singapore.

Nearly 30 per cent of us in 2011 were living in a four-room Housing Board flat and about 24 per cent of us in a three-room HDB flat. Twenty per cent were in HDB apartments that were five-roomers or executive flats. Fifteen per cent of us were living in private property. Seven per cent live in one or two-bedroom flats. The remaining 3 per cent of us were in institutions.

Compared with the general resident population, a higher proportion of us were staying in HDB one and two-room flats (7.3 per cent versus 3.2 per cent) and HDB three-room flats (24 per cent versus 17 per cent).

More of us are women than men in the above 65 age group. In 2011, there were 795 elderly resident males per 1,000 elderly resident females.

As we get older, there are fewer men. Above 85 years of age, there are only half as many men as women and so it gets quite lonely for us women. If women live to beyond 85, nearly 90 per cent are widowed while for men, the figure is 35 per cent.

About 35,000 of us elderly are frail but most of us are relatively healthy. The number living alone is also about 35,000 which comprises about 8 per cent.

Overall, we are less educated than the rest of the population. Times were harder during our younger days, education was not compulsory and we had to work at an early age to help in the home or find work outside to help the family.

Nearly nine in 10 of us have below secondary qualifications compared with three in 10 for younger people below 65. Although we are not so educated, we have the experience of lived experience and hopefully some wisdom, but it is difficult to find meaningful work or we are unable to work for some reason like caring responsibilities for others in the family.

Most of us depend on our children's allowances as our main source of financial support. Many have no or low Central Provident Fund savings. It is not much fun to stretch out our hand each time we need money and often we have to explain our need. Over 80 per cent of those of us who are widowed depend on our children's allowances.

We are glad that through the Pioneer Generation Package, we will get subsidies for outpatient care at general practitioner clinics, polyclinics and specialist outpatient clinics. We are also grateful for the annual Medisave top-ups.

Some of us have always been ineligible for any form of health insurance. If we survive till the end of next year, we will at least have some peace of mind on hospitalisation expenses as these will be covered by MediShield Life.

But life does not just consist of health-care needs only. We all need some money for transport and incidental expenses not covered by the Pioneer Generation Package.

We know that our compatriots in Hong Kong get what is called "fruit money". There are two types of "fruit money" in Hong Kong. One is the "Old Age Allowance" - a universal sum given to everyone who is a resident over the age of 70. It is HK$1,180 (S$190) and given without any needs-based criteria.

The other is the "Old Age Living Allowance". It consists of HK$2,285 and comes with eligibility criteria.

If each one of us over 65 who is a resident in Singapore is given an old age allowance of just $200, it would be a good bonus.

For those with very little, the $200 will go a long way.

For those who already have plenty, they can spend the $200 on themselves or their grandchildren, thus stimulating the economy.

The cost to the country would be $960 million annually.

The total cost of the Pioneer Package is $9 billion and this old age allowance could be a small part of the total package.

Much of Singapore's success has been built on the backs of the pioneer generation and of the baby-boomer generation.

Setting aside part of the reserves for older people also alleviates the fiscal burden on the younger working age population, allowing we elderly to age with some dignity.

The Baby Bonus package is given to parents of new babies. It comes without any means testing, and is seen as a celebration of new life.

We would also like to celebrate old age, with a small allowance given to all elderly people aged 65 and above, without the need for intrusive means testing. Like the Baby Bonus, the Silver Bonus need not be stacked under a mattress but will be spent and can have multiplier effects on the economy.

In his National Day Rally speech, the Prime Minister announced a new Silver Support annual bonus for the low-income elderly with no asset and family support.

That is a most welcome move. In addition to that, I hope the Government will consider giving a Silver Bonus to all elderly people aged 65 and above to celebrate old age, and to reward the elderly for their contributions to nation-building.

The writer is a former Nominated Member of Parliament and immediate past president of Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS). She is 72.

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