Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Helping those who helped build Singapore

By Tham Yuen-c, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2015

THEY came in the thousands, some in wheelchairs, some leaning on walking frames and umbrellas, and some helped by younger relatives or domestic helpers.

And they, the elderly Singaporeans who turned up at Parliament House and other tribute sites around Singapore last week to pay their respects to Singapore's first Prime Minister, did not hold back their emotions.

Many were already tearful and some broke down, sobbing as they bowed in respect or knelt to say a prayer.

"He is our founding father, our leader," said retiree Nancy Wu, 77, who had gone to pay respects in the wee hours of Friday with her daughter.

As Singapore mourns the death of one of its foremost pioneers, the spotlight has also turned on the others from the pioneer generation who had contributed to nation-building.

Singapore's pioneers

EVEN as the world credited Mr Lee Kuan Yew with transforming the nation, he had always acknowledged that the task could not be completed alone.

In rehousing people from squatter areas into flats, cleaning up the streets, and connecting Singapore's economy to the rest of the world, he had exhorted the pioneer generation of Singaporeans to work together with him.

"This country belongs to all of us. We made this country from nothing... Over 100 years ago, this was a mudflat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!" he said at a grassroots event in Sembawang in September 1965.

Among those who heeded his call was Madam Tay Siew Kee.

The 71-year-old worked as a domestic helper, washerwoman and cleaner in her youth, taking on all these jobs to give her family a better life.

"Mr Lee always encouraged us to work hard and strive for a better life," she said outside Parliament House last Friday.

Through her efforts and those of many others from her generation, Singaporeans now enjoy the stability, prosperity and security that did not exist in the country's early days.

More than 90 per cent of the people have a roof over their heads, the majority of them owners of Housing Board flats.

And Singapore's gross domestic product per capita was US$55,182 (S$75,460 at current rates) in 2013, compared with US$428 in 1960.

Last year, the Government launched the Pioneer Generation Package to recognise the "unique contributions" of this generation of Singaporeans.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in announcing it, had said: "We want to give our pioneer generation and their families a sense of assurance that their healthcare will be taken care of by society as a whole.

"It is something that we should do as fellow Singaporeans to take care of our pioneer generation and to honour them."

The Government set aside $8 billion to pay for the healthcare needs of about 450,000 of them, who were at least 16 years old in 1965, and who had also become citizens before 1987.

It has said that it will not discriminate based on income and wealth, and the funds will be available to all from the generation.

Honour and help

BESIDES honouring them for their contributions, the package is also a recognition that some of Singapore's elderly may not have been able to enjoy the fruits of their own labour.

Over the years, Members of Parliament have highlighted that these elderly citizens, who contributed to Singapore's economic progress in their youth but yet have little savings and income, find it difficult to cope with today's higher cost of living and healthcare.

For them, the "success of Singapore may seem to have passed them by", said Singapore Management University law academic and former Nominated MP (NMP) Eugene Tan.

MPs and experts on ageing stress that their plight is not the result of profligacy.

Many of these elderly Singaporeans just did not have the opportunity to squirrel away much savings, having started working at a time when salaries were low and when people retired earlier.

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

With no Medisave, MediShield or Medifund - this "3M framework" having started only in 1984 - during the most economically active years of the pioneers, they may also not have saved enough to pay for their own medical care.

During that era, few also had the chance to get an education.

Girls born from 1935 to 1946 had four years of schooling on average, while boys had more than six years, because of poverty and parents' bias towards sons' education.

And only a very small percentage - 1.9 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men - went to university.

Said Dr Ng Wai Chong, medical director of the Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing: "Even if they worked hard, they may not have earned a lot or saved enough."

Former NMP Laurence Lien said in a parliamentary speech that these pioneers also lived through a period of high personal income tax rates, of up to 55 per cent. He added that this was what allowed Singapore to accumulate large Budget surpluses, which went into the country's national reserves.

"I find it fitting that it is the returns on investing these reserves that make it possible for us to afford the $8 billion (for the Pioneer Generation Package)," he said.

With the Pioneer Generation Package providing the elderly pioneers with Medisave top-ups for life, and subsidies for their MediShield Life premiums, among other things, these pioneers will have more assurance in their golden years, said Associate Professor Chin Jing Jih, director of the Institute of Geriatrics and Active Ageing at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, in an interview with The Straits Times.

Many elderly folk are concerned about becoming a burden on their families, he said, adding: "Psychologically, the package has the great effect of giving the comfort that there is a lot of backup."

Doing more

BUT even as many lauded the package and recognised its generosity, they also asked if more can be done for this group of people.

Prof Chin, for instance, felt that it will be just as important to provide for their psychological and social care.

In her Budget wish list for this year, the managing director of Ernst & Young Advisory, Ms Mildred Tan, also brought up this point. "Senior citizens, particularly those with limited family support, may need home visits and mental activities to keep them emotionally healthy and socially engaged," she said.

She suggested elderly-friendly transport facilities - such as having more buses and trains that are wheelchair-friendly - as a means to achieve this.

Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy health economist Phua Kai Hong suggested in a commentary that more can be done to help with the pioneers' recurrent healthcare expenses.

He said the majority of these elderly Singaporeans will probably not incur huge medical expenses, but will have to make regular visits to their family doctors.

It will help if the package covers costs for consultations, medication and maybe even selected screenings and immunisations for preventive care, he said.

Yet, others have urged all Singaporeans to honour and help take care of the pioneer generation, and not see it as the Government's job.

Prof Chin warned that people should not see the Government stepping in to help as an excuse not to do their part.

He said the Government is not taking over "the responsibility of the children".

President Tony Tan Keng Yam, himself a pioneer, said when the package was announced last year: "All of us can also play a part in our own ways, be it a simple gesture of giving up seats on our public transport to the elderly, or caring for the elderly in our families and the community."

Healthcare subsidies for pioneer generation
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2015

WHEN the Pioneer Generation Package was unveiled last year, it was hailed as a historic move by the Government.

The $8 billion package, meant to honour first-generation Singaporeans who have contributed to nation-building, is also a major reinforcement of Singapore's social safety nets.

It comes at a time when the Government is raising social spending significantly to help the elderly as well as the lower- and middle-income groups, in the face of rising income inequality and an ageing population.

Healthcare and ageing experts alike have praised the package, saying it will ease the burden of medical bills for a significant number of elderly Singaporeans who may not have saved enough for their healthcare needs.

But more than that, it has also been done in a sustainable way, being limited to one specific cohort. As its name suggests, the package is only for those in Singapore's pioneer generation, who were at least 16 years old in 1965, and had also become citizens before 1987.

There are about 450,000 of them.

The Government has also passed a law to set aside money - earned from investing Singapore's reserves - in the Pioneer Generation Fund to pay for the package.

This is to make sure its promise will be honoured, regardless of who is in government.

It also means future generations will not be burdened with financing the package.

But there have been calls for the package to be expanded to benefit more seniors, or even for a Pioneer Generation Package 2 that will cover the next cohort of seniors.

To this, Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing has said: "Frankly, we hope that we can."

But two things will determine if this can be done, he added.

One is whether or not the country will have the means to fund another such package, and the other is whether future generations of Singaporeans will want to honour those before them who have contributed to the country's progress.

Regardless of whether or not there is another such package, though, there is no doubt that society will have to think about how to help future cohorts of elderly citizens as Singapore's population ages.

This is the second of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

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