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Aspirations of an older Singaporean

Prof Tommy Koh: 78 years old and going strong.

I am 78 years old. I am working full-time at several jobs. My ambition is to stay healthy and to work until the day I die. In this essay, I wish to make three propositions.

  1. First, we should abolish the statutory retirement age.
  2. Second, the principle of equal pay for equal work should apply not only between men and women but also between the young and the old.
  3. Third, we should end all forms of ageism in Singapore.

1Abolish the retirement age

There is a mandatory age for retirement in Singapore.  It used to be 55.  It is now set at 65 and the government intends to raise it to 67.  In some jurisdictions, such as Australia and the United States, there is no mandatory age for retirement.  I propose that Singapore should join Australia and the US and do away with the mandatory age for retirement.

Doing away with mandatory retirement will help Singapore in four ways. It will reduce the shortage of workers in Singapore. It will reduce our dependence on foreign workers. It will improve our dependency ratio. It will also reduce the number of older Singaporeans who are unable to look after themselves financially.

But, many older Singaporeans wish to continue to work not out of necessity. They wish to do so because they enjoy their work. They find that the work that they do gives meaning to their lives.

Unlike the situations in some other countries, many older Singaporeans do not wish to retire. They wish to continue to work. Some of them do so because they do not have enough savings to stop working. Others do so because they wish to be self-reliant and not be dependent on their children.

But, many older Singaporeans wish to continue to work not out of necessity. They wish to do so because they enjoy their work. They find that the work that they do gives meaning to their lives. The motivation to work and the discipline of work help them to be physically fit and mentally alert. I recall that Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said that retirement equals death. What Mr Lee meant to say is that retirement often leads to a rapid decline in the retiree’s physical and mental health. His advice to Singaporeans was to work for as long as possible. We should remember his wise advice.

People who are self-employed are not subject to mandatory retirement. They are the lucky people. My favourite baker, Mrs Violet Kwan of Lana Cakes, is 88 years old. My optician, Mr Leow Hock Chin of Star Optical is 87 years old. My tailor, Mr Edward Kwan of Wai Cheong Tailor, is 84 years old. There is another octogenarian whom I greatly admire. He is Professor Wang Gungwu of the National University of Singapore. He is 85 years old and serves concurrently as the Chairman of the East Asian Institute, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. These octogenarians are inspiring Singaporeans. They are living proof of my proposition that older Singaporeans can continue to excel in their work. It is not rational to force such people to stop working. It would be unjust to them and a waste of our precious human resource. For this reason, I propose that the time has come for Singapore to abolish the mandatory age for retirement.

2Equal pay for equal work

My second proposal is that the principle of equal pay for equal work should apply not only between men and women but also between the young and the old.

Some of my older friends have been exploited by their employers. Upon reaching a certain age, an employee would be compulsorily retired.  His employer would then offer him or her a new contract to do the same work at half the previous salary.  I find such a practice exploitative and discriminatory.  I will have no objection if, under the new contract, the employee is given a reduced work load or assigned to do lighter duties.  However, I insist that the principle of equal pay for equal work should prevent an employer from taking advantage of an older worker by requiring him to do the same work for less pay.

3Stop Ageism

My third proposal is that we identify all forms of ageism or discrimination against older Singaporeans and abolish them.

Let me cite some examples of ageism in Singapore.  My first example is the nature of our narrative about older Singaporeans.  Our office holders and policy makers have referred to our rapidly ageing society as posing an existential threat to Singapore.  The narrative is that older Singaporeans would be economically inactive and therefore become dependent on society.  The narrative is that older people tend to suffer from various forms of ill health and they would therefore be a drain on our healthcare resources.  The narrative is that the increasing number of old people would reduce the vitality of the Singapore economy.

In the 2013 report published by the National Population and Talent Division of the Prime Minister’s Office, entitled A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore:  Population White Paper, we find the following paragraph:

A shrinking and ageing population would also mean a smaller, less energetic workforce, and a less vibrant and innovative economy. Companies may not find enough workers. Business activity would slow, and job and employment opportunities would shrink. It would become more difficult to match the higher aspirations of a better educated and more mobile population. Young people would leave for more exciting and growing global cities. This would hollow out our population and workforce, and worsen our ratio of younger to older Singaporeans.

Do the research findings support such negative views?

In 2015, a study on the energy, finance, healthcare and retail industries in the United States, by the American Association of Retired Persons, Inc (AARP), revealed that older workers tend to be more engaged and productive, and make fewer mistakes than their younger colleagues. The study also showed that workers aged 50 and above do not cost significantly more than younger workers, partly because of lower turnover rates among older staff. Additionally, potential revenue growth brought about by higher levels of employee engagement among older workers could more than offset rises in labour costs. These findings contest dominant perceptions about older workers being less productive and taking more time to learn the ropes at a job.

In his paper, “The Psychology of Ageing: Social Implications for Singapore”, Prof John Elliott wrote:

The first relevant area of research comes from longitudinal studies … the healthy elderly show a marked ability to maintain psychological functioning until late in life.  This ability in the elderly to maintain cognitive functioning at a high level, by compensating for certain kinds of underlying decline, has not always been clearly recognised.

Prof Elliott’s conclusion is that:  “If employees can work well, they should not be stopped.  If they cannot work, their employment should be discontinued or they should be moved to other positions where they can still usefully contribute….. Age should not be either a qualification or disqualification for employment.  It is strictly irrelevant…. Health and competence are things ’personal to holder’ and are not best related to work by the use of arbitrary cut-off points.”

My second example of ageism is in actual discrimination at the workplace. There is evidence to suggest that many employers in Singapore discriminate against older workers, which affects older professionals, managers, executives as well as older low-wage workers. Speaking at a function in March 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that, “For our older PMES, (those who are) middle-aged especially, once they lose their jobs, some of them find it tough to get back in.” He added that, “And I believe there is an element of age discrimination that we have to tackle”. Apart from employment, some older Singaporeans had also experienced difficulties in applying for credit cards and insurance policies. Fortunately, the Monetary Authority of Singapore has intervened and eased the situation.

My third example of ageism comes from the world of media. Television, advertising, pop culture and even newspapers tend to portray the seniors in a negative light, and feed negative stereotypes. This is not only unfair, but can have a demoralising effect on the seniors who will internalise the negative stereotype about themselves. My plea is for the media to portray the older Singaporeans more accurately as a diverse group of individuals who do not always have much in common despite their similar age. As Prof Elliott said, “A stronger focus on the positive attributes and less on the negative one, both at the individual person and the policy levels might raise the quality of life of elderly persons… Awareness of the potential of old age, as well as of its genuine limitations, and the extent of individual differences, should contribute to a revision of negative stereotypes of people who happen to be old.”

Making Singapore a great place for seniors

Singapore will soon become the world’s most rapidly ageing society. The conventional wisdom is that this will bring many negative consequences for Singapore. I want to change the paradigm from the negative to the positive. I think Singapore has the opportunity to be the world’s most senior-friendly country. We should encourage our seniors to lead healthy lifestyles and to stay physically fit and mentally alert. We should encourage our seniors to continue to work for as long as possible. We should develop a truly inclusive society where seniors are treated with respect and dignity. Singapore can be the world’s thought leader on how to turn a potential liability into an asset. Let us make Singapore the best place in the world to grow old in.

Prof Tommy Koh’s article challenges common misperceptions about seniors, and calls for an overhaul in how we think about and treat seniors in Singapore. Also questioning assumptions around seniors is Prof Angelique Chan, who shows why for many of our seniors today, age really is just a number. Read on here.

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