Elderly poor need more than just a 'bonus'

Elderly poor need more than just a 'bonus'
An elderly rag and bone woman picking up a cardboard box outside Geylang Bahru food centre. The Silver Support scheme is a good initiative which should be improved progressively to help the elderly poor meet their day-to-day needs without worrying that they have not enough to get by.

SINGAPORE - I met Dr Alexandre Kalache back in 2011 and something he said then has stuck with me ever since as Singapore grapples with issues related to the rising number of old people.

The former head of ageing issues at the World Health Organisation pointed out that while Singapore had done exceedingly well in increasing life expectancy, it had miles to go in helping its elderly age with dignity.

Men and women in their 70s being forced to clean tables at hawker centres, scrub apartment blocks or slog in the hot sun as security guards were not signs of "active ageing", said the epidemiologist, who drafted two manuals on the issue and spent 15 years crafting ageing policies at the WHO.

He pointed out that much of the developed world already had "non-contributory pensions" - or handouts - for low-income older folk, saving them the indignity of hard labour at a time in life when many may want to retire and rest.

"I am all for active ageing, but if you have never had a decent job, don't know what job satisfaction is, to make you work till you practically drop dead is not human," he said.

Ultimately, he added, guaranteed handouts for the elderly poor were something for Singaporeans themselves to discuss.

Three years on, the time for that discussion is finally here.

For anyone concerned about the plight of the elderly poor, the most welcome nugget from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech last weekend was no doubt the new plan to help this group.

The Silver Support scheme will provide a payout in the form of an annual bonus to low-income Singaporeans aged 65 and above. Details will be fleshed out in next year's Budget.

It appears that Singapore is inching closer to an old-age support system entrenched in the rest of the developed world, including Hong Kong and South Korea, where the elderly poor are offered a subsistence allowance so that they don't need to work until they die - unless they want to.

But is 65 too young? How much should we pay? Will such a move cause children to abrogate their filial duties? Is a bonus sufficient? Or do we need a broader, income-guarantee scheme for the few who don't own flats and have little or no savings and family support?

As society ages, more older folk remain single and family sizes shrink, it is time to have an open and informed debate on how much social protection should be extended to those who have worked hard all their lives, yet are living out their last years fretting about money.

It is worth noting that while many European countries are rolling back pension schemes, it is not subsistence handouts to the poor that are busting budgets but payouts to the better-off, among other things, through schemes that guarantee employees a percentage of their last-drawn pay after retirement.

The idea of an income-support scheme for the elderly poor in Singapore is not new. In 2011, a Government-appointed work group of businessmen and academics proposed a means-tested retirement grant for low-income workers above 65 which would meet basic needs, similar to an existing scheme in Hong Kong.

The only long-term welfare scheme Singapore has for the aged poor is Public Assistance, under which those who are medically unfit to work, have no assets and little or no family support receive a monthly allowance from the Government, currently pegged at $450 per month for a single person. Beneficiaries also get rental subsidies and medical benefits.

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