It's not about the money

It's not about the money
NAMELESS: Few care or notice elderly cardboard collectors. More should be done to help these senior citizens.

Not all senior citizens keep working because of financial restraints. There are those who work beyond retirement age simply because they hate being idle.

Every morning, Madam Lai Sau Mei leaves her two-room HDB flat in Commonwealth Crescent to take the first bus.

She has to get to her workplace, a 24-hour kopitiam in Chinatown, by 7.30am, where she will find basins filled with used crockery and utensils waiting for her to clean.

Unless she goes on holidays with her children and grandchildren, Madam Lai rarely takes leave from her six-day work week.

Nothing unusual, you'd think?

Well, Madam Lai is 85 years old - at an age where you'd expect her to be at home, enjoying her retirement.

The dishwasher chuckles at the suggestion and says in Cantonese: "I am not that old, really. You can't expect me to stay at home and do nothing.

"Plus, my job isn't really that hard. For five hours of work, I get two free meals - breakfast and lunch - and can earn about $400 a month.

"That's quite a good deal for someone my age."

Most importantly, adds the widow, it's also easier for her to pass time. All her six grandchildren from three children are "grown up and working".

She says she can understand why Madam Ching Guan Eng, 86, continued to work just to keep busy.

Madam Ching was run over by a bus and killed at Marsiling Lane on Wednesday morning. She collected cardboard and was on her way to a cardboard-collection point.

At her wake, family members shared the story of a sprightly woman who had toiled her entire life and single-handedly raised her two sons after her husband died.

Yet, when she could finally relax, she didn't quite know how to.

"Old but definitely not useless", is a common view shared by the 50 heartlanders, aged between 32 and 85, randomly approached this week.

Of those, 22 were above the age of 60. And they admit that their financial situation is not the main reason they are toiling.

Yes, working helps them to stay financially independent, but it also helps them pass the time, stay socially connected and have a sense of self-worth.

Mr David Wan, 62, a security officer in a neighbourhood shopping mall, says his wife and daughter "have pestered me to retire".

"My daughter (who lives with them) wants me to take it easy and enjoy life, but I keep telling her, I am enjoying my life, doing something to keep me fit and able," he says.

"If I can, I hope to work until the company no longer wants or needs me."

Singapore's retirement age is 62, after which employers have to offer re-employment to eligible workers up to 65. In May, the Government said it was looking at raising the re-employment age to 67.

"But that may take a few years yet," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a live forum in September.

Madam Jenny Tang, 64, a cashier in a supermarket chain, hopes that it will happen soon. Her re-employment contract ends next year but she wishes to continue working because she loves her job.

She says in Mandarin: "It gives me a sense of self-worth and I don't have to bother my children, who have their own family commitments."

Chat with the "younger ones" and most share anecdotes of how their elderly parents often prefer to go on working. This is so even if they are not financially strapped.

Mr Ian Wee, 44, a baker, grumbles that he and his sister, 43, are unable to get their widowed father, 70, to quit his part-time job in a fast-food restaurant.


Says Mr Wee: "We may have the best relationship, but the minute we discuss his work, we get into heated arguments.

"He insists on saving the allowances we give him for 'my grandchildren'. I think my sister has given up, but I just keep trying now and then to dissuade him."

Mr Wee's situation reminds me of the constant debates between my father-in-law and his four children.

You see, my 89-year-old father-in-law runs a stall selling textiles in Tiong Bahru Market. He has a weak heart and gets breathless if he walks too fast. Yet every morning, except Mondays, he wakes up at 5am to open the shop. He closes shop at 2pm.

He is pleased if he can "break an egg" - which means he manages to make a sale - but isn't too flustered if he doesn't.

Despite our best attempts to dissuade him, he insists on carrying on for as long as he can.

He is convinced that if he idles at home, he will "grow senile more quickly" and perhaps "die faster".

The walk between his four-room HDB flat in Cantonment and the bus-stop doubles as his exercise.

At the stall, he has a good social network with the other stallholders and his pool of regular customers.

We still broach the subject of retirement, especially on days when he feels unwell, but I have come to respect my father-in-law's decision.

The bottom line for him, and many other senior citizens, is simple.

Physical constraints aside, work gives them something: A sense of independence, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity.

It's hard to argue with that.

This article was first published on November 16, 2014.
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