More help but life still hard for old, poor

More help but life still hard for old, poor

SINGAPORE - Concerns over the old and the down and out in rapidly ageing Singapore are weighing on the minds of many here.

The elderly and the poor were two of the top three concerns among Singaporeans in a recent survey of key issues three years after the last general election.

Respondents were asked to choose from a list of seven hot-button subjects including housing, health care, the elderly, the poor, transport, education and foreign workers.

Interestingly, neither the old nor the poor grabbed centrestage in the run-up to the last GE. This could be because greying is an inevitable, slow and silent process and the poor are usually out of sight in a city often touted as among the richest in the world.

Besides, neither issue is as emotive as housing or foreign workers or as visible as overcrowding in public transport - all of which led to many verbal jousts between the ruling party and the opposition in 2011.

So how did two largely voiceless demographic groups suddenly seize the collective consciousness of the nation?

One factor may be an awareness campaign on poverty late last year. The Singaporeans Against Poverty campaign highlighted how more than 105,000 families here earned an average of just $1,500 a month.

Ironically, the old and the poor may also have begun dominating public discourse due to a plethora of high-profile government announcements since 2011, tweaking health-care, jobs and social policies to help prepare for a rapidly ageing Singapore.

Spending on health care, for instance, has almost doubled in just three short years - from $4 billion in FY2011 to $7.5 billion in FY2014. This does not take into account the $8 billion put aside for the pioneer generation.

Central Provident Fund contribution rates for older workers have been raised twice in two years. Companies that hire them have been given wage subsidies. Workfare, a scheme which tops up the wages of older and low-income workers has been expanded. And payouts from ComCare, the Government's main fund to help the needy, topped $100 million for the first time in the 2012-2013 financial year, more than double the $44.5 million given out just five years earlier. A total of 33,266 individuals and families were helped overall in FY2012, up from 19,072 just five years earlier.

Given this spate of measures, it is no surprise, that around seven in 10 Singaporeans polled by ST expressed satisfaction at the way the Government had handled issues related to ageing and the poor since the last GE.

Yet, perception has not fully mirrored reality. Worries remain on how well Singapore will ride the impending "silver tsunami".

Whether health-care infrastructure will be able to keep pace with rapid ageing is a key concern.

For instance, there are already an estimated 210,000 Singaporeans caring for the elderly, the sick and the disabled at home. Yet, homecare providers can now serve only 5,400 seniors needing home-based health care and 1,100 seniors needing home-based personal care.

There are around 2,500 places at day-care centres for the elderly and 10,600 nursing home beds islandwide. Still, these numbers seem low, given that Singapore is one of the fastest-ageing societies in the world. There are already nearly 250,000 people here aged 70 and above, a 55 per cent jump from a decade ago.

Costs are another concern. Despite increased subsidies, families living in five-room HDB flats, for instance, may not qualify for enough health-care subsidies and forgo services altogether. Full costs for respite care and home medical services, for instance, can be as high as $370 per day and $200 per visit respectively.

Meanwhile, even as social safety nets are strengthened, life remains hard for the poor.

Despite the tight labour market, for instance, the ranks of low-wage workers are on the rise. In 2012, the number of local workers who earned less than $1,000 a month despite working full-time went up by 4,000 to 114,000 from a year earlier.

And despite higher spending, ComCare payments still reach fewer than a fifth of families on the bottom two rungs of the income scale.

But with so many policies announced to better manage demographic drifts, there is hope that in its 50th year of independence, Singapore will share more fruits of its stellar economic success with those who once helped build a new nation, but are now too old or infirm to help themselves.

radhab@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 19 in The Straits Times.

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