Don't stop at the pioneer generation

Don't stop at the pioneer generation

Like many Singaporeans I am a product of the pioneer generation.

My father was still in secondary school when he was told by his father to quit school to get married.

He wasn't thrilled by the prospect and contemplated running away from home to join the navy.

But grandfather's word was law and he brooked no disagreement.

The woman my father was about to marry would arrive by boat from Hainan island in China, a marriage arranged years earlier when my grandfather went back to his village to pick the future wives of his three sons.

You could say it wasn't the most fortuitous start for my generation.

But my parents' experience wasn't unique and though it wasn't how they might have wanted to start life together, they worked hard at it because they wanted a better future for themselves and their children.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, members of this pioneer generation would have been 16 years and older, according to the recently announced official definition.

For many, their lives had already been turned upside down many times - when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942, during the tumultuous days of racial riots and political uncertainty in the 1950s and 60s, and the subsequent merger with and separation from Malaysia.

It was a time to grow up quickly, when boys and girls became men and women barely out of their teens.

My father was 19 when he married my mother, who was a year younger. By 1965, both barely 30, they had five children.

Much has been said about the contributions of this group of Singaporeans to the country's development and how they built the foundations on which rapid progress took place.

Most though were ordinary people like my parents doing ordinary jobs under trying circumstances.

But the one task they excelled in and which made the biggest difference to Singapore's future was the single-minded way in which they produced and raised the next generation.

It is difficult today to comprehend why they believed in large families when their ability to provide for so many children seemed so limited and the future looked so uncertain.

From where did their faith spring?

Why did they have such abundant confidence in the future compared to later generations?

This question isn't unique to Singapore and has also been asked elsewhere.

Americans call the generation raised during the great economic depression of the 1920s and who fought in World War II "The Greatest Generation", a term popularised by broadcaster Tom Brokaw in his book of that name.

He writes: "Looking back, I can recall that all grown-ups seemed to have a sense of purpose... Whatever else that was happening in our family or neighbourhood, there was something greater connecting all of us, in large ways and small."

This feeling of being part of a wider community, and which citizens believed they had a responsibility to protect and improve, made their own individual problems seem smaller and less consuming.

Too hard to raise so many children? But that was what was expected of them, and, in any case, hardship was the norm.

In fact, having larger families was the way out of poverty when there was faith in the future.

Their attitude and outlook were shaped by the hard life they led and that greater sense of purpose Brokaw writes about.

We like to call these the values of our pioneer generation. They would probably say it was just how it was, and what other choice was there?

What was critical though was that these values influenced the generation they subsequently raised.

This later group born after 1949 continued the work to develop Singapore, building on the foundation of their parents.

Together, the two generations transformed the country.

Because their parents placed so much faith in their future and sacrificed so much for them, the post-1949 generation bears the greatest responsibility for looking after the pioneer group.

Indeed, many have done so and derived immense satisfaction from being able to repay their debt to their parents.

But it is a varied group and some have done better in life than others.

It is right that the state should step in to help those who have not done as well.

The recently announced Pioneer Generation Package will be a welcome recognition for this group, and is spot-on in focusing on their health-care needs.

Should it be given to all equally or should there be some differentiation according to need?

Perhaps it is possible to do both - with all receiving a basic level of assistance from the package and those in need getting additional benefits.

A tiered scheme will mean more for those who really need it.

It will benefit not just the needy but their children who support and pay their medical bills.

But while I applaud the introduction of the package to recognise the contributions of the pioneer generation, I hope it doesn't distract the Government from doing more to tackle the wider ageing issue.

What is needed is a comprehensive national plan encompassing all the issues that older people face: financial security, health-care costs and accessibility, support for caregivers, and so on.

Singapore is well behind many countries in having such a plan.

For example, Australia has a Minister for Ageing and introduced its "National Strategy for an Ageing Australia" in 2002, with a comprehensive set of goals and policies in all these important areas.

It is interesting to note that the first and most important feature of this plan is to ensure a secure and sustainable retirement income. Without financial security, many other problems will arise.

I was therefore glad to hear the recent call by the labour movement to increase the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rates for older workers. It has taken too long a time coming.

Singapore needs to move a great deal faster if it wants to tackle these issues seriously and in a more systematic way.

The pioneer generation has had the benefit of having the post-1949 cohort with large family sizes to support its ageing needs.

Present and future generations will not enjoy this advantage.

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