Many glad to have an option

SINGAPORE - Sixty-five was the hottest number among some heartlanders on Friday, a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's May Day Rally speech.

This columnist was walking the ground to check out the sentiment after Mr Lee announced that Singaporeans who want to work beyond the age of 65 will eventually be able to do so under the law.

The official retirement age here is 62, although bosses must offer healthy workers who have performed satisfactorily re-employment from ages 62 to 65, or give them a one-off payment.

But negotiations among the unions, employers and the Government to further raise the ceiling will take time, Mr Lee said.

So I was actually taken by surprise by the grumbles I encountered at the Haig Road Cooked Food Centre on Friday.

Seated around a table are Mr Edwin Tong and four colleagues.

Mr Tong, a 50-year-old sales executive, grumbles: "Work even after I am 65? Crazy lah, this means I might end up working until I die."

The most animated in the group of five, he admits that he has grown "sick and tired" of trying to meet his sales quota each month.

Mr Tong declines to give more details about his job, but reveals that he "also cannot afford not to work".

"I have to support my wife, three children - all still in school - and my parents."

As it is, he says, he cannot even set aside any savings from his monthly $5,000 take-home pay.

But when I gently point out that the announcement only means that he will be able to work beyond a certain age, if he wants to, Mr Tong realises that he may have confused re-employment age with retirement age.

Similarly, after hearing this columnist's explanation, Madam Chia Mei Xing says in Mandarin: "Oh, so it means that if I still want to work, then I can still work."

The seamstress, 38, nods in approval and adds: "Then it's good since that will also mean that I won't have to worry that I'll starve - I'll just get a job if I need to."

The divorcee says she has no savings for now and has to struggle to make ends meet. She is supporting her two sons, aged 13 and 11, on her $1,200 monthly salary.

But listen carefully and you'll realise that the grumbles come from a group of people who realise they may not live out their retirement in a leisurely fashion.

Responses from 30 out of 40 people I randomly approached at Joo Chiat, Katong and Commonwealth indicate that they like the idea of having the option to continue working, and many think they will have to.

Mr Pradeep Singh, 49, a logistics supervisor, is more concerned if there will be enough jobs to go around by then.

He says: "What if I really still need to work? Can they guarantee that I will still get the same salary and work in the same position?"

PM Lee has urged older workers to be patient and also to change their expectations.

He said: "Rather than doing the same job at the same pay, please be prepared to do suitable jobs at reasonable pay.

"At 65, we are not as strong as before."

Indeed. I think it is about managing our own expectations. Many of us channel loads of funds to our lifestyles and to our children with nary a thought of retirement until it dawns on us.

Like most, I hope that working after 65 will be a matter of choice and not necessity.

I want to keep myself useful and still contribute constructively.

And to get there, it means I have to adjust how I live right now. Maybe I have to be a little bit more prudent with my spending and change my expectations about what I can do, and what my later years will look like?

This article was published on May 4 in The New Paper.

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