Singapore 'still very much an ageist society'

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, who chairs a new People's Action Party seniors group (PAP.SG), speaks to Andrea Ong about the advocacy group and tackling ageism. She also takes stock of her first year as Speaker and Parliament's performance ahead of its mid-term break this year.

Q: During the recent PAP convention, the party announced the PAP Seniors Group which you are chairing. Why did the PAP decide to set up this group and what are your key priorities and aims?

Because of the rapidly ageing population, the number of elderly people has increased tremendously. The party wanted to have a greater focus on their needs and how to serve them, very much like what we have done for the women as well as the young. The objective of PAP.SG is essentially to raise issues or to help shape policies and programmes on cross-cutting issues affecting our seniors on matters like their quality of life, the manner of their care as well as their security.

In addition to advocacy or helping to shape policies and programmes, we also want to look at ways of encouraging greater volunteerism, both among our healthy seniors as well as among the young people to support our frail seniors and to look also at innovative practices to reach out to our seniors and support them. The other thing we want to do is to tap on the knowledge and experience of our senior party activists, so they can help our younger activists and mentor them.

We also hope to give input on and shape the outcome of the Medishield Life review.

Q: What is the timeline that you are working on?

This is an issue that is not something you can prescribe a timeline for. Because if you look at ageing issues, they are really complex, multidimensional. You can't possible say, okay, let's have it within one year and that's it, the issues and problems will be over.

Q: It seems that the PAP is taking on more of an activist role. Is that true and what are some of the reasons for doing so?

If you look at the party constitution, it's very clear what our role is. The Constitution describes democratic socialism as our objective and activism is one aspect of that role. And if you look at the Budget this year, because as the Speaker I listen very carefully to the Budget, you see quite a significant shift already in terms of the allocation of resources.

The focus is a lot more on the elderly, on the lower income, on the workers. I think we already see the shift in the Budget this year. The Prime Minister in his National Day Rally speech also further reinforced that shift. So I think it is something that is continuous and I expect in next year's Budget, there will be a lot more focus on the pioneer generation package.

Q: We've been hearing talk of Singapore's rapidly ageing population for quite a few years. But how ready, really, is Singapore?

Actually if you look at what has been done, there have been a lot of initiatives already. There are so many inter-ministerial committees on ageing, quite a number of reports have already been produced, committees set up, recommendations made.

In fact in the area of infrastructure, over the last few years the Government has announced the building of more nursing homes, senior care centres, senior activity centres. These are being rolled out. And when I was at MSF (Ministry of Social and Family Development), we also announced a package to cover our seniors, and that includes building senior group homes and other support and wellness activities for them. It's a whole broad spectrum that has been rolled out.

What I see as a big challenge for us is not so much the infrastructure, but more the software. The software in terms of the people - getting qualified people, professionals. For instance, (do) we have enough physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and so on that are needed to support all these activities, to support the frail elderly? That will be one challenge - manpower. The second challenge will be in the area of caregivers. Caregivers are themselves growing old. They also need support.

Q: In a recent letter to The Straits Times forum page, you called for a different mindset which is non-ageist and challenges the assumptions that people may have about the elderly. Can you elaborate?

We are still very much an ageist society. Sometimes people may not even know that they are being ageist. I receive a lot of feedback from elderly job applicants and they say it is very difficult for them to get a job because sometimes when they call up an employer, when the employer asks for their age, and then when they inform the employer what their age is, the employer immediately says, okay, the vacancy has been filled, we don't need anybody.

These are some of the assumptions we need to question: do we always look at an elderly person and immediately assume that they will not be productive, they will not be adaptable, they can't perform their job? Or do we give them an opportunity? Because it's our mindset then that determines whether we want to give a person the opportunity or not, regardless of that person's age. Sometimes I think we tend to also come to certain conclusions when we see elderly people. Our conclusion is that oh, they need support, they need someone to depend on. We must give them options to think for themselves what they want to do with their lives and not always come to the conclusion that just because someone is older, is working, therefore that person is actually forced to work. But these are choices we must trust that they want to make for themselves too. We should not be so condescending in our mindset and attitude towards how we treat the elderly.

Q: What is the biggest mental barrier that needs to be broken down in how we treat the elderly?

Employment is one issue. That is one area we need to tackle. The Government has put in place measures like re-employment legislation, which now requires an employer who is employing someone at the age of 62 to offer re-employment up to 65. In my view, it should be extended beyond 65 to 67. Look at our seniors now, many of them are still healthy, they can still continue working, so I don't see why they cannot be allowed to work to the age of 67.

Q: You've previously called for the legislation of eldercare leave. Why is that important?

My reasoning is this: the Government wants ageing in place to take place, that is, at home and within the community. But for ageing in the community or at home to take place, the caregivers must have sufficient support. I do get feedback from workers who are taking care of elderly parents that sometimes it is very difficult for them to take leave and sometimes the leave is just not enough.

I know the family care leave has just been passed, but what we can do is for family care leave to be made flexible. If you have childcare obligations, then you use the family care leave for your childcare needs. If you don't have such responsibilities but you have frail elderly parents and you need to bring your parents to see the doctor regularly or to do other things, you can use the leave then.

In my view, over time, (this) must become one of the basic conditions of service, because people do have parents who are growing old and need support and help. It's the same argument for childcare leave - that when you have paid childcare leave, you have peace of mind because when you need the leave, you take it to take care of your children's needs. It's the same also for those without children but with elderly frail parents. It gives them peace of mind.

Q: In November, the Acting Manpower Minister said companies are still adjusting to the recent changes in family care leave. Do you think companies are ready to make such leave flexible?

Some have already done it, the Government has done it. For those companies doing it, I am sure they find their employees have become more productive because they have greater peace of mind and they know 'this is an employer that cares for my family's wellbeing, my parents' wellbeing'.

Q: When do you hope this can be done?

If you ask me for my personal hope, I would say as soon as possible, like today! I know it's not always feasible, but as soon as possible would be wonderful, because I think we probably do not really understand the enormity of the issue. My mother is 89 this year. I understand the issues, that (some seniors) basically need full-time caregivers to look after them. She is still mobile but has a bit of dementia, therefore she needs support to make sure she takes her medication, to make sure she is ok, she doesn't fall down, and bring her regularly to the doctor. These are issues that I'm sure many more families are going to face.

Q: How does your family cope?

I have a family care arrangement, so I have family members who support me. I have an older sister living with me and we support each other. She lives next door to me, so she helps also to keep an eye on my mum.

Q: Not all families will be able to tap on similar arrangements or on domestic helpers. What can be done in the meantime to help such caregivers?

In the meantime, I think we have to tap a lot more on some of the current services that are available to support the frail elderly. For instance, I know that some of the VWOs provide home help services, social care services; some even do befrienders service, things like accompanying the elderly for their medical appointments. I think more of those services need to be developed to support the frail elderly, particularly for those who may not have a lot of family support.

Q: Take an issue like caregivers and eldercare. How would PAP.SG come into the picture?

Apart from just helping to shape policies and programmes, what we want to do is also to see how we can develop a support network in all the different constituencies. Maybe set up chapters all over the constituencies to act as contact points, to provide information and help connect our seniors to the services that are available in the community.

Sometimes it's also a question of making sure the seniors know where to get help. For instance, we have senior activity centres for those living in rental flats and in need of support, but some of them may not know about it or fully utilise it. How to connect them to the service? Or they may need information about certain healthcare needs - how to access those? For instance, Chas (Community Health Assist Scheme) is such a good scheme, how to help them to access it? How to help them to access Ease (Enhancement for Active Seniors, a scheme to improve safety and comfort features for HDB flats with elderly residents). I hope we can become the connectors in all the constituencies where we set up chapters of PAP.SG.

Q: Is there an equivalent from overseas that you are looking at?

Well, we look a lot at the overseas examples. For instance, if you look at Japan, they rely a lot on institutional care. I don't really think that's a model we want to move to, because our model is ageing in place. I think that is the right approach because we really would like to make sure that our elderly can continue to live with their family and loved ones. I think that's important, rather than to put them in an institution or a place that they're not famiiliar with. Especially for the elderly who are suffering from dementia, unfamiliar surroundings are quite scary for them.

Q: Some view PAP.SG as the party's way of shoring up support from elderly voters, who are traditionally seen as a strong support base for the PAP.

I always see our party as a movement. I have never believed that the PAP is just an organisation. When we started in 1954, we were a movement. When the PAP led Singapore into Independence, we helped to develop Singapore, to grow Singapore economically. An organisation cannot perform in that manner. So I see us as a movement where we embrace everyone. In this instance, we want to go one step further in embracing our seniors and making life a lot more comfortable for them.

Q: Is the PAP worried about losing support from this sector of the population?

I think every political party will have to constantly, consciously, always ensure that they take care of the population. So PAP is no different. You have to consciously make sure that you do not take people for granted, that you are not complacent, that you have policies and programmes in place (such) that people can say, well, this shows that the party really cares for us.

Q: It's interesting that you talk about the PAP being a movement. After the 2011 General Election, former Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo also spoke of the need for the PAP to revitalise itself as a movement. Do you feel that over the years, the PAP may have lost some of its momentum in being a movement?

Not so much that it has lost its momentum. But it's basically how we are organised. The PAP is very much aware that it has to always be on the ground. In fact, if you talk to individual MPs, all of us are on the ground almost every day in the week. Sometimes it's also perception, which is difficult to shape. But certainly we can do a lot more, and that is what we are now doing.

Q: There is a perception that the PAP may have lost touch with the ground. How do you challenge or correct that sort of perception?

I don't think that we have lost touch with the ground. I think we understand the ground issues very well. But sometimes our problem is this: we are very good at crafting policies, but sometimes we are not very good at explaining or getting the support for those policies. We tend to make a lot of assumptions, that 'these are good policies, so since this is a good policy, people should understand'.

But no, people need to also buy into those policies, and that's the part which we need to really improve. Efforts like Our Singapore Conversation, which is really a marvelous effort, a ground-up effort. It's not just a question of talking only, consulting and then everything goes into a black hole. Because the Prime Minister himself responded at the National Day Rally to the various ideas that were suggested and now many of these policies are being rolled out - healthcare, education, housing. Many of these policies are being debated in Parliament. You see refinements being done. There's now recognition that it's not just sufficient for you to say, 'Okay, this is a policy we've done, we've thought about it all and we think this is good for you'. People want to be involved and you need to get people's buy-in.


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