Speech at Debate on the President’s Address 2014
Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health , Manpower, Parliament
- Deputy Speaker, I rise in support of the motion to thank the President for his Address.
- The President spoke about the challenges we face in building our future together. His words strongly resonated with me.
- A key trend that Singapore needs to manage well is our ageing population. This was not a factor in the last few decades of our development. But it is now a key issue that has major ramifications in our social and economic spheres.
- This is all the more pertinent when we consider that Singapore’s population will age even more rapidly than Japan’s. The proportion of seniors in Japan increased from 10% to 23% within 25 years from 1985 to 2010. In comparison, Singapore’s proportion of seniors, which was 9% in 2010, is projected to hit 24% within a span of just 20 years, by 2030.
- There are valuable lessons we can draw from Japan’s experience. Thus far, despite an ageing population, Japan has remarkably managed to sustain a high standard of living, from the 1980s till present. This may be attributed to policies that successfully increase labour force participation rates as well as innovations that increase productivity and reduce manpower requirements. Nonetheless, these measures will delay, not avert, the long-term demographic threat to Japan’s growth, and the complexion of their society.
- Today, I would like to reflect on this issue. How do we, as a nation, confront the challenges from the inexorable ageing of our local population? What will our future be as our population ages, and how can we build Singapore into a place for us not only to grow up in, but also to grow old in?
- As Chairman of REACH, I have listened to the numerous concerns of our fellow Singaporeans. And ageing is one that deeply affects many Singaporeans.
Providing greater assurance to our middle-aged PMEs
- I would first like to focus on such anxieties with reference to one particular group of Singaporeans. This is the middle-aged and older PMEs who are in the lower-middle and middle income groups. They are in their 40s and above - many have children still dependent on them and aged parents to take care of.
- Concerns remain for this group of PMEs:
9.1 They are worried about the looming healthcare costs for themselves as they age, as well as for their aged parents.
9.2 They have started thinking about their retirement. Will they be able to stay active and continue to work for as long as they are able to? And will they be able to save enough and retire with financial peace of mind?
9.3 They are also worried about their job security, that they will be retrenched, replaced by someone younger, and subsequently find it difficult to secure another job.
- Like many of my fellow MPs who have spoken on the matter – Mr Patrick Tay, and Ms Foo Mee Har, to name a few - I understand their concerns. Recently, one of my grassroots leaders came up to me and asked me for help. He is 54, and had worked as a supervisor in a manufacturing company all his life. The company closed down his division. He lost his job, and now finds it difficult to find another job. We see them at our meet-the-people sessions and we do our best to help them.
- As a government, we are committed to assuaging their fears.
- In the area of healthcare, we are striving to ensure that quality healthcare remains affordable and accessible. We have put in place multiple tiers of protection to keep healthcare affordable - heavy Government subsidies, together with our 3M framework – Medisave, Medishield and Medifund.
- We are making policy shifts to make healthcare even more affordable through more government subsidies, more Medisave use and a move from MediShield to MediShield Life to better protect against large hospitalisation bills. We enhanced subsidies for long term care in 2012 and will continue to strengthen long-term care financing.
- In addition, the Pioneer Generation Package will go some way to give greater peace of mind to those in the Pioneer Generation and their families. The outpatient care components of the Package – additional 50%-off subsidised services at the Specialist Outpatient Clinics and polyclinics, as well as special subsidies under the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) –will commence from 1 Sep this year.
- Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Ms Tin Pei Ling, and Mr Dhinakaran have rightly highlighted the importance of communicating Government policies to the people. They will be heartened to know that the Pioneer Generation Taskforce, co-chaired by SMS Josephine Teo and myself, has been working hard to improve outreach and communications to Singaporeans about the package. The taskforce includes members from the people and social sectors, as well as from media-related fields.
- I am glad that several groups of volunteers and organisations have stepped forward to offer their help to reach out to Pioneers, to let them know about the package and the benefits. Together with our own efforts, such community outreach will enable our messages to be sustained. We will keep an open mind, and we are trying out various outreach methods. We will learn as we go along, on how best to help our Pioneers better understand and benefit from the package.
- For instance, we recognise the need to go beyond English and use vernacular languages in our outreach. The taskforce has published advertorials about the Pioneer Generation Package in the Chinese, Malay and Tamil newspapers, as well as played radio advertisements on Capital 95.8 FM in six Chinese dialects. On top of publicity through the mass media, we are also taking our messages to our various contact points with Pioneers.
- On the healthcare front, we are training healthcare staff across our public healthcare institutions, such as polyclinics and specialist outpatient clinics, to equip them with information about the Pioneer Generation Package and help address common questions and concerns from Singaporeans. To date, we have reached out to more than a thousand healthcare staff. We are also enlisting the help of staff at Senior Activity and Senior Care Centres, who are in frequent contact with their Pioneer Generation clients. They, too, can help explain the package to Pioneers in the languages they are comfortable in.
- Our healthcare providers in the private sector are important as well. Minister Gan has just recently announced that all Pioneer Generation members will be eligible for special CHAS subsidies starting in September. We are thus embarking on an outreach to the CHAS GP and dental clinics to prepare them for these changes. At the same time, I hope that more GP clinics and dental clinics can join the CHAS scheme so that our Pioneers can benefit.
- In the area of retirement adequacy, we also seek to provide Singaporeans with greater peace of mind by constantly making improvements to the CPF. For example, in recent years, we introduced CPF LIFE to provide monthly payouts from our own CPF savings for as long as we live – doing away with the worry that our savings may run out in later years. Monetisation schemes help elderly Singaporeans unlock the value of their flats, many of which have appreciated substantially over the years.
- Many middle-aged PMEs who are soon approaching 55-years-old are also concerned about the CPF Minimum Sum. This has been the subject of much discussion and debate online, as well as in our kopitiams.
- Minister Tan Chuan-Jin has provided a detailed explanation of the rationale for the CPF and the Minimum Sum in his blogpost last Sunday. So I will not repeat his points but I would encourage us all to read it so that we can explain the policy better to our constituents.
- I acknowledge that it is not a perfect system, and I assure Mr Heng Chee How, Mr Liang Eng Hwa, Ms Tan Su Shan and others that we will continue to review how else we can improve it, taking into account feedback and suggestions, such as whether we should raise older worker contribution rates further, whether payouts should be inflation-indexed, and whether there are better ways for the elderly to unlock the value of their flats.
- For PMEs who find themselves in between jobs, employment facilitation is critical to help our displaced PMEs get back into employment quickly. This goes hand-in-hand with training and lifelong learning so that skills can be refreshed and new job opportunities seized. Thus far, we have made some progress to empower PMEs, by setting up CaliberLink in 2011, as well as through WDA-funded training programmes.
- As we work longer, staying employed in a single job or profession throughout our working lives will become a thing of the past. As Mr Patrick Tay said yesterday, having a second skill will make us more resilient to economic changes because what we know today may be obsolete tomorrow. Hence, we will do more to provide our PMEs with the opportunities to re-skill and up-skill.
- It is never too late to go back to school. If Kumar can go back to school, so can you! Hence, we are making major revisions to our CET Masterplan, to give greater emphasis to self-initiated upgrading, and to better empower individuals to pursue their career goals and aspirations through CET. This will boost adult education and allow Singaporeans to have, as the President mentioned in his address, “a second chance … and always have the chance to try again … to learn, and to earn our own success”
- In addition, the Fair Consideration Framework signals our expectation for employers to give Singaporeans a fair chance at available job opportunities, before hiring Employment Pass holders. It does not mean that firms have to hire Singaporeans first or Singaporeans only, but it allows our displaced older PMEs to have a fair chance of securing that job.
- Ms Foo Mee Har advocated a “Hire Singaporeans First” policy. That may have unintended consequences in our context. In the globalised economy, competition for jobs tends to be between countries and not only within countries. As a small city-state, we must be able to first compete with other cities for job opportunities by making sure that Singapore remains an attractive place for businesses. Many companies come to Singapore to serve the region. In doing so, they create quality jobs for Singaporeans. At the same time, companies need to access skills and expertise from overseas to complement the local workforce.
- Our approach is to maintain a level playing field, and help equip Singaporeans with the skills they need to fill the quality jobs created by the economy. We are in fact putting the interests of Singaporeans first when we say that we want to grow the economy and job opportunities. But we need to be practical about how we go about doing it. Compelling employers to hire local PMEs who may not have the right skills will introduce significant labour market rigidity. Employers may feel constrained and be unable to hire the best person for the job. That may ultimately hurt Singaporeans when companies find their manpower needs unmet and they relocate some or all of their operations elsewhere.
- For older workers, including many of our PMEs, we want to help them remain employed for as long as they are willing and able to work.
- The Tripartite Committee on the Employability of Older Workers, or Tricom for short, and which I chair, drives efforts to support the continued employment of older workers.
- The Tricom is looking at the extension of the re-employment age from 65 to 67. At the same time, we are taking the opportunity to review and iron out any outstanding implementation issues such as guidelines on wage adjustment and presumption of medical fitness, and update the law and the Tripartite Guidelines on the Re-employment of Older Employees. We are finalising the proposals with our tripartite partners and should be ready to share these plans later this year.
- But even before the law is changed, I want to encourage employers to re-employ those who have reached 65 years old as long as they are able and willing to work. This could help mitigate some of the effects of the current tight labour market.
- As noted by the PM, the civil service is already taking the lead and has re-employed almost 800 workers above 65 years. I’ve also read about PRIMA Limited, which manages the PrimaDeli bakery franchise – last year, it became the first unionised firm in the F&B industry to formally commit to re-hiring workers beyond 65 years old, and with no pay cut!
- Let me also clarify some misconceptions about the re-employment age.
- First, raising the re-employment age does not mean that we do not want Singaporeans to retire. It means that we want to help those who wish to continue working to be able to do so.
- Second, the statutory retirement age of 62 is not to require Singaporeans to retire at 62. The law, in fact, protects workers below 62 from being dismissed on the grounds of age. There is no legal requirement for employers to retire workers at a certain age.
- I think Singaporeans who want to work longer will welcome this. Mr Heng Chee How will also be very happy. After we introduced re-employment legislation in 2012, 99% of private sector local employees who turned 62 in the year ending June 2013 were offered re-employment, and 98%1 - almost all - accepted the offer. Of the 50 workers aged above 55 years interviewed by the Straits Times on 2 May, 70% said that they wanted to work beyond 65 years even if it means getting less pay.
- When it comes to addressing the challenges of ageing, perceptions matter as much as policy. It takes a mindset change by all members of our society, including employers, co-workers and the public to support older workers at work.
- As the saying goes: “Ageing is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
An Optimistic Conversation on Ageing
- This brings me to a broader point: that even as we provide greater assurance to Singaporeans on healthcare affordability, retirement adequacy and employment issues, ageing brings a set of psychological and emotional challenges. We need to remember that ageing should not be something we dread.
- We need to change the way we think about growing old and move the conversation from a negative one of worrying about the problems of ageing to a positive one of tapping on the opportunities from our increased longevity.
- As we all know, Singapore’s life expectancy has increased dramatically within one generation – children born today can expect to live a full decade longer than their parents born 30 years ago. Now, we have the fourth longest life expectancy in the world!
- While some see the demographic burden of an increasingly aged population, I see opportunity in this longevity.
We are living longer and living better
- First, “chronological” age does not equate to “health” age. While we generally think of someone above the age of 65 years as a “senior”, 65 is not a magical number where our seniors instantly become ridden with disability and turn into a burden to the rest of society. True, our body functions become less than optimal as we age, but through better nutrition, education, healthcare, and technology, we are already bending this curve, and in fact, many of our seniors continue to be active, enthusiastic contributors to our society.
- We can learn from some of the world’s oldest nations which are adjusting their approaches so that their seniors can continue leading active lifestyles. For example, Japan is encouraging the use of technology such as robots to help seniors handle daily tasks and remain independent. Many seniors in Japan also continue to be active – working or volunteering in the community.
Making longevity work for us
- Second, we should re-think how we want to capitalise on this additional longevity. The mindset that many people have today is to study hard for the first one-third of our life, work hard for the next one-third, and spend the last one-third in retirement. If we live till 90 or 100, that is some 30 years in retirement!
- How then should we re-plan our lives taking into account the longer lives that we can expect to live? For some, it could mean desiring to work for as long as one is able to. That is where our Re-employment legislation and our new CET Masterplan will help.
- Yet for others, living a longer life affords them more time to fulfil their many aspirations. With more time, can we keep our minds active by learning a new skill that we had always wanted to pick up, but had been too busy to? More importantly, can we take some time to contribute back to society through volunteer work and enrich ours as well as the lives of others?
- These are questions we can reflect on, to make the best use of our increased longevity. You might not believe this as I have done a great maintenance job, perhaps because I’ve picked up some of the secrets that Dr Janil has shared, but in less than a decade, I will edge toward this defining age of 65 and some of these issues are beginning to weigh on my mind. Indeed, I think the spirit is willing, but the flesh may be getting weaker.
Building the society that we want to grow old in
- Third, as we change the conversation on ageing to a more optimistic one, we should use this opportunity to shape the values that we as a society want, and define the social texture of the nation that we will grow old in.
- Every society is anchored in its older generation. They are the nation’s repository of wisdom and experience, and the conduit through which its values are passed on, something which Mr Ang Hin Kee pointed out as well. If there is one value that defines our nation, it would be filial piety. In the Our Singapore Conversation Survey of 4,000 Singaporeans, filial piety was the one value that strongly resonated with people regardless of background, age and education levels.
- I am therefore heartened by the preliminary findings of the recently concluded HDB Sample Household Survey which showed that more young couples are living together with or near their parents in the same HDB estate. Minister Khaw is thus mulling over whether such couples should be given even greater assistance to do so. This would indeed help our elderly to age in place, among family and friends.
Seeing the Silver Lining in the Grey Clouds
- Minister Gan has outlined the plans of the Ministerial Committee on Ageing (MCA) to hold a series of public consultations to develop a national plan for successful ageing. I encourage Singaporeans from all walks of life to share their aspirations for successful ageing.
- As we celebrate our nation’s golden jubilee next year, it is fitting that we reflect on our own golden years. Can we be optimistic about ageing and change the way we think about growing old? Let me share a quote from the late Catholic writer Henri Nouwen – “ageing is not a reason for despair, but a basis for hope, not a slow decaying but a gradual maturing, not a fate to be undergone but a chance to be embraced.”
- Let us not sit back and allow what some call the “Silver Tsunami” to overwhelm us. Instead, we should choose to see the silver lining in the grey clouds, and see opportunity in longevity, so that we can build an empowering environment that we can all look forward to growing old in, and as envisioned by Minister Gan – our Nation for All Ages.
Based on retiring employees who were offered re-employment