PROTECTING THE DIGNITY OF OUR SENIORS
Speaker Sir, on behalf of a group of parliamentarians called the PAP senior group, or PAP.SG, I beg to move today, that “This House believes that seniors are a gift to our society, contributing to a wise and resilient Singapore, and calls on the government to strengthen our support for our seniors to age with dignity, and spearhead community efforts to create a society where our seniors can thrive.”
Speaker, I would like to start by talking about two seniors in my constituency, Kebun Baru.
Saraj, aged 72, has spent his entire life keeping Singapore safe. He was one of our chief hostage negotiator for both SQ highjacks. After he retired, he continues to volunteer, to pass down his wisdom. Today, he is a cornerstone of Kebun Baru’s Yellow Ribbon outreach.
Alice, aged 70, spent her entire life as a nurse. From 1986 to 2000, she built the modern ambulance service that we know. She then served another 30 years at various hospitals. She volunteered while working, and continued after she retired from the nursing corp. Today, she still leads our community emergency responders.
All of us in this chamber have met incredible seniors, their stories etched in our minds. Some have done grand things; some have lead simple but meaningful lives. Their wisdom and resilience built Singapore.
Our pioneers, soon to be followed by our baby boomers, are now growing old. This has been described as the coming Silver Tsunami. Last December, a UOB analyst even declared that Singapore’s demographic time bomb starts ticking off, right this year.
An aging population presents major challenges to the unprepared society: less economic vitality, higher tax burden on the young, and an intergenerational fight for resources between the young and old.
But we at PAP.SG believe that:
We will and must meet these serious challenges. And then go beyond.
Besides the challenges, we should also focus on the positives.
More and more of our Singaporeans seniors are highly skilled and experienced, with a stronger ability to thrive in retirement, and to contribute to society.
This is what we believe to be our Silver Dividend. But creating this Silver Dividend requires a lot of work.
We need to stretch our minds, stretch our hearts, and stretch our hands
If we are successful, our seniors can shine brightly in their autumn years. They can reflect on their lifelong experiences, in comfort and dignity. They can pass down their very special spark, to the next generation.
And that is how we can build a wise and resilient Singapore. Through values and experiences passed down by each generation.
On what basis does PAP.SG have this confidence?
Well, Singapore is not the first and only society facing the challenges of aging.
Successful preparations require decisive actions and long-term planning.
These are precisely our strengths.
Our long-term planning has already bore fruit. Before this Silver Tsunami has hit Singapore, we have assembled the major policy pieces. Let me give a few examples:
But as we frequently say in this chamber, we are not yet done building Singapore. Much has been done. But there is much more to do.
It is in this spirit that my fellow PAP.SG comrades would like to put for additional ideas for considerations.
Today, we will talk about:
We are fully aware that meeting the challenges of aging is expensive. In fact, some of us worry deeply about how to pay for meeting our promises to our seniors, while still creating a bright future for our children. So whatever we do today, or put in place tomorrow, must be prudent and sustainable. Otherwise, we will be loading an unfair burden to future generations.
Fortunately, the key to success requires more than the government dollars. It requires society coming together to create community initiatives to support our seniors. As such my fellow PAP.SG MPs and I will speak about our community initiatives for seniors. We believe in these initiatives. And we want them to spread across Singapore.
MAINTAINING THE DIGNITY OF OUR ELDERLY
For my own speech, I will focus on maintaining the dignity of our elderly. We will all grow old one day. Even now, many of us are seeing our parents age. When I speak to my peers, a common theme emerges.
“Dad once carried us on his shoulders, but he suddenly looks so frail. Mum used to nag us not to forget this and that, but now she’s also forgetting things.”
And we start wondering- what will we do when they can no longer take care of themselves? We would all like to take care of them at home, but sometimes it’s not possible for medical, financial or family reasons.
A friend told me that he looked into some nursing homes, but the seniors there looked so sad that he couldn’t bear to. They were given basic care, but couldn’t pursue their own interests or social life. Nobody really cared about what they wanted, what made them unique, what got them out of bed every morning. In other words, they are alive but lost their dignity.
That’s not the only way seniors lose their dignity. Seniors lose their dignity when they can’t pay for their own retirement years; when they have to move to somewhere more affordable, and leave their social circles; when they’re viewed as burdens to society.
Our seniors deserve their dignity. Many seniors feel that if they lose dignity, a longer life is not a blessing. As Mother Teresa said, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
I’m sure none of us want our parents and our nation’s pioneers to be in that state. And we certainly don’t want to be in that state one day!
With this in mind, I would like to propose three policy changes:
AFFORDABLE, DIGNIFIED LIVING OPTIONS
My first proposal is to strengthen affordable, dignified living options for our seniors. Some nursing homes that are built years ago still have many seniors sharing a room. At some homes, overworked staff only provide residents assistance and food, but don’t have time to say hi or chat. Sometimes the staff don’t speak the same language as the residents, and the residents do not get much-needed social contact. Some retirement homes also face such issues.
The lack of autonomy, meaning and privacy in many nursing and retirement homes is a huge factor why 8 in 10 Singaporeans worry about getting old. And why most of us still view these homes as “dumping” our parents there. But when Singaporeans genuinely can’t take care of their parents at home, they shouldn’t have to feel like they are un-filial. We should have better options.
Fortunately, we are beginning to see new types of nursing homes and seniors housing. So with regards to seniors housing and nursing home, I believe that we are making an important transition.
There has been solid success. For example, we have create the new Kampung Admiralty for HDB dwellers who want a comfortable assisted living option.
Kampung Admiralty has senior housing is put on top of a community plaza with a hawker centre and medical facilities. The designers also wisely put the senior activity centre built next to a kindergarten. I visited Kamupung Admiralty with some of my architect friends to study the layout. We went away very impressed.
I hope that we can build many more Kampung Admiralty. They can serve as the mothership to surrounding blocks of conventional flats, and be the anchor to our Kampung for All Ages.
I am also glad to hear that Minister Gan is looking into various assisted living options for more Singaporeans, just like the options offered at Kampung Admiralty.
Today, we also have more choices in nursing homes, which I consider a partial success. There are homes where seniors have more autonomy, privacy and activities. But they cost from nearly $4000 to $15,000 a month. Obviously not affordable for the vast majority of retirees, even those in private estates. We must make such options more affordable.
We have also had experiments on privately retirement homes or assisted living arrangements, though I do not think we have yet to discover the right model. I have been following a site at Jurong Kerchil that was billed as a potential retirement home. But because the developer had to bid against conventional residential developments, some have questioned whether it turned out to be more a condominium than a retirement home.
In short, there are still gaps. We need to quickly assemble a full range of good options, at different price points, for our seniors. Both our seniors living in HDB and private housing must have the choices to either:
Just as important as the choices is the affordability. We must change change regulations and laws to help our seniors monetise their assets to pay for them.
And we must create these options now. A retired lecturer in NUS, who was part of the group advising me on senior housing, shared this with me.
“Please tell the government that this is urgent. We are getting older every day. There is no more time for us to wait more reviews, and more studies. We need these choices now.”
After studying the existing options and gaps, I would like to propose four ways for the government to create a broader range of choices.
Pearl Bank is a condominium with a deep sense of community, and unique architecture value. It is also very near Singapore General Hospital.
There has been talk of en-bloc and conservation. Many residents want to en-bloc, which requires land intensification, which in turn allow residents of Pearl Bank to top-up the lease.
And one exciting option is for intensification is to build an additional 150 units of senior housing on top of their existing car-park, building more facilities catered for seniors, and keeping the unique architecture make-up of the rest of the development.
Yet they are constrained from doing so, at least through the en-bloc route, because they have maximized their GFA under the current regulations. If URA can view them as a potential retirement residential development, can these regulations be relaxed?
Beyond Pearl Bank, I am sure there are other private estates that could voluntarily work with the government to be converted into a full or partial retirement residential development.
HELP PRIVATE ESTATE SENIORS TO MONETISE HOUSING
My second proposal is to help our seniors, especially those living in private estates, monetise their housing assets. Seniors lose dignity when they can’t pay for their own retirement years.
For many Singaporeans, our most major asset is our home. Monetisation options are in place for seniors living in 4-room or smaller flats. But not for seniors in other housing types.
In my constituency, there’s a private estate named Teachers’ Estate. As the name tells you, the seniors there are mostly retired teachers. They helped in the historic expansion of our education system, and shaped generations of Singaporeans. But now, some of them are asset rich and cash-poor. They do not qualify for most assistance schemes because they live in private housing.
They tell me that they do have the option of downsizing. But it’s hard to find affordable options in the area that will also free up sufficient money for retirement. So when they move, they are cut off from their social circles. This is another way they start losing dignity. So we need to look into more lease buyback options that enable them to age in place.
Again, why has the market not provided such options?
For many retirees living in private housing, they live frugal lives, so they might only need tens of thousands of dollars each year in retirement.
But banks are not interested in lending them secured loans in such quantum. This is because, given the razor thin margin of reverse mortgage, the banks have limited interest in secured loans for less than 200-300k.
Talking to the private and people sector, I see at least two solutions. The first solution is for the government to encourage and regulate social enterprise or a co-operative to undertake such reverse mortgage activities.
Let me get this straight, I believe the numbers can work out and there is no need for the government to co-fund or co-share the risk.
Social Enterprise or Co-operative can also securitize the assets in the financial market. This can be done given Singapore’s status as a centre for REIT.
Government regulations can ensure that:
The second solution is for the government to encourage and regulate specialized funds for seniors to monetize their assets.
We can look at the innovation happening in France. Retirees sell their asset to a fund that is based on the French concept of “Viager” property contract.
The government can also consider regulating:
SENIOR CAREGIVER LEAVE
My third proposal is to introduce senior caregiver leave. Seniors lose dignity when their loved ones are not with them in times of need.
Aging, falling sick, and one day departing from this world is a fate we all share. As we depart quietly into the night, our loved one’s presence will comfort us through that inevitable journey. Senior caregiver leave will help.
I propose starting with four days of Senior Care Leave for a select group of Singaporeans who are caregivers for their parents. This will come with costs to companies. But there are ways to limit the costs to real deserving situations:
KEBUN BARU’S HOPE COLLECTIVE
As I mentioned earlier, government programs are only part of the equation. Our community must also step up to help our seniors age successfully and with dignity. There are many excellent community programs all over Singapore. There is much opportunity for us to share best practices, and build upon ongoing efforts. PAP.SG hopes to spur such conversations.
For example, in my constituency, I’ve started something called The Hope Collective. It brings the do-gooders of Kebun Baru together, whether they are government agencies, VWOs, grassroots committees, or new groups of volunteers.
We’ve already started seeing synergies. For example, we have an elderly befriending programme called Project Starfish. Through Hope Collective, they have partnered with Mummy Yummy, a programme that delivers vegetarian meals to the needy. So they’ve brought their strengths together and brought seniors to our Community Centre for regular meals.
The seniors loved that the food was soft enough for them, and the meal broke their social isolation. Now, Project Starfish and Mummy Yummy are bringing in more student volunteers through Hope Collective, so they can expand their outreach. They’re also working with the police to share the workload.
Through the Hope Collective, we can take a comprehensive view and plug in gaps. For example, we have a pool of lawyers who can educate and advise in legal matters for seniors, such as Limited Power of Attorney. We also want to move towards dementia readiness. Overall, our vision is to build a culture of respect, love, and care for our seniors. We want to build “a Kampung for All Ages”.
I’m looking forward to learn more ideas from my colleagues in this session.
CONCLUSION: GOING BEYOND FIRST WORLD STANDARDS IN ELDERCARE
Speaker Sir, let me now wrap up my opening speech.
Some medical professionals say our elder care has to catch up to First World standards. I say we should. And then go beyond that.
Just as our seniors have built a world-beating economy for us, we can be the world leader in building a senior-friendly society for them.
It seems like a tall order, until you remember that everyone has parents and everyone will grow old. So everyone has a vested interest in making this happen. If government can provide the right structure, it will unleash society’s energy to do this. In fact, the three ideas I have laid out will do precisely this.
Of course, aging presents serious challenges, even for a nation as united and organised as Singapore. But we shall not shy away from meeting these challenges.
As PM Lee said in his 2014 National Day Rally:
“At the heart of the Singapore Story is our belief in Singapore, belief that we can turn vulnerability and despair into confidence and hope; belief that out of the trauma of separation, we could build a modern metropolis and a beautiful home.”
But I would like to ask, “What is a beautiful home? “
It’s a place where we live with dignity, no matter our age. Where we can rest assured we can take care of our families. Where the community does right by those who sacrificed their best years for us.
Because only when we have done that, can we say.
This is home, truly.