Saturday, March 1, 2014


This article "A sweetener for the Pioneer Generation" appeared in The Star today (1 March). The writer, Seah Chiang Nee, has brought up several pertinent points that provide food for further thought. However, I shall highlight only those that non-Singaporeans might find hard to believe - that in one of the world's wealthiest nations, poverty still exists. And it's the elderly that make up a high proportion of the poor and the needy.

Consider these statistics taken from the article:

  • those aged 65 and above total some 450,000 or 9.9% of the population.
  • One out of three hospital patients are above 65 years old.
  • A total of 54 kidney patients in two hospitals chose death over dialysis because they could not afford the long-term process of dialysis.
  • The elderly form 9.9% of the population but account for 23% of all the suicides in the country. Health problems and depression were the main reasons.

Visitors who come to Singapore for shopping and sightseeing leave with a very positive impression of the republic. It's easy to see why. In just 49 short years since becoming a fully independent nation, Singapore has chalked up an enviable record of achievements. It boasts world-class infrastructure and facilities, high educational standards, and is listed among the world's top go-to destinations for medical treatment and healthcare. 

The irony is that Singaporeans are finding their country an increasingly expensive place to live in. It is a daily struggle living from hand to mouth, especially for the elderly. They are the ones in need of medical treatment and healthcare, yet they can ill afford (pun intended) such services. "The worst sufferers," writes Seah, "are those with chronic illnesses and insufficient funds for treatment." Hence, the oft-heard complaint among senior citizens - 'You can die, but you cannot fall ill in Singapore'.

Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong in a group photo with some of the 1000+ invited guests of the 'pioneer generation' at a special tribute held for them at the Istana on Feb 9. (Source: Straits Times)

I am a regular visitor to Singapore, and have been so since the 1960s. I have family there. Many of my former classmates and students have also settled there. Over the years I have watched how Singapore has rapidly overtaken Malaysia, leaving the latter trailing far behind in virtually every field. Today, Singapore is no longer just a tiny red dot at the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula. It is a success story that other countries aspire to emulate.

But there is another face of Singapore that is hidden or rather, yet to be discovered by affluent visitors and tourists who equate Singapore with Orchard Road, Marina Bay Sands and Clarke Quay. Take a train or bus ride into the heartlands. It's a whole different Singapore that meets your eyes. 

But one doesn't have to go to the heartlands to see how the common people, especially the elderly, are living. 

Pay a visit to the older parts of the city like Chinatown and Albert Street. You will see elderly women rummaging through garbage bins to find something they can use or sell. They are the rag and bone, bag ladies of Singapore.

Pop into a food court in any of the swanky malls along Orchard Road, and you will notice that the majority of the serving staff and cleaners are senior citizens who are way past their working life. Ask them why they are still working, and you will get the answer "If I don't work, how will I eat?"

Taxi-drivers, street buskers, vendors at hawker centres - they are among the growing number of older people who have little choice but to continue working for as long as they are physically able to do so, and as long as they can find a company that will employ them.

They are the pioneer generation who have given the prime years of their lives to help transform the country into a global giant in wealth and technology. Now in their 60s and 70s, these senior citizens need support from the country. It is payback time. 

The government has listened and is responding positively with the recent announcement of the Pioneer Generation Package - a S$8bil (RM20.7bil) plan that will help defray some of the healthcare costs of elderly Singaporeans aged 65 and above. 

The goodies in store for senior citizens in Singapore aimed at subsidizing part of their rising healthcare expenses. (Source: ChannelNewsAsia

Any financial assistance from the government goes a long way not only in providing affordable healthcare for the elderly, but also in helping their adult children for they are the ones footing the bill for their parents' medical expenses.

Some will say this smacks of vote-buying by a government that is seeing its popularity ebbing away. Others will say it's too little too late. Well, older Singaporeans can't be bought that easily, and better late than never.

Speaking as a non-Singaporean, all I can say is I am glad for my older relatives and friends in Singapore who will be receiving an annual subsidy of S$200 to S$800 (RM517 to RM2070) to help towards paying the premiums of the new health insurance scheme to be introduced soon. They will also receive an additional 50% discount at out-patient specialist clinics in hospitals and polyclinics. 

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