Monday, March 29, 2021



Ageism is closing the doors of opportunity to our senior citizens. Whether it is looking for employment, getting a place in an HRDF upskilling course or applying for a bank loan to start a business, our age puts us at a disadvantage. It shouldn't.

The recent announcement in the media of the government speeding up the introduction of 5G in the country is leaving many seniors out in the cold, especially those now in their 70s and 80s. They are lagging so far behind in digital literacy that it's unlikely they will be able to participate actively in the digital economy. Many of these elderly are either single living on their own or are empty nesters.

Who is there to help these older people learn how to use the internet and get connected online for e-services? There is as yet no educational institute where they can enrol for courses on social media apps and entrepreneurial skills. What we have currently are piecemeal ad hoc workshops offered by NGOs and IT companies. These usually comprise a few hours of instruction or a one-day workshop at best. Grossly insufficient.

What we are asking for is a government-supported initiative where digital skills courses are offered throughout the year. IMDA Singapore started Seniors Go Digital in 2017. Since then more than 140,000 seniors have benefitted from this programme. But this is in Singapore. Can we have something similar here in Malaysia?


There is also the National Silver Academy which offers a wide range of courses including digital literacy courses. Seniors are literally spoilt for choice. Fees are affordable. Seniors can pay from their SkillsFuture Credit of S$500 given by the government to all citizens.

Seniors themselves must also be responsible for their own learning. Where there is a will, there is always a way. We have to adopt a positive attitude towards learning. This is part of the ethos of lifelong learning. There is no such thing as being too old to learn something. When an opportunity to learn something new and useful is made available to us, we should take it. We shouldn't let the fear of failing or the lack of confidence be our excuse. 

I recall in the late 1990s when teachers were told they had to start using the computer to teach, some of my colleagues opted for early retirement. They didn't want to be stressed out learning this new technology. Others took up the challenge and eventually were able to teach confidently using the computer and the projector instead of depending solely on the textbook and blackboard.

There are also many examples of successful learning when there is strong motivation to do so. The need to remain in touch with family and friends is a powerful incentive especially during the pandemic stay-home period. Hence older people have learned to use social media apps e.g. Whatsapp and Zoom. Facebook is now dominated by older users, resulting in younger people migrating to Instagram, Snapchat and Tik Tok. But aside from social media usage, seniors are still slow in making use of online services such as paying bills, booking a ride or making purchases. 

Instructors who conduct courses for seniors must bear in mind that older people learn differently from younger people. Hence, they need to be familiar with geragogy - the theory of how older people learn. For instance, seniors learn at a slower pace, and are more at ease learning with their peers than with much younger students. 

A case in point. Last month SeniorsAloud was among 29 NGOs selected from over 200 applications for a 4-week digital skills course conducted online. The objective was to help upskill NGOs and amplify their social impact. At 73, I was by far the oldest participant. The others were mostly in their 30s and 40s, including the instructors. My team mate Kamil and I took it as a challenge to learn as much as we could. The pace was fast, and the course content was demanding. Fortunately the instructors were very patient and encouraging, providing guidance at every step. We learned a lot especially how to use apps such as Canvas, Slack and Trello. Also Design Thinking and the Business Canvas Model which I had learned before but not applied. It was a good refresher. Digital knowledge needs to be applied to be of any use. It is easy for older learners to forget how to use applications after a lapse of time. 

The benefits of empowering seniors with digital tools are enormous. Aside from the convenience of carrying out tasks online and engaging socially online, seniors who run home-based businesses can make use of apps to promote their products or services and have the know-how to reach a wider market. 

So the ball is in the government's court. With seniors, time is of the essense. How many more years do we have to wait for a building or a sustainable programme specially dedicated to re-training and upskilling our warga emas?

(The above letter published in The Star on 13 March 2021 is accessible at this link: