The moral case for treating the old with respect is clear, but what gives it material urgency is the demography of ageing societies, of which Singapore is a part. Hence the need for an ageing masterplan that is able to provide a realistic blueprint of how people can lead meaningful lives as they grow old. In pursuing a conversation about a national agenda on ageing, Singaporeans would do well to keep in mind the need for the holistic approach that is well-reflected in the World Health Organisation's concept of ageing. "Active ageing is the process of optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age," the organisation says.
Health would be the first priority in sustaining quality of life, but participation and security are no less important objectives. The first goal ranges from being physically active and participating in the labour force to being engaged in determining civic, cultural and spiritual outcomes in society. Likewise, security would mean not just physical and financial security but also the sense of being a valued member of society whose autonomy and dignity are recognised and protected. In short, the masterplan should be sensitive to both the physical and the emotional needs of the aged, who, like children, deserve society's support because they are vulnerable without it.
Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Health and chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, who announced the national consultations in Parliament recently, has adopted a broad approach to the issue. The conversation will include not just the public, but also businesses, unions, academia and voluntary welfare organisations. This diversity is important. All institutions that are stakeholders in creating an overall social environment conducive to dignified ageing should be involved. Businesses, in particular, should clarify how they view older workers, and what realistically could be done to enable these workers to continue contributing economically to society. The labour shortage provides a timely reminder that senior workers can be assets, not liabilities.
The same fundamental recognition of the worth of older people should permeate the discussions generally. Senior citizens, particularly those who are saddled with health or financial woes, are not has-beens who need to be tolerated before they pass away. They have contributed to the evolution of the society whose benefits the young enjoy today. Equity would demand, therefore, that they be treated as co-creators of the national wealth. When seen in that light, their needs would not appear oppressive but natural. Most important, seniors must not see ageing as a burden but as a stage of life that can be fulfilling if one remains active and positive.