PAP not taking vote of Pioneer Gen for granted

MADAMCHUALAYOON.
MADAMCHUALAYOON.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Slew of goodies for the over-65s comes amid shifting political landscape, Insight finds

It was more than 50 years ago, but Mr Sayuti Dahlan - then in his 30s - still clearly remembers standing in the jostling crowd, his whole body drenched in sweat.

He was listening to a young man with fierce eyes telling them why the people of Singapore should stand up to the mighty British.

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew would stand on an open-top lorry, shout to all of us and say in Malay: The British think we are stupid. But we will have freedom and I will show you how," says Mr Sayuti, 82.

Cycling from Pasir Panjang to Tanjong Pagar, Mr Sayuti would make it a point to listen to the late former prime minister, whenever he gave speeches.

"The speeches were always powerful; we believed him and we followed. After Singapore was formed, I voted for him. No problem," says the Tanglin Halt resident.

WORRIED FOR NEXT GENERATION

Houses today are so expensive. I am worried on the behalf of my next generation.

MADAM CHUA LAY OON (above), 79, said a good government should be one with an eye on the future by making sure that residents have good-paying jobs so that they can survive - and so can their children. While she thinks the current one does that well, the housewife is worried that her children and grandchildren may not be able to cope with rising costs

Mr Sayuti belongs to a group of voters who went through the uncertain pre-independence period, weathered the economic shocks of 1984 and 1997, and retired in a global city completely transformed.

These voters aged 65 and up have traditionally given their support to the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and are seen as its bastion. But they are also a bloc of voters that the PAP is not taking for granted, judging from the raft of policies that have been targeted at them.

The most substantial of the lot was the $8 billion Pioneer Generation package rolled out last year. The huge package, paid for upfront by surpluses generated by the Government, greatly subsidises healthcare for seniors and will benefit 450,000 people.

All Singaporeans above the age of 65 as at last year are eligible for the subsidies, regardless of income.

Last week, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong introduced a $3 billion package to help seniors age well.

The new Action Plan for Successful Ageing will open senior centres for social activities as well as daycare in at least 10 upcoming HDB projects, among others.

The Government also implemented a state-funded income supplement for low-income seniors.

Current and future low-income senior citizens will receive these payouts under the Silver Support Scheme, a permanent initiative which aims to help the bottom 20 per cent of Singaporeans aged 65 and above. They will receive between $300 and $750 every three months in payouts.

The scheme is expected to cost the Government $350 million in its first full year.

NOT JUST GETTING THEIR VOTE

On top of that, seniors also received smaller goodies such as discounts, free entry to places such as the zoo and even a $50 top-up to their ez-link cards, used to pay for public transport trips.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that there is nothing sinister about helping seniors in their old age.

"A large proportion of seniors do not have health insurance. This can be a time bomb waiting to explode on the sandwiched generation, the adult children on whom they are dependent," he says.

"So whether it is about getting seniors' votes or not, it makes sense for a responsible government which plans to stay in office to prevent a time bomb and not kick the can down the road."

But some observers believe that there are other reasons to pay close attention to this group of voters.

One is simply that the bloc of voters has grown, and will grow, in numbers and influence.

There were about 414,800 citizens aged 65 and above as at June last year, according to the latest official data, or about 16.8 per cent of the total number of eligible voters.

But this is expected to grow over time, with the fast-ageing population. The 1999 Inter-Ministerial Committee Report on the Ageing Population flagged the "powerful political role" that senior citizens could play by 2030, when they are projected to form one in five of the population.

The second is that even though the perception is that older voters form a solid vote bank for the PAP, the reality is that the landscape could be shifting.

A survey of voters after the last General Election in 2011 by the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy showed that while most seniors aged 65 and above voted conservatively in 2006, this was no longer the case in 2011.

In 2006, the survey showed that 46.5 per cent of those those 65 and above voted conservatively - that is, for the status quo. By 2011, just 28 per cent of this group did so, the largest drop among all age groups in this category.

WORRIES STILL EXIST

But will the goodies handed out of late work to sway or reaffirm the ballot-box inclinations of these seniors?

Some retirees appreciate the effort that has gone into looking after some of their greatest worries, especially over healthcare costs.

Madam Sarah Yeo, 67, says that the extra help given by the Government has been a long time coming, but she appreciates them.

"They gave cash through the GST Vouchers and now medical costs are manageable. In that way, they've done a good job," she says.

Others, such as former manager Tan Hoe Chuan, 67, still worry about ageing. "When I retired (seven years ago), I didn't know what to do next," he says. "I kept working until I injured my knee and had to stop because I didn't feel that the Government was going to take care of me."

He adds: "Medical bills were very high, and I had to pay for my diabetic wife's treatment. She later died in 2009 because of kidney problems... we don't have children."

Similarly, many older voters also worry about the same issues that younger voters face, like jobs and the economy.

Madam Chua Lay Oon, 79, said that a good government should be one with an eye on the future, making sure that residents have good-paying jobs so that they can survive - and so can their children. "I think the current (one) does that well," she said in Mandarin.

But the housewife is worried that her children and grandchildren may not be able to cope with rising costs in Singapore. "Houses today are so expensive. I am worried on the behalf of my next generation."

So, while it is important to pay attention to the needs of the older generation, Associate Professor Tan of NUS also believes it is equally important for the PAP to not neglect the needs of younger voters.

"If it hopes to get 65 per cent of the votes, it'd still need to reach out to Gen X and Gen Y voters. I agree that these younger voters believe in greater diversity in Parliament, but they also care about having good jobs and quality of life. The latter is critical," he says.

VITAL BANK OF VOTES

What is clear is that the PAP cannot afford to lose the support of seniors who have traditionally been the party's vote bank .

Political scientist Ho Khai Leong says that it is logical for a political party or candidate to appeal to its traditional support base, and consolidating votes in this sector.

"From this perspective, the PAP's emphasis on PG is a classic example of appealing to the traditional support of older voters who, in comparison to the younger generations, are more vulnerable to issues like rising healthcare costs and inflation," says Dr Ho, who is vice-president of the Southern University College in Johor.

Similarly, Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan says that any drop in support from this group could be "detrimental" for the PAP.

This is because, in many ways, helping older folk with their medical bills is also helping their children.

In this way, older folk are also "vote influencers", says Associate Professor Tan.

"It's not just the mere loss of their support, but also how they could influence their children on who to vote for. If children of a Pioneer Generation voter see how their parents have turned from 'conservative' to 'swing' or 'pluralistic', that has a powerful effect.

"Although not determinative, this bloc of senior voters is crucial to the PAP's electoral fortunes. It stems from the recognition that it is better to have the Pioneer Generation on your side," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'PAP not taking vote of Pioneer Gen for granted'. Print Edition | Subscribe