The sight of elderly Singaporeans cleaning hawker centre tables and toilets or collecting discarded cardboard for sale pricks the hearts of Singaporeans.
Many, understandably, see it as indicative of cracks in our social safety net that are in urgent need of mending.
The international media, from the United States to China, has chipped in with commentaries expressing sentiments ranging from astonishment to condemnation.
Our policy response must be guided by a thorough understanding of the facts. For example, how many of these elderly Singaporeans work out of necessity and how many out of choice?
What are the circumstances of those who work out of necessity and how can they be helped? For those who do not need to but choose to work, are there other jobs for them that are less physically demanding?
Can those who choose to work to remain active be persuaded to pursue more comfortable options that are equally effective in keeping them active?
This is a potentially politically charged issue for which an objective and comprehensive picture has not yet been obtained.
From time to time, specific cases of the elderly doing menial work are highlighted and, often, government agencies then come out to provide further facts to assure Singaporeans that assistance is already being provided.
But what is needed is a comprehensive and reliable picture of the issue so that Singaporeans can have some understanding of the circumstances behind a sight that troubles them. An independent and substantive survey is called for.
Cheng Shoong Tat