Age divide can only multiply problems

General view of the Singapore skyline.
General view of the Singapore skyline.ST PHOTO: LIN ZHAOWEI

Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh once commented he was embarrassed that Singapore is ranked by the United Nations as the second-most unequal society. (Panel: Be willing to pay more to lift low-wage workers' income, Dec 2, 2018).

His point, which sparked a huge debate, is certainly worth revisiting as Singapore strives to be a progressive society that treats all its citizens with dignity.

The divide and social inequalities that Professor Koh was talking about straddle many areas: rich versus poor, young versus old, citizens versus wannabes, blue-versus white-collar workers and so on.

I want to focus on the intergenerational young-versus-old divide that is exacerbated by the digital divide.

The old of today have less of today's desired skill sets and are (if employed) less compensated at work.

A wave of technology has somewhat displaced them. This leads to some marginalisation, aggravated by their lower CPF contributions and a downward spiral to menial jobs, a nudge to unemployment and ultimately reduced self-worth.

Under such a dark looming cloud, they have to live out their latter years burdened by inflation and costlier healthcare - if not borne by themselves, then imposed on their filial children.

I know there have been measures introduced to lessen their hardship, such as training schemes, handouts during good years and subsidised healthcare. The Pioneer and Merdeka Generation packages are further examples of measures aimed at plugging the gaps.

While these are appreciated and cost the Government billions, the trickle-down effect is relatively small.

For example, my mum, a Pioneer Generation citizen, used to get less than $800 a year in Medisave top-up. Each hospital stay would cost her $7,000 to $10,000, of which she could use only a few hundred from Medisave per stay.

Similarly, property lease buybacks are merely means of encashing depreciating assets, and do not enrich flat owners.

Far more substantive overhauls are needed.

Talk about revising CPF contribution rates upwards is a good starting point. Meaningful discounts or subsidies, reduced GST taxation for essential items for the elderly, free trips to hospitals and even rebates for gym membership to keep themselves healthy should be considered. This is just the tip of the geriatric iceberg.

Of course, the counterargument has always been that younger citizens have to pay more. But I feel that while children must also play their part in supporting ageing parents, a government not bereft of additional yearly surpluses can do substantially more as well.

Because looking after the elderly who have helped shape the nation should not be a chore but an obligation.

How they are treated will say lots about what we are as a nation.

Satish Kumar Khattar

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2019, with the headline 'Age divide can only multiply problems'. Print Edition | Subscribe