One aspect of the rationale for the forward-looking Budget presented on Monday is the fiscal planning necessitated by the doubling of the number of Singaporeans aged 65 and over by 2030. The impact of this will be increasingly evident in many areas, and in the reversal of generational needs. A stark reminder: Healthcare expenditure is expected to overtake education spending within the next decade, as pointed out by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. With average health subsidies for the old currently being more than six times those given to the young, greater financial provisions must be made for seniors .
Singapore is not alone in tackling the challenges presented by an ageing population but the speed of demographic change here makes it stand out. There were just 270,000 seniors in 2005 but that number will balloon to 900,000 as baby boomers come of advancing age. The phenomenon is often referred to as a "demographic time bomb", which conjures up outcomes of catastrophic proportions. But these need not come to pass if one plans well in advance, and steps are taken forthwith to follow through the strategies drawn up.
If ageing is conceptualised differently, it could be a success story for the nation, not to mention individuals. In market terms, there are opportunities that can be grasped in catering for the specific needs of this demographic. In Asia-Pacific, the market could be worth US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion, according to business consultancy Ageing Asia, while globally, the silver economy might hit US$15 trillion by 2020, noted Merrill Lynch.
In social terms, positive ageing should not be seen as a concern of just mature individuals, it's a process which must start while one is young. Lifestyles and habits cultivated early can make a difference to the state of one's health later in life.
Importantly, the issue of positive ageing should not be just left to a few players. All sectors need to recognise the need to get involved, and policy choices must dovetail to successfully manage the economics of ageing, the delivery of services, and the sustenance of inclusive practices. So, while it is logical to consolidate social and health-related services for seniors under a single ministry, there is also a need to keep ageing in the sights of other agencies, like those involved in the built environment, transport, safety, financial security, skills training and cultural activities.
A far-sighted national Budget alone cannot fully address the reality of becoming a super-aged nation. A whole of society approach is needed - for example, to ensure seniors are not simply put out to pasture when they can make useful contributions to the economy. Only exceptionally do companies re-engineer production lines or processes to suit mature workers. The 60-plus should not be just an afterthought when they are set to number 1.4 billion globally by 2030.