Singapore 'still very much an ageist society'

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 4, 2014

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, who chairs a new People's Action Party seniors group (PAP.SG), speaks to Andrea Ong about the advocacy group and tackling ageism. She also takes stock of her first year as Speaker and Parliament's performance ahead of its mid-term break this year.

Why did the PAP decide to set up this group and what are your key priorities and aims?

Because of the rapidly ageing population, the number of elderly people has increased tremendously. The party wanted to have a greater focus on their needs and how to serve them, very much like what we have done for women as well as the young. The objective of PAP.SG is essentially to raise issues or to help shape policies and programmes on cross-cutting issues affecting our seniors, on matters like their quality of life, the manner of their care as well as their security. We also want to look at encouraging greater volunteerism, both among our healthy seniors as well as the young, and at innovative practices to reach out to our seniors.

We also hope to give input on and shape the outcome of the MediShield Life review.

We've been hearing talk of Singapore's rapidly ageing population for quite a few years. How ready, really, is Singapore?

In the area of infrastructure, over the last few years, the Government has announced the building of more nursing homes, senior care centres, senior activity centres. What I see as a big challenge for us is not so much the infrastructure, but more the software, in terms of getting qualified people, professionals. For instance, do we have enough physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and so on that are needed to support all these activities, to support the frail elderly? That will be one challenge - manpower. The second challenge will be in the area of caregivers. Caregivers are themselves growing old. They also need support.

In a recent letter to The Straits Times Forum Page, you called for a different mindset which is non-ageist and challenges the assumptions that people may have about the old. Can you elaborate?

We are still very much an ageist society. Sometimes people may not even know that they are being ageist. I receive a lot of feedback from elderly job applicants and they say it is very difficult for them to get a job because sometimes when they call up an employer, when the employer asks for their age, and then when they inform the employer what their age is, the employer immediately says, okay, the vacancy has been filled.

These are some of the assumptions we need to question: Do we always look at an elderly person and immediately assume that they will not be productive, they will not be adaptable, they can't perform their job?

Or do we give them an opportunity? Because it's our mindset then that determines whether we want to give a person the opportunity or not, regardless of that person's age. Sometimes I think we tend to also come to certain conclusions when we see elderly people: Oh, they need support, they need someone to depend on.

We must give them options to think for themselves what they want to do with their lives and not always come to the conclusion that just because someone is older and is working, therefore that person is actually forced to work. These are choices we must trust that they want to make for themselves too. We should not be so condescending in our mindset and attitude towards how we treat the elderly.

What is the biggest mental barrier that needs to be broken down in how we treat the elderly?

Employment is one area we need to tackle. The Government has put in place measures like re-employment legislation, which now require an employer of someone at the age of 62 to offer re-employment up to 65. In my view, it should be extended beyond 65 to 67. Look at our seniors now, many of them are still healthy, they can still continue working, so I don't see why they cannot be allowed to work to the age of 67.

You've previously called for the legislation of eldercare leave. Why is that important?

My reasoning is this: The Government wants ageing in place to take place, that is, at home and within the community. But for this to take place, the caregivers must have sufficient support. I do get feedback from workers who are taking care of elderly parents that sometimes it is very difficult for them to take leave and sometimes the leave is just not enough.

I know family care leave (measures) have just been passed, but what we can do is make family care leave flexible. If you have childcare obligations, use the family care leave for your childcare needs. If you don't have such responsibilities but you have frail elderly parents and you need to take your parents to see the doctor regularly or to do other things, you can use the leave then.

In my view, over time, this must become one of the basic conditions of service.

Take an issue like caregivers and eldercare. How would PAP.SG come into the picture?

Apart from just helping to shape policies and programmes, what we want to do is also to see how we can develop a support network in all the different constituencies. Maybe set up chapters all over the constituencies to act as contact points, to provide information and help connect our seniors to the services that are available in the community. Sometimes it's also a question of making sure the seniors know where to get help. For instance, we have senior activity centres for those living in rental flats and in need of support, but some of them may not know about it or fully utilise it.

It has been almost a year since you were elected Speaker. How has the past year been?

It's been a really good year and it's been a very exciting year, also a very fast-paced one. Immediately after I became Speaker, we had the population debate in February, followed by the Committee of Supply. Last year, we also saw a lot more questions being filed by MPs. In fact, on average we had about 100 parliamentary questions (per session) compared to maybe 40 or 50 in the past.

So it is a very active Parliament. Also, you see more adjournment motions. In the past it's very rare, you probably had one adjournment motion a year. Now it's a lot more because MPs want to speak on their pet topics. I think these are positive developments. It shows that our MPs are really very alert. They are very interested and they raise issues that are of concern to them and their constituents.

With PAP.SG, you are taking on quite a strong advocacy role for the party. How do you reconcile that with your role as Speaker, which is supposed to be above partisan politics?

It is possible for us to play different roles. As Speaker, I know what my responsibilities are. I have to be fair and impartial because that is my responsibility towards upholding the credibility and integrity of Parliament as a key institution in upholding our democracy. And I have to respect the people who have elected their Members of Parliament and who want to see their MPs raising issues, articulating their concerns, so I have to give equal opportunities to all MPs. That is a role that I am very clear about.

But as an elected MP and as a member of a party, I have other functions and roles as well. I don't see that as being in conflict or as contradicting each other. In fact, even in these different roles, whether as Speaker or what I'm doing under PAP.SG, the ultimate objective is the same: improvement of the welfare of Singaporeans, making sure that their quality of life improves.

Parliament is due to be prorogued this year. Looking back at the past 21/2 years since the general election, how would you assess the performance of this Government?

Many important issues have been discussed and debated. You also see a shift in the debate, in last year's Budget - a lot more support for the lower-income, the elderly, in education. I think it is really significant.

Talking about education, as a backbencher, one of the things I raised was to provide more support for the Learning Support Programme. I am really very happy that in the Budget, the Ministry of Education announced it would enhance the Learning Support Programme. It shows a serious effort to try and make sure that children from less advantageous families are able to access opportunities available to them.

The other significant one is the enhancement to early childhood development, in terms of making sure there are better-quality teachers, curriculum and so on.

These show the Government's desire to have a more compassionate meritocracy. What is the meaning of a compassionate meritocracy? It's not just a question of making sure the opportunities are there and anyone can take advantage of those opportunities, but making sure that for those who for some reason, because of their background, their home situation, are not able to take advantage of those opportunities, to look at them and say, let's try to remove some of the obstacles.

In the recent debate over the hijab issue, you were cited as an example of someone who holds high office and wears the hijab, while there are Muslim women working in uniformed professions who are not allowed to do so. What are your views on this?

I empathise with our Muslim women who want to wear the hijab when they work. I understand their situation and I do hope at some point, for the nurses, the Government will review its position. For the nurses, we can think of how to work around some of the objections or concerns. The Malay MPs have continuously raised this issue and, working with the community, we continue to do so.

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This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 4, 2014

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