Motion on Support for Senior Citizens – Speech by Leon Perera

(Delivered in Parliament on 6 February 2018)

We all age. That is an inescapable fact of the human condition. But it is a fact that we human beings all too often try to escape…or decry, or deny, or despair of. Rather than embrace aging as the doorway to a new, different, exciting phase of life with its own potential and pitfalls. And this goes to the heart of the matter.

Archaeologists have found extremely ancient human skeletal remains where the skeletons were obviously people who lived to a very old age beyond the point when they could meaningfully contribute economically and where they may well have been invalid or immobile due to the kinds of illnesses that were rife in ancient times. Yet they lived till they were very old. The ancient tribes they lived within probably tended to them, helped them move from campsite to campsite and helped feed, clothe and care for them to enable them to live so long.

Embracing aging AND the aged defines a part of what it means to be human.

Whether and how we include older people as equal members of our society is a mark of civilization and humanity. And on this barometer, I know that Singapore will not, will never fall short.

In our homes, workplaces and coffee shops, when Singaporeans speak of seniors who are their relatives, seniors who were their mentors, seniors they know in their neighbourhoods and communities, it is inevitably in tones of respect, concern and empathy. This gut reaction speaks volumes about the kind of people Singaporeans are.  We defend those who are disadvantaged even if they are frail and economically weak. We have an instinctive sense of social justice and fairness. These ideals are embodied in our Pledge, which is why our Pledge, this short collection of words deeply resonates with all Singaporeans.

We should be proud of these instincts. But when we speak of our seniors, it should not only be about taking care of a disadvantaged group. It should be about how we can build a more inclusive society because that advances the cause of Singapore and ALL Singaporeans…because seniors can contribute and give back, not only consume and receive.

Again we turn to anthropologists. Ancient human societies greatly valued older people because they had, to use a modern expression from the business world, “racked up the air miles”. They had experienced many seasons, many cycles, many events, and had a repository of memories about natural conditions, interaction with other societies and intra-community dynamics, that could add value to their communities – and maybe even make the difference between life and death.

Yet in our modern societies, this logic is often turned on its head. Older people are sometimes stigmatized and stereotyped as stuck-in-the-mud, unable to keep up with the times, incapable of using technology…in short as irrelevant.

I am reminded of the time when a very old cashier at a shop once started a deep conversation with me. At first, I instinctively got a little impatient. A part of me said, oh no hear comes a rambling senior, how can I extricate myself from this. And then I thought: while I get many calls, emails, visits today, the day may come when no one wants to talk to me. And what will I do then? So I listened. And listened. And when I opened my mind and my heart I realised that this lady had many interesting and useful insights, much wisdom to share. After a while I almost wanted to whip out my mobile device and start taking down notes. My unconscious bias had held me back from learning from, being inspired by this person.

Yes, older people do have a lot to contribute. We have to build a society that recognises and pulls and embraces those contributions. But we also have to build a society where older people have the confidence to MAKE those contributions, to master enabling technologies and speak to make their voice heard.

The rest of my speech will touch on some of the broad principles we need to entrench in order to be a truly inclusive, non-ageist society, for the betterment of all. I will speak of these principles each in the form of a question.

Firstly, to work until WHEN? Inevitably as life expectancies rise, people will need to work till later in life to some extent, depending on productivity growth. Moreover many seniors would choose to work for intrinsic reasons if they could find a work option suited to their situation.

Should we strive to create a rich tapestry of choices for our seniors to decide how they want to work, for how many hours and in what ways? Of course we should, because this means dignity for our seniors. More choices also means more likelihood that seniors will choose to work in the way that suits THEM, thus raising labour force participation.

Can we do more to unlock the benefits of technology and automation for seniors? Yes we can. For example, engaging NGOs to raise the technology literacy and usage of mobile apps by seniors, using perhaps a social impact bond to tie results to state spending to ensure maximum impact for our fiscal dollars? I have spoken about social impact bonds in the House in the past. Or perhaps by allowing less ambulatory seniors to provide consulting, sharing of ideas, training or review of work done by way of low-cost video-calls from home. Technology holds out the promise of better enabling seniors to lead productive lives, to contribute to the world of work in the way they feel best able to and for longer. The march of technology can also mitigate some of the ravages of age that might otherwise impede that.

The second question is HOW to work. To fully unlock the potential of seniors in the workplace, we need to do more to create options for work.

Many seniors have a wealth of knowledge and experience. But many may want to work in a part-time, advisory or consulting capacity – if those capacities existed.

Can we do more to create platforms where seniors can contribute in a flexible way towards projects or to employers? I believe we can. For example, there are platforms that match potential Board members to Board openings, in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. Not every senior has the background to serve as a Board member of course, but many have pools of experience and niche skills to impart. We can create matching platforms for consulting, freelance or part-time work. NGOs would probably serve this role best and government can nudge and support such initiatives. Examples of success can be highlighted in marketing campaigns.

Thirdly, can we do more to EMPOWER seniors to impart their experience? Yes we can. We need to do more to nudge seniors to distil their experience into a form where it can be usefully conveyed as training or consulting.

Experience is nothing if one does not process that experience and convert it into a form that is useful to others. One of my favourite quotes is by Aldous Huxley, when he said: “Experience is not what happens to you but what you DO with what happens to you.”

We should find ways to nudge our seniors – for example using the Skillsfuture platform which has courses for trainers like ACTA – to reflect on their experience and be adept at converting this into forms that are useful, such as training videos, knowledge pills, podcasts and so on.

Fourthly, should we strive for non-discriminatory workplaces and social conditions? Of course. We should banish discrimination from the workplace. Right now almost 10,000 workers are classified as discouraged, meaning that they have given up looking for a job. Some of them have given up due to what they sense is ageist discrimination in the labour market.

Discrimination in all its forms isn’t just morally wrong. It hurts our labour force participation and hurts the economy, meaning it hurts us all. Let’s do more to fight this, perhaps by giving TAFEP more teeth and perhaps exploring how we can recognise employers who walk the talk by having older workers make up a large share of their workforce.

The fifth question is how to age with quality of life. Is there more we can do upstream to ensure that the burden of disease, of chronic conditions, does not erode the quality of life of seniors, harm their potential contribution to the economy and drain state finances? I believe there is. We are pushing out subsidised health screenings to all and this is a step in the right direction, as is the MOH’s action plan for successful aging and the various programs associated with it, such as the Active Aging Centres. Is there more we could do, for example, to offer low-cost or free vaccines to citizens to reduce the risk of disease later in life, a move that would probably more than pay for itself and a subject which MPs have spoken about in the past? Can we do more to experiment with new platforms for delivering preventive healthcare into homes using tele-medicine and AI for example?  I believe so.

The last question is on the living environment. How do we build a good, enabling living environment that gives older people the confidence to venture out, work part-time and get more socially engaged, knowing that at home their basic needs are taken care of? As with persons with disabilities, for older people they would not be so disadvantaged were it not for an urban environment not designed primarily with their needs in mind. Can we do more to experiment with different models of living environment for older people beyond living by themselves or with their children – such as what they call assisted living in the US or what they call Silver Towns in Korea? I believe we can. Such towns are comprehensive retirement communities with facilities like, in some cases, facilities for young children to encourage frequent family visits. And there is a variety of these Silver Towns catering to different income levels. At this point I declare that I am the CEO of an international research consultancy whose Korean arm has undertaken research into this field in Korea.

Mr Speaker sir, Singapore today faces a choice. Will we choose a Singapore where seniors are equal citizens crucially engaged in society and playing a vital role by imparting their experience, skills, wisdom and example? Or will we choose a future where seniors are at worst ignored, or patronised; or at best treated as a necessary evil, a politically significant constituency which should be shunted out of the mainstream but which should be mollified for other ends?

The choice needs to be made by us as a society. And it needs to be made by us as individuals – as employers, employees, family members, commuters, residents and citizens. On this question, we need a multi-pronged, whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach.

The difference we will make with this choice is profound. And I have no doubt that Singapore and Singaporeans have always stood and will always stand on the right side of this question.

Mr Speaker sir, The Workers’ Party supports the motion.