Budget 2024 Speech – by Sylvia Lim

Budget Debate Speech – 27th February 2024

Sylvia Lim Swee Lian

In this Budget, I and others born in or before 1973 have been called “young seniors”.  These days, when younger commuters give their seats up to me on the MRT, I no longer feel insulted but accept with grace.  That said, with better life expectancy and health, 60 is the new 40.  We still have much to contribute as citizens.  Today, I wish to focus my speech on older workers and how we should be tapped on as a resource for the good of the nation.

What can older people contribute? A lot.  Last week, veteran Hollywood director Martin Scorsese won the prestigious honorary Golden Bear at the 74th Berlinale, for lifetime achievement.  For close to 60 years, Scorsese was at the helm of countless groundbreaking films, the latest being “Killers of the Flower Moon” released last year, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.  He announced that his next project would be a film on the life of Christ.  All this at the age of 81.  Singapore, too, has its own role models.  The late Ms Teresa Hsu Chih, who died at the ripe old age of 113, was dubbed Singapore’s Mother Teresa.  The retired nurse founded charities caring for the aged sick and destitute, and was still actively involved in charity work after turning 110.

Age Discrimination in Singapore Labour Market

Here I hint at a cultural mindset that we need to change.  Over the years, I have met many older residents whose job search suggests age discrimination.  Let me take just one instance.  There was a male resident who had decades of experience in healthcare management.  He was well-groomed, communicated well and seemed fit.  Yet he found it near impossible to land an interview, let alone secure a job, in the same industry, healthcare, in positions either equivalent or less demanding than he had previously held.  He was in his 70s.   Younger seniors aged 40 plus are also not sparred. Just last month, the BBC released a radio documentary on ageism in the workplace, and interviewed mid-career Singaporeans; they shared their difficulties just getting employers to give them a chance to show what they were capable of.   Indeed, according to MOM’s Fair Employment Practices Reports, age was the most common form of discrimination encountered during job searches. 

Yet, the fact is that there are jobs waiting to be filled.  According to the MOM’s Labour Market Report for Q3 of 2023, there were still more job vacancies than job seekers.  The ratio of job vacancies to job seekers was at 1.58, which was higher than pre-pandemic periods.  The sectors that saw significant vacancies included Health & Social Services, Information & Communications, Professional Services and Financial & Insurance Services.  

Older Workers Can Perform More of Today’s Jobs

While there may still be some physically demanding sectors that may not be suitable for older workers, this space has decreased over time.  It is clear that jobs have evolved in the advent of technology and artificial intelligence.  On this issue, Dr Helen Ko, Senior Lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences, wrote a commentary in Channel News Asia entitled: Seniors do well at their jobs yet ageist myths and negative stereotypes persist.  She opined that it was not the age of a worker that was the most important, but whether the demands of work exceeded the worker’s capabilities.  She noted that in this modern era, health and technology improvements meant that there were few jobs that the average 70-year old could not do (CNA Commentary, updated 2 Feb 2021).

The World Health Organisation has put out many studies on ageisim in recent years.  The WHO literature refutes many misconceptions about ageing.  It has been noted that there is no typical older person, and that some 80 year-olds have levels of physical and mental capacity that compare favourably with 20 year-olds.   Thus, age should not be used as a proxy for capability.  Also, as life spans increase, many older people experience longer health spans.  So each new cohort of the older population is effectively younger and should not be discriminated against because of age.

Policy Imperatives and Moves

Having older citizens engaged in the workforce has immense benefits for society as a whole.  If a significant proportion of older and middle-aged people are unemployed, especially those in the lowest income groups, they will become more dependent on informal family assistance, CPF savings and government transfers or charity.  This will increase social stratification and social division in our country.

At this point, I should acknowledge that the government has various incentive programmes to encourage employers to hire older workers.  These include various grants and the Senior Employment Credit which offers wage offsets.  As at September 2022, the Senior Employment Credit has been taken up by more than 100,000 employers and benefitted more than 460,000 senior workers.  While these incentives are appropriate and necessary, I believe we can attain even higher labour force participation of older workers if we change any ageist mindsets.

To this end, I am looking forward to the anti-discrimination legislation to be unveiled later this year.  The various stakeholders involved have rightly identified age discrimination as something to be tackled.  To make the legislation more effective, it should permeate through the entire human resource process.   In the UK, for instance, i understand that the Equality Act 2010 protects people of all ages in regarding recruitment, promotion, reward and recognition, redundancy and vocational training.  Thus for example, the UK legislation has made it illegal for recruiters interviewing potential hires to ask their age or date of birth.  If our upcoming legislation has this effect as well, it would potentially be a game changer.

Retraining and Lifelong Learning

Next, I would like to turn briefly to the related topic of how to ensure our older workers can retrain.  To assist mid-career workers, this Budget introduces three measures under the SkillsFuture Level-Up Programme, for Singaporeans aged 40 and above.  I would like to make several observations about this initiative.

While there is a minimum age of 40 years to access these measures, there is no maximum age.  I agree with this approach.  Not having a maximum eligibility age impliedly recognises that a worker remains potentially employable, regardless of age.  This is laudable.  

I move to the first measure of providing a new $4,000 credit to enroll in courses that are targeted at employability outcomes.   If the intention is to assure enrollees of better employability outcomes, will there be any condition attached to participants, such as to secure jobs in certain sectors?    

As for the second measure of providing additional subsidies for full-time diploma study in any area, it was not mentioned that increased employability was a goal of this measure.   Would it then be possible to sign up for such subsidized courses simply for enrichment purposes?  Even if so, I would say that there is utility in this, as it keeps the minds of seniors agile and keeps them healthy longer; it could also allow them to become effective volunteers in our NGOs and charities even if they are not earning a salary.  

Finally, on the third measure of full-time courses that will attract a training allowance of up to $3,000 monthly, it would be useful to know what the eligibility conditions are and whether there are any employment outcomes attached to these.

Sir, having managed and taught CET courses myself for more than a decade, I have personally seen the strong desire of adult learners to improve themselves.  Many of them do not come from privileged backgrounds, and they value the second chance, as it were.  For adult learners to succeed, having course fee subsidies and employer support is critical.  CET is a worthy cause, as it is an important aspect of social mobility.


Let me conclude.  I have focused on how older workers are a national resource that should be leveraged on for the benefit of society.  We still have work to do to tackle age discrimination if we are to maximise our country’s potential and wellbeing.  All of us should be lifelong learners, or risk becoming obsolete.

As I said at the start of my speech, 60 is the new 40.  Let us embrace this reality with renewed confidence.