On the President’s Address – Speech by Sylvia Lim

As someone born in the 1960s, my cohort-mates and I find ourselves straddled between our seniors and the young.  On the one hand, we are young enough to use many forms of social media, but too old to use youth slang like OOTD and IYKYK.  We are old enough to remember the feverish days of the Malaysia Cup; but are a little too old to banter about the latest K-drama heartthrobs (though to be fair, I can name one or two).   

Thus placed between seniors and the young, I wish to focus my speech today on these two demographic profiles that bookend society at opposite ends.  I wish to ask how we could give greater confidence to seniors and the young, to assure them that they are indispensable parts of our social fabric.  Put another way, how do we build a country for all ages?

One attitude that will erode solidarity across generations is the tendency towards ageism.  Ageisim can be directed against both older people and the young as well.  I will touch on these today. 


According to the World Health Organisation’s Global Report on Ageism (2021), about one out of every two persons worldwide habours ageist attitudes.  Ageism manifests itself in our minds, when we stereotype people based on age; it manifests in our feelings, when we harbour prejudice; finally, it manifests in our actions, when we discriminate against people.   

The WHO notes that ageism can exist at three levels.  First, at the institutional level, when laws, policies and social norms restrict or disadvantage individuals based on age. Second, ageism exists at the interpersonal level, in interactions between two or more individuals.   Finally, ageism could be self-directed, when it is internalised by those who are discriminated, who then accept it and behave in ways that make it a self-fulling prophecy.

There is ageism everywhere, though we may not call it such by name.  Here are some instances. One of my residents who is 97 and in excellent health, likes to go around asking anyone she meets in Teochew: “I am 97 years old this year.  Are you afraid of me?”  When we hear of someone so senior, some of us would, with good intentions, over-protect the person or assume that the person needs help, without stopping to think that everyone ages differently.  We have also come across single elderly people who cannot stay with their families and need to rent rooms, but are rejected by landlords in view of their advanced age.  Think also of the millions of dollars spent on hair dyes and anti-aging products, so as to present a younger image of ourselves for fear that we might otherwise not be taken seriously.  There is also a sexist element to this, where professional men with grey hair are respected but women with grey hair doubted; but that deserves a more detailed discussion on another day.

Ageist attitudes are also familiar in the workplace.  How often do we hear of middle-aged job-seekers who report that once their age is revealed to the prospective employer, they would receive a polite response to wait for a follow-up call, which does not come?  Indeed, in a survey released last March, the Ministry of Manpower confirmed that ageist attitudes were still prevalent in the Singapore workplace, affecting older workers.

The recent global COVID pandemic, too, saw ageism rear its ugly head.  A United Nations independent expert, Dr Claudia Mahler, noted that the pandemic restrictions and lockdowns had resulted in a wave of ageist comments and hate speech; older persons were blamed as the reasons for lockdowns and labelled as vulnerable and burdens to societies. 

To combat ageism, the WHO highlights three strategies – through laws and policies, through public education and by increasing intergenerational contacts.  How is Singapore doing in these aspects?

At the official or policy level, there are positives in Singapore.   We see many health-related initiatives towards active ageing, including the latest Healthier SG initiative.  The government is also looking into more options for seniors to age in place instead of in an institution, and for assisted living accommodation that preserves the individual’s autonomy to make decisions.  Such preservation of an individual’s autonomy is a precious tenet that we can also see in legislation such as the Mental Capacity Act; under the MCA, donees and deputies must give weight to the preferences of the incapacitated person as far as possible. 

On the employment front, there are policies to incentivise employers to hire older workers through wage offset schemes such as the Senior Employment Credit.  Nevertheless, for stronger protection for all workers, we are still eagerly awaiting the anti-discrimination legislation which the Prime Minister announced nearly two years ago. 

Apart from laws and policies, the other two strategies that are likely to have more impact are public education and increasing intergenerational contacts.

As far as public education is concerned, what more can be done?  For our students, we could review our education curriculum from primary to tertiary, to remove any ageist stereotypes and dispel any misconceptions about certain age groups.   On employment, I note the efforts of the Ministry of Manpower to encourage our employers to hire older employees and embrace multi-generational teams.  The government should always lead by example.   Another aspect is to watch our public discourse, including debates in Parliament.  Ministers and MPs should avoid making statements that may inadvertently perpetuate ageism, such as: “By the year 2030, we will face a silver tsunami”, which evokes all the wrong images.

As for increasing intergenerational contacts, I fully support HDB’s move to evolve from building blocks with only senior apartments, to having mixed blocks of flats for seniors and flats owned by younger families.  This provides opportunities for cross-generation neighbourly activities such as gardening, games and mutual care. Another Singapore initiative was cited positively by the WHO – that of pairing seniors from activity centres with young people to play video games together.  

Research has shown that the benefits of such intergenerational contacts go beyond reducing ageist attitudes; they also benefit older people in improved health and psychosocial well-being, reducing distress and loneliness.  They also strengthen intergenerational solidarity.  We should continue to promote more intergenerational contacts.

The Young

From older people, I next move on to the Young.

In the President’s Address, she highlighted that youths showed a strong interest to take action and initiate change on issues they cared about.  She affirmed that the Government would engage the ideas, dynamism and energy of young Singaporeans.  In MCCY’s addenda to the Address, it was further stated that the government would encourage more youths to engage in constructive civic discourse, through platforms such as the Youth Circles and the Youth Action Challenge.  MCCY said it would continue to create new platforms to give youth the opportunities to shape Singapore.

However, in a TODAY media report the next day, some young people expressed cynicism about existing forms of engagement.  Several interviewees argued that the engagement had to go beyond just talking, but should enable young people to have direct participation in governance and policy formulation.  One person doubted that the views of young people would be accepted unless those views aligned with the government’s own ideals.  Whatever the views expressed, there was common ground that any engagement should foster in young people a sense of responsibility. 

I believe it is worthwhile to distill what the priorities of our young citizens actually are.   What are the issues young people care about?  While the President highlighted mental health and sustainability, it would be wrong to interpret this as meaning that young people only care about “woke” issues such as climate change or discrimination.  In my past work as a polytechnic lecturer, I could see in my students concerns about their parents, making ends meet, and how to improve themselves and their families’ station in life.  In an article published in the Workers’ Party Hammer last year, WP Youth Wing President Nicole Seah also shared that young people had many concerns that crossed generations, such as the affordability of public housing, cost of raising a family and employment opportunities.  We must be careful not to pigeonhole young people’s issues into a handful of areas and only seek to engage them on those.  That would be a big turnoff and a disservice to our young.

Besides not restricting the areas for youth participation, we must also ask what sort of participation would convince our young people of a direct role in governance and policy making.  There is some indication that the many conversations so far conducted have led to conversation fatigue and skepticism.  Cynicism about talking and consultations is understandable, as these are simply input which will eventually be either incorporated or thrown out by decision-makers. 

Of course, the empowerment of young Singaporeans need not and should not be a top down affair.  Young citizens can and should seize the day, and organise themselves around the causes they care about, adding to the richness of society through such ground-up initiatives. 

Nevertheless, I believe one change that should be made is to give younger cohorts a direct say in our national elections by lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 years.  I raised this matter in this House 16 years ago and most recently again in this year’s Committee of Supply debates.  The government’s consistent response has been No.  This is despite Singapore being among a handful of countries in the world that has not reduced its voting age to 18 years, such as Bahrain, Cameroon, Tonga and the UAE.  In the government’s latest response this year, <<<<the Minister said that different age groups were accorded different rights and responsibilities>>>. 

It is worthwhile remembering that ageism can equally be directed against the young.  To this end, it could be well be argued that when we require male Singaporeans to serve National Service at 18 years but only permit them to vote at 21 years, this is a form of age-based discrimination.  As I said in February, in the 1960s, the movement in the United States to bring down the voting age to 18 years gained momentum when youths below 21 were drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.  The slogan ran: “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!”


For Singapore to fully harness the energy of every citizen, we must foster a dynamic environment where ageist stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination are blown away.  This is not something for the government alone, but requires marshalling the whole-of-society.  Each of us needs to examine ourselves too, to see how we individually can contribute to this endeavour in our everyday interactions. 

If Singapore is to be built to last, we must, together, build a Singapore for all ages.