Retirement and Re-employment (Amendment) Bill—speech by Sylvia Lim

Delivered in Parliament on 1 November 2021

Sir, in view of longer lifespans, and more golden years, allowing an individual to work till an older age is a sensible and responsible thing to do. For the individual, it enhances financial security, independence, and for some, provides a sense of purpose. This also benefits society, as active seniors are more able to provide for themselves; this would enable the state budget to be allocated to other areas of need.

The intent of this bill, as I understand it, is to enable the government to raise the minimum retirement age and re-employment ages by 2030. The minimum retirement age will go up progressively from 62 to 65, while the re-employment age will be raised progressively from 67 to 70. This is a step in the right direction which I support.

However, if we truly believe in active aging, it is worth reviewing whether there should be a prescribed minimum retirement age at all. At the outset, I would note that there are many employees in the private sector who are not subject to a mandatory retirement age; the prescribed retirement age applies more to public sector and unionised employees. However, continuing to have a minimum retirement age set out in law has a signalling effect on society as to the value of workers above that age. This needs serious reconsideration.

Singapore should review its stance. I would like to highlight four points in support of removing the prescribed minimum retirement age and re-employment age.

The Case for Removing Minimum Retirement Age and Re-employment Age

First, life expectancy in Singapore has increased by approximately 3 years every 10 years. According to the 2019 Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review, Singaporeans’ life expectancy is among the highest in the world, at 81.4 years for men and 85.7 years for women (CNA, 26 Nov 2020). These ages are merely averages, and do not take into account many who live far longer.

To illustrate how longevity impacts retirement decisions, I would like to share a conversation I had some months ago with a cousin of mine, a retired engineer now in his mid-eighties. He shared that when he and his wife retired 30 years ago, they had no idea that they would live this long. He lamented that had they known that they still had so many more years to go, they would have worked longer. If an octogenarian can reflect on his lifespan in this manner today, what about us, or our younger cohorts, who are likely to live longer? Even when the retirement age goes up to 65, the prospect of having insufficient savings to fund another thirty years of living expenses and medical costs is real. 

Second, we have a national manpower shortage. We often hear that foreign manpower is needed to supplement our local workforce. However, the Covid pandemic has taught us a very painful lesson about how we have managed our low-wage foreign workers – poor conditions in our crowded foreign worker dormitories have contributed to the spread of the virus. The government mantra has always been that Singapore needs to continue improving productivity instead of relying on increases in labour inputs. In our push towards leveraging on technology, it is likely that more jobs in different sectors will be re-designed to be less reliant on physical strength, making them suitable for senior workers to fill.

Third, we must ask whether having a prescribed minimum retirement or re-employment age is sensible for the parties concerned. The fact is that the universe of employees is very diverse. Each person ages at a different rate. Those with health problems may not be able to work when they reach 60 years old, while others can go on for much longer.

Finally, it has been said in certain quarters that removing the retirement and re-employment ages would disadvantage workers and give the upper hand to employers. To this, I am not clear how far having a prescribed minimum retirement age protects the worker from being dismissed on account of age. Our labour market is one of the freest in the world, with hiring and dismissal happening efficiently. Most employment contracts have a termination clause, with either employer or employee being able to walk away from the contract by giving just one or two months’ notice or payment in lieu of notice. No reasons need be given for the termination of service in such situations.

Anti-discrimination employment legislation as protection for employees

I am fortified in arguing for a removal of the prescribed retirement and re-employment ages, as there is now some certainty that workplace guidelines issued by the tripartite partners will have the force of law. This change in policy has the potential to give employees protection against against ageism in the workplace.

At this year’s National Day Rally, the Prime Minister announced that workplace anti-discrimination guidelines would be enshrined into law. The Workers’ Party has argued for anti-discrimination legislation previously, and we welcome this announcement. We believe that the proposed law should proscribe discrimination based on age, and we look forward to the opportunity to contribute to that debate.

Work and Retirement – Freedom of Choice

In making these points, I wish to clarify that I am not advocating that everyone works till they drop dead. To most people, that would not be a life well-lived! Seniors may well decide to re-prioritise their time and devote themselves to their grandchildren or charitable causes. Society could very well be better off if they did so. What I am advocating is that instead of having a decision forced on them at a certain age, we empower our seniors to make their own choice in this matter.

In closing, it would be appropriate to quote from a Singaporean who has advocated that there be no retirement age, none other than our Founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In 2010, on the 30thanniversary of SNEF (Singapore National Employers Federation), Mr Lee spoke at a dialogue with senior managers, government officials and unionists. He told them that there should be no retirement age for workers. He called on older workers to change their mindsets and to continue working, even if for less pay or for a younger boss. He said: “Many of our workers have a preferred retirement, and then they die early! … If you start saying, ‘Oh! I’m old!’ And you start reading novels and playing golf or playing chess, well, you’re on the way down.”

Not many of us would dare to put it in such stark terms. But there is a bigger point for society as a whole: If we are truly anti-ageist, we should leave retirement and re-employment ages to choices made by individuals. And as a safety net, we should enact an anti-discrimination law that prohibits employment decisions based on age.

Even as I support this Bill, I ask the government to reconsider this issue of legislating retirement and re-employment ages.