The sins of a city – excerpts from A Nation Cheated

8 May 07

The elderly poor in Singapore lead just as tragic lives. Many have to work until they die, literally. Madam Loo Ah Chue was fatally run over by a hit-and-run driver as she was returning home at 6:40 am, working as a night-shift toilet cleaner. She was 71 years old. Not only did the elderly lady have to toil in the night shift, her pay was so meagre that she could not even afford to eat lunch. To top it off she had to save to help take care of her 50-year old mentally retarded daughter.37

Then there is 72-year-old Poh Ah Poh, who also works as cleaner and earns $300 a month. She has to fend for her 70-year-old sister on her salary. The sisters are so hard-up that even vegetables during meal-times are a luxury.38

Seventy-seven-year-old Pang Lu Boon, another toilet cleaner was on his way home around midnight after work. He couldn’t afford the fare for a bus ride and had to walk home. He was hit and killed by a car.

Tan Lai, a 96-year-old woman, creaking with every step she took, pushed a cart every morning to dumpsters to pick out odds and ends to sell so that she could put food on the table for herself.

Retiring in poverty

Even those who have been gainfully employed find it hard to survive when they retire because of insufficient pension savings. A recent survey of 15 industrialised countries including Australia, Canada, USA, Spain, Italy, Hong Kong and Japan, found that while Singaporeans are most active in saving up for retirement, they end up with one of the lowest retirement income levels.

The study, conducted by the AXA Insurance Group, showed that the proportion of Singaporeans contributing to a savings plan, mainly through the CPF, outstripped that of other countries. Yet, among the 15 countries, the average retiree in Singapore has among the lowest.44 An AXA official described this discrepancy between the amount and effort put into saving by Singaporeans and the amount of retirement money they actually had was “worrying.”

With the major portion of their savings being used to purchase housing, it is not surprising that little is left for retirement. But how did the system get it so wrong? Have Singaporeans really been that irresponsible in their financial planning? Or has the PAP a lot more to account for?

Professor Greenway blames the poverty of the elderly on the PAP’s economic strategy which “is creating significant inequalities and relative poverty.” The academic estimates that between 20-25 percent of the population, many of whom are among the aged, may be classified as suffering from poverty.53

Greenway adds that whereas in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, “a contested political space and higher priority for social issues have brought multi-tier pension and health care systems…no such progress is evident in Singapore.”54 In layman’s terms, the undemocratic political system in Singapore deprives society of its ability to pressure the Government to provide the much needed pension money and adequate healthcare for the elderly.

Reserves out of bounds

The situation has deteriorated to a point at which even the chairman of the government-instituted Feedback Unit, Wang Kai Yuen, a PAP MP, noted the people’s unhappiness over the fact that the government “does not look after the old” because they are “no longer productive members of the community” and it “cares only about profit.”88

He suggested that the government use some of the cash accumulated from past tax surpluses to help these older individuals, a proposal on which Lee Kuan Yew poured scorn, sneering that such a “sentimental approach” was a “sure way to ruin Singapore.”89

It is worrisome that although Lee acknowledged that “as we get older, [drugs get] more and more expensive” and that there “comes a time when the bills become phenomenal,” he did not propose a means by which the government could resolve the problem.

Instead, it was suggested that this was all the more reason to put reserves “out of reach, out of bounds.”90 In the same sitting, parliament quickly moved to amend the constitution to make it even harder for past reserves to be used.91

It is obvious that the chronically ill and economically unproductive elderly sick are not worthy of attention by the Lee government despite the fact that they once actively contributed to the engorged reserves that the Government now boasts about.

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