Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the book launch of ‘Singapore Ageing: Issues and Challenges Ahead’ on 11 April 2023.
Dr Vasoo, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, a very good afternoon to everybody.
I am delighted to join you today to launch the book ‘Singapore Ageing – Issues and Challenges Ahead’ by Dr Vasoo, Professor Bilveer Singh, and Professor Srinivasan.
Dr Vasoo has been deeply involved with social issues in Singapore for many decades. He is passionate about social work, and dedicates his time and effort to make a difference on the ground, including as a Member of Parliament for over 15 years. He and I entered Parliament in the same year in 1984. Even after retiring as MP, he remains actively involved in the community in so many ways. Dr Vasoo has also written several books and contributed much to the discourse on social issues in Singapore.
I am very glad that he has teamed up with Professor Bilveer and Professor Srinivasan for his latest project, to share their thoughts and insights on this very important topic of “ageing”.
Countries all over the world are facing the problem of ageing populations. Singapore is one of them. In fact, we have one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. And at the same time, one of the world’s longest life expectancies.
Our population is not just ageing, but ageing rapidly. In 2010, about 1 in 10 Singaporeans were aged 65 and above. A decade later, in 2020, it has risen to about 1 in 6. By 2030, another 10 years later, it would be almost 1 in 4 Singaporeans over 65.
This is a massive change for our society. We see it in our daily lives – at our workplaces and communities, we interact with many more seniors today.
Our built environment looks different too, having evolved to adapt to the needs of seniors. For example, we see more active ageing centres in the HDB void decks, more senior-friendly exercise machines in fitness corners. Also increased barrier free access across our neighbourhoods, lifts on every floor in nearly all HDB blocks, and safety grab bars installed in bathrooms and toilets.
But the impact goes far beyond that. An ageing population will totally change the way our society works. From our economy, to our healthcare system, to planning for retirement adequacy. It also changes how we look after and engage our seniors, so that they can remain active and healthy, continue to contribute to society, and live out the full span of their lives with purpose and dignity.
It is not so straightforward to address the challenges of an ageing population. For example, in European countries, in EU, on average more than one quarter of the population are pensioners, and they are mostly receiving state pensions, and the state spends on average 13% of their GDP on old-age pensions. You think about that – our entire Government’s spending is about 17% of GDP in Singapore. Without far reaching reforms, pension spending will continue to rise in Europe as their population ages.
But implementing such reforms is very hard. The French government, specifically President Macron, is raising the pension age from 62 to 64 years old, but this has led to huge resistance and even civil unrest. That is in Europe.
Japan’s population is not just ageing, but is also shrinking. Beyond rising healthcare spending, this has resulted in the depopulation of rural areas and many empty, abandoned villages. Some of them will offer you empty houses for free. You just have to go and live there and be prepared to pay the property tax, but the house is free. Some Singaporeans take them up as holiday houses.
China is also anxious about this problem. In 2020, over 260 million Chinese were over 60 years old. 60 because that is their current retirement age for men. For women, it is even lower. By 2040, this is expected to rise to 400 million seniors. So the Chinese Government too is looking very hard at this issue.
In their book, Vasoo and Bilveer present one possible scenario reflecting the grim reality of an ageing population – escalating healthcare costs burdening the economy; societal fractures from competing needs across different demographic groups.
In Singapore, we are determined not to go in this direction. But avoiding it will take a whole of society effort, and everyone having the right mindset. Individuals must embrace ageing positively – you cannot help your hair from growing greyer or sparser, but you can stay open to change, keep learning and remain productive for as long as we can.
At home, families need to connect and engage with seniors, and encourage them throughout their ageing journey. At the workplace too, employers need to support their older workers and tap on the experience and value that they bring.
And as a society, we must strengthen the culture of respect towards seniors – show that we understand and value one another, and avoid thinking in stereotypes that are hurtful and self-limiting. Many of those in their 70s and beyond are still physically and mentally robust. They are an important asset to both the workplace and society. Some are still writing books, like Dr Vasoo. Many others too, including the former MPs whom I am very happy to see here with us this afternoon, remain active – in business, in professional careers, in community work – keeping in touch with things and contributing to our society.
The Government will take the lead to push things in the right direction. Let me briefly highlight three key areas.
First, raising the retirement and re-employment ages in step with demographic changes. Many older Singaporeans want to keep active and continue working and contributing. Last July, we raised the retirement age to 63 and the re-employment age to 68. By 2030 we will increase them further – 65 to retire, re-employment until 70. This will assure people that they can continue working in their golden years so long they are able and keen to do so.
Second, ensuring retirement adequacy. We have been regularly updating our CPF schemes so that they remain fit for purpose, in line with rising life expectancy and changing needs. For example, in 2009, we introduced CPF LIFE to provide members with the assurance of a monthly income for life. The scheme is now operating and people are starting to receive CPF LIFE payments. This year, we announced changes to raise the CPF monthly salary ceiling for all members, and CPF contribution rates for senior workers.
We also complement the CPF with schemes like Workfare to provide additional and targeted assistance for lower-wage workers, and Silver Support which provides cash payouts to seniors who had low or no incomes during their working years.
Third, we are strengthening our healthcare system to meet increasing demand from an ageing population. With Healthier SG, we are shifting decisively towards preventive care to reduce the disease burden for Singaporeans. If Singaporeans can stay healthier for longer, it will help to lighten the load on our healthcare system.
Meanwhile, we continue to invest heavily in building new healthcare infrastructure and upgrading existing ones – hospitals, community hospitals, senior care facilities – to ensure high quality yet affordable care for all, especially our seniors.
We are also expanding the range of social and long-term care services in the community to meet our seniors’ desire to age in place. For example, setting up more active ageing centres to provide a wider range of activities to keep our seniors healthy and engaged.
All these require significant resources, and we have taken steps, including difficult but necessary moves like raising the GST, in order to fund the increased spending to meet the needs of an ageing population. In other words, the needs of you and me, all of us.
If we can do all these things right, if all of us – individuals, families, employers, society and government – can come together with the right mindsets and strategies to tackle ageing in our society, and we can follow this through, come up with policies, implement them, make things happen on the ground, then we stand a good chance of realising the alternative scenario also presented in the book – where seniors are healthy, savvy, actively engaged in productive and meaningful activities, and well-respected, and society benefits from their collective wisdom and experience.
I hope this book will stimulate more constructive conversations around ageing. It is important that we continue to discuss and debate such important issues in society to provide fresh perspectives, improve our solutions, and make a difference to hundreds of thousands of senior Singaporeans, who will one day include all of us.
Let me once again congratulate the authors and contributors on the successful launch of the new book. May it sell well and may it have an impact on policy in Singapore. Thank you.
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