Here’s how we can help Singapore’s seniors age and retire well

A recent household budget study by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) and a follow-up survey commissioned by The Straits Times have once again raised an important question: Are Singapore’s seniors equipped for retirement?

The LKYSPP study found that a single senior will need at least S$1,379 a month to meet basic needs, and The Straits Times survey found that 41 per cent of retirees do not have such funds in retirement. Among this group, 28 per cent say they fall short by at least half the recommended amount.
Such findings are not new. I recall a 2015 HSBC report finding that one in three workers aged 45 and older believe that they would never be able to retire fully.

Within this group, about 90 per cent indicated they would struggle to do so because they had not saved enough, were in debt, or had family financially dependent on them. Four years on, it seems little has changed.

Clearly, it is in Singapore society’s interest for its seniors to be able to build up their retirement savings and to retain a sense of optimism and confidence heading into their retirement years. So what can we do?

First, the importance of early preparation cannot be overstated. Ageing well is the result of deliberate and active planning.

This has been a core focus for the organisation I work for, the Centre for Seniors.


We run many workshops and talks each year educating and empowering seniors and mature workers alike to actively plan and manage their work-life transitions, especially at critical age junctions of 55 years (Central Provident Fund withdrawal), 62 years (retirement), and 65 years (payout eligibility age of CPF Life).

These sessions have been well-received, and we believe there is room to go further.
To this end, there is value instituting a structured national outreach programme that invites Singaporeans turning 55 to undergo a holistic life-stage review.

The review should help them take stock of their financial and career situation, advise them on the mindset and action plans for their next steps, and the available support to help them get there.

This is akin to how we are providing education and career guidance in schools, where a structured system is in place to guide students transiting to their careers. A similar approach should be considered for our seniors who are likewise facing a major transition.

The life-stage review should go deeper and broader than the current outreach efforts by the government agencies which tend to be issue-focused. It should look beyond financial adequacy to also cover other facets like well-being, skills, resilience and adaptability to deal with changes in life and work routine.

As our seniors’ lives become increasingly complex, this life-stage conversation is all the more crucial to stay ahead of the challenges and plan for a productive future.

Should we initiate this review earlier than at 55 years of age then? There are good arguments both ways since it is never too early to plan ahead for such matters.

From my experience, individuals in their 40s still have high career aspirations and may not be sufficiently motivated to focus on retirement adequacy, which is understandable.

From a behavioural science standpoint, research has shown that 55 years is an anchor or critical age milestone where we can shape behaviour if we have the right structure and systems in place. The serious conversations should therefore take place from this juncture to have maximum impact.

It will be good if the Government can come in to drive and coordinate this national initiative, in view of the authority and resources required to develop the review model, collate the existing support schemes, and mobilise action nationally.

The social partners — such as our grassroots organisations, unions, and volunteer welfare organisations — will lend their support by reaching out to the community to educate them on the importance of such a review, or to help conduct the reviews.

Second, quality employment for seniors is key. They should have the option to stay in employment for as long as possible. Our employment laws and policies must facilitate this.

But ensuring jobs alone is actually insufficient. These jobs need to be catered to seniors as well. In demanding vocations such as marine and offshore, nursing, and construction, working past 65 is very challenging.

And it can be just as challenging for them to switch jobs and pick up new skills as seamlessly as their younger counterparts.

Ideally, what we want is for our seniors to remain in a familiar workplace environment and to tap into their experience and skills so that they can continue contributing, while being exposed to less physical and psychological pressure.

In this regard, meaningful job re-design is critical.

Employers must play a proactive part in adjusting job roles so they remain conducive for their older workers. This can be done through modifying work processes, harnessing technology, or investing in upskilling.

There are many examples of companies that have successfully done so and benefitted from a more engaged and happy workforce.

Some hotels for instance have used technology to help older chambermaids with the changing of bed linens.

Vita Needle, a fourth-generation American company that makes reusable needles for veterinary and industrial applications, has for years been lauded for its practice of integrating senior citizens into its workforce.

It began hiring local retirees in the mid-1980s and throughout the years, its headcount of 30 to 50 employees has always included a large proportion of part-time workers in their 70s and 80s, with some even in their 90s.

Their tasks are well-defined and they get a lot of leeway in deciding their workdays and hours. In turn, their commitment and positive work ethic have paid dividends for the company.

More of our Singapore employers should be similarly enlightened in their practices. The effort to modify work processes for seniors will be intensive but necessary.

The Government and industry associations must play a driving role on the national agenda by encouraging more employers to embark on job re-design and ensuring adequate resources to support employers that do so.

Employers certainly have to put their mature workers more at the forefront of staff development conversations, rather than looking to them as an afterthought.

And our seniors too must continually showcase their value by being nimble and prepared.
Ultimately, the readiness of our seniors for retirement is a reflection of how inclusive our society is and wants to be. If we want to care for ourselves and each other, then all of us have a big part to play.

Lim Sia Hoe is the Executive Director of Centre for Seniors, a non-profit, voluntary welfare organisation that promotes the well-being of older persons in Singapore. She was previously general manager of NTUC Eldercare.


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