Watch out for divide between old and young

July 28 2012, Phua Mei Pin, STraits Times

THE population question today pits the citizen against the foreigner. Yet the real showdown to come is not between those born in different countries, but those born in different eras.

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that a new fault line is forming in Singapore between new and old citizens. The tension is not only over different cultural norms, but that foreign workers and new citizens add to the competition in schools, workplaces, housing market and even for a bus seat.

As long as Singaporeans are focused on this fissure, they may not notice a serious crack forming within the citizen population itself: the divide between young and old.

It is a fault line that will widen and deepen in the very near future. Because it involves the citizen population, it will also be ripe for politicisation and has the potential to cause lasting tears in Singapore’s social fabric.

The basics of Singapore’s ageing population woes are well-rehearsed. As life expectancy lengthens and the birth rate lingers among the lowest in the world, its population looks set to shrink from 2025.

The likely outcome: fewer working adults will shoulder the responsibility of supporting more retired elderly, most obviously by paying higher taxes. Either state funding in some areas will have to be cut, or new sources of funding will have to be sought.

What sounds like the old story of not enough babies is actually the even older story of not enough resources, especially in the face of diverging and intensifying interests.

In this story, the old citizen will bare knuckles against the younger citizen over limited land and funds. Osteoporosis notwithstanding, the older citizen looks set to put up a fierce fight.

The retired elderly are more likely to plumb for taking the economy to a lower gear, arguing against investments and measures for long-term growth. As consumers rather than workers, they will have little interest in job opportunities or wage levels, but will oppose the inflation that comes with higher levels of growth.

When the national Budget is debated, the elderly can be expected to push for more health-care subsidies and more elder-friendly features in housing estates and public infrastructure. Many will want to withdraw their Central Provident Fund moneys earlier.

Devoting more national funds towards the needs of the elderly will mean trade-offs in other areas, which could be education, culture, or any area that does not speak to those who have little use for longer-term plans.

Town councils, property developers, bus companies and the like will also be under pressure to introduce additional features, passing on the costs to consumers across the board.

As far back as 1994, foreseeing this dynamic, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew suggested giving two votes to each man with a child, to counter the presumably short-sighted and selfish elderly vote.

He had said at the time: ‘You get hold of all the senior citizens’ corners, in no time, you’ve got 20 per cent, 25 per cent of the vote! And free medical health, free this, free that.’

A Singapore dictated by elderly needs over other interests would drive away its productive citizens, leaving limited talent to grow the economy and pay the taxes.

The strength of the silver vote was seen in France this year when Mr Francois Hollande booted incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy from the presidency with promises that included returning the official retirement age to 60 years.

Mr Sarkozy had increased it to 62 years in 2010, to the chagrin of older French people who did not want their retirement years and pension cheques delayed.

A similar scenario is on the cards for Singapore too.

General elections in 2030 will pit 900,000 voters aged 65 or older against fewer than 1.87 million younger voters. Those numbers in 2011 were 340,000 and 2.12 million. The older voters, coming from the baby boomer generation, will be an educated, self-organised group that a political party ignores at its peril.

Of particular concern is the growing group of elderly singles, as more eschew marriage. For the childless elderly, policies in favour of younger generations, to whom they have no connections, will have scant appeal or logic.

If silver enclaves form, certain constituencies will become strongholds for political parties that champion the interests of the elderly over other groups. Spurred in part by younger Singaporeans who would rather hive off the elderly to specialised estates, these enclaves are not distant realities.

In these places, faced with a choice between an elderly wellness centre and a childcare centre, the elderly majority may well say: ‘Pesky, noisy children? Not in my backyard.’

There are ways to fend off a future rupture between the young and old, which must start now.

For a start, the institution of the multi-tier family becomes all the more important. It should be supported through housing policies that promote multi-generational living. The education system must continue to plug family values.

When the old and the young see themselves as part of the same project to grow the well-being of a whole family, they are more likely to give and take rather than battle over limited resources.

The state must also guard against forces that may separate people based on age. There may be pressure to house elderly facilities away from general neighbourhoods. That is the case with some old folks’ villages in ageing societies like Taiwan and Japan. But this will lead to the formation of elderly enclaves and narrow voting blocs.

Far better to ensure that every neighbourhood is outfitted to allow the old to age in place, and to work on multi-age facilities such as wellness centres that also have activities for families and children. The multiplied costs will reap rewards of understanding and closer ties across generations.

Creating a barrier-free environment across the island will also make Singapore more friendly both to young families with strollers and elderly with disabilities.

A day when the young and the old come to political blows may seem ludicrous to Singaporeans who today can appreciate the wisdom of the old and energy of the young. Let’s keep it that way.

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