Saturday, June 1, 2013

Doing the right thing by Singapore pioneers


31 May 2013

The 50th anniversary of the independence of Singapore will be in 2015. It is by all measures a significant milestone. We were once a people with almost total dependency on the colonial power for our direction and sustenance. In the beginning, our economic prospects were doubtful; today, we are economically and militarily secure.

According to a report compiled by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank, Singapore is the most affluent country in the world as of 2010, and we have among the top five highest concentrations of high net-worth individuals. Our standards of public infrastructure, healthcare and educational systems are universally envied.

So we have much to celebrate in 2015. But not all Singaporeans have benefited from the progress of the last half-century.

Since 2011, more attention has been given to helping the low income, the disabled and those from dysfunctional families, to give them a better shot at keeping up with the general population. There is also the awareness that we are an ageing population and need to look at policy measures to support our elderly.


There is a category of today’s elderly that deserve to be singled out for special attention. This is the pioneer generation that laid the foundation of today’s success.

Born before World War II, these Singaporeans are now in their late 70s and above. It is they who had to live through the privations of the Great Depression and the Japanese Occupation. It is they who experienced the added trauma of Konfrontasi and the militancy of the struggle with the Communists.

They rallied to undertake the difficult task of securing our sovereignty and had to make the psychological break, first with colonisation and then with Malaysia as we were ejected out onto an independent trajectory.

Thus, this generation fought the “wars” for the peace and prosperity we enjoy today. Yet, noting the historical events they endured is not an adequate measure of the greatness of these pioneers. To do so, it is necessary to acknowledge what they had to do without.


The pioneer generation did not have easy access to subsidised education and most of those who did, found it impossible to go beyond primary and secondary levels.

It was only a privileged few who could benefit from tertiary education. Thus, most became trapped in low or semi-skilled occupations.

The child mortality rates for that generation were many multiples of that today. It is not uncommon among that generation, if one were to inquire, to find that many had lost young siblings, which was symptomatic not only of poor general public hygiene, but also the weak and inaccessible public health system for the general population. This was on top of the physical privations of the depression and war years.

Significantly, this generation also benefited least from the compulsory savings approach that has underpinned retirement funding for the post-independent generations.

The Central Provident Fund (CPF) was introduced only in 1955. Those pioneers still with us today would have drawn their limited CPF monies over 20 years ago.

It begs the question, how are they getting by when faced with the high general costs of living today and even higher costs for age-related health needs?

It could be said that this generation endured the worst, did the most but in material ways benefited the least from the progress of the last 50 years.


Population data provided by the Department of Statistics show that the number of Singaporeans aged 75 and above, which corresponds to those born before 1939, is between 175,000 and 200,000. This represents just 5 per cent of the total population of residents, which hit 3.8 million in 2012.

A close inspection of the population pyramid also reveals that there are more female survivors than males from the pioneer generation. Given the poor employment and advancement opportunities for women of that generation, we intuitively expect their financial situation to be difficult.

As an operational police officer earlier in my career, there were several occasions where my officers and I had the distressing duty of breaking into HDB rental units to discover the decomposing bodies of the very elderly who lived alone. And from what we saw, their impoverished circumstances did not deter them from having the dignity to maintain their few possessions well.

Often, their pride and sense of self reliance prevented them from asking for help. Many of this generation are not fluent in English and are not “plugged-in” to our fast-paced technological world, which further alienates them from the mainstream.


As we prepare to celebrate our 50th anniversary, the time is ripe to reach out and recognise these pioneers, without whose sacrifices we would have little to celebrate. The recognition should be substantive rather than cursory.

One way is to establish a Singapore Pioneers Outreach and Recognition Endowment (SPORE). This endowment — it could also be structured as a fund — could be used to finance outreach measures to locate pioneers, identify their needs and organise for their health and social needs to be met.

Outreach should be a joint effort by grassroots organisations like the People’s Association and Community Development Councils. For those who are alone or have equally elderly spouses, arrangements could be made for home-care support or for placement in suitable nursing facilities.

For this exceptional generation, we should simplify matters by making an exception to the usual means testing and co-payment principles. The risk of exploitation would be minimal, given the small, and declining, numbers of this special generation.

The monies would serve a social purpose, which no Singaporean would have grounds to dispute, and we would know that we have provided peace of mind to this special group of Singaporeans to live out their final years with dignity.

For successive generations of aged, the existing Community Silver Trust and the Elder Fund may suffice with presently applying conditions.


An endowment is structured to generate income to be used for its purpose, with the principal kept intact. Thus the only cost to the Government would be opportunity costs. The principal can be recovered when the endowment has served its purpose.

As an example, a S$1 billion endowment would conservatively yield S$20 million per year of expenditure generated from the interest on the principal sum.

A billion dollars may seem a hefty sum to set aside for the needs of such a small section of society. However, establishing SPORE or something similar should not be done because it makes financial sense, but because it makes moral sense. We should do it because it is the right thing to do.

Even though we are used to planning our futures with our heads, we should do this because we remember our past with our hearts.

Devadas Krishnadas is the Founder and Director of Future-Moves. He is also the Editor of IPS Commons, where this article first appeared.

No comments: