Just who are those pioneers, anyway?
The grandparents and parents of today's young folk are to get a Budget windfall - the Pioneer Generation Package. Insight looks at the people whose grit helped make Singapore great.
By Goh Chin Lian And Maryam Mokhtar
AT 16, Danny Wong had already lost his dad, survived a war and worked in three different jobs. The year was 1947.
Today's teenagers and their parents would find this almost unimaginable, but that was the reality for their grandparents.
Mr Wong's generation - Singaporeans born before 1950 who became citizens before 1987 - received a fillip when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Sunday announced the Pioneer Generation Package.
Statistics show this generation did not have the same educational and job opportunities as those who came later, and so have some grounds for concern about what is meant to be their golden years.
Additionally, it is a way of honouring their contribution to nation building.
The Budget next Friday will give details of this package to help and honour them. Initial estimates point to it costing hundreds of millions of dollars a year for some 30 years, to cover the whole lifetime of all these pioneers.
Why does this group of 450,000 Singapore citizens warrant such significant spending? Insight looks at the numbers to form a picture of their lives.
OUT of every 10 people in the pioneer generation, seven were born in Singapore.
Another two were born in Malaysia, such as Mr Wong, whose parents were from Singapore but moved to Johor when his father found work there as a law clerk.
The rest were mostly born in China and South Asia. Proportionally more - at least a quarter - of the older pioneers born in the 1920s and now in their late 80s or early 90s, were born in China, including those brought here as children by their parents migrating south, according to the 2010 Census of the resident population.
A major disruption was World War II, during which the Japanese occupied Singapore from 1942 to 1945. It affected schooling and livelihoods. Mr Wong spent only three years in a Chinese primary school. His family donned Malay garb to disguise themselves from Japanese soldiers on the lookout for the Chinese.
He was also the third oldest of 11 children. People with large families to support in those days felt a greater urgency to start work early. War and poverty would shorten their years in school.
A 1999 study by the Department of Statistics shows those born from 1935 to 1946 received fewer years of formal education than the post-war baby boomers:
- 76 per cent had primary or no education, compared with 57 per cent of early baby boomers born from 1947 to 1954 and 42 per cent of late baby boomers born from 1955 to 1964;
- 19 per cent had secondary education, against 33 per cent of early boomers and 40 per cent of late baby boomers; and
- 4 per cent went to university, against 6.5 per cent of early boomers and 11 per cent of late baby boomers.
Girls born from 1935 to 1946 had 4.1 years of schooling on average, while boys had 6.6 years, the 1999 study found. Only 1.9 per cent of women born from 1935 to 1946 went to university, compared with 6.3 per cent for men.
More than 30 years on, 37 per cent of women born from 1968 to 1975 had university degrees, compared with 44 per cent of men.
Gerontology professor Kalyani Mehta of SIM University, a former Nominated MP, says poverty and parents' bias for sons to be educated over daughters led to the unequal educational opportunities.
Working 'triple hard'
THE war - and the years of poverty after that - had a large impact. Japanese soldiers killed the family of Mr Wong's aunt. This prompted his father to join the underground resistance, Force 136. But in 1944, he died of typhoid.
He left a widow and 11 children, the youngest just over a year old. Mr Wong, then 13, quickly learnt to shoulder family responsibilities: "I lost a father and became a man because I had to fight for survival."
Such trials resulted in a generation that pulled through with sheer grit and enterprise, despite a lack of formal education.
Mr Wong grabbed any job that came up, first as a teenage coolie digging tunnels for the Japanese.
A year after the war, the 15-year-old came to Singapore and overhauled torpedoes at the British naval base. "Those days, if you have a job, you won't let it go. You worked triple hard just to please the boss," he recalls.
Then, a friend offered him a job fixing bicycles and making tyres out of raw rubber in a steamer.
To a 16-year-old, his monthly pay of $50 was a princely sum.
But at the age of 17, he got a job with The Bank of China as a telephone operator on $70 a month.
The hiring policy then would not happen today: The bank employed only men. "At that time hardly any girl would work in an office," Mr Wong says.
Amid such attitudes, coupled with a lack of formal education, women had far fewer job options than men, notes Prof Mehta.
They were expected to do housework at a young age, or help in the family provision shop. Some got married and worked from home sewing or making cookies and cakes for sale, she says.
More job opportunities would open up for all after Singapore gained independence.
Factories sprung up, and people found work producing garments, wigs and toys, and assembling radio and TV sets.
But due to their lack of education, many were constrained in the jobs and wages they could get, and hence the savings they could accumulate for retirement.
By 1999, most born from 1935 to 1946 were still in production and related jobs (40 per cent), and clerical, sales and services (28 per cent). As a result, the pioneers earned less wages in their prime years of mid-30s to 40s than the baby boomers who came after, even after adjusting for inflation.
Their average monthly income was $1,280 in 1999 dollars, while early boomers earned $2,140, and later ones, $3,310.
Mr Wong - who got his Singapore ID card in 1948 - was a phone operator by day and a student by night. He scrimped on meals, buying burnt crusts for a few cents, or nasi lemak. At 19, he got his certificates in commercial English, book-keeping and advanced accounting.
This set him on the path of better job prospects, first as an accounting machine operator at Cycle and Carriage earning $120 a month, then as an auditor with a pay of $400 a month.
At age 24, he joined the middle class of his day and bought his first car, a second-hand two-door Ford V8 for $600.
Two years later, he became a manager at a rubber trading company, on $1,000 a month. There, he met his future wife, Jessie Tan, a secretary 12 years his junior.
Even though she had secondary education, like many other women in the pioneer generation, she stopped working after marriage.
Only a third of the women worked in their mid 30s to 40s, and less than a third of those were married.
One reason for fewer women pioneers working is that they had their hands full looking after several children. Close to 70 per cent of married women had three or more children, compared to 40 per cent for the early baby boomers.
Changes came with better education and job opportunities. Some were persuaded by the national family planning campaign, which started in 1966 and pushed for "stop at two" in 1972.
But the Wongs had three daughters. Now in their 40s, two are university graduates, while the third studied up to junior college.
Concerns about finances
TODAY, Mr Wong, at 82, volunteers his time teaching senior citizens to use the computer.
Madam Tan, 70, handles call bookings for a taxi company. She returned to work at 55, after Mr Wong ran into business woes.
While she built up her Central Provident Fund savings over the past 15 years, he did not save much in his CPF account as a businessman, but tops up his Medisave account when he can.
Their main asset is an HDB maisonette flat bought in the 1980s for $105,000 and paid up in 2000.
The Pioneer Generation Package, he says, will be another safety net when he gets sick.
Finances remain a concern for many pioneers who have not accumulated much savings given their relatively lower wages compared to younger generations.
Although CPF was introduced as early as 1955, contribution rates were as low as 5 per cent. Medisave, the compulsory medical savings scheme, was introduced much later in 1984.
The CPF Board tells Insight that average total CPF balance as of Dec 31 last year was $32,400 for those aged 65 and above, lower than the $105,500 for those aged 55 to 64. Similarly, the average Medisave account balance for the older group was $15,600, compared with $26,500 for the younger group. The figures, however, are for both Singaporeans and permanent residents.
In a survey of 10,000 households in 2011 by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, more than one in five of those aged 65 to 74, and nearly two in fiveaged 75 and above, said they had nothing left after deducting expenditure from income.
Three in 10 of those aged 65 and above felt that their finances were inadequate. The same proportion felt that they would not have sufficient finances for the future.
On the other hand, many gained from the national home ownership scheme introduced in 1964, for low- and middle-income families.
These flats, with flush toilets, were an improvement over squatter huts with families sharing a water pipe and toilet with others.
Then, in 1968, families could use CPF to pay for flats.
As a result of these policies, proportionally more of the pioneer generation were able to own their homes: 75 per cent of those aged 65 to 74 in 2011 owned their homes, up from 64 per cent in 1995. More than seven in 10 also cited their house as their most important asset.
The house would most likely be an HDB flat. One reason is that CPF could be used for buying private homes only from 1981.
Still, even with the HDB flat as their asset, concerns about finances remain. Three in four among the 65 to 74 age group said they were working because they needed money for current expenses or future financial security.
No doubt, the Pioneer Generation Package will go some way in giving Mr Wong and his wife peace of mind. It could also nudge her to take a break. Says Mr Wong: "I want her to stop working so we can spend our last few years together."
Five unimaginables about pioneers' lives
HERE are five things teenagers and their parents may find hard to imagine now about the lives of the pioneer generation:
1. Huge family: The average family size was nearly seven children in the first decade or so after World War II. Among the reasons: the desire for male heirs, religious injunctions and the fact that it was usual for the mother or relatives to look after the children.
2. Cramped quarters: Before Housing Board flats, over half a million people and big families squeezed into slums and squatter areas, using common toilets and standing water pipes.
3. No meat every day: It was uncommon to eat chicken, mutton, beef or pork daily as they were costly and reserved for festive occasions. Fish was cheaper.
Locally grown vegetables such as kangkung and Chinese cabbage accompanied rice or porridge. During the war, tapioca replaced rice.
4. Worked for less: In 1965, average weekly earnings for workmen were $44.55. Women and male youth got about $27, while female youth got about $10.
5. Less schooling for girls: Girls born from 1935 to 1946 had four years of schooling on average, while boys had more than six years, due to poverty and parents' bias towards sons' education. Only 1.9 per cent of women went to university, compared with 6 per cent of men.