Singaporeans in their golden years: Able to survive or thrive?

Recent study’s suggestion that at least $1,379 a month is needed by seniors raises questions


Surviving your golden years on a pittance is one thing but being able to thrive and have an enjoyable retirement is a far bigger challenge, as former odd-job labourer Chow Yit Keong knows all too well.


Mr Chow, 66, began experiencing heart problems two years ago that made it hard for him to lift and carry heavy objects, forcing him to quit his job. He soon found himself in dire straits. He has no children to look after him and exhausted what little savings he had, from his salary of about $1,000, looking after his father who died a few years ago.


Mr Chow now lives in a one-room rental flat in Tampines and gets by on about $500 a month. About $250 comes from his monthly Central Provident Fund (CPF) payouts and he gets $750 each quarter from the Silver Support scheme, which provides retirement assistance for people who have had low incomes throughout their lives.


This $500 sum that Mr Chow survives on is on a par with the median combined payout that an elderly person aged 65 and above and living in one-or two-room Housing Board flats received from CPF and Silver Support last year. Like many others in that group, he has also received additional support, such as rental subsidies.

Mr Chow Yit Keong, 66, outside his one-room rental flat. The retired odd-job worker gets by on about $500 a month. A study out last month suggests that he may need more money if he wants to be able to thrive in his golden years, rather than just survive.


"I mostly eat at home and only go out to the coffee shop or exercise corner nearby to socialise," he says. "Money can get tight towards the end of the month, but I just have to be thick-skinned and borrow money from my friends to tide myself over."


While Mr Chow has just about enough to make ends meet, a study out last month suggests that he may need more money if he wants to be able to thrive in his golden years, rather than just survive.


The study, which gathered people aged 55 and above in focus groups to talk about what they considered to be their basic standard of living, found that a single person aged 65 and above would need at least $1,379 a month. A budget like that would allow Mr Chow to buy his own two-room HDB flat instead of having to just make do with his sparsely decorated one-room rental flat and restricting social activities to the cheap and cheerful.


He may also be able to go out for meals in restaurants with friends once in a while, and take an annual vacation to Malaysia or Indonesia.

Is $1,379 a reasonable monthly sum?

Social workers and other observers agree that while $1,379 sets a reasonable basic benchmark for the average Singaporean, the sums seniors need vary from person to person.


Dr Jeremy Lim, a partner at consulting firm Oliver Wyman's Asia-Pacific health and life sciences practice, notes that the study led by Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy had assumed that a senior would be in good health, so healthcare expenditure was not factored in.


Most seniors can expect to incur some medical expenses in their later years, says Dr Lim, noting that even the MediShield Life scheme, which covers all Singaporeans for their basic hospitalisation needs, requires co-payments.


Jalan Besar GRC MP Lily Neo says $1,379 is "neither too much nor too little" for a senior aged 65 and above who is living alone. It is fair to have a budget for various social activities for this group, including meals with friends and short trips overseas, she adds.


"You can't stay home all the time as this can lead to isolation and depression, leading to more costs in the long run," notes Dr Neo, a general practitioner. But this is not to say that those who do not have enough for $1,379 are necessarily deprived. 


Dr Neo points out that a number of community care services and help schemes have been rolled out to assist those like Mr Chow who are relying on handouts that may not add up to $1,379. Such groups have integrated their services so a senior in need will be able to take part in activities, like karaoke, or get home care services and meal deliveries at little to no extra cost. They can even go on organised day trips to Malaysia at subsidised costs of about $20 to $30 each, she says.


Ms Peh Kim Choo, chief executive of Tsao Foundation, says the profile and needs of elders vary depending on their life experiences, health status and social circumstances.


"As such, $1,379 may not be entirely representative of their needs. However, the study does provide a checklist for us to start a conversation with the elders to understand and know how they might want to live," adds Ms Peh.

Do Singaporeans have enough for $1,379 a month?

It is not clear how many seniors fall short of this $1,379 figure if all their assets and income - including CPF payouts, government subsidies, private savings and income from work or other sources, such as investments, are taken into account.


This is due to the lack of publicly available data on such figures, says labour economist and Nominated MP Walter Theseira. However, Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Christopher Gee points to data from the Household Expenditure Survey done in 2012 and 2013 that gives an approximation.


It found that about 58,300 resident retiree households, comprised solely of non-working people aged 60 and above, had a per capita income of $601 and below. They fell into the bottom 20 per cent among all households when income from various sources, such as contributions from friends and CPF payouts, was taken into account, though the use of savings was not factored in.


Dr Theseira notes that a National Wages Council report out last week suggested that about 8 to 10 per cent of income earners get less than $1,400 a month. This group is unlikely to have enough savings to meet the $1,379 threshold when they retire if they continue to earn around the same amount, he adds.


Dr Jamie Phang, cluster director of community eldercare services at Methodist Welfare Services, says that a large percentage of her clients would not be able to meet the $1,379 budget, as the organisation primarily serves the elderly who are from the bottom 10 per cent of the household income group.


"Some of them are unable to retire due to income inadequacy," she notes. "Often, these seniors continue working, sometimes to the detriment of their health, as they do not wish to be a burden to their families or even to social service organisations that extend financial assistance to them." Some also find it difficult and embarrassing to apply for the financial assistance that they need, she adds.


The household budgets study by Prof Ng cited figures from a 2011 national survey which showed that about 80 per cent of the elderly relied on adult children for financial support. This dependence is not sustainable in the long run, notes Dr Theseira: "You're just kicking the can down the road, as every $300 to $400 that children give their parents is a sum that they could be saving for their retirement." But given that each successive generation has had higher educational attainment than others before them, their ability to provide for their needs in old age will improve over time, says Mr Gee.


Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in February that about 60 per cent of active CPF members, who turned 55 in 2017, have met the CPF basic retirement sum of $83,000, which will give them a monthly payout of about $700 to $750 for life. This is up from 2013, when just 55 per cent of people turning 55 had enough savings in their CPF accounts to fulfil the basic retirement sum. Despite such strides, there will be those who have been unfortunate and end up unable to meet the basic standards of living, says Mr Gee.


The study could prompt a conversation about how much taxpayers are prepared to pay to support the basic living needs of the less fortunate, beyond mere subsistence, he adds. "Are (they) comfortable, for example, to pay more in taxes so that an elderly Singaporean might receive sufficient government transfers to enable her to afford the means to remain socially connected or to go on a modest holiday?"


Source: The Sunday Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

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