On 19 October 2019, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) held a pre-election rally at Hong Lim Park, raising various issues to rally supporters.
One of the key events at this rally was the speech of SDP leader Mr Chee Soon Juan, who sought to make the point that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had allegedly failed to keep its promises made in the 2015 General Elections. You can see the full speech on YouTube, at this link: https://youtu.be/LQ8t_e8xZlY
Over our next few factchecks, we will examine the claims made at this rally more closely.
Claim 1: On 8 September 2015, at the lunchtime rally, not far from here, this was during the last GE, Mr Lee Hsien Loong said this: (video plays) “We’ve worked hard for the seniors, the seniors who deserve peace of mind in their golden years, who deserve to live out their years with dignity…”
… (Refers to pictures)…
In case you think that these are extreme, isolated examples, or that I am taking things out of context, let me cite you what Prof Ng Kok Hoe of the LKY School of public policy said. Now Prof Ng is an expert in aging and poverty. He said, I quote: “The poverty rate for elderly in the workforce has increased dramatically.” 23% of our elderly in the workforce are paid S$1000 or less a month. You don’t believe me, look it up. It’s on the CNA website, 15 May 2017. The number of seniors who work into their silver years is growing too, especially those in the lower income group, for whom retirement is an alien concept. Again not my words – CNA 7 May 2017. Are you surprised then, that in 2017, the number of suicides amongst the elderly was at an all time high?
The central allegation made by the SDP is that the PAP has failed to deliver on a promise to give seniors more peace of mind. Instead, the SDP says that the elderly are increasingly facing poverty due to insufficient salaries being paid to them in the workplace and they are unable to retire. There is a suggestion that this is linked to the 2017 rise in suicides amongst the elderly.
We are of the view that the claims of the SDP are possibly misleading when compared against the sources we checked.
In fact, it seems to us that the views the SDP relied upon in 2017 were still developing, and those views are outdated when we view the developments in 2019.
With reference to the quote from Professor Ng Kok Hoe, the SDP’s quotation is incomplete. When we checked the CNA article for the quote (see here) and found that
the full quote reads as follows:
“In a 2015 paper on elderly poverty in Singapore written for the Tsao Foundation, Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy made one surprising observation – while the poverty rate among elderly persons not working had fallen over the years, that for elderly persons in the workforce appeared to have actually increased dramatically.”
The same applies for the figures cited by the SDP. The same CNA Report states:
“According to Manpower Ministry figures, in 2016 about 23 per cent of persons over 65 in the formal workforce were earning less than S$1,000 a month. That’s less than the 36 per cent in 2013, and 57 per cent in 2003, indicating that earnings for elderly workers have been rising.”
[All emphasis in bold and/or underline added by us]
To round things off, we should highlight that we had factchecked the issue regarding elderly suicides in 2017 (see here). Where it came to the statistic on the spike in elderly suicides in 2017, this was true, but no link was drawn between the suicide rate and issues of income. In fact, what the Samaritans Of Singapore stated in their press release reporting this statistic was that:
“Some common struggles cited by elderly callers [to the SOS hotline] were social disconnection, the fear of becoming a burden to family and friends, and impairments to daily functioning due to physical challenges and deteriorating mental health. These concerns predisposes socially isolated elderly to depression and suicidal thoughts when struggles go undetected and unaddressed.”
We should point out that the above-cited CNA article cannot be read as supporting, whether wholly or substantially, the view presented by the SDP. There were, in fact, a range of views obtained from those interviewed for the article which focused on asking what constituted elderly poverty, why some of the elderly chose to work, and what non-work income (including government programmes as of 2017) were available.
In understanding Assoc Prof Ng Kok Hoe’s views at the time, we draw helpful reference from his letter to the Straits Times on 18 May 2017 (see here) which mentioned the following:
“In the end, it is a mixed picture.
Some elderly people regard work as a source of social connectedness and personal fulfilment.
For many others, basic financial security is uncertain and staying employed is likely to be non-negotiable.
Much remains to be done so that more elderly people can make a meaningful choice about work.”
It is important to point out that at the time the CNA article was released in 2017, Assoc Prof Ng Kok Hoe had been working with a team on a study into examining how much elderly households actually need for a decent standard of living in Singapore. The study (known as the Minimum Income Study) was completed in May 2019 and the full findings are available here.
The views expressed in the CNA should therefore be updated against the latest findings by the Minimum Income Study, and other data surrounding this issue. In particular, it is unhelpful to consider simply the salary level of the elderly who are working to draw any conclusions on elderly poverty in general.
The Minimum Income Study made a number of key findings:-
- A basic budget required to meet a basic standard of living in Singapore is S$1,379 for single elderly (over 65 years old) households, S$2,351 for coupled elderly households, and S$1,721 for single persons aged 55 to 64 years old.
- Low work incomes among older people mean that employment alone does not ensure the achievement of the above-stated budgets for basic standards of living.
- A range of government income measures target older persons who are in employment, retired with Central Provident Fund (CPF) incomes, or retired with low incomes. Coverage depends on many factors such as the individual’s occupation, amount of CPF savings and qualification through means tests.
- In 2018, older workers who worked as cleaners had a median income of S$1,200, while the CPF paid a basic retirement sum of below S$800. See further information below.
- In Singapore, the overall picture is one of heavy dependence on family contributions with limited support from the state. The most common income source is adult children (78% of elderly people reported such income in 2011), followed by wage work (21%), and the CPF or other annuities (13%). Other sources such as private pensions (4%) and public assistance (2%) are negligible in terms of coverage.
- Future cohorts of older Singaporeans may be disadvantaged as a result of rapid and steep changes to educational skills in younger workers. Work incomes and wage interventions falling short lead to older people not having the means to retire or dependent on public and informal transfers of funds. With shrinking family sizes and people having no or fewer children, this is one less source of retirement income.
- The current basic CPF retirement payout of less than S$800 is only about half of the household budget for a single elderly person and falls short of what is required for a basic standard of living.
- Access is not assured for government benefits. These benefits are sometimes means-tested, one-off, for a limited period, or for limited cohorts.
We also took a look at the Household Expenditure Survey 2017/2018, released in July this year. This was interesting for the following observation:
“Non-work income constituted a higher share of income for the lowest 20% households partly because there was a larger concentration of households comprising solely non-working persons aged 65 years and over among them… Specifically, as these households did not have income from work, their income came only from non-work sources such as contributions from children, relatives and friends not staying in the same household, as well as regular government transfers.”
“In 2017/18, households comprising solely non-working persons aged 65 years and over received S$2,350 a month in non-work income on average. Investment income made up about a third of this amount, at S$740 a month on average.”
The Household Expenditure Survey also confirmed the fact in real wage growth, with the lower income quartiles of the population having experienced the most real growth compared to the upper income levels. See a copy of the Household Expenditure Survey here.hes201718
This leads us to draw the following conclusions:-
(a) It is untrue that income for the elderly workforce is decreasing. The issue is with their feeling of financial security, and not solely about the adequacy of employment income.
(b) It is generally incorrect to conclude, based on employment income alone, that working elderly face poverty in all or even most cases. When non-employment income sources and employment income sources are viewed together, most elderly (whether working or not) are earning more than the basic household expenditure standard of S$1,379. There are those who fall through the cracks, and those remain in the minority.
(c) There is a risk that the financial security of the elderly may change for the worse in future as a result of socioeconomic changes (e.g. fewer or no children, therefore less non-employment income), and government subsidies, wage supplements and other benefits need to be nimble and flexible enough to counter such changes.