Youth Voices: Living with dignity in Singapore: How much income is enough?

Youth Voices: Living with dignity in Singapore: How much income is enough?

The latest instalment of Youth Voices was held on 17 August 2019, and was centred on the topic of “Living with dignity in Singapore: How much income is enough?”. Moderated by Hougang MP Png Eng Huat, the session was attended by former Nominated MP Laurence Lien, Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Ng Kok Hoe, and the immediate past Chairman of Care Corner Singapore, Daniel Ang as panellists. Opening the session, MP Png introduced the panellists and their backgrounds.

Views from the panel
One panellist shared that a lack of definitions and benchmarks deters good discussion on the substantive needs of elderly people. In the speaker’s view, the study of elderly people’s income needs must reflect their experiences and realities. According to the speaker, elderly research participants agree that opportunities to participate in society, access to healthcare, belonging, and social connections are basic needs. They also care about choice and freedom.

Another speaker opened on a note about discourse on poverty, by highlighting that moving away from the concept of absolute poverty and towards the inclusion of meaningful life away from absolute numbers may be useful. The speaker argued that, for the elderly, societal participation can be impeded by inequality, leading to differentiated experiences and lived realities. He also highlighted the fact that in old age, life can be impacted by illness, and that for Singapore’s ageing population, longevity can be coupled with extended periods of poor health. In his view, hard truths about differentiated choices and options need to be recognised. For instance, different income groups have varying access to subsidised healthcare, nursing homes, and care options. Projecting into the future, he pointed to the death knell arising from automation and the fourth industrial revolution. This, he said, would manifest through a changing profile of careers and career moves – where retirement may become an outdated concept, and where sabbaticals and saving for sabbaticals become more common, for example.

The final speaker spoke about the challenges of working with marginalised groups, particularly Mandarin and dialect speakers. He noted that care hotlines have had to adapt to changing circumstances, by procuring the help of more Mandarin-speaking volunteers from China, whilst expressing the view that more must be done to cater to the needs of seniors who speak other languages. He concluded by sharing that a challenge today is to integrate social work and social healthcare work. 

Questions from the floor
Why don’t we consider cost of living too?
An audience member wanted to know if defining minimum income risks raising insurance premiums, and whether we should consider dealing with the cost of necessities and the cost of living.
One speaker shared that income benchmarks can help actuaries to design annuity products. He also argued that good information can inform personal financial planning. Another speaker shared that the cost structure for basic necessities in Singapore is high.

What about younger professionals?
Another audience member wanted to know whether preventive measures for younger professionals who may fall into a lower income bracket due to illness would be useful.
One speaker replied that basic income can help, with screening and mandating repeated agency visits for the vulnerable. Another speaker argued that preventive measures such as lifestyle improvements are important.

On handouts and dignity
An audience member asked about the issue of dignity, on limits to the modality of handouts, and on alternative forms of help such as taxation and safety nets to ensure people do not fall into traps.
One speaker remarked that Singapore has the industry-specific Progressive Wage Model and the Workfare Income Supplement, but no minimum wage. Anecdotally, unscrupulous employers adopt an “out from left, in from right” approach where migrant workers in particular face downward pressures on wages. He argued that a better approach is to have better wages for foreign workers which will draw better quality foreign workers and enable the raising of domestic workers’ standards and pay.
One participant shared that aid recipients dislike handouts and that the process of receiving aid can be demeaning and discouraging. A speaker remarked that the process is deliberately designed to deter “bad” behaviour. However other audience members disagreed and argued that most feel no shame in accepting state aid if they feel it is deserved and formulated in a fair manner; after all, we all contribute to state funds through mechanisms like indirect taxation (GST).

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