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A sweetener for S'pore's 'Pioneer Generation'

Publication Date : 01-03-2014


Recently announced healthcare measures could be targeting senior votes, which are badly needed to offset declining support from young Singaporeans.

The generation most loyal to the ruling party – and now wavering a little – is being wooed like never before.

The government, faced with the eroding support of young Singaporeans, has launched its biggest healthcare initiative for the elderly to date.

The S$8 billion (US$6.3 billion) plan under Budget 2014, to be spread over a period of years, aims at subsidising part of the rising healthcare costs of people who are aged 65 and above.

The beneficiaries total some 450,000 or 9.9% of the population – ­described as the Pioneer Generation, a tribute to their nation-building role.

These are citizens who were at least 16 years old when Singapore became independent in 1965.

The highlight is an annual subsidy of S$200 to S$800 to help offset premium costs of the new state health insurance scheme that is soon to be introduced.

Senior citizens will also get an additional 50% discount at outpatient specialist clinics in hospitals and polyclinics.      

“Our spending needs will grow significantly within the next 10 to 15 years,” said Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam when making the announcement.

There are compelling reasons for the move. One out of three hospital patients are above 65 years old.

Some 40% of premiums will be offset for those aged 65, rising to 100% for those aged 80 and above.

The transformation of the republic into a global city of wealth and technology has hit the elderly the hardest.

Many of them are relatively poor in terms of health and education, and they are deprived of much of Singapore’s good life.

Many of them work as cleaners and sweepers in their twilight years when they should be playing with grandchildren.

Others collect cardboard for sale just like America’s “bag ladies”, forming the extreme poor living in the land of the rich.

Politically, most started off as being very loyal to Lee Kuan Yew and his first-generation leadership for providing them with the basics of modern living.

The city’s high costs, especially in hospital care, have now become their biggest grouse.

The worst sufferers are those with chronic illnesses and insufficient funds for treatment.

For years, the complaint that has resounded among the senior citizens is that “you can die, but you cannot fall ill in Singapore”.

An example of the scale came three days after the budget announcement.

Newspapers reported that a total of 54 kidney patients in two hospitals had chosen death over dialysis, an expensive long-term process.

Many of them found the treatment too expensive or they did not want to burden their families.

Despite their tough living conditions, however, many senior citizens, particularly the housewives, still support the People’s Action Party (PAP) although in declining numbers.

They still feel beholden to the founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, now aged 90.

Admiration was then widespread for what the first-generation PAP did – building cheap homes and providing jobs, education and health to the people.

Most importantly, there was trust in the leadership and a feeling of confidence that it would work in favour of the people’s welfare. Much of that has now dissipated.

That was probably why, when 12.8% of votes swung to the opposition in 1984, a furious Lee began thinking about changing the one-man-one-vote system.

But it was not until after he had lashed out privately at the “ungrateful” youths for turning against the PAP “after what we did for them”.

Later in an interview with a US magazine, Lee, then a senior minister, suggested he might give voters who were aged between 40 and 60 with a family two votes instead of one.

The reason, he said, was that such a voter “is likely to be more careful, voting also for his children. He is more likely to vote in a serious way than a capricious young man under 30.”

However, his party has not found it necessary yet.

“If it becomes necessary, we should do it... I’m not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best,” he said.

The idea was given up, I guess, probably because of opposition from colleagues.

Now, his PAP successors are trying different ways to win over elderly hearts – giving them subsidised healthcare.

Senior citizens – ­defined as those aged 65 years and above – have been going through a tough time since Singapore became one of the world’s wealthiest, and most expensive, countries.

The gap between the rich and the poor widened and elitism flourished, to their anger.

Elderly suicide rates, once the highest in the world, have stabilised in recent years.

They form 9.9% of the population but account for 23% of all suicides.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (then Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports) said in 2007 that studies showed that health problems and depression were the main reasons.

The timing of the Pioneer Package comes two years before the general election is due.

It is termed the “mother of all elections” by some analysts because it is likely to be the most hotly contested and crucial election in modern times.

It is imperative for PAP’s future that the health measures bring in the senior votes, which are badly needed to offset the dropping support of young Singaporeans.

“It is obvious that the ruling party wants to consolidate or win back the estimated half a million senior votes,” said a political analyst.

A forumer said: “This is sheer naked vote buying.”

The vast majority of the recipients are not net-savvy, so getting online reaction is more difficult.

Random chats, however, have showed that many among the poor are vulnerable to the lure of government help.

“It is a brilliant move. The old people always like such recognition,” a writer commented.

The consensus, however, is that it will gain the party some elderly votes, but not enough to stem its spreading loss of popularity.

There are several other unhappy issues that will impact the 2016 election.

*US$1 = S$1.27


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