Ploughing on: The faces and insecurities of Singapore’s elderly working poor
The poverty rate has been rising among the working elderly, one study shows. Why do seniors here feel the need to work for long hours and low pay, despite the help schemes available for the needy?
SINGAPORE: They get taken for beggars sometimes as they poke through the trash, by people who exclaim “eiyuh!” in disgust. Impatient drivers honk as the duo push their laden trolleys along the road.
“My brother cannot hear the cars horn,” said the man who asked to be known as ‘Eddie’. “When I tell them he cannot speak or hear, most say sorry. Others curse and say, ‘****, lah, I don’t care’.”
The 63-year-old has long since learned to swallow his pride and let such comments slide, over 20 years of doing what he must to look after his deaf-mute brother, who is 68 and diabetic.
This includes scrounging for odd jobs, in between forays to pick and sell cardboard around their Serangoon one-room rental flat, in any weather.
“We’ve collected in the rain. I got sick. It's okay when (my brother) falls sick; I cannot fall sick, because I am basically his ears and head, so he’s in trouble,” said Eddie, who pushes a trolley stacked with cardboard higher than his 1.5-metre frame.
A good day is when the brothers collectively make about S$20. That’s with a haul of nearly 200kg, depending on price fluctuations. Said Eddie: “After a long time, our bones start to ache. It really hurts.”
SAVINGS WIPED OUT
Life had looked a lot different, once.
Back then, Singapore, like Eddie, was young and the economy booming (“if you wanted jobs, there was one for you,” as he put it). Earning steady money as a factory worker, construction labourer, driver and printer, he built up a family and a comfortable nest egg over the years.
Then cancer struck, twice – taking from him both his wife and his mother within the space of a year, and wiping out his life savings and most of his Medisave, he said.
Eddie was left to care full-time for his deaf-mute brother, which meant he could no longer hold a steady job. His brother’s life as a cardboard-picker became his own. “No choice. Back then there weren’t all these concessions for the elderly, or Pioneer Generation card; we had only ourselves to rely on.”
As Singapore ages, the number of seniors who work into their silver years is growing too – especially among the lower-income group, for whom retirement is an alien concept.
In recent years they have become more visible as food court cleaners, servers, security guards, tissue-sellers and scrap collectors. Given Singapore’s plethora of help schemes for the needy – such as the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP) and Silver Support Scheme for the old – why do the elderly poor feel the need to work for long hours and often low pay?
Do the jobs that the elderly poor do, as well as society’s safety nets, offer them adequate sense of security and quality of life in their old age?
RELATIVE POVERTY RISING AMONG THE WORKING ELDERLY
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 poverty rate among the working elderly jumped from 13 per cent in 1995, to 28 per cent in 2005 - to 41 per cent in 2011.
“This should be a strong reminder that work cannot be relied upon as the only, or even the primary, response to income insecurity in old age,” Dr Ng wrote.
“In labour markets where older workers are likely to end up in low-paying and undesirable jobs, work may decrease their quality of life without raising their standard of living.”
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.
But inflation and wages in the rest of society have also risen. And Dr Ng’s calculation draws the comparison between the elderly and the general population. It uses 40 per cent of the median population work income as a “convenient poverty line”, and compares that to elderly individuals’ incomes (which, besides work, could include sources such as children and state assistance).
Overall, Dr Ng has estimated that 6 in 10 elderly people in Singapore in 2011 were poor by that measurement.
He acknowledges that what is considered poor “is debatable”, and notes that a project commissioned by the Tsao Foundation is looking into how much elderly households actually need for a decent standard of living in Singapore. (Singapore has no official statistics when it comes to elderly poverty, or poverty for that matter.)
“In Singapore, no money how to live?”, is what Mr Ong Hock Soon says if asked why he is working long hours as a hawker’s assistant at the age of 69.
But in the same breath, he’ll tell you that he has turned down offers of social assistance, and would rather be self-reliant and “work until cannot move”. That mentality of independence is something that crops up repeatedly among the working elderly.
Ms Nurasyikin Amir once thought like most people – that seniors should stop going around collecting heavy loads of cardboard. “Like, rest at home, you’re old, retired already,” said the volunteer with the Happy People Helping People Foundation, which assists cardboard collectors like Eddie.
“But what we came to realise is that when they collect boxes, they feel more empowered; they are earning their own money, even though it’s not much, maybe S$2, up to S$10 a day. Who are we to stop them, right?” she said.
Some don’t want to be a burden on their children. Like food-court cleaner Wong Yeow Kee, 85, who works a 3pm to 11pm shift,
I have children, but I like to smoke and drink, so I work to support my habit and enjoy life. I don’t want to ask for their money.
Even when he’d chalked up hefty arrears, Mr Ng Teak Boon, 85, never thought about asking agencies for help. Estranged from his five children, he has been selling ice cream for 20 years from a pushcart, living on roughly S$950 a month from earnings and Silver Support payments.
“I will sell ice cream until I die,” he said. “It’s better to go outside. If you stay at home and watch TV, you will fall sick.”
WATCH: When the lights went out for Mr Ng (5:55)
Indeed, there are those receiving financial assistance who still do the occasional odd job to “find meaning in life”, said Mr Ng Koon Sing, head of COMNET Senior Services under AMKFSC Community Services.
But yet others do it out of “insecurity” and fear that “the money will run out”, he also noted.
Many would have worked at low-paying jobs most of their lives, with modest or hardly any savings which illness and vices like gambling can quickly wipe out.
FALLEN THROUGH THE CRACKS
And there are those like Eddie, who seem to fall through the cracks.
These days his brother gets Public Assistance of S$500 a month and the PGP, so they need not worry about the cost of treatment for his high blood pressure and diabetes.
But Eddie himself has no such benefits. He is working, but not consistently enough to qualify for the Workfare wage supplement. He can’t access his CPF funds until he hits 65. And the fact that he has a son makes qualifying for certain social assistance tough.
His son, who works as a salesman, is able to give him “S$100 here and there” but his income is inconstant, Eddie said.
Dr Ng calls this “a classic case of how there are various gaps (in the system) that I think we can do better at patching”.
The range of job opportunities that are available to people in this economy; how the schemes step in, where the cracks open up… If we don’t identify those gaps accurately and in a timely way, then you will have cases like Eddie’s.
(Note: Since being alerted to Mr Ng’s and Eddie’s cases, the Ministry of Social and Family Development says its Social Service Offices have reached out to them.)
THE CATCH-22 OF LOW-WAGE WORK
Those kinds of limited job opportunities for an elderly person with little education is what concerns observers.
The older they get, those who previously held blue-collar jobs would find themselves even lower down the workforce rung, noted Dr John Donaldson, who has written on poverty in Singapore.
“One could have been a welder in their younger years, but today, they have to downgrade and become a cleaner,” said the Associate Professor of Political Science at the Singapore Management University.
Mr Ong, the hawker's assistant, had a good gig going in construction for 35 years - a job he had held since leaving school after Secondary 2. Though tough work, the skills he honed paid off. “It was good money,” he said.
But in the 1990s, he said, the influx of foreign workers who were willing to work longer hours for less pay made the industry untenable. So he quit.
“There was less work to be had. We could not compete,” said Mr Ong, admitting that he’d also gambled away whatever money he had made, and was estranged from his family.
Starting over as a food stall assistant, he soon found that getting a position that paid adequately was tough. Jobless at one stage, he resorted to free food handouts.
Eventually, the Community Development Council helped place him in a job that now pays S$1,000 a month – enough, he says, to live on.
WATCH: Why Mr Ong wants to say 'sorry' to his children (6:00)
But wheels have been in motion to bolster the earnings of older workers. The Government’s roll-out of the Progressive Wage Model has scaled up incomes in the cleaning, landscape and security sectors –where low-wage older folks tend to gravitate.
Mr Liew Sue Weng, 67, had been working since the age of 13 in jobs like construction and shipyards. He picked up landscaping at the Employment and Employability Institute and now draws S$1,300 a month, working a five-day week as a gardener.
The irony? He says he’s been asking his boss to lower his pay – because he’s afraid he might get a reduced subsidy on his S$50-a-month rental flat.
Then there is the Workfare supplement, paid by the State to top up the wages of eligible low-income older workers.
The hitch? Those doing informal work like Eddie, who don’t work for a full month, don’t benefit. And manual jobs carry the element of uncertainty, often depending on health, noted Dr Ng: “I may have enough for tomorrow, but I have no way to plan for next year and the next.”
Take Madam Lee Yuit Mei, 67, who has osteoporosis. She used to earn S$800-S$1,000 as a full-time cleaner, but after breaking her wrist in a fall in 2010, she switched to working part-time.
She now makes just S$350 a month working three-hour days, four times a week. But with savings squirreled away over the years, she can meet her living expenses, she says.
TOO MANY SETS OF HOOPS?
For those less lucky and in need of temporary financial aid, there is the ComCare Short to Medium Term Assistance scheme. Those aged 55 and over made up about 35 per cent of applicants in 2015 – up from 29 per cent in 2012.
Indeed, the problem in Singapore is not the lack of schemes to help the elderly poor – as, say, compared to other countries in the region featured earlier in this series (read the full series here.)
Said Mr Simon-Peter Lum, assistant manager of COMNET Senior Services under AMKFSC Community Services: “We’d be hard-pressed to find seniors who are the abject poor, compared to other countries.”
For instance, those on Public Assistance may not get a lot of cash upfront, which has often been noted by critics - but, Mr Lum pointed out, they get many other subsidies (such as for medical treatment) and fee waivers (such as rental).
The problem, rather, is that there are too many targetted help schemes – with varying criteria and limiting conditions attached, observers say. This creates two types of problems.
One: Confusion and lack of understanding, which might explain why some elderly poor would rather just carry on working than attempt to seek support. Said Dr Ng:
Researchers don’t understand the schemes fully, civil servants don’t often understand all the schemes available, so how would those people know where to get the help?
He continued: “If I am collecting cardboard, am I going to spend time figuring out how the schemes work, and then test out each one to see if I qualify; or am I going to work so that I can secure tomorrow’s expenses? I am going to work!”
Two: Having to jump through hoops to meet criteria, means that some will fall through the cracks.
Take the requirement that applicants don’t have children who can support them. Said Ms Nurasyikin: “Just because they have kids, it doesn’t mean that they are taken care of… But (applicants) don’t get the assistance just because the database shows that they have kids.”
The further danger, said Dr Ng, is that such rigorous means-testing would “discourage others who might actually qualify if they tried”.
Ms Wong Yock Leng, a senior social worker with Tsao Foundation, said: “When you ask for ComCare assistance, they will check for everything… That’s why a lot of people don’t apply anymore after that. It’s so daunting, the whole process.”
THE FUTURE ELDERLY POOR: NOT WHO WE THINK
But the future face of Singapore’s elderly poor may not be today’s low-wage worker that social safety nets typically serve.
Said Ms Wong: “The one-room flat, low-income group, they have a lot of support.
“But it’s the three- or four-room flat, the middle-income people, who will bring their problems into their old age. And we have a lot of clients like this – asset rich and cash poor.”
She said the “real urban poverty” is this group which are “neither here nor there”. They may earn S$4,000 or S$5,000, but taking care of two elderly parents can drain their cash fast. “At the end of the day you won’t have much left for yourself.”
Then there is the growing number of childless Singaporeans. It is estimated that by 2030, there will be only 2.1 working-age citizens for each one aged 65 and above, compared to around 5.4 currently.
On top of that, the growing gig economy means that incomes will be less stable, while the decline of industries based on manual skills disadvantages the low-skilled worker, said Dr Ng. He added: “Technology has thrown a huge spanner into the works. Now whole industries, like taxi drivers, can disappear just like that, and no government has a solution for it.”
What does this double-whammy of population and job trends mean?
Traditionally, you have three sources of income for retirement. You have the state that can provide for you; your family; or your younger self – your savings and so on.
But if work is going to be unstable and uncertain, if families are becoming smaller, then what else?
"Even in a country that’s so conscious about social spending, the Government has no choice but to look into public support schemes - so your Silver Support and your Workfare,” said Dr Ng, who also threw in the possibility of exploring a universal basic income.
SMU’s Dr Donaldson remains positive about Singapore’s ability to adapt, noting the great improvement over a short time in a country on the frontline of an ageing challenge.
He arrived in Singapore in 2005, and has co-authored several research papers and findings on poverty and the elderly.
“It’s now 2017, so if you think about change over time in terms of plugging these gaps, it is a completely different game. They – not just the Government, but society and families – are much more aware, much more focused on plugging those gaps and innovating,” he said.
NEXT: In Singapore, social isolation may be the greater danger for the elderly poor.
This is part of a CNA Insider series exploring the issues of elderly poverty in Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore and Myanmar. Watch and read the entire series here.