The food courts in the basements of shopping malls and the ubiquitous “hawker centers,” covered markets where scores of stall-holders sell cooked food, are a mainstay of eating out in Singapore. At one of my regular lunch spots, I watch the cleaners diligently tidy away the trays. They scrape leftovers into bins and wipe the tables and floors with disinfectant.
They perform these unskilled, repetitive tasks with often surprising enthusiasm. What is striking is, first, that the workers are local Singaporeans, not the foreign-born recent immigrants one might otherwise expect to do such work in a wealthy country like Singapore. More important, they are frequently of, or even beyond, retirement age.
The cleaning staffs have names, of course, but whenever I speak to them, I address them as “Auntie” or “Uncle” — the honorific terms used here when one is speaking to someone of an older generation.
I chat with them about health and happiness in old age, and I hear their varied reasons for wanting to keep working in jobs that others might consider demeaning. Some do so because they see it as a way to continue to contribute to society, and they’re reluctant to become a burden on their families. Others among them wish to escape the loneliness of an increasingly sedentary retirement. Many need the extra income that even such modest work provides (typically less than the equivalent in Singapore dollars of about $1,100 a month).
Dealing with an aging population is one of the major challenges that the city-state faces as it cements its status as an advanced cosmopolitan nation. Just 50 years after it gained its independence from Malaysia, Singapore has one of the highest per capita rates of gross domestic product in the world, and it boasts world-class systems of education, social housing and health care.
Yet such rapid progress has led to a divergence in lifestyles between the younger generation, brought up in an age of relative security and material comfort, and their grandparents, people of the so-called Pioneer Generation (as the government designates citizens born before 1949). How to care for the elderly has become a major topic of public concern. Singapore is grappling not only with the practical effects of a growing social phenomenon but also with the impact that this has on its identity as a country that straddles modernity and tradition, East and West.
Government statistics show that the number of working-age citizens has peaked, at about 2.2 million, while the number of over-65s has doubled in the years since 2000, and now stands at about 440,000 (out of a total population of about 5.5 million). By official estimates, the number of retirees will reach 900,000 by 2030, almost a fifth of today’s total. Other calculations show a similar pattern: In just four years, more than a third of the population will be over 50, and by 2050, the median age will be 54.
This demographic shift has already created a large number of families in which two working adults are not only bringing up children but also supporting their retired parents. In Singapore’s fast-paced, modern economy, such demands place a huge strain on the family unit.
To counter this growing trend, the government has unveiled a raft of measures that it plans to implement over the next few years. The minimum age of retirement is 62, with an automatic option of continuing in employment for a further three years until the age of 65. This threshold will now be raised to 67 by 2017.
Anyone who uses taxis as regularly as I do in Singapore will be aware of the significant number of retirement-age drivers. That’s not surprising given that the age limit of cabdrivers was raised, in 2012, to 75 from 73.
Such measures might seem inevitable, given the widespread criticism of a 2013 government white paper that suggested Singapore could add an additional 25 percent to its population, or one million people, by encouraging immigration over the next 20 years. The ensuing public outcry led the government to tighten its rules on foreign workers and focus instead on extending work force participation by the city-state’s aging citizenry.
At the heart of the debate is the idea of the Southeast Asian family. Across the three main ethnic groups in Singapore — Chinese, Malay and Indian — one major similarity is the expectation of three generations living under the same roof. Grandparents traditionally live with their children and grandchildren once they have retired. They are expected to contribute to housework and the supervision of the youngest members of the family. In return, they enjoy the emotional and financial support of their families.
“Looking after your parents,” in this still strongly Confucian-influenced society, is a concept most Singaporeans have grown up with. So the notion of parents’ going out to work in a job past the retirement age, particularly in physically demanding, low-paid jobs like the food-hall cleaners’ work, sits uneasily with traditional ideas of filial duty.
At the same time, providing for and looking after elderly parents within the family is becoming ever more challenging in a country renowned for its high-pressure work environment. Singapore’s high standard of living comes at a price: It has the longest working hours of any country in the world, and for a third consecutive year was ranked recently as the world’s most expensive city to live in.
Acknowledging these pressures, the government’s Pioneer Generation Package has pledged $6.6 billion in health care and other benefits to the 450,000 or so citizens eligible for such aid. State-of-the-art retirement homes and “elder-friendly” supermarkets are just some of the measures intended to help the older generation gain a measure of independence in this changing society.
As far-reaching and sophisticated as these developments are, they are unlikely to settle the debate over the retirement age. The argument is as much an emotional one as it is economic: Singaporean friends my age or younger speak of feeling guilty that their parents are still working — even though, in some cases, they are financially comfortable. At lunch recently with a friend in a food center, we watched an old auntie sweep the floor nearby.
“I just hate the thought of it,” my friend said. “She could be my mother.”
Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five Star Billionaire, and a contributing opinion writer.