Desmond Lee explains S'pore's approach to aging challenge to Davos 2023 audience

Lee told the audience that Singapore had been planning for an aging society for a long time.

Tan Min-Wei | January 21, 2023, 10:07 AM

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On Jan. 18, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee spoke at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

He spoke about Singapore's approach to the economy given the projection that one in four Singaporeans will be 65 and older by 2030, up from the current one in seven.

This was in comparison to the global statistic that one in five would be over 65 by 2030.

Super Aging

Lee began by telling the audience of Singapore's constraints as a small city state without natural resources and just "our people and our savings and investments to power us through".

Calling Singapore a "super aged society", he also said the Singaporean government had planned for a long time to tackle the challenges of aging while ensuring intergenerational equality.

Tackling such a problem would cost a lot of resources, and it would be challenging to balance the books.

But the Singaporean government was looking at the issue from the point of view of life stages.

Lee said most people in Singapore, especially seniors, preferred to be self reliant if possible, turning to family as a "first line of defence".

The government and the community plays the role of enabling the individual, the family, and the community to provide care through different stages of aging, Lee pointed out.

Photo by the Ministry of National Development.

Life stage approach

Initially, when the elderly are still able bodied, in good health, and still working or volunteering, the government is enabling them to continue doing so.

This means adjusting when people retired and how long they were offered reemployment, currently 63 and 68 respectively.

But by the end of the decade, the ages would be raised to 65 and 70 respectively.

As a person started to become frail, it is necessary to ensure that they have retirement adequacy, as they might have to stop working, or only be able to work part time.

This is achieved by government support through compulsory savings, top-ups for lower income individuals, and even housing monetisation.

And finally when a person has grown frail, the government's role is supporting the provision of social care, nursing homes, and hospice care.

The government also provides a legal framework to enable caregivers to make decisions for the elderly who may have lost mental capacity.

Resources and coordination

Later on the in the session, Lee was asked a question about the challenges of providing for the needs of an aging population, given the scarcity of required resources.

The question noted that an individual incurs 80 per cent of his lifetime healthcare costs after the age of 60 or 65.

For Singapore, this could mean a doubling of healthcare, and infrastructure costs, particularly human resources which are becoming scarce, the questioner estimated.

Lee, in reply, acknowledged the challenge and noted how aging has been called a "silver tsunami", which could overwhelm public finances, burdening the young, and dragging down the economy.

But Lee said it was also possible to recognise aging as something that was coming, and embrace the challenge.

"There are ways to ride that wave in a positive way," he said.

He said Singapore takes advantage of its small size to have close coordination between national policy and on the ground implementation, partnering closely with the private sector, which provides good solutions, and the people sector, which provides care on the ground.

Singapore also coordinates closely between different ministries through the Ministerial Committee on Aging.

Citing himself as an example, Lee said he was responsible for seniors' housing, while other ministers handled other aspects.

Singapore also does its best to avoid borrowing for expenditure, which it regards as unsustainable given its demographic curve, said Lee, gesturing with his hands to indicate an inverted pyramid.

It is also vital to provide support so that seniors themselves can remain active, or risk facing a downward spiral.

Ultimately, Lee said, "We need to make sure that the whole of government works together with the whole of the private sector and the people sector to prepare for active aging."

Last mile connection

Lee concluded with three points.

Firstly, that Singapore would continue to innovate in solutions for active aging, saying that "housing is social policy in Singapore".

He cited the example of community care apartments where seniors live with vertically-integrated services, in a place that comes with social and health care.

Second, seniors need "last mile navigation".

They need education, financial literacy, but also help knowing all the programs that were available to them.

He explained that the Singapore government has set up teams to regularly visit those over 60, and has also set up a hotline, so there would be someone to help the elderly navigate through all the government's policies.

Finally, he said "health, social, and community are a triangle".

"We are pushing for better health but we require social prescribing to enable people to avoid acute diseases that will lead to poor quality of life."

Here's a video clip of Lee's speech:

Davos 2023

Lee was one of the three ministers representing Singapore at the WEF.

The other ministers are Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo.

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Top image via World Economic Forum