Caring for an ageing nation

Concerning: An ageing population poses future economic challenges for the country including increased demand for healthcare services, social support systems, and social security. — LOW LAY PHON/The Star

THE Lunar New Year serves as a poignant reminder for me of the value of filial piety – an essential virtue emphasising respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors.

More often than not, this column highlights youth-related issues, as its name suggests. Today, however, I am going in the opposite direction and writing about the elderly, specifically caring for an ageing society.

Based on numbers released by the Statistics Department (DOSM), the proportion of those aged 65 and above in the country’s population is expected to reach 20% by 2056, making us a “super-aged nation”. A separate DOSM study found that life expectancy at birth in 2021 was expected to increase to 75.6 years, compared with 63.6 years five decades ago. These two factors combine to form an ageing population, posing economic challenges which include a higher demand for healthcare services, social support systems and social security.

The Prime Minister also expressed concern in November that 48% of Employees Provident Fund (EPF) contributors under the age of 55 have less than RM10,000 each in their retirement savings. Meanwhile, it is estimated that a retiree in the next 20 to 30 years needs at least RM900,000 to RM1mil to live comfortably.

Tough questions arise when we discuss caring for an ageing society. For example, should we pass laws to promote filial piety? How do we develop different features of a functioning ageing society? How do we also address the issue in line with demographic shifts, climate change and rising government debt?

Ageing brings with it unseen challenges for Malaysia, including the increased vulnerability of older persons, old-age dependency ratio, and care needs.

I commend efforts in Budget 2024 to increase the matching contribution limit for the i-Saraan programme from RM300 to RM500 per year. Unfortunately, comparing the EPF with Singapore’s Central Provident Fund (CPF) reveals some shortcomings. CPF includes a component specifically dedicated to healthcare (MediSave) and retirement (Retirement Account), unlike the EPF’s structure of Accounts 1 and 2.

Having a way to build up savings for healthcare and retirement needs to provide financial support in old age is crucial. This is in line with the World Bank’s recommendation in its report to the Malaysian government to increase the adequacy of social insurance schemes. The same report recommended that the Malaysian government link the retirement age to life expectancy. This will effectively remove the need for recurring discretionary policy revisions.

However, in parallel, we need policies that foster workers’ productive employment, such as enhanced opportunities for training, learning and workplace welfare protection to match the increased retirement age. Mat-ching policies are needed to enable Malaysians to be healthier if they are to work longer. Work-places also have to adapt to less physically demanding occupations and be more digitally enhanced. Targeted, conditional and time-bound wage subsidies could also be piloted to encourage employment of older workers.

Beyond these economic measures mentioned, we need to look at day-to-day issues, for example making public transportation age-friendly, improving government healthcare facilities, and enhancing the “silver” economy.

As rightly noted by policy researcher Edwin Goh, current care policy narratives are “individualistic and centred around women as the main care providers”. Malaysia’s initiatives in the care economy currently focus on two primary objectives: attaining a 60% women’s participation rate in the workforce and addressing the increasing demand in Malaysia for caring for the ill, children, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities (PWDs). We ought to reconsider our narratives to foster a constructive dialogue on the roles in care for both men and women and challenge long-held stereotypes that care-related careers are for females only.

Additionally, we need to move away from perceiving care solely as an individual’s responsibility and recognise the involvement of other stakeholders such as the community, civil society, and government.

We can take a leaf out of Singapore’s book: The country has community-based senior activity centres focused on engaging seniors through a variety of activities and services. These centres often collaborate with grassroots organisations, social service agencies, and healthcare providers to ensure holistic elderly care.

Ultimately, our approach to ageing policies should reflect the unique social, cultural, intergenerational and religious norms and values that characterise Malaysia and our multicultural society.

To address the challenge ahead, we need to anticipate trends in future generations. Successful models like intergenerational reports have been established, with Australia’s version spanning a 40-year horizon. Such a report should encompass demographic forecasts, economic considerations, government finances, and practical policy recommendations.

Moreover, Malaysia’s report should expand beyond the Australian template to encompass the diverse social expectations, cultural intricacies, and religious norms that shape the overall quality of life for our ageing population.

In line with the spirit of filial piety during the Lunar New Year, I encourage readers across all age groups to join in the discussion on the ageing issue and spark conversations around it while reflecting on how we can shape the future collectively.

Wishing everyone a prosperous and healthy new year!

Student Jonathan Lee traces his writing roots to the The Star’s BRATs (young journalists) programme, which he has written for since 2016. He is now a Malaysian youth advocate. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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