Currently, there are an estimated 3.5 million people – or 7% of the population – in Malaysia who are above the age of 65. This group is the most vulnerable in terms of maintaining a minimum standard of living until the age of 77 or so, which is the average lifespan for a Malaysian male. This means 65-year-olds live for another 12 to 15 years after retirement.
Even now, does the ageing population have the financial resources needed to maintain a decent standard of living? And are they emotionally stable enough to overcome anxiety and feelings of neglect, loneliness and rejection? Do those who are pensionable find the rising costs of food and other necessities eating into their monthly allowance?
Then there are those who have no pensions and depend on EPF (Employees’ Provident Fund) savings. According to reports, about 50% of those who contribute to EPF do not have enough savings to last for their remaining years.
Additionally, the i-Sinar Covid-19 economic mitigation scheme that provides for early withdrawals from EPF is bound to drain people’s savings. Added to that are the challenges posed by Covid-19 which have brought into sharp focus the need to build a sustainable safety net for this group.
Besides being financially strapped, where are they in terms of other needs, the Cs – care, concern, capability and capacity? And social connectivity? After having given their best years of their lives to their families, their employers and to the nation, surely they are entitled to live out their lives with grace and dignity?
In just 20 years, the ageing population will increase to 20%, proving an even greater challenge to today’s generation.
Meeting the challenge of ageing societies isn’t just for governments, policymakers, and healthcare providers. It affects everyone who has, or will have, an elder family member or loved one in their lives.
How can the government help?
For one, it can open up more opportunities for those who are still productive in healthcare, technology, mobility, tourism, entertainment sectors, real estate, housing, etc.
I have previously proposed the setting up of a National Social Security Council (NSSC) to holistically address social security issues affecting the elderly. It’s timely now to establish such a body to conduct a rapid needs assessment to launch an action plan for successful ageing. The NSSC, together with other relevant government agencies could do the following:
> Undertake a review of the mandatory retirement age and, if feasible, increase it from 60 to 65. Many 60-year-olds have more fruitful years in their lives.
> Make it easier and practical for employers to hire and retain older workers with incentives from the government.
> Invest in lifelong learning so senior citizens can upskill themselves and continue to be productive members of society long past retirement age.
> Incentivise and encourage caregivers so more people will offer their services to those in need.
Civil society efforts
There is much that NGOs and the community can do too. They can help the elderly maintain a healthy lifestyle by providing facilities for exercise and non-competitive physical activities. At such events, the elderly will also be able to make new friends, which can add to their feeling of self-worth.
Another important initiative could be the promotion of research that addresses the current and future needs of older people. In this we can learn from Japan, which has had many years of experience managing the largest percentage by population of aged people in the world.
The Global Strategy and Action Plan on Ageing and Health, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2016, ensures that the global response to population ageing is aligned with the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals (ie, 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all" adopted by the United Nations General Assembly).
The Global Strategy proposed four years of work to prepare the world for a decade of concerted, catalytic and collaborative global action – the Decade of Healthy Ageing (2020–2030). In this second year of that decade, we must bring together governments, civil society, international agencies, professionals, academia, the media and the private sector to devise comprehensive plans to improve the lives of older people, their families and their communities.
Thinking out of the box and acting for age and ageing is possible, necessary, important and critical. We can help make it happen now. It is clear that early action yields the greatest benefits. The earlier we prepare, the better.
TAN SRI LEE LAM THYE