Singapore Government Press Release

Media Division, Ministry of Information and The Arts,

36th Storey, PSA Building, 460 Alexandra Road, Singapore 119963.

Tel: 3757794/5

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SPEECH BY PRIME MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG AT THE LAUNCH OF THE SINGAPORE CHAPTER OF THE RETIRED AND SENIOR VOLUNTEER PROGRAMME (RSVP), AT SUNTEC CITY AUDITORIUM, ON SATURDAY, 31 OCTOBER 1998 AT 2.25 PM

I am pleased to launch the Singapore Chapter of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme or RSVP.

RSVP is a civic movement which is now established in more than 30 countries around the world. It seeks to promote opportunities for older people to make valuable contributions to society. In the USA alone, RSVP has attracted half a million volunteers who are serving over 700 communities.

Singaporeís main asset, its human resource, is becoming better trained and more valuable. Hence, we should devise innovative ways to better utilize it. One way is to stretch the productive life expectancy of Singaporeans beyond their formal retirement. This is where RSVP can help, by providing older Singaporeans an avenue to actively contribute their lifeís experiences. The Government, therefore, supports the activities of RSVP in Singapore.

Preparing for an ageing population

RSVP is particularly relevant to Singaporeís economic and social progress because of our demographic trends. The most worrisome trend is the rapid ageing of our population. Singapore ages faster than any other nations in Asia except Japan. Over the next 30 years, the number of Singaporeans aged 65 and above will more than triple. By the year 2030, there will be one elderly person above 65 years old for every five Singaporeans. This means that each of them will be supported by only 3.5 working persons. This will impose a great strain on future Singaporeans, physically, socially and financially.

Such a dramatic ageing of the population is not unique to Singapore. It is common to most other Asian countries because of declining birth rates and longer life expectancies. However, other Asian countries are not as vulnerable as Singapore to the negative effects of this phenomenon. Unlike them, we are a small nation with a highly-urbanized lifestyle. Living in high-rise buildings, commuting in the efficient and fast-moving public transportation system, dealing with daily chores in an increasingly computerised environment, and coping with the fast pace of life are daunting for the aged. To help them cope, Singapore would require a different set of infrastructure and a new mindset. Despite our current preoccupation with the economic downturn in the region, we must still address the issue and prepare ourselves adequately to anticipate further challenges and opportunities.

With this in mind, last year I appointed five Singapore 21 (S21) sub-committees to explore various dilemmas which Singapore must deal with successfully to become "The Best Home" in the 21st century. One of them was to study the needs of senior citizens and the aspirations of young Singaporeans.

The dilemmas and challenges presented by our ageing society go beyond the purview of any single ministry. The issue is not just one of caring for a larger number of senior citizens within the homes or institutions or looking after their medical needs. It is much wider than that. We need to consider how to provide older Singaporeans with more employment options, how to meet their special housing requirements, how to maintain Singaporeís competitiveness in spite of an older workforce, and how to produce sufficient resources to meet the needs of the elderly. There is also the question of how to preserve and strengthen our social cohesion. This is because the young and the old could exercise their electoral rights to compete for finite resources to meet their different needs.

A change of mindset is crucial to meet the challenges and opportunities of our ageing population. We need a change of attitudes towards ageing and the elderly people, not only among the elderly themselves, but in society at large. Instead of thinking of the old as dependent or as a cost, we should think of them as a resource and seek to develop them as such. Then our elderly themselves and our society will not think of them as a burden and a drain on society. Instead, they will continue to lead productive and meaningful lives.

To meet these challenges, I have set up an Inter-Ministry Committee (IMC) headed by Mr Mah Bow Tan with Mr Yeo Cheow Tong and Mr Abdullah Tarmugi as Deputy Chairmen. The IMC will set national directions and strategies. It will formulate and oversee the implementation of polices to meet the needs of our ageing population. The IMC will harness the opportunities that the changing profile of our elderly population presents. Compared to the present cohorts of senior citizens, the next generation of elders is better educated and more vocal in expressing their opinions. They will also enjoy better health and greater financial independence. With such attributes, they would certainly want more meaningful and fulfilling roles in society after they have retired from full-time economic activities.

Promoting elderly volunteerism

Tomorrowís senior citizens have the ability to contribute to the well-being of the society after their formal retirement. Given the small size of Singaporeís working population, the senior citizens form an important resource which has up to now not been fully tapped. We should create sufficient avenues in the informal sectors to tap their expertise and experience.

Elderly volunteerism is one area which we should develop. The value of volunteers is not that they are unpaid labour; their value lies in the fact that their contribution greatly enriches the quality and texture of life of their fellow citizens. Volunteerism also benefits the senior citizens themselves. It will help to keep their minds alert and their bodies healthy. Senior citizens feel challenged if given a specific task to perform. Our Ministry of Community Development has informed me that its oldest serving Volunteer Probation Officer is 75 years old, and the oldest volunteer in the juvenile institutions is 71 years old. Both are active in befriending and counselling juvenile offenders. But RSVP has an even older volunteer, a 78-year old, in its Mentoring Programme. We may be surprised by their ages, but really we should not be. In the developed countries like Australia and the USA, healthy senior citizens volunteer their time and services at tourist information centres, museums, libraries, civic centres and even homes for the aged. Many Singaporeans will recall some of these elderly volunteers in the museums and national parks of the USA during their tours there. The enthusiasm of these volunteers for their work proves that greying is only a state of mind.

Elderly volunteerism is a relatively new concept in Singapore. However, several activities have already been initiated. For example, RSVP has started its Cyberguides, Mentoring and Senior Executive Placement Programmes.

As we teach our young how to use the computer and surf the Internet, our senior citizens should not be left out. Their grand children play with computerised toys and expect the grandparents to interact with them through email and other IT gadgets. Furthermore, the Singapore One will be providing a full range of services on the electronic network. RSVPís Cyberguides Programme, using volunteers conversant with IT, will remove the fear of the computers among older Singaporeans and connect them to the new IT environment.

RSVPís Mentoring Programme strives to meet a very real need. Latchkey children have been on the rise as dual-income families increasingly become the norm. Older persons possess a wealth of wisdom and experience. As mentors to our youths, they can shape the values of our young in real and positive ways. Many of the customs and traditions of our multiracial communities are being lost because not enough transmission has taken place at the interpersonal levels. The volunteer mentors will help to address some of these shortcomings.

RSVPís Senior Executive Placement Programme seeks to match professional retirees with companies that require their skills and specialised services. The retirees can add value to the country. Some of them would have worked overseas and acquired special knowledge of local conditions and customs. Through the Senior Executive Placement Programme, retired executives can contribute their experience and expertise to companies and individuals. In fact, I hope that in time, the Singapore International Foundation and other relevant agencies will use the retired and senior volunteers to assist them in their overseas activities.

The United Nations has designated 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons with the theme "Towards a Society of All Ages". We should use this opportunity to highlight the necessity of caring for the aged and retaining them in the mainstream of our society.

My vision for Singapore 21 is one where Singaporeans of all ages are actively involved in building our Best Home. Elderly volunteerism is part of this vision.

Conclusion

I urge all public, private and volunteer organizations to work together with the Ministry of Community Development to make Singapore a better home for the elderly. RSVPís success in mobilising healthy citizens to participate in volunteer work will have a positive effect on attitude towards the elderly. I wish RSVP Singapore and all of you an exciting International Year of Older Persons.

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