Defusing the great Singaporean demographic time bomb

November 14, 2012

“The real problem with trying to intelligently managed an emerging aging population somewhere down the future, is not whether olders should work beyond the retirement age. That if you think real hard about it, is already given. It will have to be a fact of life, like eating, breathing, sleeping and shitting. The real challenge as I see it, is HOW will this Herculean feat be accomplished. Let me put it this way, if you put an older worker beside a nubile teen and expect the same output. Then I say, all you’re really doing is setting the former up for failure, disappointment and possibly creating a miserable working environment – life will simply be a living hell for the older worker. I can almost guarantee you this 110%. But if the working environment is tweaked to augment many of the physical limits brought forth by old age – then I think it’s possible to solve this problem intelligently.

So to me the real issue is not reskilling on even chasing productivity by opening out heads and trying to upload new software to improve performance – the real challenge is creating a work context that is able to take into account the physical limits of old age along with striking a blance with higher productivity.

To me this is the real challenge whenever we talk about the advent of an older workforce having to work beyond their golden years. You could even say it is the ONLY question on the table. Regrettably this also happens to be the one question that no one seems very interested to discuss. I believe one reason why this topic is always relegated to the back burner may have something to do with the idea that, it’s a very difficult problem to solve. But try as we might to run away from it – I really do not believe it is possible to elide this problem or even find a clever way to negotiate it around it with just platitudes and feel good rhetoric. Understand this, there are real limits to homily sugary soundbites. As this is not an easy act to pull off, not at all – you could even say, it is one of the hardest things to do. That could well be the reason why no one seems very interested to discuss it.”

Darkness 2012


“I am not against the FT program per se. What I am against is unmitigated immigration that leads to a hollowing out of jobs. I think what you need to do is ask yourself a very basic and fundamental question: what is really a job? At a superficial level you may well conclude it is simply a way to turn the wheel of life. But when you look at this thing called a job long and hard enough. Then at some point you will begin to tease out very fine strands of social and cultural linkages along with networks and hubs that may perhaps lead you to draw the conclusion that a job is really a subset of a larger social construct – that is to say it is a way of life. And this is true of all jobs, it doesn’t matter whether it is menial or grand, significant or forgettable, low paying or stratospheric. If you look at Straits history and we focus let’s say on plantation life – you will find the Samsui woman. There migrated here from the san shui which in cantonese means the three waters – a reference to the three tributaries that formed the confluence in Kwan Tung in Imperial China. Now if we go deeper – we can even begin to tease out the nuances of their culture. They are very independent. They are the prototypal suffragettes of their period. Fiercely clannish to the point of even coming across as insular and perhaps even parochial. And if you should decide to drill deeper you may even come to the conclusion that there is a entire repository of history ranging from cuisine to even philosophy ranging from their disdain of the opium trade to their indifference to institution of marriage to perhaps how they saw themselves as a community along with how they preferred to define their relationship with other communities of that period. My point is when we look at a job from this vantage – then what emerges is the idea that the job is really an accretion of culture, history, share values, ethos, philosophy, arcanum etc – so can you see that a job is not just a job, it really goes beyond the dictionary meaning of a vocation and even embraces a whole geography of states of minds along with schools of thoughts.

So it is foolhardy to assume that a job is just a job. Anyone who tells you that banking, lawyering, doctoring, accountancy or even dog shooting in Singapore is just a statistical value probably wouldn’t know what I am talking about. That is like saying all you need to do, to be a planter is to know how to plant. That is hogwash! When you become a planter, by default you also take on the entire respository of the history that goes along with the planter’s way of life. I cannot wear a G2000 shirt to meet other planters. The socially correct attire is a bush jacket. I cannot while away my Sundays listening to records or shut myself off by retreating into my hermetically sealed world. If the community expects me to be there to offer alms, to usher in a birth of a first born or to take my place in a wake – I have to be there! Above all, I have to take my rightful place in the community as the benefactor, the magistrate and mechanic of the great wheel of life. And this is true of lawyering, accountancy, banking and maybe every single professional job in Singapore – it is a complex network of relationships. And this wheel of life isn’t as robust as what many people like to believe – get the demographics wrong and it is not so different from introducing a feral species of fish that will upset the balance of ecology in a fish tank – set the pace wrongly and it will not be so different from one of those horror stories where someone thought it might be a good idea to bring along a potted plant of flowers just to spice up the bonnet for Sunday church and that weed overreaches and strangles out the local fauna. There needs to be a balance. And the method to accomplish this is regulation.

This wheel of life known as a job is not automatic. If policymakers want to fudge with it – they really need to go beyond the whole idea of just the simplistic notion of bumping up their GDP or getting tax dollars from having more human beings on this island – to paraphrase, they need to appreciate the broader picture and understand the ramifications of the decisions they make – along with perhaps knowing every feature of this wheels quirks. Every sprocket, every kink and nick. Otherwise how is it possible for us to even talk about the whole idea of sustainability?

That is one reason why I consider it a form of insanity whenever policymakers decide to bring in whole loads of people into a particular job market. No calculations are made – if they are please share them with me – I will gladly retract this post after reviewing them if it shows evidence to the contrary. But I do not think there is. As when you look at the professional job market, so many jobs have already been hollowed out and those which are still standing are really so evacuated of natives to the point where these jobs can no longer support the social cultural networks that used to perpetuate them. No means of monitoring is even present to ensure that everything runs smoothly except maybe the crackbrained idea that there is some wisdom to this whole idea of the free market being able to find a happy sweet spot. Everything is left to vagaries to the supply and demand. What falls by the side is simply treated as grist to the mill. At best these policymakers are lazy, at worst this has to be gross negligence bordering on dereliction of duty.

One day many years from now. I have no doubt. None whatsoever that many of us will look at this point of Singapore’s history as perhaps a form of insanity, a non compos mentis on a Byzantine scale like how the EasterIslanders once broke their ecology in half by mindlessly building moi after moi – many will not understand. Many will even begin to feel a deep and profound sense of betrayal. A profundis of loss. But one thing is certain from all this. Many will know it to be the darkest chapter in our history.

In my mind I have absolutely no doubt of that this day of reckoning is marked somewhere along the time line in the future. Like I said, a job is not just a job. It is much more. Much much more….”

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