The Lion City: a dynamic nation home to delicious eateries, stunning tourist attractions, and one of the most breathtaking harbourfronts in the world. Over the past half-century, Singapore has transformed itself from a rural fishing village to an international business powerhouse. With a collective mentality of “foodies, explorers, socialisers, and world-changers”, Singapore has carefully cultivated its contemporary image; attracting expatriates from all corners of the globe: a 5.6-million-person multiracial metropolis.
From 8am day one, Dr. Jeaney Yip had scheduled a jampacked itinerary, as our 15-strong New Colombo plan Singapore Immersion Program University of Sydney Business School troop was hustled onto a shuttle bus and taken on a whirlwind tour around the city, visiting the Civilian War Memorial, the Chinese Heritage Centre and Old Parliament House. Having taken some history electives (despite being a business student!), I was elated to see the reverence bestowed on these heritage sites by Singaporean society, as our tour guide, Iris, recounted the glorious legacy of the “father of Singapore, former Prime Minister Mr. Lee [Kuan Yew]” with near-fanaticism.
As we paused for lunch in a local Hawker Centre, a chaotic farmers-market-meets-food-court, I couldn’t help but notice swathes of elderly cleaners; many of whom looked well over the official retirement age of 67. I watched these stoic custodians collect endless trays of rubbish left by an apathetic younger generation, and understood a growing sense of cultural bias towards the elderly existed.
From a personal and business perspective, I was mystified.
To me, it seemed almost paradoxical that the Singapore of yesteryear could be held in such high regard, serving as a major tourist attraction viewed with such nostalgia and veneration, whilst the working class who had toiled under the blinding sun to forge this very legacy were discarded and mistreated by society.
Over the next two weeks of our cultural immersion, that sense of social bias fuelled my investigation, and on a hunch, I decided to review policy responses to ageing from the government. As a very authoritarian city-state, I deduced that the government and state media would have massive influence over perceptions towards social issues.
I was right.
Since first acknowledging the issue, the Singaporean government, along with state media, has been quick to label this growing age bracket as an ‘ageing ambush’: an almost guerrilla-style offensive against an unprepared political sphere. However, from the research I had done into ageing in Singapore, it is clear this propagation is anything but unexpected.
In 1982, the Singaporean government first legislated on their ageing population, with the ‘Committee on the Problems of the Aged’ formed to study the “implications of ageing and recommend solutions for society”. Full of tenuous policy measures such as fostering filial piety, the true focus of this initial response was to mitigate the “negative effects of ageing on the younger generations”.
With a state controlled media, this passive ideology would ultimately go onto inform years of anti-ageing propaganda, and indoctrinate a generation of Singaporeans terrified of the ‘ageing timebomb’ looming on the horizon.
By labelling an entire generation as inherently ‘problematic’ and incompatible with Singaporean society, by definition, the government’s language choice implied there was a necessary solution – a way to nullify, not co-exist, with this demographic. With one phrase, more than 500,000 Singaporeans were painted a blight to their own society, walking stereotypes of a vindictive stigma.
As both a philosophy and international business major, I love the persuasive power of language across cultures, and what really interested me is how the syntax used by the government and media regarding the ageing played a significant role in framing societal response. It was to my complete surprise that it was not until 2015 that the government could no longer deny their demographic changers, and finally took reactive steps towards re-defining ageing as something to be “celebrated”, making an almost complete U-turn on their longstanding admonition of ageing. Delivering the ‘Action Plan for Successful Ageing’, Singapore was suddenly told to celebrate that “residents are living longer and staying healthy”.
“Suddenly, the elderly were no longer “a timebomb”, or a “drain on resources”, but rather, the aspirational “silver Singaporeans of the pioneer generation”.”
Upon reflection, I couldn’t help but wonder how a society so dependent on their government for cultural context would react to this radical transformation in thinking. From what I could observe, it seems for the foreseeable future, that despite championing ‘active ageing’, damage to public opinion has already been done, and as a marketing student, I believe this will serve as a powerful case study in how not to shape political discourse going forwards.
So, with Singapore now staring down the barrel towards a future dominated by ageing, will the government’s newfound optimism rub off on its people? Personally, I think it’s a matter of when, not if, Singapore wholeheartedly embraces “glorious ageing”.
As the old Chinese proverb (somewhat) goes, “just remember, once you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed”, and for Singapore’s silver segment, the summit is finally within arm’s reach.
Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies)
Majoring in Philosophy, Marketing, and International Business