Addressing challenges of aging and poverty in SE Asian pension systems

In the 21st century, nations in the ASEAN organization have experienced an increase in economic and human development, allowing some of those countries to be transformed into a middle-class economy. This growth can be attributed to the expansion of global capitalism, where foreign companies relocated their industries to ASEAN nations to produce goods and services for the global market. However, according to reports from the International Labour Organization, societies in ASEAN countries are heading towards an aging society, with an increasing population of senior citizens. Job opportunities in these countries are not distributed equally, with many employment opportunities concentrated in cities with better infrastructure. Citizens from rural areas who do not receive the same economic opportunity have a higher probability of suffering from poverty when they reach retirement age, due to insufficient savings or lack of government or private pension schemes.

Several ASEAN Countries, including, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines have implemented assistance programs to senior citizens who lack sufficient savings or pension schemes. These programs typically offer cash payments and discounts on buying goods and services for senior citizens in their countries. For example, the Filipino government has implemented a Senior Assistance Cash Aid program, which provides a monthly allowance of Php 500 (equivalent to MYR 40) and a 20% discount on purchases for eligible senior citizens.

In Thailand, the Thai government has established the Old Age Allowance Program to provide a monthly allowance to eligible senior citizens. The amount of allowance varies depending on the age of senior citizens. For instance, those between 60 and 69 years old senior citizens can receive up to 600 baht (MYR 77) a month while senior citizens who were above 90 can receive up to 1000 baht (MYR 130) a month.

Singapore is notable among ASEAN countries for providing the most comprehensive monthly allowance for senior citizens. There are two programs that assist senior citizens, which are Comcare Longterm Assistance and Silver Support Scheme. Eligible senior citizens receiving Comcare Longterm Assistance can receive a monthly allowance ranging from SGD 640 – 1930 (equivalent to MYR 2125 – 6410), which increases for larger households. The Silver Support Scheme provides eligible senior citizens with a quarterly payment, ranging from SGD 360 – 900 (equivalent to MYR 1190 – 2980) per month.

However, it is important to note that there are no universal senior citizen pensions in ASEAN countries and these assistance programs come with certain qualifications and strict requirements that need to be met to qualify them. For example, in Thailand, the old age allowance program only provides an increased allowance as senior citizens get older. This differential approach is due to the fact that the population of the age of 90 and above is relatively low compared to senior citizens at the age of 60 and above because this will not impose a significant financial burden on the Thai government. Even one of the most prosperous nations in the world and a member of ASEAN, Singapore, does not have a universal pension program for senior citizens.

Ho What are the root causes that lead to the rise of poverty for senior citizens in ASEAN countries? One of the main reasons was the rise of income inequality, where many people in the rural areas lacked economic opportunities, which resulted them in earning low-wage income their whole life and making it difficult for retirement as they age. Additionally in urban areas, the rise of cost of living and inflation also exacerbate poverty and make it more difficult for senior citizens to save for retirement. Additionally, a significant proportion of the workforce is employed in informal sector, in which workers do not have access to government retirement funds or any private pension schemes when they retire or are unable to work due to old age. Moreover, the population of senior citizens is increasing, which will place more stress on the younger working population, requiring them to work longer hours to keep the economy going.

In Malaysia, the number of senior citizens covered by the government assistance program, “Bantuan Warga Emas”, is relatively low due to strict requirements and qualifications. According to the reports of “Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat” in 2020, only 140,000 senior citizens was eligible for the assistance program, which represents 3.5 per cent of the citizens who are over 60 years of age. However, 2.3 million out of 4.1 million senior citizens, which represents over 56 per cent of the senior citizens population, require a monthly pension scheme from the government to ensure they do not live in poverty. As a solution, the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) launched a campaign to demand the government implement a “Senior Citizens Pension” to increase the coverage for senior citizens who lack any government or private pension programs. The proposed pension would provide a monthly pension of RM 500 to senior citizens, making Malaysia the first ASEAN country with an almost universal pension system for senior citizens. However, there will be some exclusions on who will be eligible for this “Senior Citizens Pension”, such as the T20 group, government and private pensioners. This program would benefit not only senior citizens but also the younger working population, as it would relieve some of their financial burden. Furthermore, Malaysian women who mainly worked in informal sectors could benefit from this program because they do not have an EPF account or enough savings for retirement. According to the reports from KWSP in 2021, the savings of women in their EPF account are lower than men in all saving ranges. The reason is that Malaysian women work in informal sectors throughout their whole life or take career breaks to take care of the household, children, or family.

In conclusion, while the ASEAN region has enjoyed significant economic growth in recent years, the increasing population of senior citizens poses a new challenge. Many senior citizens, both in rural and urban areas, are at risk of poverty due to inflation, insufficient savings or lack of pension schemes. Although the governments from ASEAN have implemented assistance programs to support eligible senior citizens. While these programs are helpful, the coverage remains low due to strict qualifications and requirements, leaving many senior citizens without adequate support. The PSM proposal of “Senior Citizen Pension” program is a step towards creating a more comprehensive support for senior citizens. It is important to prioritize the well-being of senior citizens and ensure that they are not left behind in the region’s rapid development. By working together, governments, private sectors, NGOs, and individuals can create a more inclusive and supportive environment for senior citizens to enjoy their golden years with dignity and security.

Reagan Cheong
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

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