Fools without hills (to die on), Malaysia’s retirement dystopia

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

NOVEMBER 30 — There’s nothing to look forward to.

In this expanse that is Cheras, for retirees, there is pretty much nothing to look forward to. It is not much better in any other part of Selangor or the capital cities in it — Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

Here, once retired, unless family or accumulated wealth has plans for you, the plan then is just to be around, till you are not around anymore.

There’s an elderly man who cycles to the mosque daily. Another walks his young granddaughter to the shop and back. Those used to boss things on the local football field a lifetime ago — when I was a wee lad — now ration their visits to the food-court with the best beer deal as dictated by their budget. The rest of the time they share good morning and night greetings in WhatsApp groups. The women stay at home and wait.

There is the uneasy wait to age, literally, as EPF withdrawals are age-tied. Take out half at 50 or 55 and the rest at 60. Fund closed. Few, dare imagine their seventies independent.

Welcome to the third instalment of “Getting to be a developed country” series, and the gaping hole — abyss? — senior citizens fall into, thanks to Putrajaya’s broad neglect and every local council’s indifference, for decades.

While a decade ago ignoring the needs of the old mattered less, today the first New Economic Policy babies edge closer to retirement and they may not look kindly to nothing as a future.

Malaysia’s descent into an aging population also raises seniors’ weightage as a percentage of the voting population. Multiply that to their propensity to vote, it compels interest. Increased number of voters in the segment that has the highest voter turnout, will invariably change the way campaigns occur in the 2030s.

It is not that the government is unaware of it.

They keep an eye on seniors’ issues like healthcare.

State hospitals’ ability to supply uninterrupted diabetic and hypertension medications, along with managing dialysis centres for the masses is critical. Health ministers live or die with the ability to provide general treatments for the large numbers, and perhaps cruelly not as much for specialised ailments like cancer. It is painfully a numbers game.

A medicine supply hiccup at the wrong time can spell disaster at the polling booth. To keep the older and less wealthy Malaysia — that soon to be a super-voter category — pleased is a priority.

Some parties rely heavily on their religious appeal to pull these voters, but as a more demanding generation fills the senior citizen bracket at a time services are stretched together with funding, and socials absent, other considerations can fall ahead of spirituality.

Even the old are liable to feel food, shelter, health and mahjong today are more urgent than the afterlife arrangements, at least when it comes to voting.

File picture of people jogging at the Titiwangsa lake park in Kuala Lumpur, May 4, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
File picture of people jogging at the Titiwangsa lake park in Kuala Lumpur, May 4, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

File picture of people jogging at the Titiwangsa lake park in Kuala Lumpur, May 4, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

The impossible

The glaring gaps for senior citizens are effective pensions, employment and social life.

The first is talked to death without any meaningful action as only economic redistribution can correct the situation. Something which can benefit those new to the workforce but it is too late for the next generation set to retire.

Which then elevates further the need to extend the retirement age and to restructure the economy to employ the aged in menial medium-physical jobs, like at fast-food outlets or supermarkets. This is imperative. As pointed out by EPF, half the aged population may have to live with under RM42 per month (RM500 annually). That’s not a lot of nasi goreng kampung with telur mata.

Pandemic developments — panic — became political ammunition.

Umno kicked off the political gambit to champion premature EPF withdrawals, but all other parties also backed it to play safe. That error will have its chicken coming home to roost moment, though the politicians responsible would have left the scene by then.

Millions with no savings while unemployed is a major threat to stability. Government cannot turn to the Asian solution — filial families picking up the slack — as much as they did traditionally.

The demographic reality of working age adults shrinking and senior citizens segment bulging, coupled with nuclear families, render families less likely and less willing to adopt the burden.

More of those future employed and now in school will be saddled with the care of elders, and them being ignorant about it today does not mean they’d be OK with it in the future.

The spectre of the old sleeping on boulevards of broken dreams is getting real by the day.

The statistics department estimated 100 working Malaysians (15-64 age group) cared for 10.5 old dependents at the end of 2022. The number is soft and it is the 30-50 age sub-group who form the majority of the carers. The weight only grows by the year, with a wearier population.

These best days

Local councils have local knowledge and access to communities. They are best positioned to engage, arrange and fund social activities for the elderly. From adult education to joget classes, the planning and execution requires community-based actions supported by local councils.

Unfortunately, for the past 60 years local councils have kept to themselves and hoped the people stay away from them while paying their assessment rates assiduously. It’s been largely functional — grass-cutting and trash collection schedules — and rarely dynamic.

While socials cannot alleviate the inevitable old age poverty surge in Malaysia, the presence of social activities can offer purpose and meaning to senior citizens. Even if they are logistical challenges.

Tasks to map the older demographic, connect to civil society groups and get buy-ins are laborious and time-consuming. Government, in this case the local government, has the scale and funding to head the process.

Visualise then, for ease of comprehension.

Three senior citizens to use the council pool is difficult as they would be pensive to be in environments filled with their grandchildren. But 30 senior citizens poolside for three fixed sessions a week is a pool party. That would require coordination, transportation, staff on site and activity management. It’s the same for tai-chi, mall walking, running or walking groups, travel cliques or community gardens.

To bring people together by sections or locations subject to geographical and logistical arrangements, and to manage the activities.

If the task seems herculean, it is because there are hardly any precedents. But the community is up for it, what it needs is leadership, encouragement and facilities.

It is impossible for individuals or small groups to initialise, but easier even if cumbersome for local councils. It does take work and that is why local councils are there to begin with, to help its community.

All of the calls for change and action at the ground level in the councils seem far-fetched and fanciful only because they are not done. Ministries and state governments should support the efforts, especially financial, but the knowledge is what sets local councils apart, even at our sedentary councils.

The future of our past may invariably be in the hands of local councils, despite the current apathy. It is well within the government's capacity to act. They have not before, that’s not an excuse to not act now. By the day, its absence will only appear more dire.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.