Midnight’s Seniors: The Generation of Perpetual Indebtedness and Gratitude

It is almost puzzling when we see that someone who turns sixty-five any day this year will be eligible for the Pioneer Generation Package that the government has recently introduced whereas someone younger by perhaps just a day—perhaps even less than a second—will be ineligible. What a difference a second makes when it comes to one’s contribution to society as recognized by the state.

Where policies that benefit specific age groups are concerned, the line has to be drawn somewhere. If I were distribute sweets to kids, there is only so much that I can stretch the age range that can be reasonably considered childhood. A mere second does make all the difference here, and justifiably so. The Pioneer Generation Package, announced as part of Singapore Budget 2014, is very much articulated as an initiative created with the elderly in mind even if it is not necessarily stated as such officially. As reflected the Budget’s tagline, “Opportunities for the Future, Assurance for our Seniors,” those eligible are the elderly and they will be assured of several benefits “for life“—or whatever is left of it (I assume the government hopes it is not too much). Yet, if it were supposed be a package for the elderly, why would someone born on 1 January 1950 at 0000 never get the package? It is not as though he, and those born after him, has been bestowed the fountain of youth by Singapore’s magical, if somewhat illusory, third-world-to-first development over the years. It would seem that, as far as the brains behind the package are concerned, these people either never grow old or they will grow old without needed the same kind of assurance as pioneers.

While the Pioneer Generation Package may be said to be a long-term policy insofar as it may take another few decades for every single eligible person to have passed on (though this day may never come because Kuan Yew, The Pioneer Supremo himself, is apparently immortal), the package is shows the government’s lack of commitment to policies that truly strengthen the social safety net. Despite the way it has been marketed, the Pioneer Generation package is never meant to be a benefits-for-seniors initiative to begin with. It cannot exactly be faulted for being dishonest—the name says it all. It is a single package, not a policy sans expiration. However generous the age range may be, the package applies only to a particular generation of people (and somewhat belatedly too, given that some of them could already have been languishing in old age and impoverishment for decades), not to a category of citizens that will have more and more new members over time. The Pioneer Generation Package is, of course, not meant to help the elderly—screw such policies for they can’t ever make the current government appear benevolent one election cycle after another! But the lack of commitment could, ironically, make for good marketing. Not only is the package targeted at one group of people, but it is also helps to cultivate a sense of exclusivity, giving the sense that the government sees the people for their unique contributions.

It is not as though the nameless elderly citizens, now labeled pioneers in a state-directed marketing exercise, are going to get special privileges as a recognition for their exceptional contributions to the country. The benefits included the Pioneer Generation Package are invariably meant to alleviate the burden of the less than affordable health care in Singapore. They offer no reward. Instead, they fulfil a desperate need—and this need is not even new at all. Whereas it is possible and reasonable for an authority to delimit a group that deserves to be rewarded, whether or not people have a need is not something that can be decided arbitrarily. If the need exists, it will not go away just because no one acknowledges it. If the elderly who are called pioneers today have financial needs (sure, this is an invalid premise since absolutely no one in Singapore has problems affording health care), so will those who are sooner or later going to reach the age of today’s pioneers unless everyone who is not classified as elderly today has miraculously enough money to retire comfortably. But their needs have so far been disregarded. Branding the package as an initiative born of a desire to recognize the contributions of a group of “pioneers” is a convenient way to alleviate their financial burdens without being obliged to do the same for those in uncannily similar predicaments.

Yet it is not devoid of persuasiveness, and that is where its danger lies. Rhetorically, it tells an existing and ever-shrinking group of people that they are visible and will be taken care of. As for the ever-growing group of elderly people who are not eligible for the package, their numbers will still be relatively small by the next General Election, and more one-off packages can be created when their size grows big enough to matter in a future election or when there is a perceived political need for the PAP government to repeat the same rhetoric. They can always have a package repackaged. If a policy is implemented for the future-elderly now, there will be nothing—no publicity, no novelty—to remind them of their obligation to feel grateful in future. It is not that the government does not have the foresight or the money to help a group that will over time have more and more eligible members. Rather, it is merely mercenary enough to avoid long-term commitments so that it can milk the most political mileage out of short-term packages. The iterability of a move like the Pioneer Generation Package, with its endless potential variations, ensures that there is a constant potential lack and hence a constant need for similar acts of ostensible recognition. It is no more than an elaborate and manipulative ritual of political courtship masked as nothing less than true love.

The Pioneer Generation Package is by no means an exception, but is representative of how the PAP has been and will be courting Singaporeans in a bid to regain the vote share it has lost to the opposition over the last couple of General Elections. We have the NS45 vouchers, for instance, which were supposed to recognize (the vocabulary recurs, as one might observe) the contributions and sacrifices of NSmen—while continuing to cripple them with inflexible policies and inescapable commitments, of course. Then there is also the implementation of a mandatory entry-level pay for those in the cleaning and security industries, a policy which the government refuses to call a minimum wage, perhaps because the minimum starting salary of $1000 is too embarrassing to be called a minimum wage to begin with when the cost of living in Singapore is amongst the highest in the world. As far as possible, the PAP regime will compartmentalize the demographic into segments that need to be targeted—segments that may feel disadvantaged by the PAP’s policies all these years—and try to hoodwink them one by one. If the government had truly wanted to recognize the efforts of NSmen, why limit the package to those who have finished serving or were still serving NS instead of making it an entitlement for all servicemen upon enlistment? Clearly, it prefers one-off packages that can be reinvented in cycles to permanent policies that benefit the people without anyone needing to feel exceptional gratitude to those in power year after year. The logic is impeccable—why be generous when there are more benefits to reap from being stingy?

To be sure, the government is all too capable of implementing policies that affect entire groups permanently, whether it is conscription or the setting of the CPF withdrawal age and minimum sum. Policies that make demands on citizens can be introduced sweepingly with token attention to objections (packaged as “engagement”) whereas initiatives that are meant to benefit citizens must be packaged in exquisite little gift packages that never become entitlements. There is always the excuse of fiscal prudence and the rhetoric of self-reliance to mask any hint of callousness in governance when ideas related to minimum wage or unemployment benefits are vehemently rejected. One of the PAP’s favorite tropes used to be the crutch mentality and its dangers for Singapore. According to the laws of Singaporean reality, it is a travesty for someone with a broken leg to ask for crutches (since he can still crawl to his MP for some food vouchers, I suppose), but perfectly fine to get him to go to war with a rifle since his hands are perfectly intact and he will have no problems shooting.

Undoubtedly, there are bound to be those who will want to tease out any iota of merit in the policies of the PAP regime, whether these people are voluntary apologists or salaried propagandists. But at least people still do benefit regardless of the political intentions behind the policies, don’t they? Of course they do! Enslavement is not possible unless there are tangible benefits (to strain the poor word a little), such as the minimum amount of food to keep the slave alive and the minimum amount of rest to ensure that he is able to continue working even when his basic human dignity has been sacrificed. There is also always a more cruel slave master elsewhere. If Singaporeans are to become individuals who can live with dignity, fundamental changes to ensure that the needy do not have to depend on well-choreographed acts of kindness that can always be withheld, changes that go far beyond the short-term and limited packages the PAP is so fond of creating, are needed. The human body may survive the PAP regime, but not the human spirit. How is a society able to live with firefighters who allow fires to take place so that they will always be needed even though they are well positioned to prevent the fires to begin with?

Until we recognize that we must and have the will to do wean ourselves off mercy of our overlords, we will always be at their mercy.

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