Voters acted, govt listened

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By Tan Bah Bah

An overdue healthcare package Put bluntly: The voters won – yet again.

The $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package is the second most significant and substantial “victory” for true-blue Singaporeans since the General Elections of 2011. Setting up a committee to review and finally trim ministerial salaries was the first. The committee’s recommendations went some way to appease critics who saw politics as public service and not corporate appointments.

There are many heart-and-soul issues still to be resolved. Among them: the large number of foreigners jostling face to face with locals for living space on this small island, the widening income gap, getting the MRT one hundred per cent back on track, “de-elitising” our schools, universities and social system to ensure every child or person gets the same opportunities, whatever his or her background and the debatable “imperative” that all-out economic growth must be pursued at all costs.

It took the downfall of a grade A ruling party team in Aljunied GRC to push all these issues to the top of the national agenda. The official attitude towards healthcare for the elderly all this while had been, yes, it was important, we will have more hospital beds, we will train more nurses, we will look into subsidising some of the medicines, we will investigate every case of parents who could not afford their hospital bills, we will strengthen this and that.

All seemed like mere firefighting, a kind of running around in spurts to avoid the real problem. There was a sad and unseemly ding-dong between overstressed Singaporeans who had aged parents to take care of and a government which appeared to regard this group of older citizens as a financial liability best left to the resources of the family.

The Pioneer Package will be seen as a welcome if belated answer to one of the flashpoints of GE 2011. The government will try and paint it as one of the outcomes of the National Conversation. Many frustrated voters will strongly disagree, preferring the view that if there had been no strong pressure on the government, nothing substantial would have been done. It does not matter.

The decision was an ideological turnaround or breakthrough. The state now accepts its overall responsibility for the healthcare expenses of its aged citizens. Although there is still co-payment, setting aside $8 billion to ease the financial burden of the elderly and their families who would otherwise have to foot the bills is one of the best government moves so far to regain the electoral ground.

Targeting the Pioneer Generation, that cohort which had built up the country to what it is today, is the right thing to do. It will send a strong message to subsequent generations that this society is not just about economic growth. As they say, action speaks louder than words. The Pioneer Generation Package is practically a clarion cry that the government is now unreservedly committed to carrying the financial burden (or at least a fair bulk), of allowing the older generations to live better quality lives.

With one large step, Singapore can now boast itself to be on the verge of being a First World society. I would hesitate at this stage to describe us as First World yet, with issues about the role of the press and the lack of political plurality unresolved.

More needs to be done. What about non-standardised drugs which are not subsidised? They can be very costly. The details on premiums for Medishield Life are stlll pending. We do not know exactly how much the sums are that the elderly will have to pay out of pocket. A sum of $400 may sound small but to the down and out, it is their survival money.

Finally, I agree with Minister Grace Fu that an important next step is to reach out in smaller groups to all the elderly to explain how they can benefit from the package, including using dialects where necessary.

Kudos to the government for the Pioneer Generation Package. But well done to voters for slapping the face of the driver to wake him up to the reality of a ticking social time bomb in our midst.