Feeling the tight squeeze in the middle


ASSISTANT MANAGER Raymond Koh, 38, is a man with many worries.

He just sold his Housing Board flat below valuation to upgrade to a bigger flat for his growing family. He worries about the long hours his daughter, 14, spends in school; and about the primary school his six-year-old son will get into.

His car’s certificate of entitlement runs out in 21/2 years and he wonders if he will be able to afford another one.

He frets about growing old, his children’s future and whether they will have a better standard of living than he is having.

“It will be very tough for them, that’s for sure, because their income and the things everybody would want (like a house or car) don’t match any more. The gap is very big,” he says.

“In Singapore, if you don’t have a combined income of at least five figures, I think it can be quite tough to pay for everything- house, car, education, insurance.”

Mr Koh is one of the many middle-income Singaporeans aged 35 to 44 who emerged as the group most negative about the future and government policies, in a survey by The Straits Times.

They comprise roughly 16 per cent of the resident population here, according to data from the Department of Statistics, making them the second-largest age group. The largest is the 45 to 54 age group.

The poll of more than 500 Singaporeans was done by market research firm Asia Insight over a week in March.

It asked them questions on how satisfied they think Singaporeans are with government policies and their confidence in the future, and found this group had the smallest share – one in two – of those who think Singaporeans are satisfied, and who are confident about the future.

When asked to rate how well the Government has handled issues like health care and transport since 2011, again this group consistently gave the lowest scores.

The survey sought to find out how Singaporeans view the progress made since the 2011 General Election, when many issues were aired and voters sent a strong signal by electing six opposition members into the House, the most since 1966.

The results show that the social shifts the Government has made since then seem to be resonating with the ground, and concerns over housing have abated.

Singaporeans have the most confidence in the Government’s ability to handle issues related to the elderly, the poor, health care and housing, although there appears to be growing frustration over train breakdowns, and the foreign worker issue remains divisive.

But another picture that emerged was of a U-shape curve in satisfaction.

Young Singaporeans are generally happy and optimistic. Those in their mid-30s, 40s and early-50s are stressed and critical. And then those aged 55 to 64 become more carefree and happier again.

When told these results from the survey, Mr Koh agreed: “These (aged 35 to 44) are the people with the most burdens, the most worries. We’re in a midlife crisis of sorts. We have schoolgoing children, so the commitment is very high, and we’re also afraid of a sudden career change.

“If you’re committed to the car, house and children, the burden is huge. We’re the sandwich group. The costs are tremendous.”

The phenomenon of the middle-class squeeze is not a new one. And neither are the stresses of the middle-aged. But when age and income intersect, the survey suggest a bloc of voters in the middle who are feeling increasingly squeezed and in need of more help.

Scholars on well-being have posited just this relation between age and happiness – with the lowest point usually coinciding with middle age.

American academics David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald found that happiness among Americans and Europeans bottomed out in their 40s.

These findings are corroborated by a 2011 quality-of-life study by Professors Siok Kuan Tambyah and Tan Soo Jiuan from the National University of Singapore.

It found that those aged 25 to 44 were most likely among all the adult age groups to say that they did not have enough money to buy the things they need or do what they wanted to do in life.

Among the 1,500 Singapore citizens surveyed, this age group also enjoyed life the least and felt the least sense of achievement.

That same NUS study also found that the middle-income group, which used to be the happiest and enjoyed life in 2006 compared to other income groups, is now the least happy and enjoyed life the least.

That does not surprise Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien: “The middle-income may have higher expectations that are unmet, and they do not get as much government support as the lower-income.

“The 35- to 44-year-olds are often having to juggle multiple responsibilities. Apart from work and parental responsibilities, they may also have to provide caregiving help to their parents.”

The survey also found that the overriding perception is that the Government helps the poor the most.

Over three-quarters of respondents said the low-income group have benefited most from government policies in the last three years.

In contrast, only 3 per cent said the middle-income group had been helped the most, less than the 10 per cent who said the richest were being helped the most.

This despite more measures recently to support the middle-income group, including GST vouchers to offset cost of living rises, and also hikes in the income ceiling so middle-income households can buy four-room HDB flats with subsidies.

The findings suggest that while the Government has increased support to the middle-income groups, it is either not felt, or not sufficient.

The young and the old

The 55 to 64 age group, however, seems to be in a sweet spot. They were the most confident and satisfied on almost all policy issues.

This age group had the highest levels of approval for the Government’s handling of the elderly, the poor, health care and transport issues.

Some 84 per cent of them said the elderly issues had improved since 2011, compared to the national average of 72 per cent. About 65 per cent also had confidence in their ability to pay for health care in their old age, compared to the national average of 50 per cent, and as low as just 38 per cent for the 35 to 44 age group.

This is borne out in the same NUS study, which found that those aged 55 to 64 were the happiest and enjoyed life the most among all age groups.

Said NUS Professor Chua Beng Huat: “It is the beginning of the end of a career and if they don’t have sufficient nest eggs already in place, life can be stressful thinking about how to fund their retirement years. But most will be cushioned by the ability to monetise their housing for retirement.”

But while the 55- to 64-year-olds seem content, it is not the case for the elderly aged 65 and above. This bloc of voters have been closely watched politically. An Institute of Policy Studies post-General Election 2011 analysis found that the elderly were increasingly swing voters.

This traditional PAP-voting base may have wavered due to concerns over the rising cost of living and lack of retirement savings.

These silver voters still have many concerns over their ability to pay for health-care bills despite the recent introduction of the Pioneer Generation Package, the ST survey suggests.

About 55 per cent of those 65 and above said they supported MediShield Life, lower than the national average of 64 per cent.

And 59 per cent approved of the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, again lower than the national average of 66 per cent.

Associate Professor Reuben Wong from the National University of Singapore said it was significant that “the people who are supposed to feel they matter, aren’t feeling it”.

He thinks the Government has to convince this group of seniors by effectively implementing the policies that are meant to give them a hand.

It underlines the monumental job ahead for the task force co-led by Senior Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo and Minister of State for Health Amy Khor, to communicate and coordinate the package for these 450,000 pioneers. But even while the 55- to 64-year-olds appear very supportive of government policies, Prof Wong also cautions that this group of elderly have to be handled with care.

Measures like the Pioneer Generation Package – for those aged 65 and above this year – may have created the expectation that they too will get something when they age.

Younger Singaporeans were harder to read. They expressed higher confidence in most issues except for education, housing and transport. This is likely because these are the issues they have most contact with now.

Among the 21- to 24-year-olds, 30 per cent said it had become easier to own a first home. Yet the same number said it had not.

This dichotomy of views, suggests SLP International Property Consultants’ head of research Nicholas Mak, could be a result of perception and expectations.

As they are at the start of their careers and on low incomes, “I would not be surprised if they look at the price and feel overwhelmed”, he says.

By the time they start their families, their income would have increased and he is confident housing will be attainable if they go for a Build-To-Order flat.

For education, Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education says that the findings bear out the belief that students today experience much more stress than their parents did in school.

He says: “Probably many of them (now) have had private tuition and the regiment of extra lessons, parental anxiety, and assessments.”

While changes have been made to the education system, they have been incremental.

Larger changes such as how to grade the PSLE on a wider range beyond T-scores, and making every school a good school, as is the Education Ministry’s slogan, will take time.

And Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out in his speech last week, Singapore schools continue to hold up well globally, and must continue to do so, even as the Government seeks to reduce the level of stress placed on students and parents.

Overall, the survey findings suggest that even as the Government has moved to address many of the issues that had caused anxiety and insecurity among voters, there are still groups that remain sceptical, especially among the middle-aged and middle class.

The Government has to pay attention to their needs and aspirations, so as to make sure their dissatisfaction does not deepen further.

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