Monday, September 3, 2007

Giving old age teeth

2 Sep 2007, ST

While my life is not predictable, at least, my retirement is purposefully planned, thanks to changes in the CPF

By Cheong Suk-Wai

A CHINWAG with my mother over the phone last Monday revealed that she had developed a bad toothache.

'Better book a slot with your dentist,' I said. 'Toothache is no joke, you know.'

'Ya, I know,' said my Mum, refraining as I did from saying out loud what we both recalled: that her sister-in-law had died suddenly a few Chinese New Years ago from a heart ailment brought on by a toothache she had ignored.

But far be it for my Mum to dwell on a dental dilemma. 'I think I didn't drink enough water yesterday, lah,' said the woman who usually downs 12 cups of water a day.

She added lightly: 'I think once your Dad massages the toe that governs the teeth area, the pain should go away.'

Suspicious of this suspect reflexology, I harangued her into promising she would head for the dentist pronto if all that water-chugging and toe-massaging didn't help.

It's not the dentist she dreads, but the elaborate operation triggered by having to prepare my weakened Dad for a trip to, and from, Penang where the good dentists are.

Don't think I don't feel a heel for having her and my father get along on their own these days, what with my sister being in Kuala Lumpur and me here. Sure, there are good friends and kind relatives on hand to help, but some privations are best kept within the family, for dignity's sake.

Still, life is about making the best of things.

'Eh, after talking to you, the toothache has gone away, lah,' she said by way of a parting shot.

But I went to bed with a sinking feeling, because that chat brought home all too clearly how delicately balanced our lives are, day after day.

My parents and I toodle along on the hopeful assumption that my father, God bless him, will pass on before my mother.

If it was to be the reverse, I would have to drop everything and return to Malaysia for good to take care of him, no questions asked.

What a blessing it is, then, that amid that ever-present uncertainty, my retirement, at least, has been planned purposefully via the Central Provident Fund (CPF), to say nothing of the iron-clad guarantee that my CPF savings will always be parked where they are, thanks to the Government's track record and reputation, and not frittered away or embezzled as sometimes happens in shabbier governments.

And, remembering my mother's anecdotes of greed and excess, I also appreciate some measure of prudent control over my eventual withdrawals, such as having to maintain a minimum sum in my CPF account, rather than frolic like Nero while his country burnt because, let's not forget, there are going to be two hulking casinos here soon, and gamblers aren't usually the best savers.

Of course, the CPF minimum sum in my circumstances means having to tighten the belt consistently on the easier living that one assumes one should enjoy after decades of slog.

But then, isn't being able to live simply the ultimate sophistication?

I REMEMBER years of tea and toast when I began carving out my career 12 years ago, freed from the cossetted comforts of student life.

Already certain from that get-go that I would be working - and loving it - till the day I die (especially with paltry interest rates on cash savings these days), I cheered even more to hear Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announce on Aug 12 that the retirement age would now be 67, with new adjustments to CPF withdrawals to take this into account.

Five years ago, I caught up with a peer who worked in Malaysia for a while after graduating from a university overseas, but then found Singapore irresistible pay-wise.

But when I asked him for advice as to how to stretch my CPF kitty, he said: 'You still looking to withdraw your CPF at 55? I've resigned myself to never seeing a cent of it.'

Then, as now, I thought that was a bit much. Nobody can take your CPF away from you, I pointed out, without breaking the law.

He shrugged all this off with a smirk, and said: 'Well, I don't know about you, but I'm looking to pull out of Singapore as soon as possible. Laws can always change, you know.'

'Why chain yourself to a pressure cooker?' he demanded, referring to the competitive climate here.

Last I heard, he is still working here. Perhaps he's seen the flip side of the coin.

As to the proposed compulsory annuity - which would nick a bit off my CPF minimum sum so I can continue to be protected financially after turning 85 - I certainly would prefer that to paying prohibitive taxes now to support the elderly, as is the case in many Western countries.

Still, the CPF changes have augmented new uncertainties for me - and my mother, whom I want to live with me in her dotage.

While the Government would consider me employable if I am still able and competent at 67, it just wouldn't do to allow employers to keep weeding out those over 35 from those under 35, as most do now.

Sure, experience is important, some employers tell me, when I ask them about age discrimination. But what's experience compared to our savings from hiring dime-a-dozen greenhorns?

You could tell them till you are blue in the face things like 'haven't you heard? Sixty is the new 30', but most see elderly workers as wrinkly, set in their ways and a magnet for ailments (never mind if most head honchos of companies can often be described like so - think Jack Welch, Warren Buffett and Li Ka-Shing).

And, as to living past 85, I think I am in a growing majority facing the uphill battle to stay young and fit, even as the continuing spikes in work and life stresses in this speed-silly world take their toll on one and all.

How, then, do we as a society, guarantee for ourselves a better future beyond just a prudent and enabling CPF scheme?

Won't corporate social responsibility - that darling management buzzword - include more compassionate workplace practices, to take the edge off fickle markets and focusing on bottomlines all the time?

Just my two cents' worth, please, and that's the tooth, I mean truth, as I see it.

No comments: