A conversation with the Director of University Malaya’s Social Security Research Centre, Professor Datuk Norma Mansor discussing the drivers of poverty and vulnerability affecting Malaysian seniors and social protection endeavours to mitigate their social exclusion.
International Living’s guide to the ‘World’s Best Places to Retire in 2017’ places Malaysia at number 6 in rankings, describing two of the main reasons Malaysia is worthy of the rank. The first being our world-class facilities while maintaining a low cost of living and secondly, the excellent healthcare due to having some of the best-trained doctors in Asia.
While these facts make the ideal retirement paradise for foreign retirees, the reality is different for the majority of Malaysians. Many have come into contact with the aged care system and are often left wanting, not for lack of the aforementioned reasons, but due to the lack of the necessary mechanisms that advocate social inclusiveness of our own senior citizens.
Social inclusion as defined by the United Nations is as a process by which societies combat poverty and social exclusion. A socially inclusive society is one where all people within the community feel valued, their differences are respected, and their basic needs are met so they can live in dignity. On the opposite spectrum, social exclusion shuts one out from the social, economic, political and cultural systems which contribute to the integration of a person into the community.
As it is, Malaysia’s large ageing population in general – which continues to grow annually – struggles to access sustainable healthcare. Break it down further and the statistics indicates even more differences. As such, understanding the ageing populations’ dynamics is critical to developing policies that not only positively impact our elderly’s social protection, but also on their perpetuating factors of poverty and vulnerability.
Malaysian communities in effectively addressing them can partake in the social, economic, political and cultural dividends reaped from senior inclusivity. In our interview with Professor Datuk Norma, we discuss the existing factors of social exclusion that prevents – or at least, restricts – Malaysian seniors from fully partaking in these benefits, and the initiatives undertaken by the Social Research Security Centre to promote better social protection for Malaysian seniors.
The Drivers of Poverty & Vulnerability
Data recorded by the Household Income and Expenditure (HIES) survey in 2009 indicated that 9% of seniors are living below the national poverty income line (PLI). The survey also indicates that 12% of head of households (whose families have seniors in their care) and 17% of the family members of seniors are living below the poverty line.
According to Professor Datuk Norma, the findings have also indicated significant differences between seniors living in rural and urban areas, namely in areas such as education attainment and employment opportunities. Ethnicity and household status also play a role in differentiating their respective social and economic difficulties, making certain groups of seniors particularly vulnerable to poverty and restricting accessibility to healthcare.
“The urban – rural gap in poverty has not been fully addressed. Poverty is still 3 times higher among the elderly in the rural area compared to urban areas.” says Professor Datuk Norma.
In a survey conducted by the Social Security Research Centre – which include a research sample of 518 Malaysians aged 40 years and above – it was noted that the areas which required greater concerted effort to help Malaysians cope with ageing and enjoy quality of life lies in financial economic stability and health problems – which were rated at 45% and 35% respectively.
Concern for the future of their children/grandchildren were also highlighted, indicating difficulty to accumulate sufficient savings for retirement due to the ‘Sandwich Generation Cycle’ trend – i.e. financially providing for both children and their own parents.
Investing in Human Capabilities & Productive Capacity
To adequately address the ageing population’s diversified needs more comprehensively whilst tackling the issue of education attainment and employment opportunities, the research centre has made proposals based on these findings to call for developing policies that strengthen the rural areas by funding new agricultural projects and improving infrastructure as well as rural-urban connections.
The proposed suggestions include investing in rural tourism and development to attract tourists through agricultural festivals and reconstructed historical sites. The proposal aims to develop arural transportation system that link to major cities to promote greater demand. However, these policies must be measured and developed using an asset-based approach as opposed to an income-based one.
“When things were tied to an income-based approach it becomes inaccurate because many things are not captured when it is only focused on income.”
Professor Datuk Norma stated these policies should be designed using an asset-based approach as it is ultimately more productive. When assets such as social, human, physical, natural and financial capital is provided during the working age period, the vulnerability to poverty will not be an issue for the rural population once they reached old age.
Financial Saving Mechanisms & Other Initiatives
In regards to savings accumulation and financial stability, the centre is currently conducting research on savings adequacy to address the mechanisms and circumstances surrounding financial economic stability during active ageing. They have also undertaken a research project on social protection coverage that is focused on ASEAN countries.
“Malaysia is in a situation where we can still plan well for active ageing, as we still have the productive group – those who are 25 to 60 years old – whom we can reap from as population dividend. So we can still save in order for us to prepare for active ageing” Professor Datuk Norma.
However, she further states that social protection for the ageing population includes addressing many diverse aspects of social inclusion such as the labour force, social insurance and development. Therefore, the centre is currently looking to work with and support initiatives from any sector that fall within the field of social protection.
Ageism as a Social Inclusion Impediment
On the issue of ageism in Malaysia, Professor Datuk Norma stated one of the centre’s future projects will be looking into the aspect of post-retirement employment and the many labour issues involved.
“When you talk about employing people post- retirement, there are many labour issues involved such as contracts – whether it is formal or informal and etc. In Malaysia, ageism is not seen as discrimination because we have a clear defined mandatory retirement age of 60. We are still coming up with the blueprint for ageing and how to prepare for it in Malaysia. When more people start being aware of these things, policy-makers will be pushed to look into it as well. It is urgent and critical we do so in terms of policies.”
She also stated that this, along with the issue of using asset-based approaches in policies to curb poverty in rural-urban ageing, will be brought forward and discussed with the Social Protection Council, which was established by Cabinet in October last year.
“Malaysia is slowly becoming a matured society and growth cannot be at the rate that we used to experience in the past. We need to think in the long run and how are we going to add value to our society.”