From retirement to our future death: Reflections on National Day Rally 2019

During the 2019 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at length about the issue of retirement adequacy. Singapore will raise the retirement age and re-employment age to 65 and 70 respectively by 2030 alongside increases in the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rates for older workers.

In a long-term move aimed at ensuring retirement adequacy for our older [and ageing] workers, the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions for those aged 55 to 60 will be raised by 11 percentage points to 37 per cent. As the tripartite workgroup set up to study the concerns of older workers puts it, these measures are aimed at “strengthening support for older workers.”

While these measures aimed at retirement adequacy and the employability of our older workers should be applauded, it fails [again] to bring the challenges of an aging [and dying] population to its logical conclusion: death and the funerary needs of Singaporeans. This is a policy gap, and a gap that needs to be addressed as the government faces the demographic disruption of an ageing population.

In an ironic twist, as Singaporeans live and work longer, it has the effect of deepening the complacency of our population towards our mortal death and consequently [delaying] our funerary needs. Coupled with the medicalisation of death, this will lead to a further inadequacy in the individual and societal preparedness towards death and the funerary needs of our nation.

We need to disrupt our misconceived attitudes towards where we locate our dead. Instead of displacement, isolation and outright rejection, the rejuvenation of urban spaces should bring the living and the dead closer to one another. Our civil service needs to be more thoughtful on death and its relationship with the living and in due course, integrate death into present policies. We need to bring the narratives and the policies surrounding a rapidly ageing population to its logical conclusion: death.

Funeral Costs

For instance, the ElderShield scheme should include a component that insures elderly Singaporeans from the economic burden of a funeral. Policymakers should also consider the Central Provident Fund (CPF) as a means to allow Singaporeans to finance their funeral or to pay for the pre-planning needs of young Singaporeans. At the same time, we need to set up a new Bereavement Account (BA) within the existing CPF framework to allow Singaporeans to save up for their own funerals.

The “basic standard of living” that encompass opportunities to education, employment and work-life balance, access to healthcare has to also encompass death care, i.e. basic funerary needs. Costs of a funeral should be regulated and any infringement duly reported to a regulatory watchdog formed as part of an expansion of the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Law.

In fact, the government should require that all reputable funeral companies published fee benchmarks for funeral services in Singapore. The benchmarks serve to guide companies in charging appropriately and enable consumers and bereaved families to make a better-informed decision even before a death occurs.

The development of benchmarks should form part of a larger strategy to ensure that funeral costs remain affordable. Families will be encouraged to use the benchmarks to have a conversation with their funeral director on the services, the personalisation of these services and the fees charged. Funeral professionals should also take reference from these benchmarks to set appropriate charges and make reference to it when advising families under their care.

In developing the benchmarks, it would thus be important to reference cost data including transacted fees for the past three years whilst considering other factors such as the complexity of the services provided, as well as the cost and expertise required of the funeral companies to perform the basic and typical cases, so as to ensure that the fee benchmarks reflect a fair range of professional fees for the services rendered.

Education and Manpower needs

Manpower needs are one of the most critical aspects of the funeral profession in Singapore. More needs to be done to attract younger Singaporeans to join this most meaningful of trade. As part of the government’s plans to encourage more students from lower-income families to study medicine, the government should also look at extending financial assistance to aspiring funeral professionals who intend to pursue funeral, embalming and mortuary courses in vocational colleges and universities overseas. This will ensure that Singapore will continue to have the requisite human resource expertise to meet the increasing demand beyond 2030, both in the healthcare and the death care sector.

It is also time that discussion for a mortuary college is convened in the highest echelons of the civil service. Prior to the realisation of this, it important to include aspects of mortuary courses in the existing nursing, medical, social work and gerontology courses at our vocational colleges, polytechnics and universities.

The funeral profession should also follow present practices in the social service sector and publish salary guidelines as an indication of market pay reference for job roles typically found in the funeral profession. Funeral companies are recommended to take reference from the guidelines for compensation matters whilst taking into consideration their own organisation’s needs and structures. These salary guidelines should be bi-annually reviewed with annual adjustments as necessary in consultation with the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), the National Wages Council (NWC) and SkillsFuture Singapore.

Funeral workers regardless of their seniority should also be unionized and a Union for Funeral, Mortuary, Cemeteries and Columbarium Employees should be set up, and join NTUC as an affiliated union.

Children Funeral Fund

Besides ensuring that pre-school education costs will continue to come down for more families, it is also important to assist families who have lost their young ones. At a time of unimaginable loss, no grieving parent should be faced with the stress and worry of finding the money to cover the costs of their child’s funeral.

A Children Funeral Fund under the auspices of the Community Chest should be set up. Donations should be made tax-deductible and the government should match every dollar donated to the fund by the public, with an initial contribution of $250,000 to be made available by the government. The burial and cremation fees for children under the age of 18 should be abolished. Families grieving the loss of a child through death or stillborn should be given up to $2,000 to help cover their funeral costs. This fund should aim to reduce the financial burden for families by reimbursing funeral, cemeteries, crematorium and columbarium authorities directly. This fund should rightfully be made available regardless of the family’s income.

The future of funeral parlours in Singapore

We need to imagine a future where the living and the dead can co-exist. As we work on and imagine the future shape and direction of the Greater Southern Waterfront, the Jurong Lake District, Punggol Digital District and the Paya Lebar airbase, the dead should not be an afterthought.

In these grand masterplans, we need to explore how we can better integrate the living with the dead, and plan for cemeteries and after-death facilities within green living spaces. Instead of moving deceased family members away from the living environment, we can better utilise the extensive green spaces and park connector networks and redesign our urban spaces to accommodate resting places for our dead.

Continuing to locate funeral parlours in industrial estates is not the way forward. In fact, we can and should consider locating funeral homes within our present hospital networks (north, south, east, west and central Singapore), just as it is the case in South Korea. We should also consider turning over some land parcels that are part of golf courses today to build funeral parlours.

Ageing cannot displace death  

Since July 2019, the idea of a Ministry of Ageing has been floated. In the interim, it is important to first expand on the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) to include more robust and coordinated policy approaches and responses to ageing issues.

Concurrently, it is now time to take the governance of the funeral profession away from the National Environmental Agency (NEA) and recalibrate our attitudes and approaches to dying, death and funerals in Singapore, away from pure public health concerns and includes (i) death education in our schools, (ii) the role that death plays in urban redevelopment, (iii) the manpower needs of the funeral profession, (iv) the [ever] increasing number of elderly dying alone and destitute in our communities etc.

Thus, any governmental agency on ageing cannot exclude death literacy and the funerary needs of Singaporeans. We cannot lure ourselves to think that any issues pertaining to future demographic challenges in Singapore, which includes the [future] dead in our midst ends at retirement adequacy. After all, we are the future dead.

As this article has attempted to depict, death and the funerary needs of Singaporeans, in fact, cover a gamut of policy concerns (from education to national development to manpower and family and social development) and it is only logical to bring conversations regarding death and mortality into the existing policy considerations and “future-proof” this island nation that we all call home.

Demography is an issue that requires an “inter-agency, cross-ministry” approach and death should not be left out, lest there is a shortfall in our nation’s responses to the challenges of a rapidly ageing population.

After all, an ageing population is a dying population, and a dying population is one that needs more caskets, not less; increased expectations and regulation of the funeral profession, not less; greater synergy between the living and the dead, not less.

The present conversations in a rapidly ageing population should not exclude death care and the funeral profession. In Singapore, there is cognitive blindness towards death care and the funeral profession, and this extends into the public service.

The understanding that death and an emphasis on a professional and regulated funeral profession is, in fact, the natural and logical conclusion of any conversation of an ageing population is sorely lacking.

The future of Singapore cannot do without imagination on how we manage death and the funeral profession. And we the people must better understand and come to terms with dying and death as they come to constitute an increasingly common feature of our lives, especially beyond 2030.

Is Singapore ready for its future dead? No.

Can we be ready? Yes.

In fact, we must and we have to start today, beginning with Budget 2020.

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