Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) secretary-general Chee Soon Juan has told the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board staff off for seeking the contacts of senior citizens who were unable to withdraw their savings, despite their efforts to seek assistance from CPF Board.
On 13 Oct, Dr Chee highlighted the plight of two senior citizens living in Bukit Batok on social media. One resident, who is in his early 60s, told Dr Chee that he could not withdraw his savings even though he had S$274,000 in his CPF account. The elderly man told the opposition leader that he has to continue working even though he wishes to retire because he cannot get his retirement savings back.
Another resident, who is also in his 60s, told Dr Chee that he could not work for two years because of an illness. Desperate, he wrote to the CPF Board to release some of his savings to him so he could support himself but the CPF Board apparently refused.
The elderly man had to seek help from charity organisations to feed his family and continue paying the bills. His family also had to cut down their meals to twice a day, to survive.
Dr Chee wrote that these are “ordinary Singaporeans playing by the rules, paying their taxes but ending up after a lifetime of work unable to live in security. They face a government callous to their hardship, impervious to their pleas.”
Days later, on 22 Oct, the CPF Board sent an unsigned email to Dr Chee and sought the contact information of the two senior citizens whose stories he had shared online. The authority wrote: “If you wish to help the two CPF members you cited, please let us know their contact details so that we may look into the matter. We look forward to receiving the details soon.”
The SDP responded to the CPF Board’s email and asked the authority to include the identity and designation of the author of the email. CPF Board Senior Deputy Director Christopher Ee subsequently responded and stated that the email was sent from the group’s communications arm:
Dr Chee subsequently issued a response to the CPF Board and criticised it for seeking the contacts of the seniors when they had allegedly approached the authority for assistance to no avail.
Calling the CPF Board’s request to now contact the seniors as incredulous since they were previously turned away, Dr Chee expressed his hope that the CPF Board’s request is not just a publicity stunt given the looming General Election. He wrote:
“You want to know the contact details of the two persons I cited in my Facebook post on 13 October 2019 who had told me about their inability to withdraw their CPF savings despite the circumstances in which they find themselves.
“You seem to have missed the point. They came to the SDP precisely because they had approached CPF to return them their savings but were turned away. It, therefore, strains credulity that you now want to contact them to “look into the matter”.
“Nevertheless, I hope that this is a genuine effort on your part to assist these Singaporeans with their difficulties rather than conduct a public-relations exercise to assuage the people’s anger over the retention of their CPF savings because of the looming general elections.”
Asserting that it is “immoral to withhold retirees’ savings which they worked a lifetime to accumulate and on which they now depend for their survival”, Dr Chee pointed out that CPF savings which come from a worker’s earnings belong to the worker alone and that going back on the original promise that CPF savings will be returned at the age of 55 is “an egregious and unacceptable breach of trust”:
“I also hope that it is not lost on you that it is immoral to withhold retirees’ savings which they worked a lifetime to accumulate and on which they now depend for their survival.
“It is wholly unnecessary for me to say this but it serves as a reminder: a worker’s CPF savings comes from his/her hard-earned wages and, as such, belongs to him/her and him/her alone. Going back on your original undertaking to return our savings at 55 is an egregious and unacceptable breach of trust.”
Noting that the persons he highlighted on social media are not seeking handouts and only want what rightfully belongs to them, Dr Chee said that his party is ready to facilitate a meeting with the senior citizens and the CPF Board if the authority is genuinely interested in looking into the matter. He wrote:
“To be sure, the persons whom I highlighted in my FB post are only two among the hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans who want their savings returned. They are neither asking for sympathy nor seeking handouts; they just want back what rightfully belongs to them.
“If you are genuinely interested in looking into this matter, then may I suggest that you meet with these two individuals as well as all others who are seeking to have their CPF savings returned.
“My colleagues and I in the SDP stand ready to contact these persons and facilitate such a meeting should you agree to one. As this matter is of intense public interest, please be informed that our correspondence will be made public.”
In his email, Dr Chee also cited the words of pioneer politician Dr Toh Chin Chye, who had expressed concern about the potential breach of the fundamental principles behind the CPF scheme and the social problems that increasing the CPF withdrawal age would cause, in a Parliamentary speech 34 years ago.
The late Dr Toh was a prominent member of the country’s first generation of political leaders after Singapore became independent in 1965, serving as Deputy Prime Minister (1965–1968), Minister for Science and Technology (1968–1975) and Minister for Health (1975–1981). He also served as the Chairman of the People’s Action Party (PAP) from 1954 to 1981. In 1981, he exited the Cabinet but continued to serve as MP.
Three years after Dr Toh left the Cabinet, then-Minister for Health, Howe Yoon Chong, asked Parliament to approve the recommendations of the Committee on the “Problems of the Aged.” Among other recommendations, the Blue Paper prepared by the Committee proposed “that the age at which CPF contributors be allowed to withdraw their savings should be deferred first to 60 and later to 65″.
Against the backdrop of a public uproar over the proposal, the ever-bold Dr Toh lambasted the recommendation to raise the CPF withdrawal age in Parliament as he asserted: “What is irksome is this: that the Government is using people’s savings and telling them how to spend their savings. That is the nub of the problem.”
Astutely highlighting that policymakers are civil servants who draw a pension that does not come from their savings and criticising the Government for unnecessarily touching on CPF savings to solve other problems and for the “vexatious burden” CPF is on employers and employees, Dr Toh Chin Chye said in part:
“I think everybody recognizes there is a problem for the aged. The Minister for Health says so. Only they do not believe in his methods of solving this problem.
“We need to clearly define the boundaries within which the CPF will be used for retirement. We must spell that out. You just cannot say, “Let us raise the withdrawal age to 60 or 65.” It must be 60. It must be 65. Now, at which age? This Paper does not contain any calculation at all to say what will happen if it is withdrawn at 60, or what will happen if it is withdrawn at 65.
“Mr Speaker, I think fundamental principles are being breached. The fundamental principle is this. The CPF is really a fixed deposit or a loan to Government, which can be redeemed at a fixed date when the contributor is 55 years old. If I were to put this sum of money in a commercial bank and, on the due date I go to the bank to withdraw the money, the manager says, “i am sorry, Dr Toh, you will have to come next year”, there will be a run on the bank!
“It is as simple as this, that the CPF has lost its credibility, the management of it. This is fundamental.”