If the foreign workers dormitories were, at one time, the shameful underbelly of a society touted as First World, quite a substantial portion of Singapore’s Pioneer/Merdeka generations has turned out to be an almost forgotten group of people. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to acknowledge their presence – just like it did with the dormitory workers – and take better care of them.

We will come to the numbers later. Basically, I believe most of them are Chinese Singaporeans, given all the fuss about their supposed preferences for Sinovac vaccines resulting in government appeals to the Chinese medical “sinsehs” to help reach out to these elderly who have not got themselves vaccinated.

So there may be serious cultural issues.

My theory is that the policy to force Chinese Singaporeans to convert to Mandarin has isolated big groups of dialect-speakers. As their children grew up, lost their dialect roots and heritage and became bilingual in Mandarin and English, these older Singaporeans were left to their own fate. They had been struggling to connect themselves with a world which had grown increasingly alien to them. No dialect entertainment on local TV, fewer grandchildren who could comprehend their dialects. In short, they became disconnected. Indirect or subconscious resentment at being ignored all these decades may well be a factor behind the resistance of some to bend to larger societal needs.

Belatedly, our politicians have stepped up to reach out. So kudos to Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and his Teochew/Hokien outreach videos (one with the ageless Channel 8 Queen Zoe Tay, no less) and to Workers’ Party’s Low Thia Khiang, the invincible Teochew Emperor of Hougang/Aljunied GRC Province.

The bigger issue is that just like for the foreign workers dormitories problem, we have to do the right thing now with the unvaccinated elderly. We have had the NIMBY problem with the foreign workers. Not in my backyard, out of sight, out of mind. It would appear that these elderly would have been out of sight if not for Covid-19. But the numbers made that impossible.

Just a while ago, we were told 200,000 elderly citizens had not been vaccinated, with half 60 years and older and the other half 70 years and older. Some progress has been made. More have come forward, with about 1,000 people aged 70 and above signing up each day.

But not quite enough.

One in five seniors aged 70 and older has not booked a Covid-19 vaccination appointment, according to Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary on Aug 2. That is a total of 96,000 of the cohort. This is six percentage points higher than the general population, he added.

The question now is: Have we been paying proper attention to our elderly, many of whom have, notwithstanding all the efforts made so far, been living out an existence that few people outside their homes care or even care to know about?

A thousand cheers to all the tireless volunteers who have been pounding the HDB corridors and residential neighbourhoods to touch base with the out-of-reach seniors. I hope they will be acknowledged in the National Day celebrations (Happy National Day, by the way). They are the unsung heroes and heroines, together with all the others, including all the frontline workers such as nurses and doctors.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Health Minister Ong acknowledged as much when he admitted on Aug 6 that public health resources have been fully stretched.

There are 10 mobile vaccination teams across 10 towns and 70 locations to bring vaccination closer to seniors who are frail and immobile. There is now an eight-week long waiting list for jabs. He appealed to all doctors and registered nurses outside the public health sector to volunteer their services. “We seek your help at this juncture,” he said. (If you’re qualified and willing to volunteer, you can register by emailing shc@moh.gov.sg or calling 6325 9220).

Beyond age, disability should also be considered in the outreach. Based on a sampling of 2,000 Singapore citizens and permanent residents aged 18 and above done by the National Council of Social Services in 2015, the self-reported disability prevalence rate was 13.3 per cent for those aged 50 years and above. That would be 518,700 out of a resident population of 3.9 million that year.

In brief, the problem of unvaccinated seniors is two-pronged.

It is the result of blatant social and linguistic neglect, almost to the point of abandonment. We have to do what is necessary to make up for this disgraceful treatment of our seniors. The large number makes it a logistical one too.

I am just stunned that the government has discovered only at this late stage its sheer magnitude.


Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.