Bangkok Post : A force to be reckoned with
With only three weeks of campaigning left before the July 3 elections, political party strategists appear confident they have tailored policies to appeal to all potential supporters. But, says a specialised group of doctors and social researchers, they are making a big mistake by neglecting an increasingly influential group of eligible voters who now make up nearly one-fifth of the electorate _ senior citizens.
Many retirees and others in their golden years tend to be politically aware, have time on their hands and often influence the way their family members vote. "Grey power" has become a potent political force in the West, if only because this generation is far more likely to vote than other younger groups and usually has a more developed sense of civic responsibility. It is a comparatively recent phenomenon here but represents a trend that politicians ignore at their peril.
So where, asked the specialists in press interviews earlier this week, are the policies that cater to this generation? A populist move to double the 500-baht allowance and vague mention of more retirement homes do not constitute a structured approach. That would involve providing senior citizens with vocational training, prompting local administrative organisations to develop environments that are friendly and accessible to them and ensuring that adequate social welfare and income support exist if they have little or no means to generate funds of their own. This would be an interim measure until the Social Security pension scheme is launched in 2014, although there is some doubt about how viable and sustainable this will be in the long term.
Other Asean countries have already thought this through. For instance, Malaysia gives priority housing to adults who have their parents living with them and provides job retraining and even job placement. Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia all offer tax breaks for relatives caring for elderly family members, but the Philippines and Singapore offer employers of older people additional incentives in the form of tax deductions.
Due to improved health services, people tend to live longer and this is good news for children close to their parents. But when they grow up to become taxpayers, it could turn into a nightmare. Our country is ageing rapidly, birth rates are falling and the spectre of zero growth looms, heralding a society in which the old outnumber the young, with each new generation smaller than the previous one. Many Thais can now look forward to two or three decades in retirement. Putting their skills to use for training the newer generations and continuing to work in areas of benefit to the country for a number of years should be encouraged. Older people do need to be allowed to play a more useful and constructive role in society. In doing so they will also be guaranteed healthier, longer and, in most cases, more enjoyable, financially rewarding and fulfilled lives.
Politicians canvassing for votes from this demographic should avoid the trap of promising to build more "old folk's clubs" as a perceived solution. Such thinking is based on outdated stereotypes and is discriminatory. It is guaranteed to alienate this powerful voting bloc.
Private or state institutional care or residential homes also meet resistance because of the restrictions they place on individuality, freedom and lifestyle and, of course, the fact that they split up families. But there is a real need for community-based services centres which can assist in tasks such as cleaning, cooking and shopping and in providing basic health care.
Society is changing and the policies of political parties must reflect this. No longer does one size fit all.