One of Singapore’s biggest challenges is the demographic trend of an increasingly ageing society. The Council for Third Age (C3A) was established in 2007 as an independent government agency supported by the Ministry of Health to help shape the present and future Singapore as a vibrant community of different ages, where seniors are enabled to live full, active and meaningful lives. Serving as a catalyst for initiatives, partnerships and programmes on active ageing, the C3A has successfully implemented programmes on senior volunteerism, lifelong and intergenerational learning, and social gerontology, which have improved the public perception of seniors in Singapore.
In 2014, the Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, announced that the demographic change with an increasingly ageing society would be his biggest concern for the future. Indeed, the trend towards an ageing population has become a pressing problem in Singapore during the past two decades. The proportion of residents of 65 years and older has grown from 8.7 percent in 2008 to about 11 percent in 2013; estimates show that the number will escalate to about 19 percent in 2030 due to increased life expectancy. As a consequence, the old age support ratio (the number of working age persons between 15 and 64 years as against older adults aged 65 years and above) fell from 13.5 in 1970 to 4.9 in 2012. The challenge for Singapore’s policymakers was to prepare Singaporean society for this shift in age structure by improving public attitudes towards elderly people and fostering a societal future where seniors are enabled to live full, active and meaningful lives.
In 2007, Singapore’s government set up the Council for Third Age (C3A) to help older citizens achieve a better quality of life through active ageing on seven dimensions of wellness: social, intellectual, physical, financial, vocational, emotional and spiritual.
The C3A’s activities are largely based on partnerships with communities, commercial organisations, and other institutions. They range from Active Ageing Carnivals to Positive Ageing Toolkits and include collaborations with educational institutions, such as the National Silver Academy, which fosters lifelong and intergenerational learning through facilitating the participation of seniors in study programmes at national universities. Rather than delivering direct services, C3A’s main role is to support existing organisations with research and development of new initiatives that facilitate, encourage and promote active ageing among Singapore’s population.
The main objective of the C3A is to create a platform for empowering seniors “to continue to be closely and meaningfully connected to society”. By working to change the public perception of seniors and ageing, C3A aims “to create a vibrant pro-age Singapore where seniors can participate as integral members of society”.
The public impact
Since its implementation in 2007, the C3A has been involved in the organisation of many events and partnerships that have helped to shape the ageing landscape in Singapore. The C3A has been established as one of the main actors working to improve the situation for the older population, following its mission “to make active ageing a way of life”.
One of its most successful initiatives is the Intergenerational Learning Programme (ILP), which aims to “encourage intergenerational bonding by matching youths and seniors in a group learning environment”. In its 10-year jubilee publication in 2017, the ILP says that, to date, 9,339 seniors and 13,647 students have benefited from this learning programme across the age groups, with 97 percent of the young participants stating that they felt their perception of seniors improved after the programme. “The numerous heartwarming testimonials and affirmative feedback substantiated the positive impact of ILP on seniors’ attitudes and on establishing bonds between the two generations.”
The National Silver Academy, “a network of post-secondary education institutions and community-based organisations which offer seniors educational and recreational programmes”, has reached about 15,000 seniors since its launch in 2015, said Amy Khor, senior minister of state for health.
Furthermore, since its launch in October 2015, 18,000 people have benefited from the Positive Ageing Toolkit, an online tool that helps seniors identify the dimension of wellness that they should focus on. The C3A’s web portal has received 2.2 million page views since it went online in 2007, and C3A has managed to build partnerships with 367 ministries, organisations and other institutions.
Metrics collected by the government show that the volunteering rate among persons aged 65 and over increased from 11 percent in 2008 to 17 percent in 2011. Moreover, labour force participation rates for people aged 65-69 rose from 27.5 percent in 2008 to 40.2 percent in 2013, with highest employment rates coming from the lower-income group. However, the quality of working conditions and low wages are often debated. Despite the higher employment numbers of elderly people it is concerning that poverty rates of this age group have also increased from 28 percent in 2005 to 41 percent in 2011. 
Written by Johanna Hopp
This case study is part of a series of international policies that focus on easing the transition to retirement and later life. The case studies and the accompanying report were produced for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).Have an idea for a case study? Print
What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Good
The formation of the C3A was a step forward to bring the issue of an ageing society to the forefront of people’s attention and to consolidate the efforts made by various stakeholders in that field since the 1980s.
The initiative can best be understood as the outcome of the long-term engagement of several governmental stakeholders, members of the public, and non-governmental and private organisations. These stakeholders came together in the Committee on Ageing Issues (CAI), which was established in 2004. The CAI is an “interagency forum comprising representatives from the government, the public as well as the private, media and academic sectors, so that ageing issues can be tackled in a coordinated and holistic manner”. The CAI evolved through the work of the Committee on the Problems of the Aged, which was set up in the 1980s and chaired by the minister for health, and the Inter-Ministerial Committee on the Ageing Population, which was set up in the 1990s. As a result of the CAI’s recommendations, the C3A was established as the government’s next logical step towards promoting active ageing in Singapore.
In addition, the C3A made efforts to involve the elderly, who were favourably disposed towards the policy. For instance, the C3A developed the online Positive Ageing Toolkit, “a simple toolkit to help kickstart, boost and chart the progress of your [the senior’s] wellness levels over time”. The toolkit was launched at the Public Ageing Conference in 2015, where 500 “active retirees” were in attendance. The toolkit was very well received among the target group: "Ageing is a process which we cannot avoid…. With a positive attitude and constructive mindset, you go through that process, ageing gracefully, with dignity," said Mr Gerald Ramasamy Mahalingam, aged 75, who was one of the first users of the toolkit. However, seniors were not explicitly involved in the design of the policy itself.
Political Commitment Strong
While the issue of an ageing society has long been one of several political topics in the spotlight, it has only become of paramount concern in recent years. As a result of its importance, the political commitment for establishing the C3A was strong, especially in terms of funding.
In 2012, five years after the C3A’s implementation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked if there was anything he would like to have done differently since becoming prime minister in 2004. He replied that he would have paid greater attention to the challenges of an ageing society earlier in his premiership. “It’s always been sort of there in the public discourse, but not something we have succeeded in bringing to the forefront of people’s attention, to say: ‘look if we don’t do something in 20 years’ time, the population is going to have an average age, say 60, and this is going to be a retirement home and not a vibrant city’.”
From the beginning, the C3A and its associated initiatives received strong financial support from the Singaporean government. The government’s 2008 Expenditure Overview for social development foregrounds the mission to build a cohesive and resilient society, of which the elderly form an integral part. To strengthen active and purposeful ageing, the Ministry of Finance set aside SGD8.6 million for the GO! Fund “to seed-fund active ageing projects in the community, as well as to support the Council for Third Age in championing a more positive attitude towards ageing”.
Furthermore, the budget highlights for FY2008 contained an extra section for the Fiscal Costs of an Ageing Population, which outlines the strong commitment towards the challenges of an ageing society, stating that the government’s spending on programmes linked to active ageing will increase and “will be complemented by the growth of social enterprises to meet the needs of the elderly”. Hence, not only does the state demonstrate strong support for the establishment of the C3A and the collaborations with other Voluntary Welfare Organisations, educational institutions and communities, but the private and industry sectors are also committed to exploring the economic potential of a growing market for products and services that are particularly targeted at seniors.
Public Confidence N/A
There is little evidence of the general public’s support for creating the C3A. The seniors themselves were not directly involved in the policy design, but have been engaged by the C3A since then through initiatives such as the online Positive Ageing Toolkit (see also Stakeholder Engagement above). As a result, it is not possible to identify either critical or supportive voices on the subject of the C3A.
Clear Objectives Fair
The main objective of the C3A is to create a strategic platform for empowering seniors “to continue to be closely and meaningfully connected to society”, effectively changing the public perception of seniors and ageing and promoting active ageing in Singapore. To achieve this, the C3A aims to act as an umbrella body which catalyses initiatives that are linked to the C3A’s focus on lifelong learning, senior volunteerism, and positive ageing.
Except for this very broad objective, no further measurable outcome objectives were defined at the outset. However, for three of the initiatives C3A is responsible for, subgoals were defined on their webpage.
The Intergenerational Learning Programme had three main aims:
- “forging intergenerational bonding between youths and seniors
- “promoting active living by enhancing mental and social wellbeing among seniors
- “improving public perceptions and attitudes towards ageing”.
For the Sandbox (Volunteer Programme), the objective was to “promote sheer joy of volunteering, learning and knowledge sharing”. For the I’m Senior & I’m Loving It, a social gerontology programme, the goal was “to build awareness and promote positive attitudes on meaningful ageing, through knowledge sharing of active ageing topics”.
There is no evidence, however, of the broader objectives of the C3A being clarified over time.
The implementation of the C3A followed a long period of analysis and political engagement with the changing demographic landscape in Singapore. While the C3A provides extensive evidence for some of its initiatives, there is no evidence that directly supports the effectiveness of the establishment of the organisation itself.
Setting up a council that serves as a networking platform and catalyst for programmes concerned with active ageing was unprecedented in Singapore. Nevertheless, the government did draw on previous experience from similar programmes and institutions that were set up to tackle the issue of an ageing population, such as the Committee on the Problems of the Aged (1980s), the Inter-Ministerial Committee on the Ageing Population (1990s) and the CAI (2004). The CAI executed several studies that provided evidence for the significant progress that had been made since the 1980s. The CAI also emphasised the “urgent need to double efforts over the following five-year period before the baby-boomer generation reached 65”.
During the initial phase, the “C3A commissioned a number of research studies to provide themselves and the community a better understanding of the ageing landscape in Singapore”. For certain initiatives, gathering data and conducting studies to provide evidence for the C3A’s measures played a crucial role. Studies such as Public Perception and Attitudes towards Ageing and Seniors (2008) and Understanding Singapore’s Baby Boomers (2009) were fundamental to the C3A’s work. Prior to that, there had no comprehensive research focusing on the older adult population. A study of lifelong learning identified key factors “that motivate or obstruct seniors from engaging in lifelong learning as well as the kinds of platforms that support their learning”. Such findings have informed C3A’s actions and enabled it to promote active ageing in Singapore more effectively.
While detailed evidence concerning the effectiveness of similar policies about the challenge of Singapore’s ageing population is largely absent, the establishment of the C3A aligns with previous successful implementations of committees working on the same topic.
There is very little information available on the feasibility of the C3A. Rather, a limited range of sources provide information on the financial and political feasibility of the organisation’s past initiatives. Documents such as a report published in 2014 by the Institute of Policy Studies give informed insights into the feasibility of future programmes, thereby drawing on both quantitative and qualitative data from Singapore and other countries’ experiences with similar initiatives on lifelong learning and social gerontology.
In terms of funding, the C3A is partly reliant on financial support from state institutions, and the budget for C3A’s lifelong learning initiatives was lower than originally expected. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, former second minister of finance, pledged a budget of SGD170 million for Continuous Education and Training and claimed “to increase annual expenditure on lifelong learning to SGD500 million in the long term”. However, this financial support appeared to be insufficient. “Despite significant investment in senior learning programmes, there seems to be a mismatch between the demand and supply of lifelong learning opportunities.”
However, as can be seen from policy documents and online sources, C3A has ambitions to create partnerships with other organisations that provide financial and personnel resources for achieving the common objective of active ageing. One such example is the POSB, which teamed up with the C3A in 2009, “to better serve the financial needs of baby boomers and older Singaporeans”. The extent to which this aids the feasibility of C3A however in practice is undetermined.
The C3A has a strong management record. The board of directors provides guidance to the organization and consists of qualified professionals from diverse backgrounds in the education, ageing, health and management sectors, ensuring that it has an integrated management team. They include, for instance, a partner from PwC, the director of the ageing planning office at the Ministry of Health, and the director of the office of graduate studies at SIM University.
As it has matured, the C3A has continued to make efforts to ensure that its progress is well managed and that it achieved its objectives. For instance, it established a partnership with the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, featuring “cutting-edge training and exchange programmes between Oxford and Singapore”. Through such initiatives, the C3A has constantly sought to improve its services and networks, ensuring that it succeeds in promoting an actively ageing society.
In collaboration with the C3A, Singapore’s government installed several mechanisms to track the progress and impact of the organisation’s initiatives. Hence, throughout the 11 years of the C3A’s existence, numbers have been released to provide evidence of its achievements.
One such report is the National Survey of Senior Citizens, commissioned by the Elderly and Disability Group and the Ministry of Social and Family Development. This survey is conducted periodically “to monitor and track changes in the situation and attitudes of the resident population aged 55 and older”. Other statistical indicators about the elderly, which are annually tracked by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, include labour force participation and volunteerism rates of the over-65s.
However, these reports are not directly linked to the C3A’s impact. Directly tracking the effects of the establishment of the C3A on the published numbers is therefore not possible.
In Singapore, there is a shared interest between the different generations, the government, educational institutions, and the private sector in enabling seniors to have meaningful and active lives and effectively minimising the burden of a decreasing old-age support ratio (see The Challenge above). Based on this consensus, cooperation between all actors has contributed to the C3A’s success.
Governmental institutions, such as the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, worked hand-in-hand with the C3A’s board of directors and other partners under the umbrella of the Action Plan for Successful Ageing. Together with partners from civil society and community groups, these institutions realised, for instance, the lifelong learning programme, constantly aiming to align the institutions’ interests with those of Singapore’s seniors. By “engaging seniors in feedback sessions on how they would like to spend their silver years”, the C3A identified the seniors’ desire to keep their minds active and stay in touch with world affairs, thereby ensuring an effective collaboration with the target group.