t first glance, Wong Kuan Ying looks like a typical Singaporean boss, with her smart, full-length trousers and impeccable posture, even at the end of a nine-hour shift. Her colleagues in Singapore’s West Coast Market Square food court are dressed more casually, in shorts and T-shirts. Some of them look past the working age: you avert your eyes from their tired knees; they avert their eyes when you thank them.
Kuan Ying tells me she is 72 but she doesn’t look it. Each day when she gets home, however, she has to unscrew her right leg from below the knee. Acute diabetes has left her missing the lower part of one leg, and all the toes from her other foot.
Some days, she says, the prosthesis feels like a hard, heavy stone biting into the soft wrinkled folds of her stump. Even on the days it fits well, it is a relief to take it off and let her skin breathe. “I am much better now,” she says. “In the early days, I would hold this stump and cry.”
Kuan Ying’s job could have easily have gone to a younger, stronger person – or a foreign worker willing to work for less. But the Singaporean government is actively pushing its elderly to continue working.
In 2012, it introduced the “policy of re-employment” – to encourage citizens to continue working beyond the official retirement age of 62, while giving employers the flexibility to decide who they wished to retain, and the terms of their retention. The “minimum” re-employment age was set at 65 in 2012, and in 2017 it will be raised to 67 – though people can work beyond that if both parties agree. The country has, meanwhile, tightened its foreign worker intake to allow more residents to get jobs.
The main reason for this is what Singapore anxiously calls the “silver tsunami”: by 2030, one in five people in the city-state will be over 60. Added to this, Singaporeans have the third-highest life expectancy in the world, at 82.7 years.
At 10pm in the market the dinner crowd has gone home, and the last of the stores are closing up. Only men drinking beer in the open remain. It’s take-it-easy hour, but for Kuan Ying there is still plenty to do: clean the dishes, stack them away, clean the counters, count the cash. If someone asks for a coffee or tea, she pours it out from the long-spouted kettles with the flourish of a juggler.