(Picture credits: http://brudirect.com/news.php?id=8426)

The recent viral stories on social media highlighted the hardships facing vulnerable members of our society, particularly those involving the elderly generation. In response, the government has taken swift action by providing these individuals with welfare support, which should be lauded.

However, the Brunei government should also consider increasing the Old Age and Disabilities Pension Allowance (Chapter 18) to $350.00 per month. The increase marks a $100 increase from the present $250.00 per month given to recipients – the last increase was made in 2006, which was 13 years ago.

This is not the first time the idea has been proposed. In the Mukim Muzakarah Session held last year in Mukim Pangkalan Batu, there was a call to raise the allowance to $500.00 per month by the public. The suggestion was also raised in the 2013 LegCo by a parliamentarian member.

Moreover, opinion articles appeared to advocate the idea such as those written by  ‘CL‘ (Mac 29, 2017), ‘Not A Pensioner’ (Oct 18, 2017) and ‘Daif Pensioner’ (Nov 1, 2017) in Borneo Bulletin. Conversely, a letter written by ‘Math‘ (Oct 28, 2017) disagreed on the basis of sustainability.

However, $350.00 per month is adequate for now as $500 per month may strain the national budget.

There are five reasons to justify the increase.

First, the increase in allowance will help the elderlies to supplement their income against the rising cost of living. An online inflation calculator from Monetary Authority Singapore (using the SG inflation rate, as Brunei’s data is not available) is used. The result shows that a “basket” of goods and services that costs $250.00 in 2006 costs $320.00 in 2018, $30.00 less than the proposed increase allowance of $350.00.

After all, it was in 2006 when the pension allowance was last increased to its present amount. After 13 years, it is high time to adjust the allowance levels to the current price levels today. The extra $30 would then help cover them against future costs in the next several years if the proposal is considered and approved.

Secondly, the allowance is used by some of the elderlies to support their immediate family members. In light of the high unemployment rates, many of their unemployed children and even grandkids come to rely on them for income to help cover their expenses, such as paying for school fees, clothes, and groceries.

I have met several families facing this issue. An old widow I met in Kuala Belait cried as she explained how hard life was. She had to divide the pension money among her children and grandkids to afford them food and drinks on the table. She even had to sell off all her gold bracelets and other valuables to support the family.

An elderly couple I met went to the extent of shutting down their house’s electricity every morning and afternoon just so they can reduce the bills to make it through each month, including the cost to care for their differently-abled child.

Thirdly, it can reduce social ills in the country. The recent criminal cases involving two senior citizens (55-year old and 68-year old) shows that something needs to be fixed.

It is sad to see these people who should be living in their Golden Years resorting to these crimes. Had they have adequate income, they would have never done these things in the first place. Unless mitigated, the problems are only going to compound in the years to come.

The problem can also extend to their family members. My friend shared me of a conversation he had with an old lady in a remote village in Temburong. She cried as she shared the poverty she and her family have to endure. She said her son was doing drugs, probably induced by depression and other social ills associated with poverty, further adding to her family issues.

Notably, it was with the Old Age Pension allowance, acting as a social safety net, that prevented her and her family from living in absolute poverty.

Fourth, a proportion of our elderlies now rely heavily on the allowance as their primary source of income; though this still requires further study. It is understandable that Brunei’s saving rate is low, but it is also not proper to put the blame squarely on the Baby Boomer generation (ages 55-73 years old) as many of the pensioners’ SCP/TAP were restructured nearing the end of their retirement many years ago.

The pension reforms saw lots of people becoming not eligible for life pensions. Many then found it challenging to cover their expenses and debts they have incurred in the past. It is a prominent and consistent issue that kept on being highlighted by the elderlies whenever I spoke with them.

They have also said how they appreciate the government for the Old Age Pension Scheme. Without it, then a lot of the elderlies would have suffered tremendously.

Finally, increasing the allowance is not too much to ask, given that it only makes up a fraction of the national budget. In 2016/2017, the government spent approximately BND$95.1 million to cover 31,696 people (Aging-Asia.info). If calculated against the 2018/2019 national budget of $5.86bn, that amount would only make up around 1.62% of our yearly national expenditure.

Indeed future cost has to be taken into account, such as Brunei’s growing aging population and inflation rates, which can further raise the cost in the long-run. However, taken from a social perspective, it is one of the most effective tools to protect our senior citizens against the risk of neglect, hunger, and deprivation.

Brunei is unique as it is one of few countries in Southeast Asia that provides universal coverage of old age pension for the elderly. Indeed, Brunei is used as a model for other countries that wish to follow her footsteps.

It must also be noted that increasing the Old Age and Disabilities Pension allowance may not automatically solve every problem. Several caveats are attached, including the question of long-term sustainability. However, borrowing the words of American Technopreneur Andrew Yang, the policy can set the stage to address more significant issues later on.

On the whole, I humbly suggest the government to increase the Old Age and Disabilities Pension Allowance to $350.00 per month.

From a moral standpoint, it is the right and proper thing to do.