CPF made the headlines this week with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) calling for a boost in Central Provident Fund rates and flexibility in withdrawals. It was also in the news several times last year.
Compared to global standards, Singapore's CPF is and has been a very successful statutory retirement plan. Some of its challenges today have been brought about by a combination of factors. These probably could not have been well anticipated in greater detail before.
The major ones are a rise in property prices and the cost of living, very low interest rates, and an ageing population. Put together, these have put pressure on the CPF rules drafted earlier.
As an employee, I always look forward to getting that little bit extra, whether it's from my employer or the government.
Perhaps the most attractive suggestion is for members to get one per cent more on the first S$120,000 of their savings, up from the first S$60,000. Compounded, it promises substantial additional interest.
The government currently pays more than twice the 10-year SGS (Singapore Government Securities) bond rate on the first S$60,000 of CPF balances.
As Singapore continues to do well, more people are likely to have a large balance in their CPF. Any move to extend the extra return to S$120,000 must be carefully evaluated to see if it's sustainable; it's easy to raise but should the need to reduce arise, some may not accept the reasons.
A more important question is just how far statutory CPF legislation should go. Legislation tends to bring a one-size-fits-all answer. While it is founded on sound logic and technical data, it cannot cover all the variables of different people and their particular needs.
A few are already questioning why they cannot withdraw part of their CPF savings upon retirement even though they have not met the Minimum Sum. It's an understandably emotional question as one looks forward to some money in hand after a lifetime of hard work.
Long-term planning may not be popular in today's world of the Internet, social media and short attention spans. But it must form the foundation of one's future.
A declining birth rate means most of the younger generation today will have a bigger responsibility to ensure financial security in their old age. One way is to introduce a voluntary CPF savings scheme that runs alongside the compulsory one.
We must appreciate that the lower-income are already sandwiched between high living costs and low savings. They lose out again from the low-interest-rate environment which pays paltry returns for small amounts; large amounts attract more than 10 times the interest paid to small savers. High wage earners also have the Supplementary Retirement Scheme (SRS) and benefit through its tax relief.
A simple voluntary and flexible CPF savings scheme with similar intentions would encourage more people to save more for retirement and personal needs.
It reminds me of my schooldays some 50 years ago. I would buy a few stamps with my pocket money and paste them on a card. When it was full, I happily walked to the post office and handed it over. My passbook then got updated, showing a few dollars more in my account. (You could buy a plate of fried kway teow for just 30 cents back then.)
Today, we can do the same via the automated teller machine (ATM).
A voluntary CPF plan for the lower-income bracket would encourage more of us to be independent and responsible for our own finances and retirement.
We cannot tell someone that he should be buying a smaller HDB flat if a large one strains his budget. Neither can we suggest that he buy a used car or go on less expensive holidays.
But we can make it attractive for him to think about leaving some money in his voluntary CPF account which will grow at a decent rate over the next 10-20 years.
Allowing withdrawal options over the medium and long term places the onus of spending upon the individual. With self-discipline and planning, many will benefit in their golden years.