Why is political will such a crucial element when it comes to policies on ageing?
Political will is crucial because the policy and law making process cannot happen without commitment from political leaders. Although population ageing is an emerging concern in many developing countries like Malaysia, public awareness of the issues involved is still limited and the key stakeholders themselves are unable to assess its true impact as so little is known of the phenomenon. In order to accurately predict future trends, we need strong data and information to look ahead of the curve. How else can we convince the stakeholders that action on population ageing is more urgent than other national issues at hand? Without politicians providing clarity of purpose, it will be difficult to generate sufficient momentum to make a difference before it is too late.
Policy responses to the challenges of population ageing are largely dependent on political-economic factors. Developed countries are wealthy before their population ages, but most developing countries have no such luxuries. Nevertheless, the experiences of the West offer invaluable lessons, and we should learn from them. Each country has its own political system and different levels of social infrastructure development, as well as varying financial resources and manpower priorities. This means that we need localized action designed within the larger development framework of each country instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. In Malaysia, the reality is that the distribution of our older population varies by states and districts with differing economic development levels. Therefore, the design and implementation of policies on ageing must be appropriate to each context. Socio-demographic characteristics such as age, sex, ethnicity, education and marital status can alter our perception of the elderly situation in a significant way.
As such, we need strong political will to ensure that the commitment to develop suitable policies on ageing is sustainable and to ensure proper fiscal allocations are given to implement (and to periodically review) the action plans as designed. We need leading government officials to champion the issues relating to the aged population, although their influence and support must translate into programmes and services that can survive well beyond their term in office. Whether it is ministers or civil servants, continuous commitment is needed to strategize, finance and implement action plans on ageing. Population ageing is an unintended consequence of development that should be tackled from all angles, in order to reflect its multidimensional nature. Often, the most accessible approach is to be found in greater inter-ministerial cooperation.
We need to understand that the phenomena of population ageing is unprecedented and it affects everyone, but we have little time to catch up as the rate of population ageing is much faster today. The urgency for transformations must be tempered with caution as we have no historical basis, precedents or past experience to fall back on. As such, we must be prepared to make adjustments and changes from time to time, to revise or to draft new laws and regulations as needed to address the challenges ahead. It is not just about adopting a long-term view of things, but also about acknowledging that there are many differences, cohort-wise or region-wise, when we consider the choices to be made. This is where political will can make a difference as research evidence and community participation need to come together; we need to examine our options and to make the kind of decisions that will affect the lives of generations to come.
What are the key factors in building political will?
There are several key institutions and agents that are involved in building political will. One is the international drivers of change, by which inter-governmental organisations such as the United Nations convince fellow member states to embrace and act on ratified conventions. The past World Assemblies on Ageing have been an important platform for highlighting the challenges and opportunities of population ageing, as well as providing a blueprint for local and regional action.
Secondly, the force of demographic transition in a country cannot be ignored. Governments must respond to population changes and as the proportion of the elderly in society grows rapidly, cracks in the safety net become apparent. We cannot remain indifferent to the plight of the vulnerable and victimized groups of older people, whose abuse, abandonment and poverty can upend the fabric of social justice and cohesion across generations. Public grievances and media exposure of injustice compel the government to take action and to assess or review if their current initiatives are sufficient to ensure the well-being of the older population.
For Malaysia, building bridges among key stakeholders seems to work in generating the needed political will for change. Key actors have to work together for their own mutual benefit and therefore it is important to know and understand each other’s interests and goals. The focus of politicians and other stakeholders can be aligned to maximize policy impact, but sustainable action can only come from careful planning, implementation and review of programmes and services. The emergence of civic and professional organisations related to old age and ageing in the country is giving voice to gerontological and geriatric matters. Together with the rise of the fifth estate, these organizations serve as advocates for action on ageing that call upon the government to respond proactively to the needs of a growing older population. In tandem with the growth of professional bodies, an increasing number of research institutions is being established in local universities that conduct studies on multi-disciplinary aspects of ageing. These institutions provide empirical evidence and input for policy-making and also train the manpower resources needed in a rapidly ageing society. It is not enough to generate political will for policies on ageing; policymakers and stakeholders must also be well informed of the situation and the implications of their choices.
In Malaysia, the government has compelled stakeholders to work together through National Blue Ocean Strategies for the common good. The tight fiscal situation calls for a review of the way the government operates and this has become the impetus for change in the way public policies and programmes are implemented. Political will provides the capital for transformation, but the process must be open and transparent so that public engagement and input can deliver an outcome that is sustainable and equitable.
Apart from political will, what else might be needed in policy formulation? What is the role of civil society and academia in this process?
Civil society and academia have different roles to play in the policy process. In the case of age-related policies in Malaysia, the initial players come from civil society groups representing older people in the country. Inclusive policy-making practices means that NGOs and civil society organisations, as well as members of academia and industry representatives are called upon to provide input and feedback at different stages of the policy cycle. As a case in point, numerous dialogues were held recently to solicit suggestions for the 2018 Budget in Malaysia, in which the participation of civil society and academia is a common practice.
Policy formulation is a consultative exercise as stakeholders balance the need for action based on evidence with available resources. As mentioned earlier, a lot of the process is about aligning interests and goals of different parties to produce the best outcome for all. Civil society groups and government agencies or departments are often involved in end-user delivery of services, thus forming the backbone of any programme implementation. Their capacity to serve as well as plan, manage and document becomes crucial. There can be no effective policy review without good data and decades can go by without proper assessment of the effectiveness and return of investment (ROI) from such programmes. Academia is not only important as an independent third party for monitoring and evaluation, but also as a test bed for new ideas and innovative practices that need to be piloted carefully. In order to manage with limited financial resources, a strong analytical underpinning in order to understand the demographic processes and consequences of ageing on economic growth and social development is critical. Evidence-based policymaking is not just about beginnings, but should also be present throughout the policy cycle.
Partnerships among key stakeholders, such as those between civil society groups and academia, can strengthen the policymaking, implementation and outcome process with the right investment of political capital.
What is a key lesson learnt from Malaysia’s experience that other countries can apply to their situation?
In my opinion, Malaysia’s experience in developing policies related to population ageing has to be considered with caution, as each country’s social institutions and political set-up varies widely. Nevertheless, since Malaysia is a pluralistic society with a multi-ethnic and culturally-diverse population, some common factors may be applicable to the region, though the general policy on ageing can only be used as a guideline for other countries. The content of any ageing policies should be adopted and adapted to meet the different capacities and resources that are available. Some countries have different strengths that can be advantageous to bottom-up approaches, while others may require a guided leadership plan.
Irrespectively, it is important to build a public narrative on population ageing quickly. The sooner public awareness of the opportunities and challenges involved is generated, the faster a call to action can be raised. Key stakeholders must work together in laying a sound foundation for policymaking and implementation, and they should not be afraid of re-evaluating their policies to change for the better. When the Malaysian Research Institute on Ageing (then the Institute of Gerontology) first introduced a lifelong learning initiative for the elderly in 2007, we weren’t sure if the population was ready for an autonomous approach to the Universities of the Third Age (U3A) model. Five years later, senior citizens were running the programme themselves and the concept was later included in the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016 – 2020) for national replication. We are still trying to find the best way to expand that programme with existing partners and resources, but this is a real example of how ideas get translated into action, and the kind of inter-sectoral cooperation and political capital that we will need to see our policies come to fruition.
Policies on ageing require attention to a broad range of issues, from health and housing to social protection, to name just a few. Developments in the field of gerontology, notably gerontechnology, have opened up new areas of opportunity for growth. The public discourse on ageing may be difficult to shift, but the narratives have become richer as both the government and the public become aware of the different possibilities of an ageing society – one that is not necessarily all dark and gloomy.