THE ageing population, often seen as a looming time bomb for Asia, has been repackaged as a business opportunity.
The soaring number of elderly people in the region means more jobs and investment openings, said speakers at the Ageing Asia Investment Forum.
The event, held at the Pan Pacific Singapore Hotel yesterday, brought together 200 business, government and voluntary welfare organisation leaders from 16 countries.
It was Asia's first integrated retirement living forum designed to discuss the business opportunities arising from the 'silver tsunami'. Estimates suggest 857 million elderly people aged 65 and above will be living in Asia by 2050.
That prospect has led to rapid job creation in the health and social service sectors. Property developers are also cashing in by building multimillion-dollar integrated retirement villages and private residences catering to the needs of the elderly.
Mr Tony Bridge, chairman of Australia-based property consultancy BurnsBridge Sweett, said: 'The industry is in its infancy across Asia. There are great opportunities for innovation and leadership to be taken...The key is working policymakers to develop a model that balances property with care.'
With better health care and low birth rates, Singapore is no exception to this greying phenomenon.
The Republic is expected to be among the 10 fastest ageing economies globally, together with Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, according to a UBS report in 2008.
However, local developers have not found it easy to ride this wave by developing integrated retirement homes.
Land scarcity here has led to high bid prices, which have made the commercial viability of such projects difficult since affordability is key, say developers.
Singapore's successful public housing policy - with studio apartments having 30-year leases for the elderly and newly launched inter-generational homes - was also cited during the forum as factors that have muted demand here.
Real Estate Developers' Association of Singapore (Redas) chief executive Steven Choo said: 'Singapore's successful public housing programme has taken the load off developers in having to provide for that need...While 30-year lease private developments could not take off, it has taken off pretty well in the public housing arena with studio apartments, specifically with features to serve the elderly population.'
He added that with more than 80 per cent of the population housed in HDB flats, private developers have a much smaller market to operate in.
Property developer Daniel Teo, however, insists that with Singapore's strong medical care and safety record, there is a ready market of potential buyers for a retirement village housing concept here.
The former Redas head, who has been championing the cause for the past 30 years, said a paradigm shift to out-of-the-box ideas is needed.
'I hope the Government can support a pilot project to test the market just to see if there is any interest...There is demand because buyers are always inquiring when I will be developing such a project.'
Across the Causeway, Malaysia Pacific Corporation is already gearing up to launch such a project - Platinum Residences in Johor - a freehold development to cater to the aged that is staffed by qualified nurses.
Datuk Bill Ch'ng, president of Malaysia Pacific, said he hopes to launch the development within the next four months and aims to make the Asia region his key market segment. It will be set within a 366ha city comprising several hotels, Asia's largest trade and exhibition centre, and a shopping complex.
'Of course, we are hoping to attract Singaporeans as well, being just 20 minutes from Singapore. As an integrated city at the doorstep of Singapore, we hope this can be what Shenzhen is to Hong Kong for retirees,' Mr Ch'ng said.
Other countries like China, India and the Philippines have also seen integrated retirement villages and age-friendly private residences spring up.
For example, in China, which is gearing up to cater for an ageing population of 200 million by 2014, Chinese firm Cherish-Yearn established the first membership-based community support for seniors in Shanghai with an investment of 600 million yuan (S$123 million) in 2008.
Old people are usually seen as a weak and sick minority, defined by ward beds, Cherish-Yearn chairman Xi Zhiyong said. But they should be cared for with a personal touch while keeping their dignity and privacy.
'In nursing homes, the caretaker has the key to the rooms and is in charge of the residents' personal space. Would you check yourself into such a facility? We want to fulfil the different needs over the different stages of life,' he said.