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Straits Times - Nov 10, 2004
Cyber seniors go surfing

You're never too old to be an eCitizen. Some even say it helps keep dementia and disease at bay.

By Cheong Suk-Wai

BAEY Yew Boon says he is busier now than when he was a businessman.
He clocks about 14 hours a week in public libraries and community centres, teaching fellow retirees how to surf the Net.

                  

                        Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learnin' how:
                        You can, too, with cyberguides (clockwise from bottom left)
                        Dr P. N. Avadhani,  Mr Yuen Hon Chew,  Ms Serene Mah  and  Mr Baey Yew Boon.

The 76-year-old says: 'I love to teach because it helps me remember how
to use the Internet. At my age, there's nothing like practice, practice and more practice.'

He had first learnt how to be cyber-savvy himself at work. Now, the laptop-toting Mr Baey is among 20 cyberguides belonging to the Retired & Senior Programme (RSVP) reaching out to retirees.

RSVP, a non-profit group with charity status set up in 1998 by the National Council of Social Service, aims to enrich the life of retirees via various activities such as IT literacy courses.

Its oldest cyberguide is 81, and the Infocommunication Development Authority (IDA) pays RSVP $24 for every retiree it trains.

To hear the 10 retirees whom Life! spoke to tell it, the Internet is a veritable genie to them. Besides being a nifty way of communication, it has also helped them look out for one another.

They rely on each other's e-mail alerts to, say, avoid unscrupulous vendors overseas and questionable medication. 'You can help 50 people at one go with just a few clicks - and for free,' says Mr Baey.

Still, most retirees limit their Net usage to e-mailing and online gaming like Freecell, Hearts and Solitaire.

As retired stockbroker Narayana Narayana, 76, puts it: 'The Net is all about options, but at my age, you don't want too many, especially since you can't remember too well.'

That, it seems, is a big reason only about 22 cent of adult Singaporeans aged 45 or older used the Net regularly in 2002.

That figure dropped to 15 per cent last year, in a poll of 1,048 residents by the Nanyang Technological University. It also did the 2002 poll.

In comparison, a September 2002 report in Japan showed that 50 per cent of Japanese in their 40s, 35 per cent of those in their 50s and 15 per cent of those in their 60s were cyber-savvy.

Still, even if Singaporean retirees may not log on that often, they want to learn things like how to download and print data, shop online and master basic word processing.

RSVP's public education officer Megan Kwan says its cyberguides have trained about 3,000 people in the past two years.

The biggest stumbling block is not price or difficulty, but language. Cyberguide Serene Mah, 57, says Mandarin and Cantonese speakers - most of whom are from blue-collar backgrounds - always want to give up at first.

'But if they persevere, it becomes a way for them to build up confidence,' she says.

But that is changing.

Assistant Professor Lee Wai Peng, 37, sub-dean of the Nanyang Technological University's School of Communication and Information, points out that at least one popular software - Windows XP 5.1 - allows users to read data in Chinese.

And once you get the hang of surfing, the biggest payoff is that it staves off senility, the retirees say.

'The Net keeps my body and mind fit,' says Mr Baey. 'The idle mind is indeed the devil's workshop, and without IT, I'd be facing dementia.'

Ms Kwan says: 'In a way, it is like a second childhood for them. They become like teenagers, keen to explore a new world that is fairly welcoming and can empower them greatly.'

  Send your comments to mailto:%20stlife@sph.com.sg
_____________________________________________

RETIREE Denis Distant plumbs the Internet as his lifeline. 'My stock earnings are what I live off and the Net is the best and quickest way to track and trade stocks here and overseas,' he says.

'I also save quite a bit in brokers' commissions.'

When the former internal audit manager of Standard Chartered Bank retired five years ago, he faced the prospect of spending time sitting in broking firms to track the market indices.

Now, profits - and occasional losses - are just a few clicks away and he need not even step out of his house.

So savvy is he at online trading that at a recent shareholders' meeting, he could tell a company chairman exactly why its Singapore-Australia broking links were not up to scratch, prompting the latter to deploy staff to fix it.

Mr Distant reckons he spends up to seven hours a day at his desktop, though not at a stretch.

As early as 1988, he had taken a course at SingTel's headquarters here on the rudiments of the Internet's then prototype.

'Those were the days when you could set your PC to download something, go to bed and wake up the next morning to see it still downloading.'

But it's not all work and no play, as he also sniffs out good travel deals. He has booked holidays in New York and Melbourne via the Net. In January, he and his wife managed to stay in a posh New York hotel at bargain basement rates.

Having been an avid writer to The Straits Times Forum page and other Have Your Say fora since the 1950s, he says he has written more than 1,000 letters to date.

'Wish I'd a computer back then to archive them,' he quips.

________________________________________________

Don't touch, it might blow up

HIS name is a mainstay in this newspaper's Forum page but retired stockbroker Narayana Narayana says that at his age - 76 - that would not be possible if he had not learnt how to use the PC.

The man, who has been contributing letters since his 20s, used to type them out.

Although he had had to use computers at work, he was never interested in IT beyond staring at his PC screen to track market indices.

It did not help that, at home in Bedok, his four children used to wag their fingers at him and say things like 'Be careful, if you touch the wrong key, the whole thing might blow up'.

But upon retirement five years ago, he decided 'not to vegetate' at home. He took up a two-week course on how to use the Internet at the Singapore Indian Development Association at $7 per 3.5-hour session.

These days, he may be found e-mailing this, that and the other to 50 or so friends, including fellow Forum letter writer Lee Kip Lee (see facing page).

'If the people half my age whom I chat with on the Net don't mind, it doesn't matter. Kwan si tou ho (Hokkien for as long as you are used to it).'

Mr Narayana used to write under the pen name Amos Quito because his classmates nicknamed him Mosquito.

The man, who says he is 'keen to speak up for the small man', says what really got him passionate about the Net was 'when people e-mailed me to say they are glad that I put their thoughts across for them'.

He adds that he is only too aware that it makes him 'highly unpopular' among some social circles here. 'I've been called a fireball,' he says.

'I can tell you if there was no Internet, there would be no Narayana Narayana.'

________________________________________________

But I don't want to learn stuff again

IT TOOK a year before Mr Lee Kip Lee agreed to let his second son, John, teach him how to surf the Net.

But fear of new things had nothing to do with it, says the 82-year-old retired general manager of a family stevedoring business.

'All my life, I'd been waiting to get rid of studying, and was so happy when I finally graduated from college. But in recent years, my four sons kept telling me I should be conversant in IT,' says the prolific writer of Straits Times Forum letters for 60 years.

His sons include Singapore Idol judge Dick Lee.

Within six months of learning how to use the computer, Mr Lee was off and running, dashing off yet another weekly Forum letter, this time on his new Apple iMac desktop.

In the elegant study of his Binjai Rise bungalow, he hands Life! a pocket-sized notebook where he has neatly written down every step John has taught him on how to surf the Net, plus website addresses to do research for Forum letters.

'Filing a document = Like putting a recipe into a folder,' says one of his scribbles.

Now, the first thing he does when he wakes up is to check his e-mail.

Mr Lee, who has also been president of the Peranakan Association of Singapore for the past seven years, makes it a point to ask for e-mail addresses upon being introduced to people.

Then, he beckons Life! over to show that, when the screen hangs and 'the helpful Pacific Internet guys' can't take his calls, he just pulls out the connection and plugs it into an identical port next to it

'It seems to work,' he says.

________________________________________________

Need help with your tax returns?

DR P.N. Avadhani's academic knowledge comes in handy to combat dodgy data online.

Once, he typed in 'ginger' as the search word on the Google website, only to be bombarded with a slew of gay websites.

'Luckily, I remembered ginger's scientific name, Googled it and finally got information,' he says with a chuckle.

A retired botany professor who taught at the National University of Singapore and its predecessor from 1960 to 1992, the 72-year-old is now president of the Retired & Senior Volunteer Programme's IT committee.

His students say he is so dedicated that he returned to teach them just a few weeks after major surgery.

Besides teaching the basic National IT Literacy Programme weekly, he has also been helping the elderly file their income tax returns since 1999, having been trained by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore to do so.

Dr Avadhani says there is nothing to be afraid about IT, unlike the past where there were many software and hardware bugbears.

He envies today's retirees who have to deal only with online inconveniences like pop-up advertisements, spam and the occasional virus if they are not careful.

Still, like everything else in life, he says being truly cyber-savvy is knowing how to tell the difference between interest and addiction.

His one word of advice for retirees: 'While the Net can save a lot of time, it can also waste a lot of time, so be judicious in using it.'

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