Written by Dr Wong Wee Nam
27 Feb 2008
The Over-Population Problem
On 21st February 2008, a friend sent me an ST online forum letter written by Mr. Yong Koi Kwong on why Singapore should not become a 6.5 million city state.
The writer said: “Singapore is situated in a hot humid equatorial region. The average relative humidity is 80 per cent with a daily average temperature of 24 to 32 degrees Celcius for virtually the whole year. The average number of hours of sunshine is 5.5 to 6 hours. It is very unpleasant to live in such an environment if there is no natural ventilation to take away one’s perspiration.
Our country is unique in that we are a sovereign city state with no countryside. Only half the land could be built up (including about 12 per cent for roads). The rest of the country is occupied by military training grounds, central catchment area, 17 reservoirs and golf courses and five airports or airfields and two naval bases.
In spite of our relentless land reclamation for the last 40-odd years which grew our country to the present area of about 700 sq km and a projected area of 780 sq km, Singapore would be the most densely populated country with 12,800 persons per sq km of habitable area if the population is projected to grow to 5 million. If the population is planned for 6.5 million, the average number of persons per sq km is 16,640.”
He concluded, “We could live with the accolade such as the busiest port, best run airline and airport but the accolade that we are the densest populated sovereign state is one which we could live without.”
The consequences of high density
Well said! I wonder why such a well-researched letter with good arguments should be consigned to the online forum. The printed version would have allowed all Singaporeans to ponder over the problem and debate on it. It would also show that good ideas for the country need not come from highly-paid officials, policy-makers or scholars.
Any research scientist who has studied rats in an overpopulated situation will tell you that over-crowding is not a good thing for those rodents. They suffer from infectious diseases, become violent (they even form gangs), most become withdrawn, passive and some mount male and female rats indiscriminately.
Of course rats are not human beings but the biological needs for space and resources is a common demoninator influencing both human and rat behaviour.
William Cobett said, “Jails, barracks, factories in 1820s do not corrupt by their walls but by their condensed numbers. Populous cities corrupt for the same cause.”
So what should citizens expect when Singapore becomes over-populated? We must expect noise levels to be increased, more traffic congestion and more pollution from smoke emission and waste. Singaporeans must put up with having to manoeuvre through crowds in public areas, long queues for a lot of services and the squeeze on public transport. There will be very little space for fun and recreation as all these places will be packed during the weekends. Trying to get across the Causeway during the weekends will take many more hours than now.
On the health side, the control of an outbreak of infectious diseases in a dense population will spread easily and be harder to manage.
Over-crowding also reduces fertility and causes stress-related diseases like ulcers, enlarged adrenals, chronic heart disease and mental illness.
On the social side, there will be a higher rate of crimes, drug abuses, suicides, accidents and juvenile delinquency.
In a situation where resources, including jobs and space become scarce, the weak and the minorities will suffer.
Moreover, when the numbers to make up the population target is achieved through importing foreigners, then the friction will end up along ethnic lines. An intolerable living density will push those better qualified Singaporeans to emigrate and thus increase the ratio of foreigners to citizens.
We have been trying very hard over the years to build social cohesion through many activities that promote racial harmony and through community activities like singing national day songs. All these will be undone when good Singaporeans leave and they are replaced by foreigners. It is not hard to imagine the day when the economic clout will fall into the hands of the foreigners and the key positions in the various corporations will be in the hands of non-Singaporeans because good Singaporeans become scarce. When such a time comes, the ordinary Singaporeans will be no better than a colonized people, with their lives dictated by some global nomads.
Why cities thrive
Cities grow and die. They die when they outgrow themselves. They die when they stagnate and lose their vitality. They die when their inhabitants no longer care.
For Singapore, because the city is also the country, this means that, if the city dies, the country perishes as well. This was probably why the island of Temasek decayed and sunk into near-oblivion in the 14th Century until Stamford Raffles re-discovered it in 1819.
So why do our planners want to turn our city-state into a population of 6.5 million? Are they just thinking of economic growth without considering the side-effects of an over-crowded city? Are our citizens just digits and robots?
Major cities in the world have no problem because the sizes of their countries allow their people to commute 150km to 200km to and fro from work. They can live outside the city. In Singapore, if you drive more than 50km in a straight line, you’ll end up in the sea.
The health and life of a city is not in its great number of people but on the quality of its people. When people become apprehensive, apathetic and live like over-crowded rats, the city loses its vibrancy and begins to stagnate.
A city needs to rejuvenate, transform and re-create itself continually in order to stay healthy and alive. How can an over-crowded place with all the ills of high density be able to do that? What more if the population is already stifled by an overbearing political climate, which has caused apathy, to start with?
At the moment, Singapore is a fairly clean and safe city. It is still physically a comfortable and convenient place to live in. However, once the population goes over an optimum level, it may not be that clean, safe or comfortable.
It is a mistake to think that the higher the density, the better the economic growth and the more vibrant a city will become. It would be a mistake to think that by just focusing on the physical aspects, we will become a great global city.
A great global city must not just be a comfortable and convenient place to live. It must also be a great place to live, a satisfying place to work and an interesting place to play in. There must be life, energy and a soul. And what gives a great global city this verve and vitality is the drive and enthusiasm of the people who reside in it -– the energy of its own people supplemented by the boost from good imports.
What is the point of having a good physical environment, many great buildings with beautiful architecture and the most advanced technological infrastructures if our people do not have the drive and enthusiasm? If the people are apathetic and selfish, whether as a result of a stifling political climate or a extremely dense population, the city will be as listless as a sparkling shopping centre that has rude and disinterested staff.
The People Factor
The people factor is, therefore, the most important ingredient in the making of a great global city. A city that is a city-state can only be vibrant if there are enough citizens to lead changes, to create and to innovate.
New York, London and Hong Kong are examples of such a city. In the January 28th 2008 issue of Time magazine, these three cities, collectively known as Ny.lon.kong, were given the credit of driving the global economy. They are places where new ideas and new concepts are always hatching. They are fast and lively because of the people and not the skyscrapers.
Tricia Haynes, former inhabitant of New York wrote, “New Yorkers are the most vociferous people on earth. In New York everyone has a voice and everyone feels entitled to exercise it.” This is what makes New York throb and why it is able to attract “the ambitious, the flamboyant and those who want a slice of the action”.
A city that reverberates with verve and energy rejuvenates itself and acts as a magnet for people and ideas.
Singapore, therefore, needs to change if we are going to compete effectively against the likes of these three cities. As long as our people are tuned to act on cues from above and conditioned to move like a herd, then we can never hope to see Singaporeans experimenting and exploring new frontiers.
When we were a third world country, the opposition PAP complained about a biased press. When we were in Malaysia, the opposition PAP complained about a controlled press. Now that we have become a 1st world country, the PAP no longer complains about the local press. In fact they now feel that a free press is not the answer to all of a country’s development problems.
To bolster this argument, countries with rampant corruption and poverty are held up as examples of what we might become with a free press. Of course, the countries with growth and lesser corruption and a free press are not mentioned, for example, New York, London and Hong Kong — the cities held up for praise in the Time lead article.
New York is full of critics and investigative reporters and people demonstrate in Central Park for all sorts of reason. It has a free press.
Likewise for London. It has its full share of critical reporters. The press remains free.
Hong Kong is very Asian and belongs to China but yet the people demonstrate at the slightest unhappiness. The boisterous media are very jealous in protecting their press freedom and yet this has not reduced Hong Kong to poverty.
A free press and democracy have not reduced these places into penury. Why then are we so afraid of getting Singapore to join the Ny.lon.kong League? Why are we still reluctant to let our citizens have the space to create and work and nurture a conducive environment for them to have a voice and feel entitled to express it?
The three model cities are ahead of us because they allow diversity in the physical environment, in economic activities, in the social settings and, more importantly, in the area of ideas and thoughts.
Diversity is the engine of life and spontaneity in a city. According to Jane Jacobs, a writer, activist, and city aficionado, cities need “a most intricate and closed-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.”
Furthermore, “cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds. They are the natural economic homes of immense numbers and ranges of small enterprises.”
As a city-state, Singaporeans have no choice but to try and make Singapore a truly great global city if they want to survive. At the same time the government has a responsibility to provide our citizens the conducive environment and the right climate for physical, economic, social, cultural and political diversities to attain it.
It is not just the numbers that count. It is the quality of the people. The people must feel free and motivated. They must feel, and be manifestly shown, that this country belongs to them.