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Population 6 million: Is there room?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised forum in Mandarin that the country can accommodate “6 million or so” people. Any more than that would require careful thinking, he added. The population is now 5.31 million. If it grows at 2.5 per cent a year, as it did from June last year to June this year, it will cross the 6 million mark by 2017.

According to Institute of Policy Studies projections, Singapore is likely to cross the 7 million mark before 2040 only if it allows in many more foreigners and lets their share of the population rise from the current one-quarter to one-third. So is 6 million a cause for concern? Insight’s Phua Mei Pin, Goh Chin Lian and Jessica Cheam ask six experts about the likely impact in the areas they know best.

Published on Oct 14, 2012 6:00 AM
Is Singapore ready for 6 million people? ST PHOTO: BRYAN VAN DER BEEK

Planning essential to ensure quality of life isn't sacrificed

Dr Malone-Lee Lai Choo

Director, Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities, National University of Singapore's School of Design and Environment

THE question is not whether Singapore can house six million people, but how it can do so without sacrificing quality of life, says Dr Malone-Lee.

"Six million is a figure that we can manage with, provided we plan very well," she adds.

Besides reclamation, there is an option to redevelop older towns with low population densities, especially those near transport nodes. But public acceptance is necessary, she notes.

Dense cities are more energy-efficient and easier to manage but can cause urban stress, which comes "when people are faced with persistent problems such as long waiting times, crowded public transport and high noise levels".

She also believes Singapore must keep its parks, open spaces and nature areas.

"These are Singapore's precious assets that make our city attractive and contribute to our quality of life, and they must not be sacrificed," she says.

She estimates that, currently, about 60 per cent of Singapore's land area is built-up. The rest is undeveloped, used for military training or water catchment.

The average density of Singapore's built-up land is between 12,000 and 13,000 people per sqkm - lower than in many Asian cities.

In some parts of Hong Kong, for example, the density can exceed 50,000 people per sq km.

If Singapore wants to maintain its built-up area at 60 per cent of its land - which she thinks is a good balance - then growing the population will mean increasing density.

Ideal population targets aside, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced in 2007 a planning parameter of 6.5 million. If this is reached, the eventual average density would be around 14,000 people per sq km.

Bukit Batok town has this level of density, yet also has a mix of high-rise residential buildings, as well as amenities such as schools, public transport and parks like Little Guilin.

"We need to ask ourselves if we want that type of density across Singapore," she asks.

Population distribution and concentration also need to be considered.

City centres with good public transport can take much higher densities, but in residential towns, planners need to address localised concerns of overcrowding, competition for facilities, noise and other environmental impact that come with dense urban living, Dr Malone-Lee says.

Density, she adds, also has many layers. "You may feel that it's dense and crowded outside on the roads or public areas, but if you step into your apartment and can look out to greenery, you'll feel you're okay. There's a sense of personal space.

"The least we can do is make our internal living conditions better - I hope planners do not have to shrink the size of homes further."


Prepare for  upper limit  in population planning

Dr Paul Cheung

Director of Statistics Division, United Nations

SINGAPORE can, if it wants, accommodate eight million people.

That is Dr Cheung's belief.

But whether it wants to hit even six million is a "political matter" up for negotiation between the Government and the people, he makes clear.

The Hong Kong-born Singaporean, 59, spent close to 30 years monitoring the interplay between Singapore's population and economic growth, including 14 years as the Government's chief statistician. He draws a sharp distinction between a population target and a planning parameter.

"We must always plan for the upper limit. We have to be creative and have in mind urban infrastructure for a much larger population," Dr Cheung says.

Otherwise, one ends up with "lousy planning". One example of that is the older MRT lines. They were planned for a population of four million. Six carriages per train were deemed sufficient then, in turn, dictating station designs for six-car trains.

Today, they are a limiting factor, preventing the adding of more carriages to each train to cater to higher traffic. The only option is to run more trains per hour, which increases the strain on the rail system, he says.

Another reason to plan for a larger number is that population growth has its own momentum, as shown by population figures published just last week, he says.

They showed that foreign worker numbers went up by 100,000 in the 12 months to June, and new immigrants by about 45,000 last year, in spite of government efforts to tighten and slow both inflows.

But should Singapore turn off the foreigner tap altogether, it risks hurting the economy,

Dr Cheung says. For example, if the foreigner-dependent maritime industry is hurt by a lack of labour, it will have a knock-on effect on sectors such as logistics, bunking, cruise and oil rig.

"These economic drivers may disappear overnight. Once you lose these, you'll never get them back again because there are so many other countries competing for that position," he says, adding that in the longer term, Singapore needs to restructure its economy and raise productivity.

Back in the 1990s, Singaporeans worried about housing four million people on this island. But, thanks to the resulting economic growth, "now we are beyond four million, and I don't think quality of life has suffered". "Singaporeans by and large have very good housing and urban life," he adds.

However, he acknowledges that ground conditions this time round are different from those 22 years ago. He counts as genuine problems overstrained public transport infrastructure, too many foreign workers and a perception among some Singaporeans that the Government favours foreigners.

If the decision is to stop before six million, or to take a longer time to approach it, he says: "That's fine. Then we can have slower growth and control the population more."


Society is strained when everyone feels the squeeze

Associate Professor Kalyani Mehta

Head of Gerontology Programme, SIM University

Beyond physical limits, a small country of fixed area also has psychological limits, says social work academic Kalyani Mehta.

She cites a psychology experiment where 10 mice were crowded into a small cage, while another cage of the same size held just three mice.

"There is a lot of stress for the 10, they are competing for everything, from food to air to space," she says. "The 10 mice hurt each other a lot, they claw at each other to get to the top."

Prof Mehta, 64, a former Nominated Member of Parliament, says something similar can happen to a human society.

It can go through what she calls "a kind of demoralisation of society where, as long as I get ahead, I don't care how many people I hurt".

She believes this is already evident in Singapore, as seen in higher rates in recent years of elder abuse, family violence, road rage, or even cases of people breaking out in quarrels when jostling for space in lines or on packed buses.

She has also observed suicide and depression rates rising in tandem with population figures.

Prof Mehta contends that these phenomena have arisen from intensified competition that comes with overheated population growth. While she agrees that competition can motivate people to improve themselves, she thinks that it can also stress them to breaking point.

For that reason, she says that the population debate cannot be left to economists alone, but must be a conversation between economists on the one hand, and sociologists and psychologists on the other.

She says the optimum population size should be 5.5 million - higher than today's 5.3 million so as to leave room for workers in specialised fields such as nursing and eldercare, where Singapore has a shortage.

In the long term however, Prof Mehta wants Singapore to develop its own workers in these fields, while automating and increasing productivity where it can. She teaches Singapore's first Master's programme in gerontology at SIM University. It trains candidates to run nursing homes and daycare facilities.

She also wants Singapore to view older people as assets and not dependants. The ageing population - where there will be close to one million citizens 65 or older by 2030 - is oft cited as a reason to bring in foreign workers to be caregivers, as well as to plug the shortfall in the labour force.

To that line of thought, Prof Mehta says the "young elderly", aged from 65 to 80, are expected to have deeper pockets and be able to help the economy through their spending.

"Why don't we tap these resources?" she asks. "If jobs can be redesigned, if older consultants can be valued, older volunteers tapped on... That in the long term will see us further, instead of bringing in foreign workers who can only be a quick fix."


Some constraints in raising public transport capacity

Adjunct Associate Professor Gopinath Menon

Nanyang Technological University

Former chief transportation engineer, Land Transport Authority

IT WILL be hard for the land transport system to cope with six million people as MRT trains are already bursting at the seams at rush hours, says Prof Menon.

While he recognises current efforts to add capacity to trains and buses, he believes that "some deterioration in the quality of living" can be expected if the population grows further.

Based on an average annual growth rate of 6.1 per cent in the last five years, public transport ridership, which was at 6.7 million last year, will cross the eight million mark by 2017.

Planners face some constraints in raising public transport capacity: MRT station platforms here are long enough to handle only three to six train cars, unlike Hong Kong's eight, notes the adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Technological University.

"Having more people means more have to share the pie and whatever is planned and carried out, there is bound to be some deterioration in the quality of living," he says. "Almost all major cities which have experienced a rural migration from the hinterland can attest to this. We may be better off because we are able to tweak the (population) figures and plan better."

Current measures to beef up public transport by 2017 include a $1.1 billion plan to grow the public bus fleet by 20 per cent, to 4,800.

Also, a $60 billion plan to roll out new rail lines includes the Downtown Line, which will open in three stages next year, in 2015 and in 2017. The 34-station line, which will run almost parallel to the existing East-West Line from Bukit Panjang to Singapore Expo, will spread out passengers to more stations, says Prof Menon.

Another measure is the upgrade of the signalling systems for the North-South and East-West lines from 2016 to 2018, enabling trains to run more frequently. Concurrently, he suggests improving support infrastructure, like having more standing space at MRT station platforms and bus stops. Also, he says Singapore can afford to be more aggressive with schemes that offer discounted travel at off-peak hours, so as to stagger travel times.

He also indicates that current pricing strategies will help control congestion on the roads when the population increase drives up demand for car travel.

But motorists will have to be prepared to pay more for vehicle ownership and usage, he says.

New roads and parking lots will also have to be built, he says, but at a slower and reduced pace than the pace for public transport. He argues: "Private car travel should not be demonised. What should be frowned upon is their widespread inefficient usage during the rush periods.

"The challenge will be to improve public transport to an extent that entices private transport users to use it."


Focus on quality of growth and skills, not numbers

Associate Professor Shandre Thangavelu

Economist, National University of Singapore

THE link between population and economic growth is not so straightforward, says Professor Shandre.

He thinks the focus should be on the quality of economic growth and the skills of the population, rather than on absolute numbers.

"You have to be very careful how you define the relationship between population and economic growth," he says, when asked if a certain level of population growth is needed to keep Singapore's economy vibrant.

"We should be asking, what kind of productivity growth do we want? Population growth in itself should not be our focus."

On economic growth, Prof Shandre says what matters most is that it is inclusive. He expects the wage gap to widen as the population continues to grow.

"It means your institutions generally have to be strong for redistribution of wealth," he says.

If the population were to grow to six million without paying heed to such issues, he warns, there could be serious and destabilising social tension.

As for allowing in more people, what matters is not the number but their abilities.

"Let's say I have a large immigrant population, it does not mean they will all become part of the labour force. If half or more of the six million are older, that's not going to help either," he says.

The more fundamental issue is to build the human capital of the existing population, rather than to top it up with yet more people, he says.

"The easiest way when demand rises very fast is to allow foreign workers to come in to fill these jobs. But we should reduce our reliance on foreign human capital."

This reliance suppresses wages and keeps local companies and workers from building their longer-term capacity, he says.

He observes that local small and medium-sized enterprises have grown on the back of cheap labour rather than sustained innovation, which explains why few have grown to be regional or international players.

To tackle that, Prof Shandre's idea is for the Government to start individual training accounts for every Singaporean, akin to the Edusave accounts in place for students. He believes such a system will create more wealth by raising the value and mobility of each worker.

It also creates the human capital to power economic growth of a more sustainable nature, and will be especially helpful to workers aged 40 and older, who compete against increasingly qualified cohorts coming out of the universities both in Singapore and from abroad, he says.

For businesses, government help can be in the form of funds to help sectors low in productivity to restructure and become more efficient.

He points out that the Government succeeded in doing so in the 1970s and 1980s. He thinks it can do so again.


Technological leaps allow cities to house more people

Hazem Galal

Global Leader for Cities and Local Government Network, PricewaterhouseCoopers

ADVANCES in technology mean cities today can house many more people than they used to.

And that will also apply to the cities of the future, says Mr Galal.

"Population growth doesn't mean that you keep doing exactly the same things you do today and just multiply them into the future," he says.

"By employing different technologies, different behaviours, a lot of cities can easily absorb anywhere higher than 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the maximum designed capacity," he adds.

A case in point is public concern two decades ago over housing four million people. Singaporeans then would not have anticipated the changes that have taken place since, including greater land reclamation that has allowed for the development of the Marina Bay area, he says.

Looking ahead, various strategies can be employed to ease congestion. On the roads, for example, more people can be shifted from car ownership to the use of public transport and bicycles.

Office buildings can be put to different uses outside working hours, so as to "grow with different use of space".

Yet another innovation would be to tap the "silver potential" of the elderly. Scandinavian countries are experimenting with combining homes and work facilities so the elderly can continue to contribute economically.

Mr Galal believes Singapore still has a window of opportunity to calibrate its population policies before it reaches a "point of no return".

That would be when it is no longer feasible to boost birth rates and when the state is no longer in a strong position to control the kind of foreign talent it lets in, he says.

He points to lessons from countries that have mismanaged their population measures, such as the Netherlands in the 1980s.

It capped the number of years of schooling its immigrants could have, in a bid to ensure they would not compete with locals for higher-value jobs. That approach backfired. Those who stayed on struggled to learn the local language and integrate into Dutch society.

Another indicator to watch is whether median household income keeps pace with gross domestic product growth, a measure of inclusive growth, Mr Galal says. He notes that based on pre-2008 figures, the former has tended to lag behind the latter in Singapore.

What Singapore has got going for it is a strong tradition in urban planning, he says.

It is also getting it right in putting the population strategy up for debate. The public's anxiety over the six million figure is, to him, a good sign that people are concerned rather than complacent.

"This debate is very healthy," he says. "It keeps the Government vigilant and it keeps the population engaged... It can all go wrong if Singapore becomes complacent."


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