The population debate: The optimum size

Wong Wee Nam

It is not true that the more people we have, the better the economy and the higher the standard of living for all of us. On the contrary, the denser the city, the higher the cost of housing and taxes.

The more buildings there are, the greater the likelihood they will block our views, our light and our air.

So what is the optimum size? In
The Next Lap, published by the Singapore Government in 1993, it is recommended that “…with careful use of land, we can comfortably house 4 million people..”

We have gone beyond this figure and that is why Singaporeans are starting to feel uncomfortable and agitated by the presence of so many people in Singapore. What more if we push it to 6.9 million people and beyond.

We must not forget that even if immigration were to cease, our population would continue to grow for a while before it stabilises. This will place much stress on our infrastructure: housing, schools, hospitals, and transport will come under intense pressure, not to mention the damage inflicted on our biodiversity.

Is size an advantage for growth? According to Professor Leopold Kohr, there is a limit to the advantage of size. Any increase beyond that is counter-productive. There will be increasing social problems and the society has to pay the social cost, thus offsetting any economic gain. In his most popular work
The Breakdown of Nations, Professor Kohr said that small nations and small economies are more peaceful, more prosperous and more creative than great powers or superstates. These smaller states are better able to weather economic storms by being more flexible, their governments are less aggressive and more accountable to their peoples.

2500 years ago, Aristotle also postulated that there is an optimum size of a population for a city-state to function. To him a very populous city can rarely be well-governed.

“Moreover, experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limit of population”

He also thinks that there must be a limit to the size of states to be functional.

“To the size of states there is a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled. For example, a ship which is only a span long will not be a ship at all, nor a ship a quarter of a mile long; yet there may be a ship of a certain size, either too large or too small, which will still be a ship, but bad for sailing. In like manner a state when composed of too few is not, as a state ought to be, self-sufficing; when of too many, though self-sufficing in all mere necessaries, as a nation may be, it is not a state, being almost incapable of constitutional government. ”

A good example of a small functional and prosperous state is Liechtenstein. It is only 160 sq km and a population of only 35,000 (smaller even than the population of Punggol East) but has the highest gross domestic product per person in the world when adjusted by purchasing power parity and has the world’s lowest external debt. Liechtenstein also has the second lowest unemployment rate in the world at 1.5% (Monaco is first).

Despite, or perhaps because of, its limited natural resources, Liechtenstein is one of the few countries in the world with more registered companies than citizens; it has developed a prosperous, highly industrialized free-enterprise economy and boasts a financial service sector as well as a living standard which compares favourably with those of the urban areas of Liechtenstein’s large European neighbours.

Moreover, Liechtenstein has won more Olympic medals per capita than any other nation. It is the smallest nation to win a medal in any Olympics, Winter or Summer.

Liechtenstein is not the only successful small country. There are many like Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and Switzerland.

Aim of Population Policies

What then should be the aim of our population policies? It must give future generations a better quality of life – economic, physical, mental and social well-being.

There must be park land to complement physical development. There must be a decent roof over their heads. Our children should be able to attend schools that are not over-crowded to facilitate high-quality teacher-student interaction. The social infrastructure should also not be overloaded so that the country will have to bear the burden of huge social costs down the road.

The problem of a bulging population of dependents is not new. After World War II, a baby boom gave governments a very big headache. The pressure on governments then was even greater, given the depleted resources of a post-war economy. There were no reserves to fall back on.

In the early days of modern Singapore, the rate of unemployment was high. More than half the population was illiterate and there were not enough schools for the young. Living conditions were appalling, it was not uncommon for a family to live in a cubicle. In other words the majority of the population lived in poverty and filth and always under threat of disease and crime.

The colonial government then had to build standpipes for people to have free water to bathe, wash their clothes and cook their food. It had to provide free health care, free mass vaccinations, free mobile X-rays and free hospitalization for the poor. Money was not only spent on building schools, it was also spent on free milk to nourish the children who were suffering from poor nutrition. Free textbooks were given to those who could not afford them. Cheap housing had to be built to provide decent living quarters for a growing population and recreation facilities for youths to keep them off the streets.

The problem then, if not more, was no less severe than what we will be facing in future. Statistics projected to 2030 showing only four people who are able to support one person is often quoted to show the gravity of the future problem. Is this figure any worse than the number of dependents that had to be supported by one provider in the period after the war? It was very common then for a sole bread earner to raise a family of 6 to 8 dependents.

The grey tsunami is not as terrifying as it seems. Epidemiological statistics have shown that the poor, the people with chronic illnesses and those in the lower social class and without a family tend to die earlier than those in the higher social class. This means the elderly who live up to the age of 85 and beyond are likely to be in a sound financial position to take care of themselves. Many baby boomer retirees do not really need handouts. What they hope is for the government to control inflation, control healthcare costs and do not impoverish their children with low wages and high property prices through the rapid importation of foreigners just to meet an arbitrary population target set by them.

We need a rational population policy that would keep our population at a comfortable level and yet remain competitive in the global market place. We need to be selective about who we take without depriving the economy of the skills which are required to compete internationally. There should policies to lower the cost of bringing up children and to relieve the anxiety of growing old by making the country a less expensive place for the elderly to stay.

This will encourage our citizens to commit themselves to this country from cradle to grave. By sound control of our population we would be able to provide affordable housing, recreational spaces, protect our  resources, reduce pollution, and achieve a high quality of life for our future generations and still be as rich as Liechtenstein. The SDP’s policy paper on this subject, which will be launched shortly, will present a comprehensive set of population and immigration measures that will meet these goals.

Singaporeans are furious with the aim to raise the population to 7 million. Ministers are now coming out one by one to say that the figure is a worst case scenario and not a target. If it is not a target, why plan to build infrastructure to meet the number then? Isn’t it a utter waste of resources?

Dr Wong Wee Nam is a medical doctor and a member of the SDP’s Healthcare Advisory Panel.

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