Mind the cracks

Wong Wee Nam

On 28th January 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the students attending the NTU Students’ Union Ministerial Forum that Singaporeans need to be united and cohesive, with a common purpose and a common goal to make Singapore better. There is nothing profound in this statement and anyone with a bit of common sense will not disagree with Mr Lee.

There is no doubt the world will change in the next 50 years in ways that we cannot imagine. His reassurances are “We need to educate our students better, with knowledge and skills for the future, with values and good character to deal with life’s uncertainties.

“We need to create more opportunities for them in a rapidly changing society — which means growth, which means jobs, which means new investment, which means upgrading. So we want to encourage the bold and enterprising to go forth.”

These are good intentions, but not all good intentions will lead us to heaven.

We don’t need anyone with a keen sense of observation to know that it now takes an irritating longer time to get from point A to point B whether you take public transport or drive a car.

It doesn’t take an impatient customer, diner or a commuter to encounter slower services or being squeezed in crowded conditions.

We read about train breakdowns and tents being built to house patients because of lack of beds. There are also the frequent flooding that were supposed to happen only once in every fifty years and the sudden unexpected riot in Little India at the end of last year ended a peace that had lasted for fifty years.

These are signs of hairline cracks in our society. When we do not pay attention to a fissure, it is going to become a small slit. When we do not repair a small slit, it is going to grow wider. If we still don’t take any remedial action, a big crack will soon appear and become so big that collapse becomes inevitable.

A wise man will study the nature of the slit, ruminate over the problem and go to the root cause of the slit so that the right solution can be found. This is the nature of things: a fissure can eventually cause even a mountain to cave in.

So far the government’s attitude is not reassuring. Take the issue of the rich and poor divide. Instead of telling us of the solution his government has in mind, the Prime Minister went on to point out the importance of keeping our society open so that all Singaporeans can interact comfortably with one another. How will this reduce the income gap? I would have been reassured if Mr Lee had come out with a programme of affirmative action for the children of the lower income group so that they would go to the same starting line as the rest the first day they go to school.

Instead he went on to mention the lack of restraint on the social media could complicate matters and could lead to “pack behaviour”. He forgot to mention that before the age of social media, the state-controlled media had made brain-washed Singaporeans live the life of “pack behaviour”.

In fact, it is the internet that has now made it possible for the citizens to behave as informed individuals ready to participate in discourses and take ownership of their country, a challenge he had thrown to his young listeners.

Mr Lee wants Singaporeans to be cohesive and united. Generally, Singaporeans who have lived and grown up in this country and performed National Service duties have no problem having this feeling of community. They have been conditioned since young to queue, to live with other races and not to litter. We speak Singlish and enjoy curry, durian, teh tarik and rojak.

New immigrants should have no problem adopting these traits over time. However, when new immigrants flock to Singapore in large numbers, they find security in their own community. This makes it harder for them to assimilate and become part of the larger Singapore community. It is even more difficult when, with modern technology and communications, they are still connected by easy travels, internet, cable TVs to the motherland where they had come from.

Moreover, the liberal immigration policies employed by the ruling government over the past decade have caused Singaporeans to be placed in a state of disorientation and fragmentation. With local-bred Singaporeans being pushed into a near minority status, it will soon precipitate a crisis of national identity. Without any clear integration and induction program catered for these new migrants, Singaporeans are beckoned to welcome and aid their integration into our society often at the expense of our way of life. The truth is, decades of nation building efforts have been undone with the liberal influx of immigrants in just the past ten years alone.

Thus. this lack of foresight is the problem, not the social media. The social media merely exposes the crack.

Even with our current 5.3 million population, the hairline cracks have appeared. What happens when we reach the suggested 6.9 million, bringing the average number of persons per sq km to 16,640? So far the government has not given us an optimum number for our small island. Instead, in the mainstream media not long ago, we have an expert telling us that we should have no problem accommodating up to 8 million. He was obviously trying to tell us 6.9 million is actually very comfortable. There is a Chinese saying 管中窥豹 which means to look at a leopard through a pipe. This is the narrow range of vision of experts. They can only see the leopard’s spots and not the whole animal.

Even with 5.3 million our social behaviour has degenerated. Notice the littering in your carparks? Aggressive behaviour has increased significantly on trains, buses, on the roads and other public places.

What then 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 and whatever there are, 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.

With each additional person there must be a demand for additional resources. We need more homes, more cars, buses, trains, food, water, electricity, waste disposal, recreation spaces and other services like healthcare and education. Singapore is already the most expensive place it the world. With increase demands, it will become a paradise for the rich and a hell for the rest. As competition for jobs, goods and services increases, the income gap will further widened and, with inflation, an even larger share of our population will descend into poverty.

When there is over-crowding, people become more susceptible to catching and spreading disease, With more people traveling and immigrants going and coming back from their countries of origin, new bugs are likely to be introduced into the country.

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. You can expect to see more road bullies and other anti-social behaviours like urinating and defecating in public places.

Over 2500 years ago, Aristotle 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.


“First among the materials required by the statesman is population: he will consider what should be the number and character of the citizens, and then what should be the size and character of the country. Most persons think that a state in order to be happy ought to be large; but even if they are right, they have no idea what is a large and what a small state. For they judge of the size of the city by the number of the inhabitants; whereas they ought to regard, not their number, but their power.……. 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. We may argue on grounds of reason, and the same result will follow. For law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly…………. 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 state, then, only begins to exist when it has attained a population sufficient for a good life in the political community: it may indeed, if it somewhat exceed this number, be a greater state. But, as I was saying, there must be a limit. What should be the limit will be easily ascertained by experience.…………….. Clearly then the best limit of the population of a state is the largest number which suffices for the purposes of life, and can be taken in at a single view.

The government needs to think if there is going to be a future for our children and our children’s children. In thinking of this, the government must also remember Aristotle words about the ship. Singapore is not a ship. As Mr Lee mentioned not very long ago, we are only a sampan. We need to grow according to our size.

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


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