The Population Debate: The Optimum Size

By Dr Wong Wee Nam
06 February 2013

It is not true that the more people we have, the better the economy and the better the standard of living will be for all of us. On the contrary, apart from all the ills of over-population, the denser the city, the higher the cost of housing and taxes. The more buildings there are, the more likely 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 was 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 at the moment. 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 country would still continue to grow for a while before it stabilises. This will place a lot of stress on our infrastructure like housing, schools, hospitals, and transport, and cause damage to 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, he said that small nations and small economies are more peaceful, more prosperous and more creative than great powers or super states and they are better able to weather economic storms by being more flexible, less aggressive and more accountable to their people.

2500 years ago, Aristotle also postulated that there is an optimum size of 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 thought 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 has a population of only 35,000 (smaller even than the population of Punggol East), but it 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 our future generations a better our quality of life, in terms of better economic, physical, mental, and social well-being.

There must be park land to complement the physical development. There muse be a decent roof over our heads. Our children should be able to attend schools that are not over-crowded, so that the teacher will have enough time to interact with them. The whole social infrastructure and systems of the country should not be overloaded so that the country would be able to function efficiently without incurring huge social costs.

We need to ensure that we can provide enough food, clean drinking water, health care, educational services and employment opportunities for all of our people first.

Economics is basically about the competition for scarce resources. As the population increases beyond a certain extent, the competition for resources will also increase, thus affecting our quality of life.

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

In Singapore at that time, 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 whole family to live in a single cubicle. In other words, the majority of the population lived in poverty and filth and always under the threat of diseases 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 and free textbooks for those who could not afford them. Cheap housing had to be built to provide decent living quarters for a growing population and recreational facilities for youths to keep them off the streets.

The problems of that time will probably be no less severe than what we will be facing in the future. Statistics projected to 2030 showing only two working adults charged with the responsibility of supporting one elderly person are often quoted to show the gravity of the future problem. It is as bad as a situation as in the period after the war, when many children had to be supported by a single provider. It was very common then for a sole bread earner to raise a family of 6 to 8 dependents, young and old.

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 in without depriving the economy of the skills which are required to compete internationally. There should be 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 old folks 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 provide a high quality of life for our future generations, and still be as rich as Liechtenstein.

Singaporeans are generally very furious with the aim to raise the population to 7 million people. 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? Wouldn’t it be an utter waste of resources?

  1. Great article.Maybe, to substantiate the idea that most baby boomers will have enough savings to support themselves, we will have to look at the average CPF savings and asessts provided cost of living and healthcare cost are well manaed. But also have to consider those from low-income families, will the family to be able to support them.