Singapore's population target in doubt

Insight Down South by Seah Chiang Nee, The Star 27 Feb 10;

The public housing crisis has revived the question whether Singapore, with only 700sq km of land, can continue to accommodate the current five million residents, let alone increase it by a further one-third.

HOW is this land-squeezed island coping with housing an enlarged population of five million, including hundreds of thousands of recent foreign arrivals?

The answer gleaned from public comments about the Housing Development Board (HDB), the national icon that builds homes for 80% of the people is: “surprisingly poor”, given its sterling track record.

For 50 years, the HDB has helped to transform this former squatter colony into a global city of fine homes. At early times, it set a world record of building an average of one flat every 45 minutes.

The recent unprecedented intake of foreigners has, however, dealt a blow to its reputation, judging by the widespread complaint of poor anticipation, insufficient flats and spiralling prices.

As a result, resale subsidised apartments, which are still cheaper than private ones, have moved out of reach of many young fresh graduates planning to get married and settle down.

With affluent foreign PRs joining in the rush – some for profits – resale prices of HDB apartments have increased by some 45% in the last few years. The government, which usually plans ahead, is finding itself in hot soup for being under-prepared by the explosive demand. An indication of this: In 2008, HDB built only 3,183 new flats when there were over 90,000 PRs and 20,000 new citizens in the same year, according to official statistics.

Only Singaporeans – not foreigners or PRs – are allowed to buy new government flats, which are generally well designed and planned. Because of the long waiting time, however, many Singaporeans opt to pay more for resale units in the open market, where they run into competition from PR buyers.

Some commentators feel it is unfair just to blame the HDB, since the problem covers a wide range of population, immigration as well as manpower policies that involves the entire government and not just public housing.

The top leadership has drawn up plans and an overall strategy for a 6.5 million population without fixing a time-frame.

But with public unhappiness rising over the perceived costs, over-crowdedness, rising prices, the immigration inflow is being slowed down.

“This probably means that if the authorities want to stick to its 6.5 million population, it will have to take a longer time – probably more than 20 years,” one business executive commented.

The public housing crisis has revived a question whether Singapore, with only 700 sq km of land, can continue to accommodate the current five million residents, let alone increase it by a further one-third. The high density may already have affected some quarters overseas.

The Ireland-based International Living magazine recently ranked Singapore, one of Asia’s wealthiest states, a lowly 70th position among top places to live in.

The city scored well on safety and risk, healthcare, leisure and culture, but was penalised for its environment which included considerations of density and population growth.

The demographic change in Singapore has been dramatic. Twenty years ago, it was a more pleasant city of 3.05 million, some two million fewer people than 4.99 million reached last year.

This expansion of 64% (mostly through immigration) in 20 years is a rate matched by few countries in modern history. It succeeded in pushing out Hong Kong as the world’s third densest-populated place.

On average of 7,023 persons live in each square kilometre of this city, compared to 6,349 in Hong Kong. Both are behind Macau (18,534) and Monaco (16,923).

The Minister of National Development, Mah Bow Tan, one of the staunchest advocates of a bigger population, regularly reassuring the people that Singapore has enough land for 6.5 million people. There was no need for a massive across-the-board change in development intensity, he added, as there was sufficient supply to meeting needs for the next 10 to 15 years.

Some government officials say the Government had drawn up plans for future housing, creation and land transport needs for the next 20 years when the population reaches 6.5 million.

In its latest move that shows its determination in carving out more space for a larger population, the Government plans to move much of the city underground. A government strategic committee has called for the creation of more underground space to accommodate shopping malls, train networks, civil defence shelters, pedestrian links as well as ammunition and oil storage. It has been reducing the average size of residential flats, both private and public, as well as stacking them higher.

Matching the government’s enthusiasm for a bigger population, however, is an alternative voice against it.

“Why do we need 6.5 million people?” asked a private doctor and former opposition candidate Dr Wong Wee Nam in an article warning about the consequences for his fellow citizens.

“A city needs to rejuvenate, transform and re-create itself continually in order to stay healthy and alive,” he said.

“How can an over-crowded place with all the ills of high density be able to do that?”

Reclamation could expand the country’s size from 700 to 708 sq km, according to Dr Wong, but it would not reduce density very much.

With a 6.5 million population, Singapore could well become the most densely populated place on earth, with 16,640 persons per sq km.

Another critic of mass immigration is the former top civil servant Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, who feels that Singapore is better served by investing in its own citizens than importing large numbers from abroad.

“We risk having them (talented foreigners) use us as a stepping stone... Singapore will be left with the second tier of average people,” he added.