Singapore’s population is going to grow and there’s no stopping it. We can slow down the growth rate but we cannot turn back. With the current long term policies in place, reversing our population figures will do more harm then good. It is possible to maintain our standard of living with population decline but not with the growth trajectories that we have placed ourselves in. In order for national income to increase, our population has to. What do we do when we face situations like these? Kick, scream, complain, sulk? All of that isn’t going to help. Let’s try to be constructive.
Infrastructure – Expansion & Efficiency
In my opinion, the mistake we made with our population expansion policies is down to not being able to support its growth. We won’t be complaining if infrastructure grew at the same rate as our population whether local or foreign. The constraint that infrastructure places on us shakes us into awareness on how small space has become. As such, ‘space’ must grow at the same rate with population figures. If infrastructure can grow at equal or, even better, faster rates – then no one will be feeling the pinch. The question for a land scarce Singapore is whether an expansion of infrastructure is really possible. The answer is yes.
Punggol and Sengkang are examples of such expansions. We had unused land in the North Eastern areas of Singapore. Because we were so badly in need of new housing, we went big on creating a few new towns in these ‘ulu’ areas. These areas were unpopular basically because they were distant from the city center and other amenities. But the lack of residential space pushed the move. Infrastructure to connect the new towns to the city center (North East Line, Sengkang’s LRT Line, etc) and also within the new towns were quickly rolled out. According to a few of my married cousins who have started their families there, things have improved and the new towns are beginning to thrive.
Calculated moves should be made on allocating new land for activities that are far too concentrated on areas such as the central and southern areas of Singapore.
I am not saying we should exploit every bit of land we have but calculated moves should be made on allocating new land for activities that are far too concentrated on areas such as the central and southern areas of Singapore. It did crop up during a discussion in a transport economics module that we needed a new business center. The tutor mentioned at that point that we did try in the past but it never really took off. I think that is down to the lack of density 15 years ago. The situation is in now reverse. We may have jumped the gun before, but we are certainly lagging behind now. I believe there is sufficient incentives for certain industries to move out from the city center to new growth areas. This is what expansion should be targeted at.
Expansion will always hit hard limits. We can’t be reclaiming land forever. When we anticipate a road block ahead, we need to start finding ways to increase the efficiency of our infrastructure. It does seem that our residential areas always take the lead in such moves. Public housing has grown taller. 20 story flats used to be the norm. That has shot up to 30 to 50 floors now, increasing the capacity that the same piece of land had initially. There are other ways of improving efficiency.
I was disappointed at how slow the plans for the expansion of train lines were. An answer to our limited land space is to ensure that the flow of people remain constant at very least. It may get more crowded but if it doesn’t impact your speed, you will be less likely to be angered. The future of our transportation has to be trains and I’m talking light rail (LRTs) rather than their heavy counter parts. Light rail is cheaper, less maintenance heavy and offers the best selling points of MRTs and public buses. It doesn’t take up road space and the land required to build LRT stations is significantly smaller than MRT stations. Unfortunately, new LRT lines are not in the works. I’m rather shocked at this. In an ideal bustling city like that of Singapore, you want many small light rail lines plying along the main MRT lines. Instead of using the public bus primarily as the intermediary mode of travel between rail and destination, LRTs should fill that gap. The less buses on the road the better. Why take up space on the ground when you can move people on platforms in the air (or underground)?
We need to find ways to spread our population and key activities more smoothly around the island. With this sorted, density levels should make it easier to plan a more efficient transport system that will relieve the effects of a densely populated island state.
We will need new neighborhoods and this presents a great chance to experiment with one that is more friendly to walking and cycling. I remember a comment from our finance minister back in 2011 that Singaporeans do not like walking between MRT stations and their homes because doing so under the equatorial sun would be rather hot. Well, of course.
The question is – how do you make it conducive to walk and cycle in a tropical country like Singapore? The straight forward answer is shelters. Wide shelters that reduce the intense sun rays and provide proper cover during rain. Going a little deeper than that, the manner in which buildings are connected and positioned is also key. Circular spoke and wheel designs are effective in encouraging the population to walk and/or cycle instead of waiting for transport.
The key driving force behind this is not just about being green or having less exhaust in the air. A single human body transiting on its own takes up a much tinier footprint compared any vehicle out there. Your legs and/or your bicycle is the single most space saving form of transport you can find on earth. If we are so short on space, we should be looking at minimizing the footprint of our transportation modes.
We should be looking at minimizing the footprint of our transportation modes.
It is not far fetched to dream of neighborhoods that are built to promote such behaviors The younger generation has shown to be a lot more health conscious and the desire for physical fitness provides a handy supporting push towards a vision like this. Build a walk/cycle friendly neighborhood and see how that catches on. Just don’t expect people to walk or cycle without shelter and conducive transit spaces.
Flexible Working Hours / Places
The final idea I have on the platter today is to rethink peak hours and business centers. Everyone hates peak hours but the tradition of businesses and the need to ensure complementary opening hours enforces a 9 to 5 routine. The result? Everyone squeezes and runs late for work in the morning before jumping right into the same overcrowded dash home in the evening. We must try to break or at least modify such inefficient behaviors. It is completely counter intuitive to maintain peak hours.
Some large corporations have implemented flexible working hours. You can come to work at 10 or 11 but you should leave 2 hours later. After all, how much business actually gets done right in the morning? I am pretty sure there are roles that are not that time sensitive and it would be prudent to exercise flexibility as a long term approach to reduce population woes.
Taking this a step further, home offices should be strongly considered. The best way to reduce inefficiency is to reduce the need for transit to zero. Firms like P&G impose a single workday weekly where the employee works from home (or anywhere else outside the office). Obviously, this does not apply to everyone but starting such a trend and making it easy for an employee to be as productive at home as he/she is at work will be the single most effective weapon in reducing the repercussions of space constraints.
The best way to reduce inefficiency is to reduce the need for transit to zero.
The solutions in this section are very much a pipe dream at the moment. But they are in no way impossible or unheard of. We have to be bold in hunting for a range of solutions. The ones here are definitely long term wherewith policies must shape the economy so that businesses are receptive to such ideas and find ways to make it work.
Solutions, Solutions, Solutions
To be frank, this post was motivated by the immense number of angry comments on social media sites. Understandably, everyone was simply more concerned about venting their frustrations. I hope to see more constructive viewpoints in future and this post is in the hopes of getting the ball rolling.
6.9 million is not exactly a bad thing if you have the right plans and policies to abate the painful consequences. We can no longer afford to be reactive rather than proactive in ensuring proper support for an expanding population. In the same spirit as I ended a former post on a psychological solutions, here’s a call for more lateral thinking and creative solutions.
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