Rethinking the population conundrum, by John Gee

There is a secret that hides in plain view, but goes unrecognised. It is that a lot of Singaporeans want to have all the conveniences of the city, but to live in the country. Those who work in the market property know. Most advertisements in the print media and on television show new apartment blocks with trees around them.

Some appear to be set in forests, although a glance at a map usually reveals that, at best, they have a view over forested land, but are largely surrounded by concrete and glass. Nevertheless, words such as “verdant” and “serene” are used to describe their settings.

They suggest something very far removed from the reality of much of the city state, where the hum of passing traffic is a constant, interrupted only by the late night driver celebrating the end of an evening out, by revving his engine and charging by at speed, and where the view from the window all too often consists of the windows opposite.

Supporting evidence is not lacking. The green spaces of the Botanical Gardens and local parks are very popular with visitors.

Surely, one of the most successful initiatives of the recent past, judging by the pleasure it gives to thousands of people, is the Southern Ridges Walk: A stranger plucked from elsewhere and set down along that trail could believe that Singapore is a heavily forested country.

Those fortunate enough to have even tiny patches of garden that could be covered by table cloths generally enjoy them very much. Last but not least, access to space and open countryside is one of the attractions of life in some of the countries that are attracting migrants from Singapore, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The fact that green surroundings are being seen as a strong selling point, is one of those telling details of daily life that ought to set long term planners thinking very deeply about policies that assume the desirability - or even necessity - of a significantly larger population.

Considerable effort has been invested in efforts to encourage Singaporeans to have more children, but with limited success so far. Current lifestyles and the heavy costs of raising a child have been cited as reasons, but it might also be questioned whether the built environment in which most live is also a disincentive.

It is certainly one of the factors that lead thousands to decide each year to make new lives for themselves in other countries.

The prospect of a more congested city, dominated by avenues of high-rises, where the pleasure of walking in the last green reserves will be diluted by the presence of thousands of others similarly seeking recreation for the body and repose for the mind, is not appealing to many people and they can hardly be blamed for wanting something better.

Among those most likely to opt for life elsewhere will be the educated and creative young people with marketable talents. They are the ones who face great difficulties in getting a foot onto the property ladder, but also appreciate a green environment.

If Singapore is having problems retaining the citizens it already has, then pronatalist initiatives may be compared to attempting to fill a leaky bucket by pouring water in faster - with the difference that the very act of pouring makes the leaks bigger.

There’s a good case for arguing that Singapore could benefit from a greater emphasis on long term sustainability, and less on growth - certainly not growth at any price, or growth understood merely as expanded money making capabilities, with no qualitative element.

Instead of worrying about how to produce more people, an emphasis on the quality of life of the people, who are already here, might make for a happier citizenry that wants to stay in Singapore.

The quality of life is not primarily a matter of money. It includes factors such as more leisure time and reduced pressure on children in the education system, but also the reshaping of urban areas to give a greater sense of contact with the natural and rural worlds.

With enhanced productivity, the population might settle at a level that will be much easier on the environment than the oft-projected 6.5 million, and the country might be able to maintain and recreate the green environment its people clearly need.

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