SINGAPORE ~ Singapore’s planning for a long-term population of 6.5 million, up nearly 50 percent from the current level, has raised the specter of overcrowding and pollution in one of Asia’s most livable cities.
“One only needs to visualize the cramped apartments in Hong Kong, the crowded streets in Chennai and the high property prices in central London in order to get a sense of what it is like living in an overcrowded city,” Ahmad Magad, a member of parliament, told the legislature last month.
But the island nation renowned for its gardens, clean surroundings and high living standards can avoid the problems suffered by its neighbors through forward planning and investment in public infrastructure, officials and experts say.
“There’s a danger (of overcrowding), but Singapore has the ability to cope with that and cope with it well. I think Singapore has some lessons that they should teach even to the developed countries,” said Mike Lindfield, an urban development specialist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
“Physically, I don’t think it’s impossible to put in another two million people.
“But you must make sure that when you are building at higher densities – and Singapore is already pretty dense – then you need to invest in public facilities that will enable people to have a good quality of life. That’s important for the competitiveness of Singapore,” he told AFP.
Since the government announced its new “population parameter” in February, concerns have been raised over its possible ramifications – overcrowding, environmental damage and strained ties between the local population and foreign workers.
Singapore’s current population is about 4.4 million, 18 percent of whom are foreigners, according to official statistics.
National development minister Mah Bow Tan said that while the figure of 6.5 million is not a target, Singapore needs a “viable and self-sustaining population profile, one that helps us grow a bigger economic pie and a livelier and more vibrant society.”
One main concern is the impact of the population rise on Singapore’s reputation as a clean and green city.
Many Asian cities are already paying a heavy price for urbanization due to poor planning that results in teeming squatter colonies, massive traffic congestion, pollution and the rationing of water supplies, urban planners say.
As Singapore allots more land to housing, industries, roads and other infrastructure, there are fears the city’s treasured parks will shrink. More cars would mean worsening air pollution.
Another concern is the effect of the population jump on social ties between locals and foreigners.
With Singaporean families not producing enough babies to naturally replenish the population, experts say the bulk of the additional two million people will come from abroad.
“The hardest sell the government will have to make to the people is that the population increase will be made up almost totally of foreigners,” the pro-government Straits Times said in an editorial.
To allay fears of the foreign influx, the government must attract not only job-seekers but also “entrepreneur-settlers” who will set up businesses and hire local employees, it suggested.
Mah said the recent review of Singapore’s plan covering the next 40-50 years concluded there will be “sufficient land … if we use these limited resources judiciously and wisely.”
The government will invest more to expand the rail and road network and build power and utilities facilities to meet future needs, he said.
Still, many Singaporeans are worried.
Suggestions by some economists that a larger population is crucial to economic growth may not always be true, member of parliament Magad said, citing Finland, which has a population of five million but is one of Europe’s richest nations.
“Is there really a need for 6.5 million people or more? At the end of the day the question to ask is: Is this tradeoff worth it?” said Magad, a member of the ruling People’s Action Party.
“While we want to create buzz and spur economic growth, we must make sure that such efforts will not drive our people out.”
Over the past four decades Singaporeans have left behind their rural kampungs, or villages, and moved into clusters of high-rise apartments as the island urbanized.
Experts like Lindfield said Singapore can draw from its 40-year urban planning experience, often cited as a model for other Asian cities, as it prepares for the future.
“It can become like Hong Kong,” Lindfield said. “You can still have that density and maintain a high quality of living, providing you plan for it and invest in the facilities.”
Singapore is already adding valuable space through land reclamation and construction of taller buildings, but must become more creative, Mah said.
Last month, it started construction of a massive underground oil storage facility, the first in Southeast Asia.
Belinda Yuen, an urban and environmental planning expert at the National University of Singapore, said the country has shown that economic growth can be achieved without sacrificing the environment.
Singapore’s economic development program is “framed in the larger and more holistic perspective of developing Singapore into a dynamic, distinctive and delightful global city,” she said in a paper presented at a recent ADB conference on urban issues.
Singapore has shown “that cities do not need to accept concrete jungles and unsustainable urban growth as inevitable,” she said. “Other options are possible with forward urban planning.”