Bread. February 2007
6.5 million will make a different Singapore
Everything but the two biggest questions on people's minds: Will I be
outcompeted for a job? Will Singapore feel like a foreign place socially?
Instead the Straits Times' feature on 24 February 2007 was headlined, "Will this city rock?" -- not exactly the first concern people have when they hear the government talk about preparing for the day when we'll have 6.5 million people on this tiny island.
Much of the first half of the article was devoted to explaining why this new figure has been announced.
Indeed, at the current 4.5 million, Singapore is a relatively small city by world standards. In many areas, we don't have critical mass. In an age when our neighbours are industrialising, moving up the value chain to a knowledge economy is the only way for us to go. To get there, we need an unparalleled concentration of talent, in various synergistic disciplines. Thus Sanyal's reference to a "minimum cluster of activities".
More than that, the talent we need must be unusually adventurous, people who by personality are bored with the conventional and the known, who feed on pushing beyond boundaries. These are the inventors and the creative workers that we've been talking about for 10 years. Such people don't thrive in cities that are too safe; they need exciting places. Thus the Straits Times' choice of headline.
Yet our birthrate is too low for Singaporeans to get to the 6.5 million figure without massive immigration. Singapore's Total Fertility Rate per woman is just 1.25, well below the 2.1 needed for a population to even replace itself. Evidently aware that immigration is a very controversial subject, the article devoted nearly half its length to explaining all the above, in an effort to convince readers of the necessity of the coming influx.
Then the article's focus shifted to housing and infrastructure before touching, briefly, on the social impact.
Amazingly, the newspaper had little more to say about the matter beyond that point.
For an economic species, a shocking number of humans have no understanding of economics at all. We still see the world in ways not different from those of hunter-gatherers: there's a finite amount of resources "out there" within the territory we dominate, and if more people come to live off this territory, we'll each have less.
Few seem to realise that this equation broke down 10,000 – 15,000 years ago when humans discovered agriculture and domesticated animals. How much food a community had from then on depended more on how much labour they collectively put in to ploughing fields, raising crops and husbanding animals. Subject to the yield available from the land, they could produce from the same acreage many multiples of what hunter-gatherers could have caught or foraged.
Aha, you say, there is still an upper limit, being the maximum yield of the land. But in fact this is a movable barrier too. It depends on technology, such as knowing how to selectively breed better seeds or build better fences to keep predators away from the herds, and on infrastructure, like irrigation. In other words, an economy is something that is created by people, not a function of natural resources.
Now, look at the problem in a different way. Take 2 million people, foreigners all, by coincidence the same number that Singapore expects to welcome in the next decade or two. Put these 2 million people on an uninhabited island with no natural resources. The island had no economy before they arrived. Will it have an economy after? If so, where does the economy come from?
Sure, there will be an economy after they have landed, even if they have no resources to extract. They can barter their labour for food and other necessities from abroad. Maybe some will import denim and sew jeans which they'll re-export. Others may import fresh fruit and turn them into cider. Still others may draw cartoons and sell them for others' entertainment. In addition, they' will provide services to each other too, such as building houses, catering meals and serving as translators. So long as they put in the two most flexible resources any population has -- their thinking skills and their labour -- they will have an economy.
Since they are relying on thinking skills and labour, the limiting factors will be creativity and efficiency. Over-regulation (like a big chief enslaving all the 2 million people) and habits of mind (e.g. the people collectively thinking it immoral to work with alcohol, and so the cider industry is never born) are the main enemies of creativity, while regulation again, plus poor governance and poor infrastructure (which are related) are the main enemies of efficiency. That is why in modern economies today, these factors predict a country's long-term economic performance far better than things like land area or natural resources.
Thus by this analogy, when one puts an additional 2 million folks into Singapore, they add an economy of their own to what we have here. They don't take our economy from us. However, we should exercise reasonable care to attract people with skills, verve and determination -- the people most likely to create their own economy. However, due to intermixing, at a micro level, the Singaporean will find new competitors for his job, but he also has new jobs (created by the new economy) to compete for. Things will even out, but overall, it is better for the 2-million strong add-on economy to be located here than elsewhere.
As I mentioned above, how productive these new immigrants will be will depend on things like governance and infrastructure. On both these scores, we can expect Singapore to do rather well. We don't expect corruption, unstable exchange rates, unreliable power supply or massive traffic jams to bleed efficiency from the system. The very fact that the government has announced the 6.5 million target in advance shows that they intend to plan housing, transportation and other infrastructure to cater for this.
What we need to watch out for is over-regulation and conservative, risk-averse habits of mind. These two are major inhibitors of economic performance and Singapore doesn't have much to be proud of here. The government is partly responsible, but so too are Singaporeans themselves.
Too many Singaporeans are too comfortable with their provincial worldviews. It manifests in various ways, including a smugness by which we see others not of our ethnicity or nationality. It comes through from the social pressures we exert on our families and others to keep to known career paths, accepted ways of acquiring social prestige and conventional modes for forming families. We frown on those who do things differently; we have little tolerance for those who rock the boat. We like our known world to stay as it is.
Well, ethnically and culturally, it won't stay as it is when we reach 6.5 million. For example, we like to think that Singapore is 75% Chinese. This might have been true 30 years ago, but already today it is only true if we base our calculation on 3.6 million citizens and Permanent Residents. If we base it on the 4.5 million people actually on this island, the figure is probably different, and perhaps lower (even allowing for new arrivals from China)
Certainly the "Others" category, which includes Caucasians, is more numerous than the 2.4% figure among citizens and Permanent Residents.
When we get to 6.5 million, it will different again. We may have a Russian community or a Brazilian or Iranian, just as how the Burmese, Koreans and Nigerians have recently become visible. Even the new Indians and Chinese are quite different communities from the Indians and Chinese who have been here from a few generations ago.
Terence Chong is right: Cosmopolitanism is a attitude, not a function of physical proximity. We can have all these people living here, and yet we can still live and socialise within our own little ghettoes, and spend precious time and energy in mutual suspicion. The government's constant use of the CMIO  model is also unhelpful. It reminds people to think of themselves by race. It essentialises traits and therefore stereotypes communities.
Compared to building infrastructure to serve 6.5 million people, we have much more work to do to break habits of mind. The first thing to do is to stop seeing others by race and group attributes, but as unique individuals. Then to stop thinking that your own group, religion, or moral beliefs are superior. And to stop wishing that the kind of society we've known in the past must necessarily be the kind of society we should have in the future.
© Yawning Bread