Yawning Bread. March 2007

Will ours be an overcrowded city?




Ever since National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan told Parliament that his ministry had adopted 6.5 million as a planning figure for Singapore's future population, there has been a steady rumble of doubting voices as to the wisdom of this. One of the more common concerns is that of overcrowding.

Lance Lim's letter in the Straits Times forum (see box at right) expresses quite typical sentiments.

The letter however discloses a common fallacy: extrapolating conditions into the future based on existing infrastructure. It seems that the very point minister Mah wanted to make has been lost on many people, which was that his ministry was going to guide itself with this target figure when planning infrastructure into the future. In plain words, the physical environment will not be the same as today.

This is not to say that there are no grounds for concern, but a more sober grasp of the possible issues is needed before we can engage in a meaningful debate about the population target.

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I will attempt to sketch out the issues in 3 areas: housing, transport and leisure.

An important underlying concept needs to be introduced first. It is that of 2-dimensional space and 3-dimensional space. Certain things, given the available technology, need 2-dimensional space. An airport is a particularly apt example. To grow an airport one needs to spread out laterally over ground; one cannot stack runways or aircraft parking bays one above another.

On the other hand, it is possible to exploit the 3rd dimension to increase office space by building higher. There are of course certain limits given today's technology, but in Singapore, we are nowhere near those limits.


Housing, like office space, is very amenable to better utilisation of the 3rd dimension. This is not even new; this fact has been with us for more than a generation. Today, over 90% of Singaporeans live in flats.

Bukit Panjang Town. These blocks are
relatively new and are 16 - 24 storeys tall.

Lim didn't say it in his letter, but I have heard others say, "There's a limited supply of land, how can we squeeze in more people?" This misses the point altogether. Property is not land. Property nowadays is strata title and one can create as many strata titles as one can build.

Currently, the typical block of flats in the suburbs is about 12 storeys tall. What will it take to house 50% more people without increasing the footprint on the land? Simple: take the average up to 18 floors. Surely, that's not unimaginable. Some of us are already living in blocks taller than that.

But what will happen when all these people come down to the ground to take transport?


13 March 2007
Straits Times Forum

Crowds at weekend spark population worry

There has been much debate recently over the possibility of Singapore having a population of 6.5 million.

I was with friends at Plaza Singapura, Orchard Road and Suntec City last weekend and the first thing that struck me about those places was the size of the crowds. We even had to queue to go up and down the escalators leading from Suntec City to CityLink Mall.

Over at the food courts, despite the fact that it was eight plus at night, all the seats were taken and we had to wait around for a seat and queue for a long time to get our food. What will happen if this situation is exacerbated by the addition of two million people? Even now, our population density is one of the highest in the world.

This is not an abstract problem that affects people only indirectly; it is a real issue which impacts directly on the quality of life in Singapore.

Government leaders have said that with additional infrastructure in place, Singapore would be able to cope with the increase in numbers. I am not so sure. The fact is that more people just take up more space. More support facilities just would not work.

And this isn't even considering what increasing numbers of foreigners would do to the social fabric of Singapore.

The point has also been made that we need more people to sustain high economic growth. Has this point really been proven? Could we not just keep our population within 4.5 million and continue to thrive as we have done in the past?

Lance Lim Chen Ern



There are different kinds of transport, with different degrees of amenability to the 3rd dimension. Not all movement needs to take place at the ground level. There used to be a time when this was so, but if we look around our city today, that is not true anymore. The trains run underground, cars and buses sometimes go up flyovers, and pedestrians increasingly cross from one building to the next via bridges or underpasses, without ever stepping back to street level.

It is true that trains are terribly crowded at peak hours, but it's more a function of network management and economics than of space constraint. Trains do not have to run at 4-minute intervals as they do currently at peak hour. If for example, they ran at 3-minute intervals, capacity would go up 33%.

More lines can and are being built. The problem of course is to find the right balance between maximising utilisation (to keeps fares affordable) and increasing capacity greatly (to make rides comfortable). We can argue about what that right balance is, but there is no inherent reason why railway infrastructure cannot keep pace with population growth.

Pedestrian linkways above ground are likely to become more common in the future. However, we should start to plan for buildings to be linked to each other not just at the lower levels, but on their upper floors too. When that happens and the linkages generate enough traffic at those levels, commercial foci will naturally develop up there. It shouldn't be necessary to ever go down to the street level, adding to congestion there, to go to the dry-cleaners or the dentist.

The most difficult to layer extensively are roads. The occasional flyover to relieve choke-points is possible, but to have multi-deck roads all over the place would be prohibitively costly, not to mention being aesthetically ghastly.

What this means is that it is unlikely that motor vehicle population can grow 50% when the population grows 50%. In fact, seeing the traffic jams on many roads, we may already be rapproaching the limit as to the number of cars our 2-dimensional space can support. The long-term effect is that the private car becomes more and more a luxury.

So transport -- specifically the increasing scarcity of the private car relative to population -- is one area where there is likely to be a real loss in the quality of life.


If one thinks of leisure in terms of parks, gardens, tennis courts and beaches, then immediately one would see that space limitations can't be easily relieved by exploiting the 3rd dimension. Fortunately, many of our parks are underutilised at the present time, so there is room for more users.

However, most Singaporeans do not spend their leisure time in green spaces. More often than not, their time is spent shopping, eating out, going to the cinemas or clubbing. All these facilities are stackable too. There is no reason why the 5 or 6-level shopping centres and cineplexes that we're familiar with today can't be 18-level behemoths tomorrow.

Won't there be a terrible crush at ground level then? No, not if these buildings are connected to each other, or to transport systems at various upper levels.

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Not all places crowded

There is another troubling thing about Lim's letter: It generalises from anecdotal examples. As much as the places he named were crowded, other shopping centres and main streets in Singapore are begging for traffic.

Just a stone's throw from Plaza Singapura are Dhoby Ghaut Exchange and Cathay Building. The former has been in the news lately owing to tenants going broke for lack of shoppers. Cathay Building is still only half occupied 12 months after its opening.

A stone's throw from Suntec City is Millenia Walk (picture), which rarely sees more than a trickle of people.

Some places are crowded because they are successful in marketing or in attracting a good tenant mix. Lim saw crowds because he chose to go to crowded places, not because it's crowded everywhere.

The social effect of the Development Charge

The sense of overcrowding is sometimes due to factors other than land availability or building/transport design. One example of an extraneous factor is the Development Charge, the (usually massive) fee that the government imposes on any landowner for re-zoning or for increasing the permitted "plot ratio" -- the ratio of built floor area to land area. Naturally, if a developer wants to build higher he needs an enhanced plot ratio, so this fee is virtually unavoidable.

I have never understood how the government arrives at a figure for the Development Charge. It seems to me to be entirely arbitrary, extracting the maximum that the government can get away with from any enhanced future value of a property.

But it is no insignificant sum. For some developments, the Development Charge makes up two-thirds of the total cost of the project. What is the effect of this? For one, the landlord needs to charge higher rents to recover the total cost of the development. But when a tenant, e.g. a supermarket or restaurant, has to pay a higher rent, he has to try to squeeze as much sales per square metre as possible.

So restaurants choose smaller tables and chairs and place them closer together. Diners sit closer together; noise levels go up. Supermarkets shrink their aisles somewhat, or stack more merchandise in them. Queuing room behind the check-out counters is cut out, forcing queues into the aisles. We experience this every day. It frazzles our nerves.

My point is this: the feeling of being congested can sometimes be traced ultimately to the government's financial policy.

How to cope with 6.5 million is a complex issue. Inevitably, some expectations, e.g. owning cars or playing golf, cannot remain as they are. But genuine discussion about the anticipated problems require us to avoid simple extrapolations from selected crowded shopping centres and trains.

Yawning Bread