Singapore can, if it wants, accommodate eight million people.
That is Dr Cheung’s belief.
But whether it wants to hit even six million is a “political matter” up for negotiation between the Government and the people, he makes clear.
The Hong Kong-born Singaporean, 59, spent close to 30 years monitoring the interplay between Singapore’s population and economic growth, including 14 years as the Government’s chief statistician. He draws a sharp distinction between a population target and a planning parameter.
“We must always plan for the upper limit. We have to be creative and have in mind urban infrastructure for a much larger population,” Dr Cheung says.
Otherwise, one ends up with “lousy planning”. One example of that is the older MRT lines. They were planned for a population of four million. Six carriages per train were deemed sufficient then, in turn, dictating station designs for six-car trains.
Today, they are a limiting factor, preventing the adding of more carriages to each train to cater to higher traffic. The only option is to run more trains per hour, which increases the strain on the rail system, he says.
Another reason to plan for a larger number is that population growth has its own momentum, as shown by population figures published just last week, he says.
They showed that foreign worker numbers went up by 100,000 in the 12 months to June, and new immigrants by about 45,000 last year, in spite of government efforts to tighten and slow both inflows.
But should Singapore turn off the foreigner tap altogether, it risks hurting the economy,
Dr Cheung says. For example, if the foreigner-dependent maritime industry is hurt by a lack of labour, it will have a knock-on effect on sectors such as logistics, bunking, cruise and oil rig.
“These economic drivers may disappear overnight. Once you lose these, you’ll never get them back again because there are so many other countries competing for that position,” he says, adding that in the longer term, Singapore needs to restructure its economy and raise productivity.
Back in the 1990s, Singaporeans worried about housing four million people on this island. But, thanks to the resulting economic growth, “now we are beyond four million, and I don’t think quality of life has suffered”. “Singaporeans by and large have very good housing and urban life,” he adds.
However, he acknowledges that ground conditions this time round are different from those 22 years ago. He counts as genuine problems overstrained public transport infrastructure, too many foreign workers and a perception among some Singaporeans that the Government favours foreigners.
If the decision is to stop before six million, or to take a longer time to approach it, he says: “That’s fine. Then we can have slower growth and control the population more.”
This article was first published in The Straits Times. (Copyright 2012)