12 July 2008

I never cease to be amazed at the ignorance and delusional beliefs of some of our top-level public servants when it comes to the subject of Singapore's population or carrying capacity. You will find in today's Straits Times (12 July'08), Insight, p. S8, a report about Singapore's former chief statistician, Dr Paul Cheung, and his views on Singapore's population. Here's what he said:

Singapore has the potential of holding an even bigger population than 6.5 million. The Singapore economic space is far greater than the island itself. Water is less of an issue because of Newater and other technology. And the economic foundations are becoming stronger.

This new era of economic growth requires a new level of manpower supply. Especially with people coming here for lifestyle services, medical treatment, entertainment - and soon for the integrated resorts and F1 race. So I think 6.5 million is a good interim number to work with.

The Next Lap Committee in the 1990s chose to work with a 5 million target. But the carrying capacity of the island has increased and targets evolve depending on circumstances.
Dr Paul Cheung has a skewed understanding and interpretation of the term "carrying capacity". Let's look at the ecological definition:
Ecologists define 'carrying capacity' as the population of a given species that can be supported indefinitely in a defined habitat without permanently damaging the ecosystem upon which it is dependent.

Carrying capacity refers to the number of individuals who can be supported in a given area within natural resource limits, and without degrading the natural social, cultural and economic environment for present and future generations.

With those definitions in mind, how can Dr Paul Cheung say that Singapore's carrying capacity has increased? Have we reduced our foreign food reliance? Have we increased our farm acreage substantially? Since the answer is no, Dr Paul Cheung should have qualified his notion of carrying capacity with the word "phantom" - that is, "phantom carrying capacity":
Phantom Carrying Capacity means either the illusory or the extremely precarious capacity of an environment to support a given life form or a given way of living. It can be quantitatively expressed as that portion of a population that cannot be permanently supported when temporarily available resources become unavailable. LINK
As long as the temporarily available resources, fossil fuels, are readily obtainable and cheap, our population can continue to grow. But it won't be many years before this illusion of perpetual growth and prosperity is shattered as oil production declines.

If our ministers and top civil servants continue to entertain the idea of unrestrained population and economic growth, then Singapore is doomed - not for lack of "manpower supply", but an overabundance of it.