Discussion on the Singapore Population White Paper: Part 4

Key questions addressed in this article:

  • Understanding the planning principles behind looking at Singapore as a country vs a city

The government had just explained how they had calculated the predicted population density of Singapore in 2030. According to The Straits Times on 2 February 2013, “the Ministry of National Development explained (that)… in the methodology it uses, only land that can be developed is taken into account, not the total land area of Singapore.” According to the ministry, “Singapore actually has more land area that can be developed (500 sq km) rather than Hong Kong (317 sq km).”

Now, if the government has the leeway to imagine and dissect Singapore which way they want for planning purposes, you should understand that you can do that too. The question is, how, right? There are many ways.

Just think for a moment, if you are in the government or if you have to plan on a broad level, you have to be very imaginative and creative to come out with different solutions. So the question is – how many ways can you imagine Singapore? Well, many! You can think of using the many academic disciplines to imagine Singapore – in terms of geography, history, political science, mathematics, science, economics, philosophy or even literature, the arts and culture. Now, to explain further what I mean, in this article, I will use the example of geography and political science, by further discussing what I’ve been discussing in the previous few articles.

As I’ve described, how should we understand Singapore? Is Singapore a country or is Singapore a city? It’s somewhat easy to think that a country and city is similar, especially because we are in Singapore where the terms are used interchangeably, precisely because we’ve forgotten or we’ve not understood the distinction. I had previously used the example of New York and America to make the distinction in the previous article. In this article, I will use the illustration that the government had used to calculate the population density.

The government wants to compare Singapore to Hong Kong. Why? There are many obvious reasons – mainly, because both these places are very similar economically. But the reason is also because if the government is to compare Singapore to say, South Korea, how should the government do that? Off hand, you might say – but Singapore is very different from South Korea because South Korea so many times larger than Singapore and it has mountains, rivers and so on. It would make more sense to compare Singapore to Seoul, you would say? By the way, Seoul in the capital city of South Korea.

Well, herein lies precisely the issue. If we compare Singapore to Seoul, it doesn’t make sense too because if we are planning for Singapore’s population, why are we planning as a city, and in comparison with another city? Shouldn’t we be planning for Singapore as a country, which means not just planning for the population for economic purposes, but also for cultural, historical and social purposes. Then, therein lies the contradiction. If we plan for Singapore as a country, we should compare Singapore to South Korea, or Canada, or Norway or New Zealand right? But common-sensically, it doesn’t make sense because, you would say, but these countries are different! But it’s one thing to say they are different, but it’s another to know what is. So, what is different?

Like I had said, there are two ways to look at Singapore (for this illustration) – Singapore can be seen as a country, or as a city. When the government compares Singapore to Hong Kong, they want to conflate the two definitions. This is because many times, we are also used to looking at Hong Kong as a country, and not just as a city. Well, it’s not a country per se, but it’s its own administrative planning region, and to some minds, operates on its own. So, when the government compares Singapore to Hong Kong, it looks like we are comparing apples with apples, and oranges and oranges. Well, true?

Not really. Actually, Hong Kong is a city. It’s not a country. China is the country. Some people in Hong Kong might not like to hear me say this. But politically, Hong Kong is part of China. So, if anything happens to Hong Kong, there is China to back it up. Then again, the politics between China and Hong Kong is very complicated and one which I would need to further understand. But let’s look at Australia for a while. For our illustration, Australia is the country, and Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and so on are the cities. The fate of these cities are intertwined with the country, and the country at the same time invests in the cities because the country needs the cities to do well. But of course, it’s more complicated than this. If you speak to some one living in Sydney, he would say that there is a competitive spirit between them and the people of Melbourne. But, for this article, let’s keep it simple.

Can you say the same for Hong Kong? Is the fate of Hong Kong and China intertwined? Does China need Hong Kong to survive and does Hong Kong need China to survive? The people of Hong Kong might not want to think that their fate is intertwined because they are politically so different. Yet, more and more so, the peoples and their governments in Hong Kong and China will recognise why it’s essential that they rely on one another. And they will need to learn to work effectively with one another. But the main point is this – cities are different from their countries and they are governed differently. As much as their fates are intertwined, they operate on different principles and rely on one another, with their unique sets of governing principles.

But, back to Singapore – you need to know that when the government compares Singapore to Hong Kong, it’s really comparing the two as cities. But to the people, the distinction is not clear, and they might think that we are comparing countries. We are not, because if we were to compare Singapore to the country, we would compare Singapore to China.

But then, if we want to compare Singapore as a country to another country, which relevant country can we compare with? It’s not possible because if we compare Singapore to another country of the same size, there’s only Hong Kong, and Hong Kong isn’t technically a country. Maybe we can compare with the Vatican City, but the Vatican City doesn’t have 5 million people living in it. By the way, the Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. What if we compare Singapore to another country of a similar population, say Norway? But we can’t too because Norway is 500 times bigger and this would mean vastly different conditions for planning.

Then, the question is, if we cannot compare Singapore as a country, are we asking the wrong question then? Should we be asking another question that will allow us to understand this issue better? Yes, we can. As I’ve mentioned several times in the past few articles, Minister K Shanmugam had described Singapore as a city. And this would tell you clearly that that’s how the government sees itself. In fact, in the Population White Paper, the government says that, “our development strategy is to make Singapore one of the most liveable cities in the world” and that we should “work together and jointly create in Singapore a global city in the world, which we and our children can proudly and fondly call home.” The paper is littered with many descriptions of Singapore as a city. Yet, in the paper, it also talks about how we should make Singapore “a country we are proud to call home.”

Even the government is confused whether they are planning for Singapore as a country to city, and they mix it up as well. But you can be sure that the government doesn’t predominantly plan for Singapore as a country. It plans for Singapore as a city. If you’ve read my previous article, you would understand how I had made the distinction between a country and a city. But yet, we become defensive when told that Singapore is planned as a city. You need to understand that your emotions attached to wanting Singapore to be a country is because of the sense of security that the idea of a ‘country’ confers. Basically, a country gives people the impression that you can be born in a country, live and grow old in a country and your country will always be there. But if you were to be made to think that you live in a city, the same image doesn’t happen. A city gives people the idea that you come to this city from elsewhere, try to make your mark, strive, make enough money then move out and retire somewhere else. So, how can we possibly think about Singapore as a city! Where will I be able to grow old and retire?

Why, you don’t retire. If you choose to stay within the city, be prepared to live a hectic, busy life. This is not hypothetical. Because look around you – our old are working longer and we know that we will have to retire later and later. And we might have to keep working just to survive in Singapore. Like I say, that’s because our government looks at Singapore as a city and plan for Singapore as a city.

So, when they describe the planning parameters for Singapore’s population to be at 6.9 million, what they are essentially thinking of is that as a city, we need to think about our GDP growth and our GDP per capita – because we are a city, and so we need a larger and larger population just to grow our GDP. Then, for you, you would then start asking – but why are you talking about GDP? I want to talk about my quality of life, about how much space and time I have to do my own things. But you are talking about living your life in a country. That’s not what the government primarily thinks. See, there’s the disjoint – the government sees Singapore as a city. You see Singapore as a country. So, the planning ideals that the government has is different from your living ideals. And the planning outcomes will necessarily be different.

In the next article, I will look further into the difference between a city and a country, and how by looking at the international rankings of Singapore as compared to some other countries, we can see clearly where the planning parameters truly are – of Singapore as a city. Finally, we will explore how we might need to relook our understandings of governance to resolve this issue. If the current government is effectively a city government, do we need another government then to run the country?


  1. Michael

    I have read your articles and wish to thank you for the effort put in to explain so many complex topics in the shortest possible way. They are informative and taught us to look carefully at the statistics published and analyze them with an open mind. Have anyone translated your work into Chinese or other language so that some of the older Singaporean could also benefit from reading your future work?

    • My Right to Love

      Dear Michael,

      Thank you for your message. It’s very helpful to know because I would also need to know that what I talk about is relevant to people’s interests.

      Thank you for this.

      I don’t actually have someone who is translating these articles into other languages. It’s an interesting idea. I could ask around if anyone is interested. Would you also know of anyone?

      Thank you for this.


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