The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, December 24, 2007

Is Singapore's population too low?

Singapore's population is a matter often in the news, in Singapore. It is a question that is raised again and again.

Presently, Singapore's population is about 4.5 million. However this includes about 1 million foreigners who are working here. The Singaporean government has long voiced the intention, in many news articles, of raising the population in the coming decades to 6.5 million people. I do not know the exact time scale over which this is to happen, but it always appears that they mean this to happen in the near future. That is in the lifetimes of most people now living in Singapore.

Without knowing what Singapore is now like to live in, it is difficult to judge the wisdom, or otherwise of such a number. Firstly, you should know that Singapore is a small island. It is, perhaps, a forty-five minute drive from its East Coast to its West Coast - and rather less from North to South. It is small. Secondly, you should realize that about 80 % of people live in high-rise government flats called HDB (for Housing Development Board). Most of the rest live in high rise private condominiums. Very, very few live in houses. Thus people are tightly packed together. The newer the apartment block, the taller it is. Old ones tend to be around a dozen stories, but the latest ones can have scores of floors.

Recently, I have been confronted with just how many people there are in Singapore. It is easy enough to do: just go shopping. My wife and I went to Orchard Road last night to see a film. Even though it was the evening, and one would have thought that many people would be at home having dinner with their families, Orchard Road was packed. At some places, it was a standing room only, jostling crowd. There was barely enough space to breathe. Yet, despite this evident inability to cope with its own population numbers, the official intention is to raise the population of Singapore by a further 50 % to 6.5 million. I find that incredible.

If you live in Singapore, you never get the feeling that it lacks people. So, why is the official view that it is 2 million short of its target? Well, one reason I read is that a study, many years ago, showed that the most successful small countries have a mean population guessed it...6.5 million. Singapore has understood this to mean that you must have this magic number of people to be really successful. I think this is pure numerology. (Which, for me, means nonsense.) A country may be successful at almost any size. It is just what that country does that counts. It doesn't take a magic number of people to do this. I very much doubt that there is anything that Singapore could do at 6.5 million people, that it can't do at 4.5 million - apart from raise more taxes (and taxi fares - which here is the same thing), from its people. So, the only actual benefit of a larger population would be a larger tax base: nothing more.

There would, however, be considerable down-sides to a higher population. Already the main shopping centres can get uncomfortably crowded at peak periods (despite the fact that Singapore is just one big shopping centre anyway). The buses and trains (MRT) are often too overcrowded to be pleasant. The taxis are now unaffordable for many. Rental rates have doubled in a year (residentially and commercially). Indeed, my employer has complained of an office rent that has risen three fold, recently. Singapore is becoming a crowded, busy, expensive city. Yet, the official aim is to make it more crowded, more busy and more expensive. (The official policy is, for instance, to keep on raising taxi fares until most people are forced to use buses).

I think Singapore would be just lovely if it had a population of 2 million, not a population of 6.5 million.

People like a little room to live in. No-one likes to be sandwiched against the next person. Yet, if the population really does rise by 2 million, people will be sandwiched together. They will live in even higher rise estates, travel in overcrowded buses and trains and shop in standing room only shopping centres. It won't be pleasant. It won't, actually, be a city that people want to live in.

I think that last observation is what will defeat this population plan. You see, as Singapore becomes more crowded, more unpleasant, and more unlivable, people will just leave. Emigration will soar and, as quickly as new Chinese mainlanders can be persuaded to come here (for they constitute the majority of the immigrants), native Singaporeans and Permanent Residents will be leaving, for less crowded, more hospitable countries.

The effect of this population drive will be to drive away the people who have made Singapore their home these past few decades. For they will have seen Singapore go from poor, to relatively rich and comfortable, to rich but poor in living space and living conditions. These people will leave, finally, for somewhere else - for virtually anywhere else, would be less crowded.

Singapore has a high standard of public infrastructure. It looks clean. Most things work well enough. What it does not have, however, is space. There is very little room, here, per person. I don't think it is wise, therefore, to squeeze a couple of million more people onto this small, but well-formed island. For, as anyone knows, even the best looking small frame, shouldn't really carry too many extra pounds. Singapore needs to slim down a bit, not fatten up, as a nation.

It is possible that many people think Singapore is already too crowded. Why do I say this? Well, because the emigration rate is already rather high. That wouldn't be so, if people felt comfortable here. The matter of crowdedness is, no doubt, only one factor the emigrants would have considered before leaving - but I am sure it is a contributing factor. Let us hope that Singapore does not become more crowded still - for otherwise I can foresee that many more people will seek living space, elsewhere.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and no months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and five months, and Tiarnan, twenty-two months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:45 AM 


Anonymous saintmoron said...

Though I fully concur with You that a population of two million would be just nice for this tiny dot, there is simply no u-turn.

There is hardly much nature left and most of the younger generation are unfamiliar with primary food productions.

This tiny landpiece has been overdeveloped into a concrete jungle. Primary production industries such as poultry farmings, fishing, vegetables and fruit growings and even retailings of the products are unfamiliar to the young.

However, I am of the opinion that the future population of this country could even be less than the present.


10:34 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, you are quite right. It IS possible that the future population might see a decline. However, whether this occurs depends on the balance between emigration and immigration. At present, there is a slight surplus of immigration (from mainland China, primarily, as is obvious to anyone who can hear the difference between a local Singaporean and a mainlander), over emigration (often younger Singaporeans, actually...a worrying indicator). The result is that over the last six years, population has risen from 3.9 million to 4.5 million or so. This rise, though seemingly not great, has noticeably increased crowding in public areas and on public transportation. There never used to be crowds on the MRT network six years ago - now there is. Such a sign indicates that an extra 2 million could never be accommodated comfortably.

If Singaporeans find their lives becoming too crowded and uncomfortable it is possible that emigration might one day exceed immigration. When that occurs, the population could decline. It could occur very quickly for this reason. The new immigrants have no long term ties here. If the economic situation sours, they could leave in droves. Those with long term ties here - who have left - will not return. Therefore, it is possible that there is population instability here.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out, in time.

Thank you for your comment.

12:38 AM  
Anonymous cheekenwing said...

No chance that you will see a long-term decline in Singapore's population unless the govt does a policy U-turn. As long as there are poorer countries around us, there will always be demand for jobless individuals in neighbouring states to come to Singapore to work.

The 6.5 million mark is based on a moderately long-term projection. I believe the year they expect to reach this target can be found in the press. In the medium term, the mitigating strategy is to build more public transport infrastructure to cater to the increased population. This includes road and rail projects (circle line, downtown line).

I'm personally finding it increasingly intolerable to visit the main shopping belt on a weekend. This is why you may want to try frequenting far-flung areas with either little public transport access.

Punggol is not too bad imo.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your comment Cheekenwing,

Yes: it is intolerable in the main shopping areas of a weekend. The fact that this is so with a paltry 4.5 million population (against a projected 6.5 million population) is really rather worrying. We are seeing definite signs of overcrowding ALREADY. What will it be like with an extra couple of million people? It will not be Singapore as we know it now: it will be something a whole lot denser - and it is coming soon. I have seen talk of 2020 as the intended target. If that is so that is remarkably soon.

Best wishes to you

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I doubt our political masters would care about (or even realise) the disaster that could happen for the man in the street if the population is increased by another 2 million. They don't live in HDB flats, or take public transport, nor do they need to worry about things like keeping up with the basic cost of living. Neither do they need to push their way through throngs of people to get to work or do their shopping. The problems most Singaporeans face mean nothing to them.

The saddest part, like you mentioned, is that many Singaporeans will end up emigrating. So your typical Singaporean male will be born here, serve 2 years of NS to protect the interests of the foreigners who park their money here, and then leave a jaded, sad man. Meanwhile, foreign talent will keep coming here to take up citizenship without serving NS.

Singapore is really becoming more and more like a company. The only difference is that in a company, even the minority shareholders have some form of protection.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Observer said...

overcrowding occurs because the transport system is too efficient!If it took 2 hours just to get to dhoby ghaut, no one would go there. or make people pay an air tax for breathing in dense areas.

because it is so easy to go from one part of the island to the other, everyone rushes to orchard road.

the only solution is to make orchard road expensively prohibitive to a greater number of people, and spring up more public infrastructure in punggol woodlands, choachukang etc. and reclaim reclaim reclaim.

12:41 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your comment.

Yes, it is true that the kind of monetary success that political people here enjoy - with million or multimillion dollar salaries - separates them from the common man and ensures that they cannot really understand the issues.

In the UK, where I spent most of my childhood, I remember that MPs had salaries that were very modest. They were the kind of salaries you might get if you managed a shop (a single outlet). They were not the kind of salaries that made one rich. As a result, the people in charge had the same monetary problems as the people they governed. They had a good understanding of the issues, because they personally felt them, too.

Here, however, it is inevitable that the people who rule are going to be somewhat out of touch (since they are multi-millionaires) - unless they have a good imagination. That makes it difficult for them to understand the real life issues of the average Singaporean (or foreign worker).

Looking around, I really worry about the future of this country. It could be so much...but will it be?

11:16 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Observer, your comments show the kind of thinking that is operative here, in Singapore's government. The thinking is: if too many people want something, make it so expensive that few of them can afford it. I have always found this strange. Another way to do things, would be to increase the satisfy the demand. That is the way normally chosen in Western countries.

No. Singapore's transport system is not "too efficient". It has still a long way to go before it is adequate. I have seen much denser public transport in other developed cities. Singapore has a long way to go yet. Perhaps the new MRT lines will help.

Overcrowding occurs because Singapore has too many people - not because those people find it easy to move around. It is not easy to move around, really, in absolute terms - and it is getting harder and harder what with the price of transport modalities being raised so much that people can no longer afford taxis.

Your suggestion of an air tax might sound like a joke to most readers - but it is the kind of idea that I wouldn't be surprised seeing implemented one day. Here tax is the answer to everything. The idea being, as above, to reduce demand by increasing price, rather than increasing supply, by investment.

Making Orchard Road prohibitively expensive, would kill all the shops on Orchard Road. I think it would be self-defeating.

Developing other shopping areas to help carry the load is a good idea - but Orchard will have an appeal as long as it is the most comprehensive and leading shopping centre. As as a result, it would continue to draw the crowds.

Reclaiming land can create more space for Singapore: this is true. However, this is an expensive thing to do - and has geographical limitations.

Thank you for your suggestions.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though it would be nice to reduce the population, you're forgetting one thing: GST.

More people = more money into the government's coffers. Every.single. day.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

GST for those who don't know, stands for "Goods and Sales Tax" - it is an indirect tax on all purchases made.

Yes. You are right. As I noted above, the sole benefit of a higher population is a greater tax take. In no other respect does it or can it improve the situation of the nation. In fact, in all other respects, it damages the nation. Overcrowdedness impedes every aspect of life. Only where people can move freely, can daily life proceed in comfort. That will come to an end with another 2 million people (in fact, one already sees these effects is getting really ugly in some parts of town at peak periods).

Best wishes to you.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said: "Another way to do things, would be to increase the satisfy the demand. That is the way normally chosen in Western countries."

Which western countries are you talking about?

You also assume that supply can be increased indefinitely and quickly. What makes you feel so?

11:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

All Western countries that I have ever observed use the "increase supply method", as far as I have observed from living in Europe and America. It is the obvious thing to do if you mean the best for the population of the country.

For instance, there was a time when there was a shortage of nurses in the UK. The British answer was to recruit nurses - mainly Phillipino from overseas to address the shortage. They did NOT suddenly increase the price of medical treatment to reduce demand (medical treatment was free and remained so). The Singaporean answer would have been to increase medical treatment costs until enough people decided that they could no longer afford to be treated - thus moderating demand.

Another example. In any reasonable country that I have seen, if taxis are in high demand and there are not enough of them - more taxi licenses are issued until there are enough taxis to go around. What they do NOT do is raise the price of taxis until fewer people are able to afford to take them. That is not the sane answer. It is also not the utilitarian answer (meaning it is not the answer which gives the greatest good for the largest number). It is in fact the OPPOSITE of seeking the greatest good. It seeks the least good for all - or the greatest good for a small number of people (those who would profit by an eventual rise in Comfort Delgro rental rates, for instance).

I could provide other examples, but that should be enough to convey the general principle at work here.

Oh and yes, supply of taxis could have been changed VERY quickly. You simply hire FOREIGN WORKERS from overseas (Malaysia is the nearest place - and many Malays in Johor are very familiar with Singapore anyway (probably more so than the many taxi drivers I have been driven by who don't know where their nose is, never mind my destination). These foreign workers could become new taxi drivers in a very short time, meeting the high demand for taxis.

It would be VERY, VERY easy to correct the supply problem of taxi drivers, if there was the will to do so. However, locally the philosophy is always to moderate demand, wherever it is in excess, by increasing price. This love of price should really be put aside in favour of a more utilitarian philosophy of the greatest good for all. It would make for a better Singapore.

It is also customary for many local people to say that something cannot be done, without actually spending any time to think about how it could be done. As a result, many easy things are not done.

Nor do I assume that "supply can be increased indefinitely". There are not infinite taxis nor nurses in the world. There are however enough to resolve the issue, if an effort is made. Here, no effort is made to address the supply issue. The technique is generally to moderate demand through pricing. This is not the best way to address matters. It is a way which always causes suffering to large numbers of people and reduces their quality of life. I am puzzled that it is the reflex response here, to every situation. If it were my decision to make, I would have addressed the supply issue.

Thank you for your comment, however. It has given me an opportunity to make the situation clearer, for those not familiar with the Singaporean way of doing things.

Kind regards.

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait hold on a minute.

So the problem is that too many people need to take taxis, ergo there are not enough taxis, and therefore we simply need to hire more cab drivers?

That is *not* the problem. The demand for taxis is high true, but to simply supply that demand is to add to the very problem you are describing: overcrowding.

The problem is *not* that people want to take taxis, it is that there are just too many cars on the road. That's why the price of a car in Singapore is ridiculous. That's why there are so many ERP gantries and price ranges.

The goal is to get people to use the mass transportation systems more so than the less mass-efficient taxi systems. Simply increasing the supply doesn't help this.

Also your analogy with nurses is very false: the demand for medical profession rarely changes with policy. Demand for say, luxury goods, however, is another matter.

And all in all, the taxi service in Singapore is still rather affordable, *especially* when compared to your *western countries*; and this is from someone who have lived in Chicago for 4 years, and London for 4 months.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said... On every front.

Firstly, I note that you are commenting from Illinois, Chicago. Therefore, you are not in Singapore presently to take a cab. Therefore, you haven't personally experienced the latest fares. They are markedly greater than before. Most Singaporeans have been shocked the first time they experience a cab at peak hours, at the new rates. I took one cab recently on a journey that previously would have cost under 10 dollars - it cost over 20: some difference - and that wasn't even invoking all the surcharges (I took it from outside town). Had I taken it from inside town it would have cost more than 24 dollars - for a previously below 10 dollar trip.

Secondly, Singaporean cabs are much less relatively affordable now - than they are in London or Chicago for this reason: contrary to mythology, Singaporeans are NOT well paid, by international standards. Most salaries here are really very low. The headline salaries of a few distort the true impression of what actually goes on here on the salary front. In Western countries almost all people enjoy much higher salaries than a typical Singaporean. Some Singaporeans, indeed, live on basically Third World salaries.

So, given the expense of the new taxi rates, the typical Singaporean is NO LONGER ABLE TO AFFORD A CAB. This is evident everywhere in Singapore. There are large numbers of empty cabs available everywhere now, in peak hours. Very few people are taking them, because relatively few are now able to afford them.

You have misunderstood what taxis do to the traffic situation. Give it some thought. How many people can use an individual cab per day? It could be anywhere from 20 to 40 or more individual people and trips per day. It could, in fact, be a lot more. How many people would use an individual's cab per day? Probably just the owner, on probably just two trips: one to work and one back. Therefore a cab might take 40 trips in one day. A personally owned car might take 2.

Thus if cabs were more affordable and more available so that people did not need to use personal cars, they would not buy a personal car. Therefore these personal cars would be taken off the roads. They wouldn't exist. People would take cabs, instead. They would share that cab with many others during the day. This would greatly reduce the number of cars on the roads. In fact, it might reduce it by a factor of 20 if the above figures were the actual ones (I don't have the actual ones: these are just for the sake of analysis).

People could use the same cabs, staggered over a period of time, to go to and from work and go about their daily business. This would free up the roads by taking personal cars out of the picture.

A cab is more efficient than a personal car - much more so.

The public transport network in Singapore is not good enough to replace cabs. It is not dense enough. Some areas are really not well served at all. If one lives in such an area, cabs are a vital part of public transport. Recent changes have made them unaffordable (relative to typical local wages of most Singaporeans). Many people who had never considered getting their own car are now driven to consider it - for the cabs are no longer relatively cheaper. I think the latest moves are going to backfire and increase overcrowding on the roads by increasing personal car ownership.

As for the example of nurses, it is in fact a perfectly good example of how a Singaporean and a Western approach to a problem would differ. The Western country would seek to adjust supply to meet demand - but in Singapore it is more typical to adjust demand to meet supply, by adjusting price. I think it is clear that you have spent too many years outside of Singapore and have forgotten how the local system behaves and how the local system adjusts itself on all issues. The analogy I chose explains very well how a difference in philosophy and behaviour would be likely to manifest. It is given as an analogy to explain typical behaviour - and as an explanation cannot be faulted, if it is understood.

Furthermore, you are wrong that the demand for medical services does not respond to policy. It does. In Thailand for instance, plastic surgery is cheap. So what do we get? Lots of people getting themselves remodelled. In places where such surgery is expensive, extensive plastic surgery work is very rare. Medical services respond to just the same economic realities as everything else. (Except for certain categories of critical treatment, which patients have to have at any price. If it is not critical, however, price will moderate demand.)

You have been out of Singapore for at least four and a half years. It really has changed. It is not what it used to be. It is much more crowded and much more expensive...and cabs are now out of many people's price range. Furthermore, public transport has become too overcrowded too. It isn't able to cope with the demand. There are about half a million more people now, than when you probably left.

Best wishes.

9:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GST= Goods and Services Tax, not Goods and Sales Tax.

All the acronyms are getting a bit heavy.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Sangeetha said...

Hey anonymous,

the government sure has indoctrinated you well. Myabe if you were in the country experiencing what we experience everyday, you would not speak with such authority on matters that you have not recently experienced!

I hate cars. I think they are a blight on the environment and they encourage greed and in people. For years, I refused to even get a license because of these very reasons. But for the past year I have been considering getting a car. The train services are ridiculous. During peak hours, they can come 6 minutes apart! In the early morning, 10 minutes apart! Cabs are so expensive now that having a car and taking a cab is comparable. It did not use to be that way, but now cabs are really so expensive. You can even see it in the cab drivers' behaviours! They used to be surly and uncooperative and try to rip you off. Now that make so much money from one cab fare that they are all so even tempered and nice to customers.

My point? I am going to get a car. The backlash that cawley spoke about is happening right now.

The only other way is to make oublic transport better, but they just increase prices without ANY change in the efficiency of public transport. It's the people who suffer. If these ministers had to stand in crowded trains and buses and walk for long periods in the sun, they would not be so quick to adivce us on the merits of public transport. I cannot wait to leave this country and its exploitative government.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your passionate response to the situation, Sangeetha.

You raise an interesting point: the decision makers in Singapore live a different life to the ones they make decisions for. They don't use public transport and so have no understanding of the issues on which they decide. No wonder the decisions are so poor, much of the time.

Best wishes to you...wherever you go to!

9:56 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

I don't understand why MM Lee thinks the population is too low when the government is already having difficulties catering to our needs.

10:09 PM  

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