Crowded at some places, deserted at others

I refer to the letter “Crowded at some places, deserted at others” by Lau Chee Kian which appeared on the Straits Times forum on 17 Mar 2007.

Mr Lau feels there is no cause for worry because he can get his fresh air and free space at East Lagoon Food Court, Siglap Centre, Katong Mall and Katong Shopping Centre. So anyone who chooses to get squashed at city centre hot spots like Plaza Singapura and Suntec City have only themselves to blame for not favouring old, out-of-town shopping places where our parents used to go pak tor. It so happens that these are also places less easily accessible by train and more easily accessible by car which could explain why not as many people choose to go there. Mr Lau’s advice to us seems to be that we shouldn’t to go to places we wish to go to but we should instead go to places nobody else wants to go to. But even if we choose to avoid crowded places over weekends, do we also avoid crowded work places just because they are crowded?

Mr Lau seems to think that there are two problems facing our country, one is a falling birthrate and the other is an increasingly ageing population because he says that even if we solve the birthrate problem, we still have the problem of a declining working population and increasingly ageing population.

I believe these are not two problems but the same problem, for if you could arrest the falling birthrate, the population as a whole would not continue to grey. Greying is a natural effect of a maturing population and economy that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is no such thing as an evergreen population for that could only mean the population is growing without end. As an example, suppose there are currently two young to one old. When the old passes on and the two young becomes old, in order to maintaing the same ratio of two working young to one retired old, we would have to have four young workers so the population doubles!

There is a limit to how large a population can grow to and beyond the limitations of what can be supported, quality of life surely has to go down as there are more mouths to feed but not more food. Traditionally, land has been the limitation factor that determines how much food can be grown but the advent of industry and trade allows us to circumvent the limitations of land by importing food. But how much we can import depends in turn on how much we ourselves can produce and sell to the world. While trade and industry contribute much more towards our economy, it again has its limitations.

Perhaps that limitation is best illustrated with an analogy. A company, no matter how meteoric its rise will eventually plateau off and hit lower rates of return. Once this stage is reached, a wise CEO would take his foot off the accelerator to allow the company to consolidate and reap maximum returns. A not so wise CEO would continue to expand the business by pumping good money into additional infrastructure and hiring more people only to find that sales and profit cannot keep up. By the time he realises his folly, he would’ve incurred a huge loss and be forced to downsize eventually. Precisely this happened to Lego in the 90s and I certainly hope it would not happen to Singapore.

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