July 9th, 2013

Why does world population growth matter to Singapore?

by Vivienne Wee and Faizah Jamal

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World Population Day, 11 July, passes largely un-noticed in this “global city”. However, we cannot ignore how a world population now reaching 7.2 billion affects all life on this planet. Increasing demands for finite resources are aggravated by inequitable and unsustainable resource use. The massive extinction of species is disrupting the global ecosystem, adversely affecting climate and, consequently, our sources of food and medicines.

Paradoxically, Singapore espouses a pro-natalist policy, recently reiterated in the White Paper (January 2013), again calling on citizens with the means to have more children. This plan for population growth is driven by a paradigm requiring an increased proportion of those of working age to provide for an aging population. But what happens when those of working age, in turn, grow old? Are we to have an ever increasing population and an ever more degraded environment?

In her speech to Parliament in February, NMP Faizah Jamal said:

“…we act as if all that economic growth, all the companies and foreign talent that we want to entice, all the goodies that we desire in life, all the construction that will happen, does not in fact come from somewhere and end up somewhere, in the environment. Yet there is no mention in the White Paper about the impact of so many people on our carbon footprint, our food security….”

This footprint will further strain overstretched environmental resources. Decisions made here have environmental impact beyond Singapore, just as we experience the impact of actions elsewhere, including forest fires.

While it is the Government’s responsibility to provide infrastructure, its planning process does not prioritise environmental sustainability. The proposed Cross Island Line will cut through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, affecting unique species found nowhere else worldwide. Reclamation plans will affect dugongs, wild dolphins, and the endangered green and Hawksbill turtles. Pulau Ubin’s Chek Jawa will disappear.

Plans for population growth in a finite environment manifest problematic values: first, that non-human species can be destroyed whenever expedient; second, that forests and mangroves are useless because their benefits are not monetised; third, that policies adopted here only affect Singapore; fourth, that short-term interests outweigh long-term concerns.

Expediency also characterises the control of women as instruments for producing the desired quantity and “quality” of future generations. The gendered inequalities that disadvantage women relate to inequitable resource use that benefits the favoured few while harming others.

The discriminatory pro-natalism practised here symptomises elitism – a view of the world as serving only the elite’s short-term interests. Reproductive preference is given to middle and upper class Singaporeans, including “new Singaporeans” categorised as “talents”, while those of low education and low income are incentivised not to reproduce after two children. The issue is not just numbers but the valorisation of elite consumption as overriding all else.

This World Population Day, we must recognise we need an inclusive, just and sustainable worldview, respecting the rights of all. As inhabitants of a shared planet, if we are not part of the solution, then we are part of the problem.

Vivienne Wee is an anthropologist and Research and Advocacy Director of AWARE. Faizah Jamal is an environmental educator and Nominated Member of Parliament.

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