Singapore’s Economic Model – the fallacy of “growth at all costs” – Part 4

Singapore’s Economic Model – the fallacy of “growth at all costs” – Part 4

by Rajiv Chaudhry


The fallacy

In 20 year’s time Singapore’s streets and shopping malls are likely to be much more crowded, its living quarters more cramped and commuting to work much more stressful than it is today. There will be few primary forested areas remaining, outside the catchment areas. And pressure on all types of services will mount because of the large numbers of people crammed into a relatively small amount of space.

Our population has already grown tremendously. A population of 7-8 million will be double that in 1990 and four times that at independence. During this time, our land area has increased by only 20% so that the population density has gone from 3,235 people per sq km (ppsk) at independence to 7,301 ppsk now with 710 square km of land and will increase to 9,007 ppsk when the population is 6.9 million with the projected 766 square km of land after reclamation projects.

This is the fallacy of never-ending growth, in the context of a country so severely constrained by physical limitations. Why is it a fallacy? Because the fruits of this growth are of dubious value. A country adopts a high growth model during the developing phase but when it has achieved or is close to achieving first world status on the Human Development Index (HDI)i which uses parameters such as per capita GDP, life expectancy, infant mortality and literacy, it needs to re-examine its growth strategy and adopt a different economic model. The question again is – does growth always equal development?

A “growth at all costs” model is good for only part of the journey. When a mountain is looming and we start the climb, we need to engage a low gear but when a plateau is reached, it is necessary to change gear so as to comfortably cruise at a higher speed for a long time. It is essential to plan wisely and courageously for our people, so that the hard-won fruits of development are preserved and sustained for a long time.

Indeed, if we fail to make timely structural adjustments, the policy of unrestricted growth will erode many of the benefits in the quality of life achieved so far. As one example of the never-ending process, we will need to go back on the treadmill again, educating the new generation of residents and “new citizens” in “the Singapore way”. We have gone full-cycle, only to create another similar cycle for ourselves to run, albeit not at the very beginning of the old cycle, but with similar implications. Our job will never be done. We will strive and strain, yet our citizens may never enjoy a quality of life that is sustainable or comparable to that in Europe.

An important measure of quality of life is the amount of leisure time that citizens have. In Europe, citizens place a high premium on leisure time and weekends and they rarely allow their working lives to interfere with family and leisure pursuits. In summer in the Scandinavian countries, it is common for offices to close at 3:00 pm, so that workers are able to make full use of the good weather. By contrast, look at the amount of time Singaporeans spend at work, the time their children spend on schoolwork, homework and tuition. There is lip service for “work-life balance” but if we look around us, there is little evidence of it. The more people there are, the greater will be the competition and strife. This does not mean that we must be complacent but surely, we must have, to quote William Henry Davies (see here)  “time to stand and stare” when we call ourselves a developed nation?



Singapore has done well on the HDI, on which it is ranked 25th. However, in its haste to grow the economy and its single-minded focus on achieving the outward trappings of a developed country, it has neglected another important indicator of development, the Gini coefficient which is used to measure income inequality. As a result, it has failed to pull along those less fortunate in our society, those C K Prahalad refers to as being at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ (BOP)ii.   A Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2007/08 on income equalityiii placed Singapore 78th in a list of 126 countries, with a Gini coefficient of 42.5, the same as Burundi and Kenya and behind countries such as Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh (the greater the difference in income between the top and the bottom, the lower the ranking).

So a lot more needs to be done to raise the living standard of those at the BOP. It is here that the energies and minds of our planners and policy-makers need to be concentrated. We need to shed our sometimes over-sized ego and discard talk of “punching above our weight” in world affairs and concentrate instead on quietly getting on with the job of nation building with particular emphasis on lifting the BOP. Large numbers of people only make the job more difficult.

It is time Singapore moved beyondthe philosophy and model of continually high growth to achieve a bold maturity in knowing that it can, and should, aim for quality of life for a reasonable-sized population rather than for a constantly growing one. In the 1970s and1980s, Singapore’s urban planners planned for a target population of 4 million. Singapore met and surpassed this target and is now aiming for 6.9 million.

Contrast this with a country such as Luxembourg (area 2586 sqkmiv which has a population of just 480,000, yet enjoys per capita GDP of $141,625vthe highest in the world according to the IMF and World Bank. Its economic goals are perhaps no less modest than Singapore’s, yet by concentrating on services and moderate growth policies, its small population is able to enjoy an extremely high quality of life, giving it the 4th highest ranking in the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Quality of Life indexvi

It has not felt the need to “import” large numbers of people and grow additional “wings” to its economy, which is anchored mainly by banking and financial services (in recent years, it has tried to attract successful Internet companies). Nor has it felt the need to be all things to all people.

It is a model that is worth emulating.

As our leaders have told us many times, Singapore is unique and needs to find unique solutions to its own particular situation. We are unusual in having a limited land mass with high economic value and output and no friendly hinterland on which we can depend. No other country in modern times has had to face quite the same set of circumstances. There is no template or model that tells an Asian country how to rapidly grow an economy (and population size) with an open immigration policy and then “shrink” it or at least keep the population stable while “growing” the quality of life index.

But it is something our state planners must urgently turn their minds to.



This article is the opinion of the writer and any quote or reference should be duly acknowledged with a citation


ii‘The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’ C K Prahalad, Wharton School Publishing

v Singapore’s per capita GDP is $58,458