Ten billion in Singapore? Who is being extreme Professor Ng?

I read recently the report on TRE of a speech given by Professor Ng Yew Kwang in support of the government’s hugely unpopular economic and population policies. Surprisingly for a professor of economics his arguments were extremely weak and practically un-hinged from reality. To see an intellectual of such supposed standing resort to ludicrous anecdotes and analogies in support of government policies that are harmful and unsustainable was shocking. In fact his arguments were so poor that he incited the ire of many TRE readers who were ferocious in their criticism and ultimately inspired the professor to respond. Unfortunately the professor’s response was just as disappointing and so I would like to point out what I see as the main flaws with his reasoning.

First of all the professor makes the classic mistake of dividing the world into two groups – those who understand him and those who do not. Of course to those who understand are delivered thanks whereas those who do not are described as extreme and emotional. The professor in his ivory tower presumably does not countenance the hypothesis that he may in fact be incorrect in any respect – a very unscientific and dull-headed position to take.

The professor in his reasoning seems to enjoy reminding readers of the Singapore of the 1960s. So, who is being extreme? Comparing today with the period a few short years after independence is practically the most extreme position one could take – the only more outlandish points of view would be to either indulge in time travel to the future, or rewind to the days colonialism. By making the most extreme comparison possible the professor, who is educated enough to know better, undermines the credibility of his argument.

Next up, as an economist, the professor must understand the importance of data and statistics. In spite of this, he launches straight into anecdotal evidence in support of the efficiency of Singapore’s transport system. You see, apparently, there was this time (once) where the professor just missed catching a bus, but by the power of Lee Hsien Loong and 5.3 million helping hands, SMRT were able to provide for another bus to arrive “less than 1 or 2 minutes” later. Are we supposed to be impressed? Is this story, which the professor would have trouble citing in Wikipedia, never mind an academic journal, supposed to convince us of the benefits of a higher population?

To be fair, the professor attempts in his reply to back pedal from some of his more ludicrous original claims – what originally was “we should also think, if each person pays the same tax, same amount to spend on the road, if we half the number of people, then the width of the road will probably also be halved” becomes “Of course, the widths of roads in Singapore will not be halved overnight if half of the people disappear overnight”. But the point is still massively unconvincing. Apparently we are supposed to look at long-term trends. Then what is the long-term trend? If not overnight, then how many years would it take for the roads to shrink by half? Will the government gather up all the saved space and put it to more productive use, like house building? Of course not, in fact the professor tries to wriggle out of the argument with his assumption that tax and spending have to rise and fall in tandem with population, and, most tellingly of all he says “facilities should be expanded in the long run”.

This is the key point – that “facilities should be expanded”, but the government have completely and utterly failed to expand infrastructure or engage in house building on the necessary scale to support their unsustainable policies. We can help the professor to understand the point by providing a more coherent and less extreme comparison than the one he makes with the 1960s. In 2003 Singapore’s population was 4.1 million, today it is over 5.3 million – an increase of almost 30% in ten years. Is ten years enough of a long-term window for the professor’s theories to bear fruit? If I go back to the Singapore of 2003 will I be able to observe roads that are 30% less wide? I am no economist, but I can tell you the answer to this question is no. I think if you measure Geylang Road, Tanjong Katong Road, Haig Road, Joo Chiat Road or any other road you care to mention, I am sure you will find the size has not changed in a uniform fashion in line with population and available spending. And this is after ten years. In another ten years, with the population white paper having been passed by parliament, the situation will surely have only got worse. How long does the professor want us to wait?

Let us look at the MRT as well. Ten years ago, if you take the train from Eunos to Tanjong Pagar in the morning rush hour, I think the experience will not be too bad. Even five years ago it still seemed manageable. But now it is practically unbearable. Has the width of the MRT increased by 30% in the meantime – of course not! The argument is ridiculous. There may be a few more trains running with higher frequency, but it is clearly not enough. There is even an extra line – the circle line – but it is hardly an option for people who rely on any of the other lines or are not willing to move to TPL’s constituency to take advantage of it. So again, the population driving investment theory is completely unsustainable.

In fact, the professor knows his argument is unsustainable – he even admits it. “However, up to certain limits, the law of diminishing returns due to the limited land size is more than offset by … ” It should be obvious that I do not need to finish the professor’s quote, his argument is dead in the water with his admission that there is a limit beyond which population driving investment does not more than offset the benefits. Singapore is beyond this limit. Far far far beyond. This much is obvious to anyone and it is the reason thousands of Singaporeans attended the historic protest at Hong Lim park recently. The professor tries to steer us away from this line of thinking with another extreme piece of logic, that is “we cannot put 10 to the power of 10 people into the island of Singapore”. Of course not! That would be ten billion, and there aren’t even that many people in the world! 6.9 million may seem perfectly managable by comparison, but only because the words out of the professor’s mouth are so unhinged from reality. To read this point being made by someone who accused his critics of being extreme is unbelievable!

There are other points the professor makes which are somewhat dubious – his statement that “local Singaporeans benefit as a whole money wise” from increasing cost of housing and lower wages being the most obvious one, but I have to give up eventually. Suffice to say the professor, who should (and presumably does) know better, makes all sorts of ridiculous arguments in favour of the PAP’s deranged and unsustainable economic policies. That his arguments do not stand up to his own assumptions and caveats – as well as the fact that he makes the same errors – even more so – than those he attributes to his critics is particularly telling. All this makes his argument completely uncompelling and I urge Singaporeans to reject it.

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