"Our Government’s recent position on increasing the size of the population hinges on the premise that Singapore citizens should be able to continue to enjoy a “high quality living environment” in the future. A denser Singapore could still be “liveable” and with economic growth comes job growth, good prospects and a high quality of life, it said.
What makes for quality living? No two persons think alike on this matter. One may aspire for a bigger car, while another longs for cycling lanes on main roads for a low-cost, pollution-free and safe commute. Rather than assuming what constitutes a high quality of life, let’s discuss what Singaporeans want now and in the future.
International benchmarks exist to guide such discussion. Mercer’s annual Quality of Living ranks cities based on factors such as political, social and economic environment, socio-cultural environment (which includes censorship and limitations on personal freedom), public services and transportation, recreation, housing, natural environment, schools and education.
Last year, the top five cities worldwide ranked by Mercer were Vienna, Zurich, Auckland, Munich and Vancouver. Singapore was placed 25th globally but pronounced the best worldwide for its infrastructure. It is important to consider why Singapore was not ranked higher. Perhaps we can begin by asking: Are we better at the hardware than the software aspects of managing growth?
WEALTH OR WELL-BEING?
The OECD Better Life Index measures the well-being of society. It helps us consider, for instance, should wealth be the end-goal of life?
The index gives a framework for debates on policy formulation. Eleven topics are chosen to cover material living conditions (jobs, income, housing) and quality of life (environment, community, life satisfaction). Indicators define these 11 topics. Housing, for instance, has indicators of rooms per person, housing expenditure and dwelling with basic facilities.
Job indicators are employment rate, long-term unemployment rate, personal earnings and job security. Civic engagement has the indicators of voter turnout and consultation on rule making. This interactive tool allows anyone to vote indexes according to perceived importance and, thereafter, watch how cities perform accordingly.
Singapore could do well to study these indicators and indexes to arrive at an appropriate framework for quality living here. Our GDP per capita is among the highest in the world and most Singaporeans have a reasonable if not high standard of living. Further wealth acquisition does not necessarily lead to higher quality of life.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew recently highlighted these qualities in a liveable city: Safety, spaciousness, mobility, cleanliness, connectivity and equity. These are wise and relevant thoughts. In an urban population density survey by the Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore with 7,130 person/sq km was placed top in the “high-density and high liveability” quadrant of the Liveability Matrix, followed by Hong Kong at 6,400 persons/sq km and London at 5,100 persons/sq km.
Yet, gaps exist. As we gear towards becoming an even denser city, our policies should be revisited. Areas that boost liveability include: Flexibility of work hours and telecommuting; better capacity for public transport and more infrastructure for non-motorised transport (such as bike lanes); more inclusive and transparent public consultation on policies; greater civic-consciousness; and environmental transformation (waste recovery, options for renewable energy adoption).
Of high relevance to Singapore would be tuning society to be better prepared for economic restructuring — a theme of this year’s Budget — with relevant education and long-term employment as the means, and quality of life as a by-product.
This could be achieved first by restructuring our meritocratic system to enable free education/re-skilling for the jobless, the low-skilled, single parents, the disabled and older residents. Just as we have baby bonuses, education and training grants will give this lot a much-needed head start to take on new skills or part-time jobs in line with economic needs; and also tackle cyclical poverty in disadvantaged communities more effectively.
Another area for improvement: Better wage distribution for low-paid service workers. This does not just boost personal earnings (an indicator in the OECD Better Life Index), it also injects greater dignity into jobs that suffer from a poor image. For a start, employers can make use of the new Wage Credit Scheme to lift such wages.
Quality of life should not be the goal of GDP growth — it should be the outcome of a sustainable environment built on liveability factors that support the present and future needs of the different sectors of society. After all, it is the many faces of society that make us a distinctive nation with the reputation for being a highly dense, yet highly liveable city.