Dateline: Singapore (continued)

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[This is part II of an extended post of observations gleaned during my current visit to Singapore.  See part I here.]

We left off with this statement: “this [Singaporean] miracle is more fragile than it appears.  It’s economic, ecological and political foundations are crumbling.  It would be surprising, to say the least, if the Singapore of 50 or 100 years from now was the same miraculous place it is today.”

Let’s unpack that a bit.

Singapore appeared on the world stage in the 19th Century as an artifact of the expansion of the British Empire into South East Asia.  The geographical accident happens to be Singapore’s location on the southernmost tip of a peninsula that every trading ship from Europe had to pass to get to or from China, and as so often is the case, geography laid the foundation for a vibrant trading economy.  Singapore’s wealth grows out of one of features of modern capitalism:  Those who trade goods or services make more than those who produce them.  [True then, still true now, as evidenced by the wealth of those who “work” in the financial centers of the world but who essentially do nothing more than move imaginary wealth from one column to another day after day after day… but I digress…]

One of the apparent incongruities in the Singapore story is the coexistence of a free and vigorous economy with an extremely restrictive political system.  The infamous ban on chewing gum is only one example of a country that seems to be proving the dictum that people will put up with almost any restrictions as long as they are allowed to make (and keep) their money.  Whether the vigorous economy allows restrictive government policies to remain in place, or restrictive policies help sustain economic vitality through things like the suppression of dissent is an interesting but irrelevant question.  What seems clear, to my mind, is that the Singaporean political system imposes a discipline that has made it possible for millions of people to live on top of each other in relative harmony.  If there is little crime, little visible pollution and a city that functions well for almost all of its residents, it is probably because the government puts up with very little nonsense.  Call it the Cheaper By the Dozen syndrome:  The family with a dozen kids featured in that book learned to function smoothly, efficiently and happily – but only through the application of regimented discipline that would appall most modern families.  Singapore has become, and for the time being continues to be prosperous and relatively content because of the iron rod of political restrictions.

So here’s lesson #1 for the rest of us:  We can continue to increase human population in various parts of the world, as the Singaporeans have done, and still survive.  But if we want to achieve some level of social harmony and economic prosperity along with that, we’re almost certainly going to have to learn to live with the kind of political and governmental discipline that marks this society.  Anyone interested in World Government?  A world-wide Singaporean miracle would only be possible if that were the case. In spite of the  Cheaper By the Dozen example, not many of us really want that kind of restriction imposed on our lives.

Lesson #2:  It is impossible to run a country with the population density of Singapore in a way that will allow God’s creation to flourish.  It just can’t be done.  People here are flourishing, no question.  But birds aren’t.  Snakes aren’t.  Jungle cats aren’t.  Most of the creatures whom God originally put on this island have been banished.  If they are here at all now, it is probably in the local zoo.

Though this is a clean city with lots of trees and flowers, below the surface things aren’t quite as good as they appear to be, ecologically speaking.   Besides banning chewing gum, the government has also banned mosquitoes.  There is an ongoing, energetic eradication program to get rid of such ‘pests’.  This is tropical rainforest country.  And mosquitoes, besides being an annoyance, can be a serious health hazard for humans, bringing malaria and dengue fever.

And this may explain of the surprises of my current visit to this city:  There are far fewer birds here than I expected.  Lots of trees.  Tons of gorgeous flowers.  But in terms of raw numbers, there are less birds here than outside my window in Wisconsin.  I know the migrators will have left for the far north by now – but in an area of tropical rainforest, there should be plenty of year round residents.  What’s going on?  Here’s what I think:  When you ban mosquitoes, you probably eliminate other insects as well.  And when the insects are gone, there is not much left for birds to eat.  So our tropical paradise is pollution-free (relatively) and still beautiful, but it has no birds.  There’s something sad – even tragic – about that picture.  [NOTE:  I would love to be corrected on this by someone with more direct scientific knowledge of the ornithological situation in Singapore.]

But what’s wrong with that?  The birds are presumably still okay outside the city limits.  Maybe?  Here’s my problem.  If we think we’re going to try to do a Singapore all over the world, we can say goodbye to the birds everywhere.  There will be no ‘outside the city limits’ any more.

This represents a fundamental disobedience to God. Before God told us human beings to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ he gave the same command to the creatures:

God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”  (Gen 1:22)

When he gave us ‘dominion’ over the creatures, he was asking us to help the creatures to obey his commands to them, one of which was to ‘be fruitful and increase in number…’   When our increasing, as in Singapore, results in their decreasing, we have a problem.  We’re sinning.

Finally, lesson #3: The  Singapore miracle is not only not replicable; it’s not sustainable.  In fact, I’ll go further and suggest that it’s just about over.  You would never know by looking at the skyline, or by wandering through the shopping malls, but this economic miracle has almost run its course, keeping in mind that ‘almost’ is a deliberately elastic term.

How do I know?  Take only one curious news item from a couple of years ago having to do with one of the most common substances on earth, sand:

“LOOKING for sea-sand for reclamation project in Singapore. Prompt reply is greatly appreciated.” Many such pleas can be found on Alibaba.com, a popular Chinese trading-website. Malaysia banned sand exports as long ago as 1997. Indonesia followed suit in 2007 on environmental and, some say, political grounds. Ever since, it has become harder for Singapore to secure supplies for its booming construction industry and sea-fill plans. (Economist)

That report was from 2009; the worldwide economic slowdown and adjustments in various markets has meant that there is still sand available for construction here. But it’s a warning:  There is no such thing as an infinite supply of anything.  Sand is just one of many thousands of commodities that have to keep flowing if Singapore is to keep growing.  This economical/environmental miracle by importing vast amounts of everything, which essentially means exporting the ecological problems those substances represent, whether the environmental damage caused by sand extraction or deforestation caused by the need for wood.  As other countries develop, and need more of the stuff that Singapore has been buying from them, or become more aware of and concerned about environmental problems in their own back yards, Singapore will be left to fend for itself.  Being a quintessential capitalist country, when Singapore stops growing, she dies.

So where does that leave us?

There might be ways to manage extremely high human populations in ways that allow for both abundant ecological and economic wealth.  Singapore is not the answer.  What is wanted is a new approach, starting, maybe, with God rather than economics?