When I was studying the Singapore population back in 2004-2005 as part of my 'Major Research Paper' (supposedly a Chinese High innovation as part of the Integrated Programme to make good use of the time otherwise used to prepare for O Levels), the total fertility rate of Singapore stood around 1.26. It was already pretty controversial that time because people were basically screaming about how our country has been below replacement fertility for many years and that the people were not reproducing themselves.
In the Population in Brief 2011 (pity I didn't have such a reference material during those days when I was working on the research), it seems that fertility in Singapore has fallen even further but it seem to have stopped being such a big deal as the government internalized the social message at large, 'don't bother us with this matter'. There's even a line that says, "We recognise that getting married and starting families are personal choices and decisions." And in a typical Singapore-style bossiness that cannot tolerate inaction or lack of response to something deemed unsocial, it went on, "The Government aims to create a pro- family environment, through a comprehensive set of measures, including the Baby Bonus cash gift and co-savings, tax reliefs and rebates, as well as child care subsidies."
In the latest LSE100 module which I recently completed, we explored the question, 'Is Population Growth a good thing?'. I was thrown back into a world I was familiar with from research and study of Human Geography back in High School. The Demographic Transition Model, Pro- and anti-natal policies, the 'development as a contraception' argument and so on. It was both interesting and somewhat annoying that themes in the discipline hasn't quite changed much. I guess the discipline is in itself shaped by the themes so I can't expect too much. But to consider population growth over a longer period and look at its dynamics from the perspective of the development of the human civilization and forward is interesting especially when you add technology, resource constraints and the notion of ideas into play.
And of course, more dramatically, the world just crossed a new milestone of having 7 billion people in the world - I remembered that the 6 billion mark was crossed some time in late 1999; my Geography teacher used so say that she and her geography class got the chance to watch the countdown (or count-up?) to 6 billion. More so than ever, we're all just another tiny soul wandering around the increasing crowded surface of our planet.
By Wei Seng
How do you determine which country on Earth is the best? There are so many ways of measuring and so many variables to measure, and the purpose of which you need such measurements also influences which country comes out as the best. Newsweek attempts to rank the world's countries based on several indicators such as education, health, quality of life, economic dynamism and political environment, then aggregating and averaging the scores together to create an index. Of course such numbers are rather arbitrary and need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it gives a good idea as to where each country stands overall.
View the interactive infographic to see where each country stands, out of 100 countries. I shall cite several countries here for your reference, and see if you agree or disagree with their findings.
11. United States
14. United Kingdom
15. South Korea
Singapore's Performance (Rank, Score)
Overall - 20th, 80.94
Education - 4th, 95.60
Health - 7th, 92.76
Quality of Life - 23rd, 80.00
Economic Dynamism - 1st, 83.06
Political Environment - 67th, 53.62
Well, Singapore's performance seems to fit in with our expectations and observations in daily life doesnt it?
By Wei Seng
The title of the video sure captures your imagination: How Mr Condom Made Thailand A Better Place. A talk by Mechai Viravaidya, Thailand's Mr Condom, uploaded onto TED.com recently details how Thailand fought high birth rates and population growth with family planning, by involving everyone in the community from the religious leaders down to schoolchildren, through no-holds-barred methods like sex education in schools and even seemingly inane events like condom blowing competitions.
This talk is a very entertaining and hilarious talk, sprinkled with slightly PG-rated jokes, but it is worth watching to learn of alternative ways to promote family planning other than state-directed heavy-handed initiatives such as the One Child Policy of China, which might have been justifiable based on certain grounds but was nevertheless rather draconian and too government-directed.
From the talk, one seems to have the impression that condoms are available everywhere, and that even little children seem to have contact with condoms. Then some might have doubts about these initiatives. Many Catholics do not believe in condoms because they believe children are a gift of God, while many conservatives feel that sex education or promotion of condoms encourages promiscuous behaviour and experimentation, which would wreck the institution of marriage. These certainly are valid concerns, but I do not believe that a problem goes away by burying one's head in the sand. It probably worked for Thailand because the majority of people are Buddhists, and the religion's stand is generally neutral / encouraging on use of contraceptives and family planning. And especially important in the fight against AIDS is the use of condoms. It would be hard to reduce AIDS transmission rates without promoting the use of condoms, as abstinence is a very hard virtue to promote and there is a need to protect the women who are exposed to these diseases as a result of their promiscuous husbands.
By Wei Seng
I apologise for not having written in a long time. I've been facing a drought, trying to find inspiration for writing but being unable to do so even while combing through The Economist. Finally I found something to write about, and it is with regard to the One Child Policy of China.
China's One Child Policy is staple for Population Studies / Demography in Human Geography lessons in secondary school and JC. It is a very good study of how draconian government policy can tremendously influence a country's demographic development and transition. The Economist provides an update about the "over-success" (if there is such a word to mean that something is so successful that it becomes a liability in itself) of the One Child Policy.
In essence, now fertility rates have dropped quite a bit since the start of the policy in the late 60s / early 70s, and now the country is no longer facing a population boom but instead the threat of an ageing population, with a younger generation that is unable to support its rapidly ageing older generation. In the article the writer provides anecdotes, but the main idea is that the repressive policy has become too successful at lowering birth rates and controlling population expansion, such that now if the government is going to terminate the One Child Policy and get people to give birth to more children, the people might not be able to do so. Not that the low birth rate now can be ascribed to the One Child Policy, but more of the realities of today's society: intense competition for everything from school spots to housing, high costs of living in the urban areas (given that many more Chinese live in cities now than ever) as well as the career-mindedness of people in general.
Certainly looks very familiar to another country: Singapore. Sure, we had no One Child Policy, but our Stop at Two policy, while far from being as draconian as the One Child Policy, was enforced with some strictness, and in the end the economic development of the country contributed to plunging birth and fertility rates that are among the lowest in the world.
Chances are, there will be no easy solutions to China's dilemma (as well as Singapore's). At least for Singapore, the government is proactive in promoting childbirth, whereas the Chinese government is in denial that the One Child Policy is outdated and no longer relevant. And it has always been difficult for governments to fight economic and societal incentives and disincentives in childbirth, until repressive measures like the One Child Policy were implemented. Would another similarly repressive policy that encourages childbirth help boost birth rates? I am a bit suspicious, because the people of China today are no longer as ready to believe in what their government claims they should do for the nation or in the iron-fisted methods of doing things.
By Wei Seng
In the Science and Technology column of The Economist, I saw an article that proposed an intriguing correlation between the occurence of infectious diseases in countries and the IQ of the people in those countries. Sounds like a pretty audacious correlation to make, but it seems like the research done by these scientists from the University of New Mexico (which is, by the way, in America and not Mexico) seems to bear this out.
One's IQ might be genetically influenced, but why does IQ vary across places, being on average higher in certain places and lower in others? And apparently IC seems to be "rising in recent decades". The hypothesis of the researchers assert that the occurence of infectious diseases affect IQ variation. In other words, "places that harbour a lot of parasites and pathogens... have their human caiptal eroded, child by child, from birth".
This sounds scary and damning, but the link is not exactly impossible. From newly born children to adult, the brain uses a huge proportion of the body's metabolic energy far exceeding its weight within the body, from 87% in a newborn to "about a quarter of the body's energy" even as an adult, when your brain weighs "a mere 2%" of your body weight. When parasites and pathogens (that cause infectious diseases) reside in the body, they can damage the body tissue, provoke immune system reactions and / or compete for resources such as nutrients from food consumed.
Statistically plotting infectious disease burden on life years lost against average IQ, the more developed countries with "relatively low levels of disease" have a higher average IQ and vice-versa. Singapore features prominently as the country with the highest average intelligence with relatively low infectious disease burden. "Correlation is not causation", certainly, and the researchers have considered some alternative causes for lower IQ but these seem to diminish in importance when measured vis-a-vis the consequences of disease.
The importance of this study? If further research validates this groundbreaking postulation, the onus upon developing countries to develop economically and improve healthcare becomes even greater as the consequent health problems from low levels of development damage the country's potential. These countries may be stuck in a vicious cycle, but then the onus is also upon the developed countries to provide aid and assistance to the developing countries to break out of this disease-potential trap. Indeed, as the writer valiantly suggests, it is time for policymakers to recognise that "one of the main aims of development" would be to eliminate disease, instead of doing so as "a desirable afterthought".
By Wei Seng
This article that I read in The Straits Times last week, which comes from the The New York Times, is a news article that highlights the discovery by American government geologists of US$1 trillion worth of "untapped mineral deposits", which promises to "fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself". The mineral deposits found include huge amounts of lithium ("a key raw material in the manufacturing of batteries for laptops") as well as copper, iron, cobalt and gold. While it is heartening to read about optimistic news from Afghanistan, I am not exactly very optimistic about the promises of reaping these reserves. My reason for pessimism? This theory known as the resource curse.
Put simply by Wikipedia, it is "the paradox that countries and regions with an abundance of natural resources... tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources". According to a write-up on the Global Policy Forum adapted from the Foreign Service Journal, such countries "score lower on the UN Human Development Index, exhibit greater corruption, have a greater probability of conflict in any five-year period, have larger shares of their population in poverty, devote a greater share of government spending to military spending, and are more authoritarian than those with more diverse sources of wealth".
It is suggested that this happens because "the income from these resources is often misappropriated by corrupt leaders and officials instead of being used to support growth and development. Moreover, such wealth often fuels internal grievances that cause conflict and civil war". In the case of Afghanistan in particular, I am very pessimistic that it will be able to break out of this natural resource curse like Norway has done, because of the corruption as well as the high likelihood that rogue groupings will instead gain access to these minerals for malign uses. As I conducted research about the natural resource curse and the news piece, it seems like I'm not the only one with eyebrows raised about the mineral deposits.
In Foreign Policy, Blake Hounshell voices his reservations about the reserves. He writes about the instability of the current Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai as well as its susceptibility to corruption and extremist Islamist influences. There is additional skepticism over the timing of this article when the Afghan war is going on badly, as well as the estimates of reserves and its worth. In addition, given the huge amount of capital investment needed to dig out those resources and considering Afghanistan's current situation, chances are those resources will remain trapped under the ground. And I shudder to think of the environmental consequences of unearthing all those resources, as much as they might benefit the people of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile in The Christian Science Monitor, Donald Marron elaborates about how the resource curse can afflict Afghanistan. He referenced a lengthy article in The Financial Times that narrates Norway's discovery of oil and how it coped well with the discovery, instead of succumbing to all the "trappings" of the natural resource curse. If Aghanistan can really act like Norway did it how it dealt with the new-found wealth, it would be able to grow healthy and wealthy... otherwise it could just worsen the quagmire Afghanistan is stuck in.
By Wei Seng
On The Daily Green, columnist Ned Sullivan posts a speech that he gave at a graduation ceremony for University of Albany's Geography and Planning Programme. As a future geography student at NUS, the contents of his speech certainly touch me, but what he says are not just applicable to Geography majors, as much as these graduates would be enabled to do more for the community and environment than most because of the background knowledge they have and the specialised education they receive as Geography students.
In his speech, he details a lot of how we can all contribute to the environment and community at large, juxtoposing with the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as well as evidence of climate change.
For those who wonder of the uses of learning Geography or interested in how being educated in Geography at university level can provide empowerment, do take a look at the speech for inspiration.
By Wei Seng
I am still catching up on all my subscribed The Economist magazines that have accumulated in my absence in India. This article that I wish to feature today hence comes from a month back, from 27 March. Charlemagne, The Economist's European correspondent, argues that in Europe there actually isnt a core-periphery divide that affects the economic geography of the continent, but more of a north-south divide.
To the uninitiated (this was taught in A-level Geography), the core-periphery theory suggests that with economic development a region (the core) will expand into its neighbours (the periphery) to continue its economic growth. The periphery can benefit if the economic spoils of the core spill over into the periphery, but the periphery may alternatively lose out if the core sucks up resources from it but remains undeveloped economically.
While Charlemagne is not using the core-periphery theory per se, he is arguing that it is impossible to define Europe based on a core-periphery model as it would be geographically inaccurate when one studies representations of economic development on the map of Europe. If there is a core, it would probably be represented by Germany (probably the economic capital Frankfurt) and Belgium (Brussels, the administrative capital of the European Union). But variations in economic development away from the core defy the impression of a simple "concentration gradient" whereby economies further away from Frankfurt and Brussels are poorer. The Scandinavian countries are a good example, for they are located far away from the "heart" of Europe but yet these are the wealthiest and most developed countries in the continent. It seems like it is too simplistic to represent Europe based on a single core surrounded by the periphery.
Charlemagne then suggests that instead what we see in Europe is a North-South divide. Again for those unaware (this is also taught in A-level Geography), the north is a representation of the rich whereas the south is a representation of the poor, a generalisation based on global trends. Such a representation of the world can be said to be quite contentious because it is geographically inaccurate. Australia, being a rich country, is located in the Southern hemisphere but qualifies as the North in this divide. For Europe, however, this divide seems to fit in nicely with both geographical and economic trends. If you look at GDP representation, you actually see an East-West divide, as we currently understand of Europe that Western Europe is wealthier than Eastern Europe. However, since the financial crisis of 2008 and the eventual storm it has unleashed on governments in Europe, it seems more accurate to portray an economically-stronger Northern Europe and an economically-weaker Southern Europe.
Where then, to draw the divide? While Eastern Europe would qualify as part of the south given the difficult conditions they face today in managing and reviving their economy, even some Western European countries with higher GDP per capita than that of in Eastern Europe are in varying depths of trouble. One could probably draw the line south of France, Germany and Switzerland, which would then include Spain, Portugal & Italy, the economically more fragile countries in Western Europe. Greece and the Baltic states would very obviously be in the South given the harrowing economic conditions faced.
The difference in portraying Europe using the core-periphery theory and the North-South divide is this: given the severity of the financial crisis, while countries in the core / North are holding up well, they are no longer willing to support countries in the periphery / South that are tethering on the edge of bankruptcy, given the systemic risk of default and collapse some of these countries face and the threats of the problem spreading. That many of these countries in the periphery / South are in the EU makes matters worse for countries in the core / North because it seems reasonable to expect help from wealthier neighbours in an economic alliance when your country is in trouble. The North-South divide illustrates more the contrast as well as the unwillingness of countries in the North to help the South, which the core-periphery model does not exactly illustrate.
Sounds like a storm in a teacup or making a mountain out of a molehill, the usage of different economic geography theories to describe Europe, for us observers in Asia. Then again, the subtle differences in definition of these theories help explain the mindset of countries like Germany today, when it refuses to bail Greece out from its debt crisis, though for us it seems the logical thing to do.
By Wei Seng
In the '10 Ideas for the next 10 Years' column in Time magazine's 22 March issue, some bold ideas with regard to the coming decade are introduced. What caught my eye, while I was reading this in India, was this article by Parag Khanna titled 'Remapping the World'. It reminded me a lot of my H3 Geopolitics course in NUS when I took it in 2008, the concept of borders and their wider consequences beyond geopolitics. Quite bold and outrageous yet impossible as well; it could have well-meaning consequences but things can turn equally disastrous.
Essentially, Khanna suggests redrawing a new map of the world to reduce conflict and reverse the damage of poorly-drawn borders. Regions and nations with different cultures are haphazardly pieced together, often remnants of colonial rule where colonial masters did not give regard to cultural composition in the drawing up of borders. Borders are, after all, an arbitrary line drawn that demarcates where a country's jurisdiction ends and where another country's begin. A state is contained within its borders, but a nation need not be contained within these borders. The difference between a nation and a state is that people identify with a nation because of language, cultural or historical belonging, whereas a state can be formed devoid of cultural identity. Examples of states that encompass nations (with poorly-drawn borders) include Iraq (the Kurds are divided by the Iraq-Turkey border, leading to Kurds being the minority in an Arab nation), Sudan and Nigeria (Muslim-Christian divide).
So where borders are poorly drawn, should we press the Reset button and allow remapping and regrouping? Despite all the benefits (such as creating cultural unity and reducing conflict as a result of disharmony) this can be very messy as there could be new tussles over wealth and resources in the process of remapping. How to determine which resource goes to which state, should borders be redrawn? How to accurately determine the proportion of people of a certain race or religion in an area, and hence decide which country to belong to? Wars between and within countries can result. A vivid example of how drawing new boundaries by religion may fail: the 1947 partition of India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. While well-intentioned, the act was controversial and resulted in a bloody war that led to the seperation of East Pakistan as Bangladesh and the unresolved dispute of Jammu and Kashmir. And the Muslim minority in India today tend to be disadvantaged and of impoverished upbringing compared to their Hindu peers in India or even with their fellow Muslims in Pakistan.
Borders need not be added, according to Khanna. They could even be erased or neglected, such as in the case of the EU whereby 27 countries came together to join an economic and trading bloc. This would then contradict the idea of having more borders to demarcate the jurisdiction of various nations and peoples. While an amalgamation of small nations could allow them to punch above their weight in the global arena, problems of power-sharing could arise. People have suggested, and continue to suggest, that Singapore merge back into the fold of Malaysia to tap into the greater hinterland, and given that the culture and history of Malaysia and Singapore have been similar. Perhaps a merger today might be more palatable compared to in the 1960s and 1970s, post-Merger and Seperation when people were fighting valiantly for Singapore's independence and sustenance in the global arena. But whether it would be beneficial economically, socially and politically, for both Malaysians and Singaporeans, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, forces of globalisation are actually the true powers that transcend borders: the development of transportation (from railways and ships to airplanes) as well as the Internet. These forces allow the negating of borders, and this is perhaps what citizens of various nations and states need to tap into for their survival in the future, while keeping in mind that the borders created in the yesteryear are unlikely to go away anytime soon given the territorial nature of Man.
By Wei Seng
I stumbled upon this creative but mad article that proposes cutting up the United States of America into 50 states of equal population size. The aim of this exercise is to equalise "congressional overrepresentation" from small states and rural areas. This would be quite important today considering that Congress representation is such that each state, regardless of population size, gets the same number of votes, which makes the small, rural states wield extra power. This extra power can come in handy to block bills unfavourable to them, as witnessed in the process to pass the cap-and-trade bill where small rural states, expected to be severely disadvantaged due to their agricultural economy, have used their votes to block the passing of the bill or try squeeze some concessions and caveats in return for votes. Neil Freeman discusses some advantages and disadvantages on his website.
Erasing the current borders of the USA is not a new idea. From as early as 1975, people have proposed the notion of carving up the USA into 38 states based on cultural and physical aspects of the territory. Professor C Etzel Pearcy realigned the boundaries based on newer and evolved concepts such as population density, urban sprawl and transport routes. Not quite how one normally decides a boundary (usually based on physical relief: rivers or mountain ranges for example), but still worth considering for the better of jurisdiction and administration. But of course, such measures are really controversial: will the people in power today want to yield their power to someone else, or have their powers curtailed? I am quite sure not.
And I am reminded of closer to home, when electoral boundaries are redrawn every now and then to accomodate for changing population sizes, according to the government.
Some entertaining ideas for you to think about this Lunar New Year.