Living In A Box

There was an experiment conducted many years ago on rats by John B Calhoun. From the experiment, he postulated that the bleak effects of overpopulation on rodents were a grim model for the future of the human race. The experiment went like this. A few rats of both sexes were placed in a box. They were given everything for healthy living; food, water, exercise wheels and the box was cleaned every day. And they were allowed to breed. And breed they did. The only caveat was that the size of the box was kept constant. Initially, everything was honky dory. The rats were happy and healthy. It was like living in the ultimate dream holiday retreat. Eat, sleep and sex. Until one day, the population reached a critical stage and the rats suddenly turned onto each other. They fought, killed and ate one another to the point of extinction. But when they were removed into a bigger box, they returned to their happy normal selves again.

The conclusions drawn from this experiment were that when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviours, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population.

Calhoun saw the fate of the population of rats as a metaphor for the potential fate of man. He characterized the social breakdown as a “second death”, with reference to the “second death” mentioned in the Biblical book of Revelation. His study has been cited by writers such as Bill Perkins as a warning of the dangers of living in an “increasingly crowded and impersonal world”.

Is this the reason why Singaporeans are such a stressed lot? Perhaps. Because living in Singapore is pretty much like rats in a box. Singapore population will inevitably increase to a projected 6.9 million. And no doubt there is nothing much anyone can do to increase the gross land area of this island. But although Singapore will be increasingly congested, it doesn’t mean that it has to feel congested. It all has got to do with personal space and the perception of space.

It’s heartening to see plans are already in place towards this. New MRT lines for example, are already being constructed to run parallel to the existing ones to make the trains less crowded. There will be more buses in the coming years. More expressways and road widening are being planned too. This coupled with controls on the number of vehicles, will make the journey on the roads much more pleasant. More parks and park connectors are in the works. Regional centres are being built to take the load off the CBD. And HDB blocks and estates are designed in such a way that they don’t appear as concrete jungles.

But more can be done and urban planners and the government must be bold, creative and daring to make Singapore more liveable and perceptibly more spacious. If Calhoun’s theory is anything to go by, it will be a matter of life and death.




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