WHEN a nation's population is growing it is usually accompanied by a sense of optimism, which is then followed by a desire for expansion. This was the case in both Germany and Japan when World War II broke out.
By Lee Kuan Yew
In 1931 Japan's population was 64.5 million and occupied 145,882 square miles of land. (Its total fertility rate, or TFR, reached 4.1 by the late 1930s.) Japan cast its eye on Manchuria, seeing it as a source of limitless natural resources and as a buffer between itself and Russia, and invaded in September 1931.
China's population was 492.1 million and occupied an area of 3.7 million square miles. But it was not a united land, which made it weak. Japan carried out skirmishes against China during the ensuing years, but in the middle of 1937 the conflicts escalated into full-scale war.
By the end of October 1938 China's Kuomintang government had retreated south to Chungking, and by 1941 Japan had captured all of China's coastal cities and large tracts of the neighbouring countryside, as well as northern and southern French Indochina.
In July 1941 the US government issued an ultimatum to Japan: withdraw from Indochina or the United States would impose an oil embargo on Japan. Remember that in 1941 the US had a population of more than 130 million and a far more powerful industrial base than Japan had.
Nevertheless, on Dec 7, 1941 Japan took a huge gamble and without warning launched more than 350 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes in two waves from six aircraft carriers, attacking American naval vessels at Pearl Harbour. (Fortunately for the US its aircraft carriers were out at sea and escaped the surprise attack.) Japan simultaneously invaded the whole of South-east Asia in order to gain control of the Dutch East Indies' oil.
Inevitably, the US rebuilt its navy, and during the Battle of Midway in June 1942 sank most of those six Japanese aircraft carriers and their support vessels.
However, the Japanese proved to be intrepid fighters, willing to fight to the death rather than surrender. Japan's army became the most brutal and merciless in the world. The Battle of Iwo Jima was so ferocious that afterward the Americans estimated they would lose a million men if they attempted to take the Japanese mainland. Instead they dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki, which put paid to Japan's ambitions of empire in Asia.
A similar situation occurred in Germany. Its TFR in 1939 was 2.6. Among other things, Germany wanted lebensraum (living space) for its people. Hitler pushed east during WWII to annihilate the Slavic peoples in Ukraine and Russia so those lands could be populated with Germans. But he and his generals underestimated the endurance and valour of the Russian people, as well as the bitterly cold winter conditions under which they would be fighting. Consequently, they suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Russian armed forces.
What have we learnt?
BOTH Japan and Germany now have declining birth rates. Germany's TFR was 1.4 in 2012, or about eight births per thousand people; Japan's TFR has also dropped to 1.4. By 2060 it is estimated that Japan's current population of 128 million will have dropped to 87 million. Neither nation has the need nor the stomach to start another war.
One reason for the world's relative peace and stability today is that all developed countries have a TFR of less than 2.1. (Singapore's is 1.2.) Some fast-growing developing countries also have low TFRs; for instance, China's TFR for 2012 is estimated to be 1.6. Such countries no longer have a need to go searching for lebensraum.
But many developing countries have high TFRs, the largest of these being India, with its 2012 TFR estimated to be 2.6. This means more overcrowding and inadequate infrastructure, schools as well as medical and social services. Africa has even higher TFRs, with many of its countries between 4 and 7, far higher than the replacement rate of 2.1.
The world has suffered the consequences of expanding populations before. What looms on the horizon? And will we be prepared to confront it?
The writer is the former prime minister of Singapore. This article first appeared in the March edition of Forbes magazine.