No one would want to be in Mr Lui Tuck Yew’s shoes today. He’s in Singapore’s hot seat, driving the transport portfolio. He’s probably also made history as the first minister to have an effigy made of him. Weirdly, it was not burnt; but doused with water. As a fiery action would supposedly be against the law.
Taking charge of Singapore’s transport infrastructure has never been an easy job, from way back in the days of Mr Yeo Ning Hong. Mr Raymond Lim must be glad too that he no longer holds the portfolio.
If anyone wants the job, he would have to make sure he takes the bus and the train regularly, preferably during peak hours. He must not forget the LRT, even if he doesn’t live in Bukit Panjang.
He would also have to drive to experience the jolt the heart makes every time his IU beeps under an ERP gantry. He would have to traverse the more “ulu’’ roads, as there is a sneaking suspicion that the best maintained roads are in neighbourhoods where the leaders live and which they usually travel on.
He would also have to take a cab – at all hours – to experience the bewildering array of surcharges a passenger is presented with. (Did you know that a $3 flag-down fare (the lowest) is going to be a thing of the past? Seems the model is being phased out, according to a cabby who told me that this was probably going to my last “cheap’’ trip in a taxi.)
He has to get on a bicycle and a motorbike as well to get a feel of the danger people on two wheels face because motorists prefer that they go “off’’ road.
Why? Because the public wants him to feel their “pain’’ so that he can come up with a soothing balm. (In the same way that the Health minister should spend time in a C class ward, the National Development Minister should trying living in a rental flat and every minister should be surviving on the minimum wage, if we knew what that was…Gosh, we have high expectations. We want “low living’’ ministers.)
Mr Lui has inherited a “bomb’’. Nothing he does is going to get praised, not even the wonderfully-paved and beautifully-lit MCE. And while bus and train fares are being directed by the independent Public Transport Council, he’ll still have to take the heat for fare rises. SMRT and SBS Transit might not be G agencies but every stoppage will be laid at the G’s door. Likewise, the ups and downs of Singapore’s unique COE system.
The problem with transport is that we’re paying for it every day. We’re aware that the EZ link card value is going down, the IU beeps all the time, you take out card or cash whenever you leave a taxi. Not to mention queuing to board, and waiting in a traffic jam. All the daily inconveniences and cost gets on our nerves. Compare this to housing: it’s a one/two-time big ticket item. Or getting hospitalised once in a blue moon.
Our transport system has become this gigantic snarl that is difficult to untangle. And we seem to be throwing band-aids at it. Want more buses? Give you money and you go buy. Private bus companies welcome to run some routes. Calibrated penalties and rewards for being on time. Big Public Transport Fund. Tweaking COE categories so that those who can afford to own luxury cars don’t squeeze out others. So much patching up being done.
Which is why there is some merit in a massive review of transport policy that looks at all forms of transport, whether public or private. Some people want to know how the ERP and COE takings are used. Just go into the Consolidated Fund for re-distribution? That might be financially prudent but the fact is, people want to see a link.
The new fare system has been streamlined but it is still mightily complicated for the laymen. Face it. Fares are never coming down. We’ve already been alerted to a 3.1 per cent rise next year. Bus and train operations might be in the red but no one quite believes it because the companies keep reporting profits. The laymen couldn’t care if their other activities are keeping the public transport side afloat simply because they don’t view public transport as a “private’’ business.
Then there is the joke about how train stoppages are no longer news. What would be news is if we went a week or two without a single stoppage. It leads you to wonder if our entire train infrastructure needs an overhaul, even though it is not as old as other train systems elsewhere. Did someone sell us a dud in the beginning?
So 400-over people gathered at Hong Lim Park on Saturday led by the indefatigable Gilbert Goh to protest the recent fare hike. Frankly, I thought the fare hike was pretty well thought through with subsidies targeted at those who need it. Who would have thought that the train system would start acting up right after the announcement? Now people are suggesting that a new factor be thrown into the new, just-reviewed fare mix: it’s not just a question of fare increases to cover operating cost and keep pace with wage increases, but there should be a “service’’ element as well. Never mind that there are penalties for lousy service. You see how complicated it is?
So there was an effigy paraded on Saturday – and people were spitting on their EZ-link cards, probably because spitting on the ground is an offence. Eeew. Frankly, I cringed at the photographs that are being circulated on social media. I say (and I will probably be whacked for this) that it is not the Singapore way. In fact, I am hoping that the action is not a manifestation of the feelings of the majority of commuters.
But, but, but, it might also be a sign that something radical has to take place in transport policy. Just like in health policy.
If not, there should be a re-statement on what our transport policy is all about. What is public/private transport? How big a hand should the G have in it? Should policy be directed at road users of all types or should there be an “equity’’ element? How “firm’’ are we about moving people from private to public transport? How do we balance people’s aspirations to own a car – or should this even count as one of the 5Cs? What is the “private’’ public transport operators’ public transport obligations that would not affect their profit-making obligations to their shareholders?
Gosh, that already sounds like a contradiction!
Anyway, good luck to the much-maligned Mr Lui.