By Tiffany Gwee
Photography by Jeremy Chan
A group of approximately 400 enthusiastic protesters gathered in Hong Lim Park yesterday evening to protest against the recent 3.2% public transport fare hike approved by the Public Transport Council (PTC) and the government earlier this year.
Organised by activist Gilbert Goh, the event attracted many with placards that expressed their frustration, with phrases like “We Demand No Fare Hike” and “Why Pay More for Lousy Service” scribbled in bold letters, representing the crux of their anger and their hope for change with regards to public transport costs.
Speakers at the protest touched on what they perceived as supernormal profits that SMRT is already enjoying; the general decrease in affordability for the public; and the substandard quality of public transport as evident in the series of disruptions and breakdowns in recent times.
“Supernormal” profits and lack of accountability
Protesters were unhappy with the fact that the two major transport companies, SMRT and SBS Transit, are making “$120 million and $18 million in net profits respectively” and this is set to increase rapidly with the rise in train ridership as well.
Speaker Mr Daryl Tan, raised these concerns with the staggering statistical figures and linked the rise in ridership to the White Paper Policy as well. “With the White Paper Policy put in place, train ridership will only continue to increase,” he said. “This means that even without the fare hike, SMRT will still enjoy greater profits.”
This excessive focus on profits drew sharp criticism from another speaker, Mr Osman Sulaiman from the Reform Party, who referred to a quote from Dr Yeo Ning Hong, Minister for Communication and Information in 1986, pledging that the setting up of SMRT to operate train services will be disallowed to “profit at the expense of the public”. Mr Osman added that this is proven untrue presently as the profits made “will not be pumped into the system” and “will not benefit the public”.
“This is not meritocracy!” he asserted, to which the crowd before him broke into rousing cheers and agreement.
In relation to the sky-high profits, speakers pressed for the answer to one question: “Where do all the profits go to?”
The media release for the event stated that “Temasek Holdings controls 55% of SMRT and over-time it has collected close to $500 million in dividends from the transport company since 2011”. Mr Goh opined that it was not “viable” for a fare hike unless “the government comes clean” as to where the profits go to.
Mr Osman agreed, adding that the money used to fund the public transport system is “taxpayers’ money” and hence proper accountability was needed.
Decrease in affordability
Speakers also identified that the current unhappiness with the fare increase was in part to do with the lack of affordability of public transport once the fare hikes are put in place. While students, the disadvantaged, the elderly and those of the lower income groups can look forward to subsidies, the middle-income group was deemed to have been neglected, and this creates a major issue in terms of transport cost affordability.
According to Mr Tan, “raising the cost of public transport is fine” but only with a “rise in wages” as well. “Many of our wages remain stagnant,” he explained, citing it as a reason for the irrationality behind the fare hike.
Likewise, speaker Mr Song Swee Choo proclaimed that transport fares were “burning (his) pocket” and this is set to become worse with the ascending transport costs. Mr Song even walked the whole 8km from Serangoon’s Nex shopping mall to Hong Lim Park as his own way of protesting against the fare hikes – by not taking public transport to the venue.
Other than Mr Song, there were others who did likewise to demonstrate how the fare hike was hitting them directly. Mr. Alex Lim cycled from Punggol, while Mr Dennis Khew walked all the way from Hougang, in the spirit of boycotting public transport.
Another member from the audience, Mr Kue, expressed his dissatisfaction over being caught in a bind, seeing that he has “no choice but to take the public transport everyday” as he could not afford private transportation.
Decreasing quality of public transport
The fare increase was also a sore point for commuters as they do not see a current improvement in service standards among the public transport operators (PTOs).
Mr Tan listed all the different train disruptions and breakdowns that had happened since the General Elections in 2011. With the continued delays and inconvenience caused by service breakdowns, he could not see the fare hikes as reasonable.
A member of the audience, Mr John Loh, agreed with him. He felt that SMRT is “not doing enough to improve the service to the people”. “There are no major maintenance works done. The profits go to Temasek Holdings and SMRT, and yet no repair is done,” he said.
“If you are not performing well in your job, you don’t have to worry. Just approach your boss and ask for a pay raise. If your boss tells you, ‘you siao (crazy) ah’ (because of the terrible work performance), then just tell your boss that your work performance and pay raise are separate issues!”
Mr Osman suggested that there should be “more competition brought in to bring the costs down”, and proposed for a complete nationalisation of the public transport system. He also opined that both the SMRT chief executive and Transport Minister “have no experience in the field of transport”, and called for someone “more experienced and capable” to take over their roles.
Standing up for change, and positivity
Despite the anger directed at the PTC, the PTOs and the Transport Minister, the protest did not give in to futility. Mr Song encouraged the crowd to “not be afraid” as the government might “revoke (the) policy if the people say so”.
Mr Tan also believed that Singaporeans should be more vocal about what they believe in. “I am a very vocal person and this is my third time speaking in Hong Lim Park. I am not afraid to stand up for my country.”
Mr Goh also expressed hope that SMRT will “listen to them” and “buck up on their services”, as they seek to better manage the breakdowns.
And despite having battered an effigy of the Transport Minister, the crowed ended the evening in song, evoking national pride as they sang ‘Stand Up for Singapore’ and ‘Rasa Sayang’. The laughter and easy banter they shared belied the anger and frustration within, as each sought for change in their country.