Tan Kin Lian

Someone once said that Singapore is a “fine” city. We have a fine for littering, a fine for jay-walking, a fine for late payment of taxes, a fine for traffic offences and a fine for paying a fine late.

It is all right to have fines to impose discipline on the people. This is how Singapore gets the reputation of being a clean, orderly and safe city. It has its advantages.

However, in their zeal, the authorities may forget that their manner of imposing the fine can cause additional unintended hardship.

I wish to share some personal past experiences to illustrate this point.

A few years ago, I received a ticket for a parking offence. I tried to call the relevant authority to discuss the penalty, which seemed to be quite high. It was difficult for me to get through the hotline to speak to the officer in charge.

After much effort, I did get through to an officer. I got the impression that my enquiry was not welcomed. I felt that it would have been easier for me to write a cheque to pay the fine, and not to ask any questions.

On another occasion, I received a ticket for an ERP offence. I did not insert my cash card properly and did not pay my ERP fee, which was less than $1 during the old days. I was given an option to pay the fine through an AXS terminal or to appear in court. The AXS terminal seemed to be an easier option.

I visited an AXS terminal and had a difficult time. The system to levy the fine had just been introduced and was extremely difficult to use.

I had a lot of trouble trying to navigate the software. I had to declare that I was guilty of committing the ERP offence (as if it was my intention to commit this offence). At many stages of the interaction I was warned that any wrong statement will get me into more trouble. If I do not plead guilty, the other option was to appear in court.

I hesitated in pleading guilty as I was not sure if it would have any negative impact on my other dealings with the authority or it would leave any permanent blemish on my name. I was not able to ask the computer terminal to tell me about its implications.

After declaring guilty of committing the offence, I had to pay the fine using my ATM card. The connection with the AXS terminal was very slow. It seemed to have hung. I had to abort the operation after waiting for a long time.

I had to go through the whole process about three times, before I finally succeeded in paying the fine. It took me more than 30 minutes and was a frustrating experience.

Fortunately, I did not have the misfortune to go through an ERP gantry with a misplaced cash card in subsequent years. My friend told me that she paid an ERP fine recently by writing a cheque. It seemed to be more convenient nowadays.

If an educated person with a good knowledge of technology, like me, had so much trouble paying ERP fines, it must be much more frustrating for people who are less familiar with the use of technology. I am thinking of the taxi drivers, sales persons or delivery persons who have to drive daily in the course of their work. They must be very angry at having to pay a hefty fine and waste time which could be used to earn some income through productive work.

All these fines have to be paid within a deadline of a few days. If you open your mail a few days late and found that the time to pay the fine was running out, it could add further stress.

To follow from the example set by the authorities, some banks and service providers seem to feel that it is their commercial right to impose hefty charges for late payment or other administrative oversight.

Once, I received a letter from a credit card company informing me that the charge for late payment and for “insufficient funds” is in the order of $30 to $50. This is in addition to their interest of 2% per month. I was so angry that I called the hotline to cancel the credit card. The customer service officer was surprised at my action. He did not seem to understand why I reacted in that manner.

Let me discuss the concept of a compassionate “fine” system. Let us impose the fine in a way that does not add a further burden to the person who has been fined. Here are my suggestions:

1. Give more time for the offender to settle the fine. There is no need to impose a short deadline.

2. Allow the offender to call a hotline and accept the composition by a telephone call. There is no need to make the person go to see the officer in person or to go to “talk” to a computer terminal.

3. Allow the offender to pay the fine by installments, say $50 or $100 a month. This can reduce the burden on poorer offenders who have to work hard just to earn $50 a day. I am sure that they will learn their lesson.

Some people may argue that the Government faces the risk that the offenders may not pay the fines under this compassionate system. This should be all right. I believe that the Government will not go bankrupt from this credit risk.

I do not know if the “fine” system has improved since the days of my unpleasant encounters. Perhaps, some readers may share more recent experiences. I hope that the system has improved. If not, perhaps some of my suggestions can be considered by the authorities?

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