Choo Zheng Xi

An angry tongue-in-cheek critique of ERP hikes (TOC op-ed).

If you are superstitious, a cave-in in the Central Business District (CBD) that left a 5m-wide hole in the ground could be more than bad engineering.It happened on the same day it was announced that five new Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries were to go up by 7 July, bringing the islandwide total to a eye-popping 65.

However, signs are never easy to interpret. So if I were asked about what exactly the cave-in could be symbolic of, I would have to choose from several plausible answers.

1. Collapse in the credibility of the mainstream media

Anyone who read the front page article on the Straits Times would have been left slightly puzzled. How could such bad news have come off sounding so good? Upon deeper thought, that bewilderment will turn to anger, tinged with grudging respect for an excellently-disguised propaganda effort.

To add salt to the visceral pain any sane motorist would feel at this piece of bad news, the front page of the Straits Times trumpeted, in its subtitle, how “changes are aimed at making city traffic flow smoothly in the evenings”.

To me, this is the equivalent of cutting off someone’s legs to save him the fatigue of walking and expecting him to feel gratitude.

To add insult to injury, the article goes on to extensively quote from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) playbook, offering the public statistic after shocking statistic of ever-slowing road speeds. In the body of the article, an LTA spokesman offers the coup de grace: “The majority of people who pay do not get that experience [of uncongested driving].”

The logical conclusion, naturally, is that we should make it more expensive for more people to pay, hence making the experience more enjoyable for the ones left who can.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the last private cars left on the road in Singapore 2050 will belong to the well-paid individuals who made the policies which taxed everyone else off the roads.

If that’s not perverse, I don’t know what is.

This might have been mitigated if the ST featured a perspective from someone who actually drove a car without a motorcade.

Unfortunately, the other voices in the article belonged to Member of Parliament and head of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport Mr Cedric Foo, and his deputy chairman, Mr Ong Kian Ming. Because of their service to our country, they are millionaires (they don’t actually have motorcades).

Or perhaps I am just narrow minded, unable to see the big picture, and we really should thank the Government for helping us smoothen the gravelled arteries of our county.

Unfortunately, we have little to be thankful for, which brings me on to the next possible interpretation of the cave in.

2. Collapse in the ingenuity of our leadership

It never strikes me how incapable our top civil servants are of finding a creative solution out of the problem we’re in.

The syllogism by which they’ve derived the solution is as follows:

1) There is congestion from people driving cars.

2) People drive less if they have to pay more.

3) Ergo, the more we make people pay, the less they will drive, hence eradicating the scourge of congestion.

This syllogism might make us all happier if there was a corresponding cap or decrease in cost of public transport. Unfortunately, the “Private Vehicle Department” people and the “Public Transport Division” staff do not seem to be on talking terms. Taxi fares have recently gone up, and bus fares were last raised in September 2007. Call this a hunch, but I feel another public transport price hike in the air.

This leads to the sad conclusion that many of us will soon be walking to work in the CBD. Good luck to you if you live in Pasir Ris.

The use of the language of the criminal law is indicative of how the establishment views driving. Motorist need to be “deterred” from driving by a starting deduction of $2, as “it has become increasingly more difficult to deter motorists with 50-cent jumps”.

It has become apparent that Singaporeans are completely sanitised to this miniscule increment. In fact, with ever-increasing wages, job prospects, and inflation, monetary disincentive is next to meaningless.

So why stop at the language of the criminal law, when you can actually use the full force of the damn thing? A more creative method of solving this problem is to mandate specific days on which motorists are allowed to drive according to the colour of their car, and penalise the black sheep (or cars) that break this coding system with mandatory imprisonment. As the roads will be packed with uniformly-coloured vehicles, violators will be easily spotted.

As there are seven colours of the rainbow, we can have one for every day of the week, so no motorist needs to be left behind.

3. Collapse of the Singaporean dream

Is the Government trying to lose the next elections? Despite Mr Foo’s protestations that “We should not mix up road usage measures like ERP with means to cope with general inflation”, I think the verdict of the motorcade-less masses will be unanimous: this is bad timing par excellence.

Perhaps to test the waters of public opinion for the sharks of dissatisfaction, Mr Foo and Mr Ong have been unhappily chosen to be the first to defend the hikes. One almost feels sorry for them. Almost.

Coming on the back of increased prices of basic foodstuffs like rice, vegetables and chicken, the Government isn’t just shooting itself in the foot, it is taking a machine gun to its leg.

But, the Government will protest, people who fret over the price of basic necessities are not the ones who drive anyway!

And this is where, in all seriousness, the Government has completely lost touch with the sentiments of its people.

Those who are turning to temples for free food handouts today are precisely those who are dreaming so fervently of a better tomorrow. Materialistic as it may sound, many Singaporeans from all strata of society look forward to the day when they get their own car keys. The stories most prominently highlighted in the Straits Times are of scholars or businessmen who came from humble backgrounds and who have done well for themselves.

Pride in private ownership is a sentiment that our Government, which has based its rule on a foundation of economic performance legitimacy, should understand well.

It would be the darkest hypocrisy for them now to put this dream out of the reach of the ordinary Singaporean by pricing us off the roads and then have their propagandists make us believe they are doing this for our own good.

If these are the guys behind our country’s steering wheel, I can’t help wishing they’d hand over the car keys to someone else.

*The title of this article has been changed from its original one by request from the author.


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