By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong
The North-East line of the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit system first started operation in April 2003. It provides an interesting illustration of the unique political process of Singapore.
The first two lines of the MRT system, East-West line and North-South line, went into operation over a three year period, 1988-90, after which the residents living in a corridor from the city towards the north east, clamoured to be provided with rail services. (There was no similar outcry in the north-west direction because a loop in the North-South line curves from the north towards the south west till it meets the East-West line, passing by most of the residential areas in the north west.)
The transport planners provided traffic estimates based on population projections showing that a new line covering the districts would be uneconomical for some years, but many residents were convinced that the government was merely unwilling to provide services to opposition party held districts - there were only two such electorates in those days, and both happened to the in that direction. It was argued that because such areas tended to miss out on opportunities for new estate development, in particular new HDB constructions, and old HDB estate upgrading, they tended to have less rapid population growth than other electorates, so that future population and traffic estimates would continue to put them at a planning disadvantage.
After such arguments had gone back and forth for a few years, the government eventually decided to proceed with NE Line construction, despite some pessimism about the economics. However, other controversies then ensured. First, a decision was made to use a more advanced, driverless train system rather than the same system as the existing part of the MRT network. Teething troubles with the new system delayed the line opening for several months. Second, to save cost, two of the stations on the line, though fully built and ready to operate, were not opened with the line opening because of low traffic projections.
There was little doubt that the planners were correct as far as the numbers go - actual usage of the North-East line was indeed considerably lower than the North-South and East-West Lines, and for some time the line's operator SBS Transit, which also operates the lion's share of the public bus system, ran the line at a loss.
For humans, however, it is of course one thing to be shown the evidence, another to be convinced, and a resentful undercurrent continued to seethe. In August 2005 when a cabinet minister made a visit to the district containing the still-closed Buangkok Station, he was greeted by the sight of a number of cardboard white elephants on the lawn around the station.
While he was merely amused by the sarcastic message of protest, someone else was not - police soon announced that in response to a complaint from "a member of the public", they had launched an investigation to determine whether the display of the elephants constituted a crime - perhaps leaving the objects in a public place amounted to littering, or an unlicensed public performance/art display.
Subsequently, it was announced that the culprit, rumoured to be a local "grassroots activist" - whatever that might mean - was identified, confessed to having committed the act, and was given a warning. There was no further information on who made the original complaint to police and why he/she was so offended, and no further information on the culprit either. It would seem that everything was deliberately opaque, ultimately leaving just a vague message "smart alecs beware".
However, the Buangkok station was opened for use a few months afterwards - situated in a district that still had some vacant land, some building works and population increase occurred there so the subsequent usage of the station was on the uptrend, and the public's demand was able to justify itself after all.
Six years later SBS Transit announced that Woodleigh, the last unopened station along the NE Line, would begin service on 20 June 2011 - after the 2011 election, new people-friendly policies were being put into place, and time was ripe for Woodleigh to open at last; it helps that the Potong Pasir electorate in its vicinity was finally won back by People's Action Party after nearly 30 years, and some new private condos added residents to the area.
Yuen Chung Kwong completed his PhD in Computer Science from Sydney University in 1972 and worked in Australia and Hongkong before joining NUS Computer Science Department in 1983; he was department head from 1985 to 1993 and retired in 2007.