By Howard Lee
To quote Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo, our government must really be scratching its head about citizen’s unhappiness over the recent transport fare hikes. Unfortunately, we cannot sympathise with their cloudiness, because a lot more clarity can be achieved if they actually bothered to listen to why people are unhappy.
And to be completely frank, the writing is on the wall – any wall you might care to pass by or dig into, from Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew’s Facebook page to the comment sections of virtually all online news sites.
Why are we angry? The slew of concessions to the lower income and less fortunate should have appealed to the sense of social justice in us, right? Even if public transport fares increase, surely it is worth it if it means that those less well-off can benefit from it? Why then are Singaporeans still unhappy, enough to call for a protest at Speakers Corner this Saturday?
Perhaps it has to do with the continued breakdown of the public transport system, which continued unabated through the debate about the fare hikes.
Of course, the Public Transport Council has taken pains to elaborate that the fare hike should not be conflated with the delivery of public service, never mind that no fewer than two Members of Parliament have raised this issue previously.
According to the PTC, the key objective of the hike was to ensure the public transport operator “maintain service reliability”. SMRT’s chief executive Desmond Kuek has also indicated that SMRT needed the fare increase “for the system to remain sustainable”.
That would likely be a hard pill for Singaporeans to swallow, particularly since the fare hike is nothing short of a thinly veiled attempt to bump up the coffers of the public transport operators, in spite of their already high annual profits, which rank in the hundreds of millions.
If PTC is of the view that the PTO’s are indeed in dire straits, then better and clearer justification needs to be provided, beyond stating the simple fact that “one bus costs about $400,000 and, for trains, the costs go into millions.”
Rather, what we see is a fundamentally flawed system of regulating the PTOs. Singapore has two key public transport players who between them have a near-complete monopoly of the market. We are literally at their mercy. If they do not perform, we have to incentivise them. If they are not profitable and do not deliver the services as agreed, we cannot (or do not) ditch them and offer the job to the next better player, as what most government contracts would involve.
In a society where a high demand on results has been the trademark, our government has been nothing but lenient towards our PTOs. Instead of exacting the same ruthlessness – shape up or ship out – that is often demanded of us in the real working world, the PTC and the government chooses to mollycoddle the PTOs.
No wonder citizens are angry.
I believe our sense of injustice goes beyond what the needy among us should enjoy, important as that might be. It even goes beyond our indignation over the quantum of the increase, and that it is ultimately taxpayers and commuters who have to double-pay for the fare hike and concessions.
The bulk of those who commute on public transport are those who have to live everyday with demanding performance, packing into tight cabins so that we do not draw the ire of bosses for turning up late. We are hence unable to accept that the same is not expected of some of the most profitable corporations in Singapore.
To add to that, we need to remember that the original motivations behind the construction of the MRT system in the 1980s was not even borne of a need to keep the PTOs profitable, but to ensure that the government funds poured into the system lead to an affordable mode of transport for citizens, so that fares will be kept reasonable and more will be inclined to use the trains. Then Communication and Information Minister Dr Yeo Ning Hong was thus quoted (emphasis mine):
“He pledged that the private company which will be set up to operate the MRT will not be allowed to profit at the expense of the public.
The principle for setting fares was clear. Fares will be kept as low as possible, consistent with collecting enough revenue to meet the running costs of the MRT, replace parts and equipment regularly and provide company shareholders reasonable returns.”
Compare this to the recommendations made by the PTC (emphasis mine):
“Central to these recommendations is the principle that fares should be kept affordable while ensuring the commercial viability and sustainability of the public transport operators.”
We have definitely come a long way from the 1980s. But the fundament principles that guide the development of our public transport system seem to have evolved beyond any semblance of what its founders have intended. In truth, they are all but forgotten.
While we should be happy that our public transport system has delivered much – quite literally, carrying us through an important period of modernisation – our government needs to understand that we still have a certain emotional perspective of a transport system that must have the interest of citizens as a fundamental principle. It is still a public service, not a commercial business, and that perspective has yet to be properly acknowledged.
Had we seen a fare review that puts the people at the centre, perhaps our response might have been very different.