Public Transport – On the Right Track?

By Yudhishthra
In any urban settlement, the issue of transport is very much a public one. To be transported is to traverse the urban jungle that is Singapore. Long removed from our pre-war past when rickshaws, bullock-carts and sampans allowed us to get where we wanted to go, modern Singapore is not so much metropolitan as it a densely-populated urban area characterised by decentralised residences, industries and services surrounding a vibrant Central Business District. Such decentralisation renders incumbent upon the Government the provision of efficient, reliable and affordable transport options to link people to places.
Public transport, in particular, is a key way in which the Government does this for it affords us several benefits including a viable, large-scale solution to alleviate congestion on roads in an environmentally-friendly manner. A quote that stands out strikingly in its attempt to highlight the invaluable nature of pursuing public transport as a key solution to any country’s transport woes is an utterance by Mayor Peñalosa of Bogota, Colombia – “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

We all agree that public transport is of utmost importance in a country like Singapore where 49.5% of residents aged over 15 years use some form of public transport or other to commute daily from home to work or school. However, the reliability and affordability of public transport have come under strong criticism in recent times due to a spate of breakdowns in the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems since 2011 as well as the formerly existing situation where several groups of people such as polytechnic students and the disabled were denied transport concession.
To add salt to the wound, the advisory Public Transport Council (PTC) in wanting to extend concession to these groups, increased the fares for almost everyone else by 3.2% using the need for more money to drive upgrading and efficiency as a supposedly justified excuse to do so. The PTC announced this in its fare review of January 2014, a month during which thousands of Singaporeans from every corner of the island experienced MRT and LRT train breakdowns – from Kranji and Bukit Panjang in the west, to Ang Mo Kio in the north and Tanah Merah in the east.
Rather unexpectedly, people began to ask why the Government intends to allow the fares to be raised when public transport operators such as SMRT and SBS Transit continue to rake in millions of dollars in operating profits annually in the wake of noticeably declining standards.
The appalling state of affairs of public transport is perhaps most fundamentally affixed to the nature of the administration of this public service in Singapore – that public transport is in fact being operated by private companies such as SMRT and SBS Transit rather than being administered by the Government in the same manner as the successful provision of other public services such as the public education system (through MOE schools), public housing (through HDB) and public healthcare (through Government hospitals).
If it is one thing that the system of governance in Singapore is best known for internationally, it is the large-scale provision of essential and accessible public services in a structured and workable manner since independence. Whilst real challenges continue to exist within each of these Government-controlled systems today, the nationalisation of such services has been a definitive hallmark of our nation’s development.
The pros and cons of the privatisation of public transport operation in Singapore have manifested themselves in the situation we witness today. Higher prices are constantly sought after by the transport operators because of their instinctive economically fuelled ambition to achieve profits to pay their investors and shareholders, regardless of the real standards of transport experienced by commuters.
Hence, it was wishful thinking on the part of the Government for assuming that increased profits coupled with economic forces such as demand and supply attributable to the privatisation of public transport operation would haved provided the necessary investments for upgrading and the impetus for greater efficiency and reliability of tansport, ultimately benefiting the consuming commuters.
In reality, however, the trickle-down effects of privatisation have evaporated even before commuters could have even harboured the thought of enjoying better and more affordable public transport, leaving us with nothing but a vicious cycle of paying more for expecting a miracle. Furthermore, the intended effect of privatisation in spurring competition and productivity between the public transport operators has not materialised given that SMRT and SBS Transit do indeed have a monopoly on routes since commuters cannot choose which operator’s services to pursue when travelling.
Perhaps it would be rather miraculous for us to expect SMRT and SBS Transit to put our interests over those of their investors for, at the end of the day, they are companies involved in a business. Another downfall of the whole idea of privatisation is observable from the way in which the Government has responded to falling standards – that is, to fine SMRT and SBS Transit for breakdowns or other instances of unreliability rather than directly controlling the upgrading of tracks and improvement of services. Once again, the PAP Government of the 21st century assumes that throwing money at an issue (or in this case, taking it) will almost magically make our problems fade away.

The nationalisation of public transport, on the other hand, offers a much more optimistic solution to the transport issues we face today since our experience in other nationalised services provides a useful template for such administration. Rather than using profit as a driving force of standards, direct government involvement in transport operation will allow the Government to regulate it more effectively to ensure that maintenance and upgrading are not put on the backburner so that standards will rise once again while commuters’ interests are put first.
After all, public transport has evolved into a neccesity just as healthcare, housing and education are services that all Singaporeans ought to be able to enjoy. Singaporeans who need to work and study, whilst contributing to our economy and, ultimately, our society, simply cannot do without public transport on a daily basis.
The challenge of nationalisation will, as usual, be the need to find enough money to fund and subsidise the upkeep of public transport without having to burden taxpayers even more. However, a variety of solutions have been thrown up from various sources such as pegging the salaries of statutory board officials to service standards, ensuring cost-effective use of money from Government coffers for subsidies amongst other methods of cost recovery and investment initiatives such as those used in the subsidising of healthcare and housing.
Perhaps we could take a leaf from Hong Kong’s model of transport whereby the investment required for upgrading is derived from competition between private companies involved in infrastructure development rather than the operation of transit. Even if public transport fares increase initially, such an increase would be justified and the taxpayers’ money will be put to good use in the longer term as service standards can be controlled and assured by the Government. Hopefully, this will not have to be the case as before SBS Transit was privatised, it made ‘reasonable profits’, according to a transport policy researcher from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.
While a wholly-privatised or fully nationalised public transport system is hard to perceive as workable and cost-effective, the type of balance to be striked needs to be decided upon to ensure there are marked improvements in the state of public transport in Singapore. Do we wish to continue with the current partially government-funded, privately operated model or switch to a nationalised not-for-profit model?
In any case, the unfairness entrenched in the current system that relies on profit-oriented companies for the operation of public transport will need to be addressed by better long-term planning, fiscal responsibility and decisive action by the Government of Singapore which are currently lacking. Hopefully, public transport will once again truly be for the public’s interests, allowing it to properly function as a modern, integrated and useful solution to traffic congestion in our island-nation and other geographical and environmental issues of our time.
This article was submitted by the writer and first published at mapped musings.
References:
LKY SPP (NUS). (2013). The evolution of public transport policies in singapore. Retrieved from http://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Transport-Planning-for-Singapore.pdf
Singapore Department of Statistics. Government of Singapore, (2010). Census of population 2010. Retrieved from website:http://www.singstat.gov.sg/publications/publications_and_papers/cop2010/census_2010_release3/cop2010sr3.pdf
Straits Times. (2014, January 16). Bus and train fare review: Public transport council announces fare increase of 3.2%. . Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/the-big-story/public-transport-fare-review-2013/story/fare-review-public-transport-council-announces

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