By Howard Lee
It would be fair to say that following the massive train breakdown on the evening of 7 July, public calls for SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek and Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew to step down would be futile. There has been no such precedence in Singapore, and coming so close to a general election, it would be highly unlikely for a face-conscious ruling People’s Action Party to make such a public display of justice.
That said, we now have assurance that Kuek will investigate the breakdown and hopefully, more will come to light and the appropriate penalties made. Perhaps giving up a part of his massive salary would assuage commuters that he is assuming responsible leadership, and defray accusations that train fares were increased to line the pockets of stakeholders rather than be used to improve service.
In essence, Kuek still has his job, and there is currently no reason to believe that he would step down any time soon. The job of the Transport Minister, however, deservers some scrutiny.
Lui has thus far done little more than express “extreme concern” over the breakdown, and will presumably continue to receive updates from the Land transport Authority about what exactly caused the breakdown. However, he has ruled out convening a Committee of Inquiry to look into the incident.
This should really prompt us to ask about the exact role of the Transport Minister and his agencies when it comes to matters of public transport.
Different models, and the government’s function
A government authority that manages public transport can have a few functions, depending on how the system works. It can be regulator to ensure that competition is assured in the industry such that commuters can benefit from the best possible price for the best possible service offered – in that sense, overseeing a purely private operation.
It can hold the rights to the system but tender out segments of operation to operators, then manage performance such that it retains the ability to withdraw the right of operation, should the need arises. Such a system would be similar to how Transport for London is managed, which seems to be the attempted route that the government is trying to take for our bus system.
Or it can completely take over the management of the public transport system itself – in other words, complete public management of transport as a public good.
The oddity of the Singapore train model, and to that extent the entire public transport system, is that it resembles none of the above.
SMRT Corporation is a holding company that is listed on the Singapore exchange, with up to 11 business subsidiaries. It has responsibilities to the public in running a public transport network, but also to shareholders in terms of dividends, although recent incidents have cast doubt on precisely where its allegiance really lie.
Its management of the train system in relation to the government is also weird, resembling a half-in half-out relationship. SMRT is responsible for maintaining the trains and tracks, while LTA oversees the train stations. However, the advertising billboards and retail outlets that we see inside the stations that LTA manages are managed by SMRT, to which also goes to build its profits.
Moreover, SMRT has more recently asked the government to buy back its rail assets – assets that were technically given to it, or purchased at a very low price, when it was privatized in 2000. This proposed sale has been called out by some as SMRT’s attempt to boost it bottom line while relegating to cost of operating the system to the government. In essence, we might have a system where public funds are used to bolster private interests.
The Transport Ministry, on its part, is essentially trying to oversee a private company over its management of a public good with no jurisdiction whatsoever over its profit margins. In fact, Lui himself had earlier affirmed that SMRT needs to remain profitable, when queried about the latest fare increases.
No competition, no failsafe
The government’s only recourse, then, is to use market forces to ensure that SMRT strikes a balance between shareholder interest and the maintenance of the system for a public good. But we also do not see that. SMRT’s only “competitor” is Comfort Delgro, which runs a completely different train line through SBS Transit.
The lack of competition is also apparent from the train breakdown two days ago. If there had been real competition, other transport operators would have eagerly seized the opportunity to offer “emergency rescue” services to stranded passengers, both to demonstrate their efficiency and to, hopefully, steal some customers away from SMRT. That did not happen.
The lack of competition is also apparent in how the government managed the rail network by itself, without considering the failsafe (or lack of which) of alternative modes of transport. The latest breakdown involved two of the country’s highest capacity lines, and both permanently allocated to SMRT to run. The lack of link points and interchanges that would have made such breakdowns easier to bear, such as what we can see and experience with the London Underground, is a critical failure of the current system. Even with the introduction of new train lines, it is apparent that this would take a while and might not be nearly as effective, if the government continues to allocate them to the existing operators.
So, what exactly is the Transport Ministry’s role? Yes, it retains the right to penalize operators for lapses in services, but the history of breakdowns suggest that the penalty system is hardly effective, assuming you accept that it is not ludicrously self-defeating on its own. Furthermore, such penalties come after a breakdown, if not further fare increases, which hardly makes sense to commuters who have been stranded in a breakdown that has almost no failsafe worked in by the authorities.
We are drawing very close to the next general election, and we can clearly expect the PAP to start pegging the honourable title of “Ministerial-calibre” to its candidates. Given the usual rotation of the Cabinet after every election, there is a good chance that one of these potentials would fill Lui’s shoes.
Who among the proposed candidates would fit the profile? Has the government identified the right experience for the job, or will it be yet another military man? Are we expected to shell out more public monies to hire someone who has no experience in transportation to be the Transport Minister?
In fact, it is the right of Singaporeans to question whether we need another such Minister, if the current ones have thus far failed to express their usefulness. Because, to be perfectly honest, “expressing concern” is something that we can all do, including the commuter rushing home to have dinner with his family.