Khaw Boon Wan has asked the public for patience as he familiarises himself with his responsibilities as the new Minister of Transport.
And indeed, Singaporeans should give him that space to understand the situation and what he can do about it, and how the public transport system can be improved.
But let’s make no mistake – the transport issues are significant and will not miraculously disappear just because we have a new man in charge. As Mr Khaw himself has said, the problems may even get worse before the situation gets better.
Mr Khaw’s predecessors, Raymond Lim and Lui Tuck Yew, had had to face years of vitriol from enraged members of the public who had to put up with major breakdowns despite an almost annual increase in fares. Things came to a head this year when Mr Lui told the Prime Minister that he would not be seeking re-election in the recent general election. Some saw this as the culmination of Mr Lui’s several years of frustration in trying to fix the problems.
As this writer had pointed out in earlier articles (see here and here), Mr Lui in fact deserves appreciation for trying his best. At the same time, however, there are lessons we can learn from his (and Mr Lim’s) tenure as Transport Minister.
One of these lessons is how public trust in the public transport system and those who are responsible for it can be maintained and even increased.
While the public scream and throw poisoned arrows at the public faces of those in charge – such as Mr Lim, Mr Lui and perhaps from now on, Mr Khaw as well – and the public transport companies SMRT and SBS Transit, whenever something goes awry, what perhaps would be more productive is to cast the spotlight on an entity which in fact is ultimately responsible for maintaining service standards.
This entity is the Land Transport Authority (LTA).
Over at its website, the LTA declares simply:
“We are responsible for planning, operating, and maintaining Singapore’s land transport infrastructure and systems.
“Our aim is to place our users—motorists and public transport commuters—at the heart of our transport system.”
The public transport operators (PTOs) are commercial entities which would naturally be focused on profits and enhancing shareholder values, as indeed the SMRT had been when it was under the charge of Saw Phaik Hwa. But as more operators are expected to enter the field as Singapore opens up the system to more operators, it is paramount that the regulator – the LTA – keeps a firmer hand on the issue of service standards and system maintenance.
Ultimately, the quality of the service and the integrity of the transport system really lie in the hands of those at the LTA. And these require the regulator to have a robust inspection regime to monitor the performance and compliance of the PTOs on a range of standards and expectations.
Imposing fines on the PTOs to penalise non-compliance may assuage, to some level, public discontent. However, it may not address the root cause of the problems. Imposing fines, it is worth noting, is done after the fact, and if – for example – maintenance of the system is not regularly done, the fines would not have solved the problem anyway. Fines, as such, have little impact, especially given that the government has announced billions more to be pumped into the PTOs which can also turn to annual fare increases to make up for any losses.
What can and should be done is to require the LTA to conduct regular inspections and to do follow-up inspections to ensure problems are fixed or comprehensively addressed.
But these would not be enough.
The LTA needs to go further and should publish such inspection reports, including the reports of any follow-up inspections it has conducted, and make all these reports available to the public.
This way, the PTOs are held accountable by the LTA, while the LTA itself is held accountable to the public – and everyone knows exactly what is being done to resolve or address the various problems of the transport system.
This public transparency will be an impetus for all involved to take matters seriously, and will also enable the public to be engaged meaningfully, which may also lead to deeper understanding of the issues involved, and also enhance public confidence all round.
Such transparency would also prevent or reduce suspicion that there is collusion between the regulators and the PTOs.
This would be a much better outcome than the wringing of hands and screaming for heads to roll each time we fail to get to our destination on time.
Mr Khaw, for his part, can institute this form of transparency as the Minister in charge. Indeed, he had done so when he was Health Minister – by requiring the costs of various medical procedures to be published and made public so that members could make an informed decision on their medical needs.
In the same way, more transparency in how the LTA regulates the PTOs will help the public understand the issues better too.
Let’s move on to more substantive and meaningful engagement on transport issues between the public and the regulators and operators, and avoid knee-jerk reactions and piecemeal fixes to problems.
Let’s not have another casualty-minister – for it does not solve anything.
*Special thanks to Ian Chong for additional input.