On 11 August 2017, Land Transport Authority (LTA) and TransitLink announced that Singapore will gradually phase out cash payment for public transport by 2020, which is line with the Government's Smart Nation initiative, a cashless nation.
In efforts to achieve the goal of cashless payment, rail operators are asked to gradually remove cash top-up services at Passenger Service Centres (PSCs), starting with PSCs at 11 train stations to be removed from 1 September 2017.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Message said in relation to the Smart Nation initiative,
"Third, we want to make full use of IT to create opportunities and jobs for ourselves, and make Singapore an outstanding place to live, work and play. This is why we aim to be a Smart Nation. We have a natural advantage: we are a highly-connected and digitally literate society; we even have more smartphones than people. But we need to do much better.
Other countries are using electronic payments to go cashless, building sensor networks to enhance public security, and analysing big data to improve public services. We must learn from them, catch up, and get ahead. By using IT for practical applications, big and small, we can improve our lives, and make this a fun and happening place."
Using PM Lee's words as a backdrop, we wonder how is taking away the option to pay using cash is, in any way, improving the Singaporean lives and "make this a fun and happening place"? If anything, it will make the lives of ordinary Singaporeans much complicated and introduce unnecessary cost and charges.
Decision to go cashless, clearly from public servants who don't take public transportation
Anyone who uses the public transportation system who have topped up their Ezlink cards, would probably have alternated between cash and cashless depending on the convenience, queue time and availability of cash on hand.
There are also many commuters who either do not have access to such services or a bank account. People such as seniors who are largely unaccustomed to using such sophisticated system and financially challenged commuters such as cardboard collectors who collect cardboards for exercise.
As someone who had experience with less than twenty dollars in the bank, having a linked bank account with Ezlink is a big no-no. Without knowing, one will tap away one's lunch money for the week. Even for those who have well enough cash in their banks, might not want to have their card linked to their bank account in fear of theft. End of the day, it is a matter of choice.
Other than the poor, and seniors, what about tourists who use spare change to purchase their single trip train tickets and fares for bus rides. What about migrant workers who do not have a bank account that has the features stated by LTA? What about students who have bank accounts without electronic banking feature? What happens when one forgets to bring one's card out but loaded with cash?
This move clearly reeks of the thought of a scholar(s) who had never relied on public transportation as a main form of transport or understand how cash is an integral and accustomed part of the society. By removing cash as a form of payment, many groups of the community will be inconvenienced as a result, leaving the relatively more educated and up-to-date population undisturbed. In a way, it discriminates the marginalised members of society and is classist in nature.
One may argue that Ezlink had the same kind of negatively when it was first introduced, but that is a totally different matter. Ezlink merely replaced the old magnetic card as a form of credit storage, and could still be paid by cash at counters at the stations. The only difference was that people are required to tap on the device when they exited the station or bus. What LTA is introducing here is life changing for many, many who still do not have access to or means of obtaining access.
Can the Singapore government please share, which country in the world has eliminated cash completely in the manner as what it intends to achieve? In countries such as China which are progressively taking up cashless payment, consumers are not adopting cashless payment because they are forced to but because it is much more convenient to do so, without added cost. It is pretty amusing to see Singapore acting more authoritarian than a supposed communist authoritarian country.
High handed move to force commuters to cashless transaction
In response to Channel News Asia's queries on why LTA could not continue with current payment platforms while still promoting cashless payments, an LTA spokesperson said that removing cash payments would "encourage and empower a larger proportion of commuters to pay and top-up via electronic payment modes" and added "Removing cash from public transport would also allow the public transport industry to avoid incurring rising cash-handling costs, which can be reinvested to improve the public transport system,"
LTA's response if put in layman wordings would be, "By removing cash payments, commuters would be forced to turn cashless whether they like it or not and cut cost for LTA."
In my opinion, this ambitious move to scrap cash payment out of the transport system by 2020, is an ill-thought out and high-handed move by the authorities. Something that they are too used to doing, thinking that each and every policy and action is ingeniously crafted, akin to a decree of God which cannot be defied.
If LTA needs more money to improve the public transport system, it should jolly-well go and ask for the money from Ministry of Finance during the next Budget allocation. There is no need for LTA to scrape insignificant amount from the saving of "cash-handling costs" out of the inconvenience of commuters unless it derives pleasure out of it.
The current payment system in which the fare is much expensive when paid in cash than in credit form should have well paid for the cash-handling fees. Take for example, a single ride paid in Ezlink cost $0.78 cents but in cash, $1.40 is to be paid for the fare.
Can LTA please clarify how much does it cost to handle the cash and how much more in revenue does it earn from cash payment in fares compared if the commuters used credits?
What can commuters do? Nothing apparently.
Now to coming from the commuter's point of view, what can they do if they are not supportive of the move to remove cash payment? Well, boycotting the system is out of the question as the whole train system is under the control of LTA, in fact, the entire transport system. Write to their MP to voice their complaint about the matter? Well, Population White Paper was pretty much a clear example of how that didn't work. How about a Parliamentary petition? Apparently, there is no example of Parliament acting in relation to a petition yet since Singapore's independence.
Should this matter does get publicly debated in Parliament (While I highly doubt this cashless scheme was consulted with the public), the transport minister can always proudly say, the government was given a clear mandate in the last election and if the government failed to perform, it will be voted out the next election.
So come to think of it, LTA is probably playing its cards right by simply taking the cash payment out of the transport system to achieve its KPI for someone's grand dream of a Smart Nation because there is nothing the commuters can do to pronounce their displeasure.