“Skewed” article on cashless transport system draws criticisms but are they justified?

Often, articles from alternative media are criticised for being sensational or non-factual. Being extreme in views and do not provide solutions to problems. But are criticisms made against the non-establishment media always justified?

Taking an example of a discussion thread on a recent article published, “Goal of cashless transport system by 2020, clearly thought up by those who do not take public transport” on Land Transport Authority’s goal of making Singapore’s public transport system entirely cashfree. One commenter commented that the article is stupidity in written form and that there are no details how the cashless system would work.

But there is no need to know the details how the cashless system would work, because the endgame is that there will be no cash involved in the whole public transport system and one cannot make payments in cash.

In any case, using the above discussion, I would like to address a few points which I feel the commenter and some others got it wrong.

1. Other countries have not gone cashless, therefore Singapore should not go cashless.

Many countries have gone cashless, but yet they have not eliminated the option of using cash to pay for transactions. Name me a country that is adopting a stance such as Singapore. A year back when I was in Beijing, cash was still much a part and parcel of payment for its public transportation system and even Japan, still allows cash to be paid in its public transportation system.

If the article is extreme, then Singapore’s move to go 100% cashless is out of this world.

2. Money saved by transport providers will be passed down to commuters.

I don’t know how to address this point because this borders childlike naiveness. The fares are increased each year by the Public Transport Council despite falling service standards (even if Minister Khaw Boon Wan continues his flawed rhetoric that train service is getting better).

Obviously, the person who made the comment has no idea how transport operators bid for the service contracts. The income of service providers largely come from advertising and retail revenue and not operation of the transport system itself. Now that LTA has taken over the ownership of the buses from the transport operators, this is especially much so the case. How much the commuters are being charged is based on the tendered cost of running the routes.

The cost saving aspect has been touted by LTA in its statement that there can be cost saving in the handling of cash But in the first place, is handling of cash a component of how the transport operators bid for the service routes that LTA tenders out? If not, then how would the cost saving translate to lower fares for commuters?

3. Why start off with the assumption that it will not cater for all these people?

In the referenced article, we mention seniors, tourists, migrant workers, domestic workers, students without bank account and etc will be the ones affected by the cashless payment system and according to the LTA statement,

“In the lead-up to 2020, LTA and TransitLink will work with other agencies and grassroots organisations to inform residents, and also to see if we can assist them in their acquiring of banking facilities where necessary, to facilitate their transition to cashless public transit.

LTA’s Group Director, Technology & Industry Development, Mr Lam Wee Shann said, “The growth of electronic payments has rapidly transformed the public transport ticketing scene, with cash payments and top-ups being replaced by convenient, fuss-free cashless options. Our aim is to become a fully cashless public transport system by 2020 and we are determined to do so by enhancing the cashless ticketing experience for all commuters. A major milestone will be the opening of the first cashless rail line from 2019 – the Thomson-East Coast Line. With more than 7 million ticketing transactions each day, a fully cashless public transport system will be an important step in Singapore’s quest to become a cashless society and a Smart Nation.”

What is happening here is that the decision is made for the whole public transport system to go cashless without consultation with the public and the public is expected to comply with the new arrangement whether they like it or not.

It is said that Govt agencies and GROs will be tasked to help residents to see if any assistance can be give to acquire banking facilities. So what about all those people who do not fall within the category of residents? No mention at all.

And note that the statement is saying, “if we can assist” and not a “we will assist”. So at face value of LTA’s stance, it is the responsibility of the individual to adjust to the new system with no consideration to one’s circumstances.

4. Usability with technology can be addressed over time.

While adoption of cashless payment has increased over the years, it is not because consumers are being forced to adopt the payment but because payment via such means are getting more convenient and easy to access.

When cash card was first introduced in Singapore, it was marketed as a way for citizens to conduct transaction in a cashless manner. Eventually, instead of being adopted by the population as a means of paying for purchases and services, it ended up only in the IU Unit for car owners for parking fees and to pay for Electronic Road Pricing (ERP). Despite government’s strong push for public to adopt the cashless form of payment, why didn’t the public adopt the card?

Using my personal experience for example, I can recall that the first time I used cashcard to pay for groceries, I was holding up the line at the supermarket because the cashier had to key in codes to a device that read the card and then print out a separate receipt. And also when I lost a cashcard that had fifty dollars worth of credit, there was no way for me to retrieve that stored value.

If the government had mandated that cashcard is the only way to make payments, everyone might be using the cashcard now as the sole form of payment but we will be stuck with a system which is inefficient and insecure over a system which the consumers have chosen to pick up as a preferred means of payment because of its ease and security. But instead, cashcard was allowed to take a backseat and the current electronic payment system is picking up traction with the public and still in the midst of self-improvement for better service to the consumers.

Singapore needs a free market, with consumers choosing the best option and services without govt intervention

Another commenter in a Facebook discussion on this matter wrote, “Actually, in the past, companies were being held back in their efforts to go cashless. E.g. The kopitiam card met with regulatory hurdles and Paypal’s p2p service was stopped.” and what he wrote was not limited to just the two companies but many other ventures.

This is the problem with Singapore government. When new business ideas are being proposed, instead of supporting the company in their proposition, hurdles and regulatory framework are thrown to limit the growth of the industry. Only when the country is left behind by other nations, then Singapore will embark in a catch-up exercise which it markets as something revolutionary.

If Singapore is to be a incubator for entrepreneurs to test out new products and services that is meant for the global market, the government has to play a role of a supporting adminstrator and allow a free market to prosper, with the survival of the fittest. And not a market that is determined by scholars who have no idea about the ground and its consumers, allowing for monopolies that can only survive in crony protecting policies which can never go out to the international arena.

And Singapore cannot prosper with individuals holding beliefs in contrast to facts and critical thinking when it come to public policies. Faith should stay in temples and church and not in public discourse.