Singapore wants to become a Smart Nation—who could argue against that? But this is a vacuous label. What is a Smart Nation? Adopting the latest technology? Harnessing big data? Being at the forefront of the Internet of Things? Surely not. Technologies are means to an end and it would be foolish to judge the value of new technologies based solely on their novelty or popularity.

The Plan

On the 11th of August, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and TransitLink jointly announced their decision to “move towards a cashless public transport system”. This entails the removal of cash top-up services from Passenger Service Centres (PSCs), and more importantly, the removal of the option to pay cash on buses. All this is to happen by 2020—that’s 2 years and 3 months away.

The entire press release alternates between sales pitch and national day song. Singaporeans are encouraged to embrace cashless ticketing technologies as LTA and TransitLink work towards “a fully cashless vision for public transport”. They will “encourage and empower commuters to go cashless”, “minimise inconvenience for commuters” by giving them time to change their bad habits—2 years and 3 months, to be precise; the clock is ticking. Recalcitrant ones will either have to learn how to press the correct buttons on the machine and coax it into accepting their dirty and creased ten dollar notes, or they will have to go to the nearest convenience store. Not to worry, walking is healthy and queuing is a national pastime. If you’re late for work, a gathering, or dinner, just consider it part of LTA’s efforts to “encourage and empower” you to go cashless.

To be clear, it will still be possible to pay via cash at the General Ticketing Machines (GTMs) and service agents will be stationed at stations where cash is no longer being accepted at PSCs. However, this doesn’t solve the problem that machines sometimes refuse to accept certain notes (I have no idea why), and the use of service agents to do the very thing PSCs are no longer permitted to do is like borrowing from Tom to pay Jerry. Perhaps these service agents will only represent a temporary cost, but then the question is: what happens to those who need help when these service agents are no longer around? Grandma still doesn’t know how to use a smartphone. What makes TransitLink’s touchscreens any more intuitive than Apple’s? (Actually, grandma can’t even read.)

LTA’s consideration for the needs of those who might be unable to adapt is commendable. Some thinking clearly went into this. But the approach is fundamentally flawed. Grassroots organisations will help residents acquire banking facilities where necessary, says the press release. What? You’re going to help grandma open a bank account? I assure you, that’s not the problem. Banks accept cash over the counter. You won’t.

What about buses? Cash payment options for buses are going to be removed (“progressively” of course, but this is cold comfort). What happens if your card runs out of stored value and there are no top-up points nearby? Will you be stranded? Will you have no choice but to take a cab? What if your smartphone runs out of battery too (yes, smartphones tend to do that), will you have to flag down a cab? That’s not very Smart Nation!

Inconveniences notwithstanding, an LTA Group Director says the statutory board is “determined” to go cashless by 2020 and everyone must participate for it is their patriotic duty. As the press release puts it, taking away cash payment options is “an important step in Singapore’s quest to become a cashless society and a Smart Nation”. Everyone (who takes public transport) must do their part or be stranded. Let us work together for it, the LTA appeals. But why must there be “work”? Is it not supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement?

The Problem

The problem does not lie with the goal of modernising our payment infrastructure—most of us are happy to have more cashless payment options. The problem lies with the manner in which this policy is being implemented, the way the burden for adapting to it is being shifted onto commuters, and the way appeals to patriotism are used to mask all this.

Bank notes (or cold hard cash) are as much a form of technology as cashless ones (remember barter trade?), and many people continue to use them despite the widespread availability of cashless payment methods. The question is why. LTA and TransitLink must consider why commuters are not using cashless payment options despite the many advantages of doing so.

If commuters are simply unable to do so, due to technological illiteracy or poverty, then the solution should be to help them first and remove cash payment options only when everyone is ready.

If commuters refuse to make the switch because they believe that cash still confers significant advantages, then the solution must be to either persuade them to change their mind or to address their concerns. One such concern is that using stored-value cards would lock up valuable liquidity in the card—no small matter for poor people with no savings.

Then there are commuters who generally use their cards but occasionally forget to top-up. This could happen to anyone. If buses refuse cash, will the forgetful have to learn their lesson the hard way? I fail to see the logic here. Accepting cash in such situations would only be a minor inconvenience for bus drivers and for TransitLink, whereas commuters would be saved from a major inconvenience. It is well worth it. Until cashless technologies advance sufficiently, to the point where none of them rely on commuters remembering to top-up their cards, buses should continue to accept cash.

Singapore is already a Smart Nation. Singaporeans are well-educated and are fully capable of making their own decisions (except when there are walkovers). We didn’t have to suspend home phone lines to encourage people to use mobile phones. We didn’t have to disable teletext to encourage people to use the internet. And we most certainly don’t have to disable cash payments to convince people to go cashless.

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