Left: An accident involving a PMD and pedestrian; Right: Pedestrian allegedly pushed down a Grabfood cyclist on a PCN.

PMDs: a story of class and crass

by Nicholas Tang

I am going to be honest: I hate Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) with a passion. I think they are a menace to society, and the ban was wholly deserved. We all have the same grievances: we hate that PMDs move too quickly on what should be a pedestrian footpath, we hate how PMDs make us feel unsafe when we’re walking down an already too narrow sidewalk, but mostly we just hate that they blast such godawful music that honestly should have been criminal as well.

Despite all that, I believe that the government should not have banned PMDs. Sure it was the easiest and cleanest solution to the problem, but that doesn’t mean that it was necessarily the best solution. This is not just about vehicle safety and regulations, the PMD fiasco has revealed the cracks in our society, and I believe we need to examine these cracks and fix them, lest our foundation crumbles, and our society with it. I shall focus on three issues which I believe are crucial to Singaporean society today, intertwined and interlinked in such a way that to explore one alone without the others would be a pointless exercise: class, government policy, and social responsibility.

The reason why the banning of PMDs is a class issue is twofold: first, they are motorised vehicles which are affordable and available as a means of private transportation for a larger portion of the population; second, PMDs have enabled and opened up an entire industry of food delivery to a portion of the population who did not previously have access to a means of motorised and efficient transport.

On the first point, there is a video on Facebook by Kelvin Ho in which he airs his grievances about the PMD ban. Even here classism rears its ugly head.

In the reddit thread discussing his video, the comments were largely focused on mocking his delivery and his overly singlish accent. While his delivery may have been slightly lacking, he makes several valid points about the whole debacle. And besides which, a sizable proportion of the Singaporean population speak and sound exactly like Kelvin. To not afford him at least the principle of charity to understand his arguments, but instead fallaciously attack him as a person is a blatant display of the lack of empathy people from different stratas of society have for each other.

Kelvin raises a point where not everyone who owns a PMD can afford to switch to a motorcycle, or afford an alternative means of transportation. Cars in Singapore are notoriously expensive.

As such they are afforded only by the more well-to-do members of society. There are good reasons for cars to be so expensive – in a country where space is a scarcity it makes sense for the government to limit the amount of vehicles on the road. Whether the free market and the invisible hand is the best way to distribute these vehicles amongst the populace, that is a discussion for another day. Suffice to say, private means of transport are a luxury.

Furthermore, by banning PMDs on footpaths, the government is making it prohibitively difficult for food delivery riders to use PMDs in their jobs. Food delivery is generally done by people who belong to the less privileged classes of society. The ban limits the types of jobs they can do, and threatens the livelihoods of food delivery riders.

Class is already, and will continue to be, the biggest dividing issue in Singapore. It surpasses both race and religion as the greatest threat to equality and meritocracy in our country.

The perception of class and the divides that follow are inculcated into the minds of our citizens even from a young age, as seen from the heartbreaking interviews in the Channel News Asia’s documentary, “Regardless of Class”.

One of the reasons I’m reluctant to agree with a ban on PMDs is that any time a policy risks further worsening class divides I have to do a double take, and in this case I believe that a ban would disproportionately affect those of a less privileged class.

The truth is that the government could have handled the situation a lot better. In first mandating UL2272 certification as a requirement for sale of the PMDs, the government had created an expectation that they tacitly endorsed the use of PMDs in Singapore. The UL2272 certification was understandable and necessary, there were far too many instances of PMDs catching fire while charging, whether locally or otherwise. While the certification is unrelated to the government’s stance on whether PMDs should be allowed on footpaths or roads, it creates a reasonable expectation for the common man in Singapore that PMDs with UL2272 would be allowed to operate within Singapore. And given the lack of cycling or PMD infrastructure in most of the island, the logical place for them to continue to operate post road ban was on the footpaths.

The country’s infrastructure is also poorly prepared for these new technologies and means of transport. Understandably, due to our lack of space a fully comprehensive cycling network would be extremely challenging to implement. However, the government has been behind in every new transport initiative that was brought from the ground up in recent memory, from the disaster that was bike sharing to the current debacle surrounding PMDs. The government has been highly reactionary to each of these events, and have been slow to adapt and implement policies to account for new technologies.

There are of course good reasons for the ban. There has been increasingly high number of accidents involving PMDs and pedestrians, including a tragic accident that resulted in the death of a 65 year old woman. I believe however that the ban is merely treating a symptom of the problem, and not the disease itself. To borrow an often repeated line from American politics that everyone hates, but is perversely true in this instance: “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” The PMDs didn’t make their riders assholes, they were assholes to begin with. What then is there to do about this problem?

I believe that the reason we find ourselves in this position is because we as a society lack the requisite social graces and responsibility as required by the social contract to function as a community. This is what Professor Tommy Koh means when he says that Singapore is a First World country with Third World people. It is why bike sharing has failed in such a spectacular fashion. It is why PMD riders here cannot seem to find an amenable way to share the footpaths with pedestrians. This is not to say that PMD riders are entirely to blame, or that they’re the only assholes out there. I’m pretty sure that there are pedestrians who are just as uncompromising in their refusal to accommodate others.

I believe that part of the reason Singaporeans are this way is because we routinely hand over the responsibility of a well run and polished society to the government. Where there are problems in society, we expect the government to solve our problems for us, instead of taking responsibility for ourselves and choosing to act in a way that would prevent these problems in the first place. The result of this is the banning of chewing gum, the socially engineered cleanliness guaranteed by hundreds of cleaners citywide, and the banning of PMDs. Sure, the country is cleaner, or safer, or more “courteous”, but this is all an artificial facade, the result of social engineering from policies driven down from the top that force us to behave in certain ways so that we never have to consider our own actions or take responsibility for them because the government has already mandated good behaviour.

As such, the banning of PMDs will only treat a symptom of the greater disease. The cancer of this disease will continue to spread, and no doubt the government will continue to treat the symptoms, but these are merely stop-gap measures. If all we treat are the symptoms, it will only be a matter of time before we end up with a social credit system like China. Instead, I believe the government should begin to return some of these social responsibilities back to the people, or our society will never grow. We cannot always be looking to the government to enact policies to make people behave better, that cannot be the foundation of a gracious or conscientious society. It merely creates the illusion of one.

Singa the lion is dead, and we killed him. Our class divide is worsening, our society lacks social graces, and our governmental policies encourage both these problems. Our kiasu-ism is world-renowned. It is not something to be proud of. We have developed a siege mentality from years of being told that as a small country we need to be better than everyone else at everything. In trying to run Singapore so much like a business, we have lost our way as a people. In creating a country that cares so much about the ends, we have a people who don’t care about each other. We lack the requisite empathy for people of different social strata, and we seek to profit at the expense of others.

I do accept that a society cannot change over night, and that even in a gracious society there will be a need for rules and regulations to govern the people.

I am not advocating for a complete removal of rules, if this is your understanding of what I have written you have grossly missed the point. There will be a need for some amount of governmental regulations and intervention surrounding PMDs, however what is effectively a complete ban is overly draconian and paternalistic, and will only serve to stunt the progress of our society. Ultimately change can only come from the people themselves. In this I am an optimist, I believe – want to believe – very much in the good of people. See this instead as an appeal for us to progress to a more gracious society, and for the better angels of our nature to prevail.

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